There are two obvious ways to make your show funnier: First, add more laughs. Second, make the laughs you already have bigger. In the next few months, I’m going to use this column to give you some tools to help you do both of these. I hope your feedback and comments help me come up with even more.
I’ve talked to lots of comedy jugglers and comedy magicians over the past 30 years, and asked them where the laughs in their shows came from. The most common answers were:
“The first time was ad-lib. Now I do that same ad-lib every night.”
“I was reacting to something that just happened on stage.”
“I made a mistake and then kept it in the show.”
It seems that most of us are funniest while we’re onstage in front of an audience. So let’s learn to take advantage of it. Let’s learn to do that better.
Do More Shows And Wiggle
First, let’s do more shows! If you’re funnier when you’re onstage than when you’re sitting at your desk writing jokes, then spend more time onstage. Whether it is street performing, talent shows, open mic nights at comedy clubs, Toastmasters meetings, Renegade shows at IJA festivals, parties, street fairs, between acts at music clubs, between numbers at local dance recitals, at lunch on college campuses, anytime there’s an audience that will watch you, it’s an opportunity to do a show and learn to be funnier.
Next, change your show more. You can only come up with something new if you are willing to try something different. Different isn’t always better but better is always different!
Greg Dean, author of the best how-to book on joke writing I’ve ever read and the go-to-guy when you want to talk comedy theory, calls this “wiggling.” He suggests that 5-10% of your show should be wiggling.
I’m rarely able to reach 10%. I’m just too scared and I’m not that flexible. But what I am able to do is think through the entire act after each show. What do I want to change the most? What didn’t work? What are some alternatives to try next show? I don’t require them to be brilliant alternatives. Sometimes I don’t even expect them to be better – Just different.
I do more shows, and I wiggle.
And when I have accidents that get laughs, I try to figure out a way to make those accidents happen every time.
One time we stole a volunteer’s wallet and he turned out to be a cop. The audience howled. So now, we pick a plainclothes cop as our volunteer every time. What are the odds?
The always funny and deceptively skilled Frank Olivier juggles three dolls and kicks one off his foot and back into the pattern. One day, a doll’s head came off when he kicked it. Being Frank Olivier, he was able to catch both the head and the body and go into 4. Actually 534. This led to the biggest laughs of the routine. It took him weeks to figure out just how tight the head needed to be connected so that he could do that every show.
Mess namesake Steve Mills was balancing a pole on his chin while his dog sat on top of the pole. A kid in the audience yelled out, “One day that dog is going to pee on you!” After a bit of hidden engineering, the dogs now pees on him every day.
So, if you have a funny accident, change it from an accident to a bit. (But make the audience believe it’s an accident every time!)
And have more accidents. If you see a problem about to happen, don’t fix it. Let it happen and see where that leads you. The audience will tell you everything you need to know. If they laugh, keep it in. If they don’t, try something else.
Good comedy advice. Bad relationship advice.
Let me give you one, real world example of just how much my juggling partner and traveling companion, the smart, beautiful, creative Katrine Spang-Hanssen, a much better juggler than me who still looks like she is 29, and I will wiggle a joke. (Note to self: Change laptop password.)
Here’s the joke:
I’ve also posted the full 6+ minute routine for those of you who want more context, or just haven’t seen enough video of middle-aged jugglers struggling to do tricks that wouldn’t even get past juniors preliminaries. The joke appears about 4:50 in.
Katrine and I are passing 3 knives and doing pirouettes. (Yes, they’re called pirouettes.) The dialogue goes:
SCOTT: Try this one, my little Danish pastry. I call it: The Pirouette!
KATRINE: I will, my day old bagel. The pirouette!
SCOTT: The DOUBLE pirouette… WAIT!
This little joke works just fine, not killer, but fine. We’re happy with the laugh but we’re not done experimenting with it.
We’ve tried it where I failed by accident, failed on purpose, didn’t even try… I’ve said “wait” as a command, a plea, a safe-word… I’ve yelled it, whispered it, used up-speak…
We’ve made it shorter, cutting out the “Danish pastry” and “day old bagel” beats.
We’ve made it longer and explained it: “Try this one, my little Danish Pastry. ‘Cause she’s from Denmark. That makes her a Danish.” / “I will, my day old Bagel. Because he’s from New York. And he’s stale.”
We’ve reversed it, with her doing what are usually my lines.
One night, Raspyni Brother and “Get More Corporate Gigs” super-coach, Barry Friedman was filling in for Katrine and he forgot that I was going to fail. He threw the knife to me 540 degrees into my second failed pirouette. Being Barry, he was able to reach out and recover the knife before it hit me in the back of my head. This made the gag even better. So now, Katrine tries to throws the knife at me and recover it just before it hits me every show.
Offstage, Matthew Legare, a Ren Faire magician who performs under the name “Tobias The Adequate” said, “If Katrine were any more Danish she’d have frosting.” I asked him if I could use that in the show. He said “sure” and then “huzzah!”
So the very next show: “That and because sometimes she’s filled with cream.” Big laugh followed by an even bigger “boooo.” And not the good kind of boooo.
Was that a mistake? Probably. Did it hurt the routine? A bit. Did it kill the show? Not in the least. Plus, telling the story of my mistake to other performers led BeeJay Joyer, juggler, acrobat, and underutilized Le Reve clown, to suggest: “…That and because she’s available till 10:00 every morning at Motel 6.”
He’s my hero.
We had an accident that worked and we kept it in the show. We got help from other performers. And we’re still not done playing with this joke. I don’t know how or if it will end. We’re still wiggling.
These micro-experiments always teach me something. And sometimes, just sometimes, the alternatives stay in the show.
Just Do More Shows And Wiggle
Sure, wiggling can be scary. It’s easier to say the words you’ve always said in just the way you’ve always said them. A random new line or new delivery will probably be worse than what you’ve already got. Changing your show will probably make it worse more often than it makes it better, but not changing your show guarantees it will stay the same.
Think of it as Comedy Darwinism. First we have random mutation. That’s wiggling. Next we have natural selection. Keep the jokes the audience laughs at, and cut the ones they don’t. After a few billion years, we can all be as funny as Michael Davis.
In my next column I’ll write about how an intelligent and loving creator can speed up this process.
Pick one of the weaker jokes in your show, or a line that isn’t a joke at all but should be, and change it. Do this every show for the next month. See what happens. And let us all know what happens. I’d love for this column to become a place for us all to get funnier together.