Using volunteers is one of the easiest ways to get laughs. Adding a volunteer to a bit instantly makes it seem more spontaneous, raises the stakes, allows solo performers to do dialogue instead of just monologue, and creates opportunity for conflict—all great ingredients for comedy!
But beware: Audience participation is such a powerful tool that many variety acts overuse it. In fact, some street performers build their entire shows from volunteer routines, which can be a big problem when moving off the streets.
I’ve definitely been guilty of this. Back when Rich Ross and I were working comedy clubs, the standups often criticized us, saying that too many of our bits included volunteers. When we opened for rock shows, the audience was often barricaded back from the stage, making it impossible for us to use any. One of the casinos Katrine and I regularly work has a rule against anyone from the audience coming on stage, and the few TV shows we’ve appeared on also frowned on volunteer bits.
Screw that. In this month’s article, I’m going to write some new volunteer gags using a comedy-writing technique called “Switching to the Bone.”
Switching to the Bone
Most of my comedy-writing education has come from switching other people’s jokes. This is how I learned the underlying structure of those jokes and what made them funny.
(The rest of my schooling came from long car trips sitting on Greg Dean’s lap, listening to his theories about target assumptions, context links, connectors, and decoy assumptions, but according to the terms of the settlement, I’m not allowed to talk about that except in therapy.)
I never consciously steal anyone else’s jokes, but I switch them all the time.
In my previous articles, Thou Shalt Not Steal, How to Steal a Joke, and Theft? or Inspiration!, I discussed one key difference between switching and stealing: Would the author of the original joke recognize your new joke as derived from theirs?
In the first two of those articles, I presented a six-step method to ethically switch other peoples’ jokes. I called it: “Switching to the Bone.” These steps require that you go all the way down to the core of what makes the original gag funny, not just under the skin but all the way to the bone, so when you work your way back up, you emerge with a completely new joke.
This helps you write switches that are more than not stolen. It teaches you to write switches whose origins are untraceable.
In this article I’m going apply that technique to one of the biggest laughs in my show, a gag where we steal a wallet from a volunteer we’ve been mistreating, open it up to steal his money, and discover he’s a cop.
I’m including a clip of that gag below, along with a few gags that precede it to give you the context for some of the callback tags that immediately follow it. (The other callbacks you’ll see had setups even earlier in the show: us taking a shoe from an audience member and another comic pushing up his nose, pretending to be a cop saying, “Get out of the car.”)
Step 1) Write down the joke you want to switch.
Stealing a volunteer’s wallet, opening it up, and discovering a police badge.
Step 2) Write down the essence of what makes that joke funny.
This could be the structure, the conflict, the type of ambiguity, the form of hypocrisy, the formula, the comic’s way of thinking, whatever you think powers that joke.
Doing this step takes both analysis and creativity. Different people will come up with different answers.
Some answers will be too shallow. For instance, if you answered: “Stealing something surprising out of a volunteer’s wallet or purse,” this would tend to lead you to new versions of the same joke, rather that truly new jokes:
Others answers could be too deep, giving you no useful insights to write new jokes: “We did something funny that made the audience laugh.”
We’re looking for a middle ground somewhere between these two: Not just under the skin, and not too deep into the marrow, but right to the bone.
For example, all of these would be good, to the bone explanations of what makes our cop’s wallet gag funny:
- A sudden transfer of power and status from the performer to an audience member.
- Finding something surprising in an unexpected place.
- Exposing hidden information about a stranger.
- A rapid series of callbacks, all motivated by one trigger.
- Getting your hand caught in the cookie jar.
- Being stopped short while trying to do something inappropriate.
Each of these answers would lead us to a different set of new jokes in the following steps. For this exercise, I’m going to say that what makes this joke funny is the way we suddenly lose status to an audience member.
Step 3) Write some new scenarios powered by the same mechanism you uncovered in Step 2.
There are as many different ways to do this as there are answers to Step 2.
This month, I’ll start by daydreaming and imagining lots of different possible interactions Katrine or I could have with volunteers. I’ll create a list of situations where an audience member could outsmart, defeat, beat, or embarrass us.
To make this more effective, I’ll be imagining a great show where we’re killing, where everything we’re doing is getting big laughs. I’ll also imagine perfect volunteers, each with a complete comedy toolbox and impeccable comic timing. This will make it much easier to come up with new gags.
Imagining you’re doing a tough or even average show forces you to write from fear and loads this step with judgment. So, just as we’ve done with all our other joke-writing methods, we’re going to push that judgment away from our creative process and save it till later. As comedy writing guru and named defendant Greg Dean suggests, we want to separate the creator from the critic.
With all this freedom in mind, here are a few gags I came up with, culled from an even longer list of possibilities, all based on my answer in Step 2:
Katrine and I set up to do a trick that appears to put a volunteer in danger. Katrine asks the volunteer what she does for a living. Volunteer says, “I’m a lawyer.” Katrine gets a new volunteer.
I tell a kid that she’s going to make sure the audience doesn’t get bored. If the show ever becomes boring she should hit me with a rubber sword that I’ve given her. Before I even finish the instructions, she hits me twice. While I’m trying to explain that she needs to wait till I do something boring, she hits me again. I insist that she has to wait till the trick has started. She pauses. I pause. I stare at her. She stares at me. I turn to the audience and say, “and now …” and she whacks me.
I’m on a giraffe unicycle. I high five a volunteer. He hits my hand hard enough to almost knock me off. I have to ride crazy to recover.
Preparing to jump onto a rola-bola, you ask a volunteer who you’ve previously been mistreating to get you a set of knives saying: “See those knives over there? I want you to pick up those knives, jump up on this board, and juggle!” To everyone’s amazement the volunteer does it. Perfectly. You watch him. Say nothing. Wait for the audience’s cheers to die down a bit, and the curtain just comes down. (Or, if street performing, you just pass the hat.)
I pretend to teach a volunteer to make a balloon animal, but I go so fast that by the time I’ve completed Snoopy Riding a Motorcycle, he’s left with just an untwisted snake. I offer mine to a kid by asking, “What’s your favorite animal?” Kid says, “Snake.”
You shake a volunteer’s hand and say: “Now we haven’t met before. Is that correct?” Volunteer replies: “No. Actually we have. I’m your proctologist.” You wipe your hand uncomfortably on your pants leg.
Preparing to juggle five torches, you say: “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s only one thing more difficult than juggling five torches.” Someone in the audience yells out, “Yeah. Getting a real job!”
Step 4) Choose the examples from Step 3 that you find funny and turn them into complete, performable jokes.
There are as many different ways to do this as there are jokes.
For some reason, every example I thought of in Step 3 came out as a fully formed joke. Maybe that’s because having your status lowered by a volunteer is such a strong premise. Maybe it’s because I’ve been writing comedy for so many years, writing lots of bad jokes in order to find one good one, that I now automatically skip some steps. Or maybe it was just luck.
But to make any of these examples into a performable joke, we’ll have to figure out how to get the volunteers to do what we want.
Some acts do this by using plants or stooges, i.e., another performer pretending to be an audience member. I don’t like doing this. I think that when someone comes back to see your show a second time and sees the same volunteer doing the same surprising things, they get disappointed and disillusioned. Using plants almost always exposes the trick in a yucky way. Plus, you have to pay them.
But there are lots of ways to turn a real, un-prepped volunteer into an instant stooge:
- You can find a reason to turn your back to the audience, turn off your mic, and just tell the volunteer what you want them to do.
- You can instruct them while you’re escorting them onto the stage.
- If you’re a duo act, your partner can stand upstage of them and whisper to them exactly what to do, step by step, in real time.
- You can trap them so their most obvious move is the one you want them to choose.
- You can take the time to prep them before the show.
Mac King is an expert at making volunteers do what he needs. I don’t want to give away any of his tricks, but …
The next time you’re in Las Vegas, instead of going to either his 1:00 or 3:00 show, playing Tuesday through Saturday at Harrah’s, go see it twice in a row on the same day. By the end of your second viewing, you will be amazed at how many instant stooges he invisibly and brilliantly created.
In the clip of our cops wallet gag above, we use several of these techniques:
- The guy I ask, “Is this an ordinary 3×5 card?” is trapped into the sucker punch gag, “Wrong, 4×6.” (By the way, if he answers “no” we do a different gag. This way I leave him no choice but to give me a setup I want.)
- The same guy is forced into another sucker punch gag when I ask him, “Is the knife slicing cleanly through the card?” I have punches ready for all his limited options.
- Rich loads the cops wallet into Art’s pocket while everyone is watching me threaten the guy in the audience with the knife. As Rich puts the wallet into Art’s picket, he tells him, “Act like this is yours. It’s going to be really funny. And you’re going to win.”
- I have Winston put his arm on Art’s shoulder to trap his arm into the right position for him to grab me later. You can also see Rich walk around behind Winston. What you can’t see is Rich telling Winston exactly when to put his hand straight up and grab me.
There’s a famous, probably apocryphal, story about a magician in the old west who claimed he could catch a bullet, shot from a spectator’s gun, in his teeth! At the show, he would ask for the best shot in town to come up on stage. A real audience member, known to everyone in the town, unprepped in any way, and carrying his own gun, would walk onto the stage. As he climbed up the stairs, the magician shook his hand, pulled him in close and whispered, “I can’t actually do this. Aim high.”
I use that same instant-stooge technique in this slightly safer switch:
Step 5) Make sure you’ve switched the original joke all the way to the bone.
For this step I ask myself: Would the author of the joke I started with recognize my new joke as a switch of theirs? In this case, since I’m one of those authors, this may seem like a no brainer. Of course I know where the new joke came from, but I’m not going to get mad at me for stealing from me.
I’m generous like that.
But I still need to do a version of this step. I need to ask myself: Would both jokes get a laugh in the same show?
If I want to perform both my cop’s wallet gag and any of these new gags in the same show, they need to be different enough that the audience doesn’t notice that they’re all just switches of the same idea. All six of these new jokes pass that test.
But while that first joke, where the volunteer says, “I’m a lawyer,” is not too close to my cop’s wallet gag, it’s really close to a joke Lance Burton used to do so I’m going to let that one go.
(Sometimes when you’re writing jokes you end up writing something that someone else is already performing. Maybe you thought you were creating when you were actually just remembering, or maybe you genuinely recreated someone else’s joke from original principles. Either way, they did it first, and I say that’s a good reason not to do it, so the lawyer joke is out. But do note, I waited till this step to quash it. I didn’t berate myself or my writing partner about it earlier in the process. I reserved as much judgment and criticism as possible till these last two steps, thus separating the creator from the critic.)
The others are all different enough from the original, and from anything else I’ve seen, to move on to Step 6.
Step 6) Off the page and onto the stage!
A joke does you no good lying dead in your notebook. You’ve got to try it in front of some audiences to give it a chance to live.
To do this I ask myself: What’s the minimum I need to do to try these new jokes? This is all about proof of concept. Fast and dirty. Let’s find out whether they’re funny before we put in too much time polishing them. Remember, anything worth doing is worth doing badly!
The second gag, where a kid beats me with a rubber sword for being boring seems worth trying so I’ll work with Katrine on how to stage it.
Joke three, a high five almost pushing me off my tall unicycle, will be easy to try. No volunteer prep or fancy staging is needed. Just acting.
If I wanted to put the fourth joke, where a volunteer does a trick better than me, into every show, I would need a full time plant. I’m not going to do that, but the next time I notice a fellow juggler in the crowd I’ll try this and see what happens.
The fifth joke, where a kid says his favorite animal is a snake, should fit perfectly into a routine we’ve already got in which we teach adult volunteers to make balloon animals. Now all we have to do is find a way to make a kid in the audience answer “A snake!” when we ask: ”What’s your favorite animal?”
Same thing with last two gags. We just have to find a good way to surreptitiously feed the audience members their lines.
So far we’ve tried the high five gag (worked well the first time and has been improving as I experiment with the timing and wording) and the kid saying “snake” (killed the first time, but we had to prep the kid pre-show to make it happen).
We’re still looking for good ways to try the others.
Take one of the biggest laughs in your show and switch it. How will you know if you’ve switched it to the bone? Ask yourself: How would you feel if another act had thought of your new joke and performed it immediately before you went on?