There are lots of different kinds of corporate gigs: after dinner shows, awards banquets, sales meetings, customer events, convention keynotes, company picnics, holiday parties, trade shows, training sessions, and teambuilding events just to name a few.
Katrine and I love corporate gigs. Aside from all the flying, it’s the most comfortable market we work in. Your shows are always indoors, no wind, no sun, no rain. You always have a microphone. You never have to yell or strain your voice. You’re never in a smoke-filled room and the stage never rocks or rolls in the waves.
And it’s the best paying market for jugglers.
Getting corporate gigs
I don’t have any good advice on how you can get more corporate gigs. I suppose you could just Google “get more corporate gigs” and see what happens. What are the odds that a 2-time IJA Teams gold winner has created an entire website just to help you do that?
I do, however, have lots of suggestions on how you can write more jokes for those gigs once you’ve gotten them.
Writing comedy for corporate gigs
Most of what I write nowadays is corporate comedy: specifically full custom scripts with some jokes and lots of information about my clients’ products. I try to put in as many jokes as I can slip past my corporate overlords and their regulatory and legal departments to keep the audience interested without taking too much focus away from what I’m selling. I once wrote a 90 minute film noir musical on best practices for selling toilet paper. It never made it to Broadway but it was one of the best film noir musicals you’ll ever see based on best practices for selling toilet paper. And I got paid.
When I was younger, back when I still had hair and Dubé American clubs were considered “light,” the corporate comedy I wrote was all about customizing our standard act for a particular client, trying to add a half dozen or so new inside jokes specifically for that night’s particular audience.
That’s what I’m going to try to teach in this month’s column.
Most of the corporate shows you’d use this method for are after dinner shows for the company’s employees. Some include their customers. Some come after lunch or after breakfast to kick off or restart a meeting.
My favorite method to come up with custom material for these types of shows is to eat the meal with the audience and ask them lots of questions:
- Who’s your biggest competitor? How much do you care about that competition?
- What are some of your biggest selling points? How much do you all care about them?
- What are some of the subgroups you like to make fun of? Sales? Marketing? Engineering? Management? Customers? Who do they make fun of? How much do you all like to do that?
- What can you tell me about individuals here that everyone in the company knows but I wouldn’t? How many other people here know these things? How many care?
- What buzzwords do you all use regularly that I wouldn’t know?
- What are some of your major product names? What are some of your competitor’s product names? Do you guys care?
- Did you all do something together today or yesterday before this event?
- What was the entertainment for this event last year, or last night? Were most of these people here for it? Did they like it? Hate it? Did they care?
- Where is your headquarters located? Where is your most remote office? Do people like it there? Do they care?
There are jokes hiding in plain sight in their answers.
And please note, none of these questions are in any way special. I’m sure you can easily come up with a dozen more yourself.
For different companies, Katrine and I ask different questions. For convention shows, where the people in the audience are all from different companies, we ask more general, industry-focused as opposed to company-focused questions.
For events where there are customers as well as employees, we pull back a bit. This causes us to miss some opportunities to make funnier, edgier jokes, but it also gets us hired back again the next year. (Katrine is MUCH better at pulling back than me. If it were up to me we’d get bigger laughs and less repeat business.)
When Katrine and I do our standard 30:00 to 45:00 corporate after dinner show, we usually write 6 to 8 custom jokes this way. Onstage we usually remember to do about 4 of them and then maybe ad-lib 1 or 2 more based on the info we got before the show. Of the ones we perform, I’d guess 1/3 kill, 1/3 go over just fine, and the last 1/3 die, but they die gently, as if we weren’t even trying to make a joke.
Two new killer laughs, customized for that night’s specific audience, are certainly worth an extra couple of hours of work.
Plus, you get a free dinner.
- Software company;
- Most of the audience were programmers and engineers…
- who looked down on the people in sales and marketing;
- Many were angry about recent bonuses given out to management:
“Right now, I’m going to juggle 5 balls. For those of you in marketing, that’s 10 balls.
“If you’re in sales … (stomp foot on ground 4 times … pause … stomp one last time for 5.)”
“Yeah, it always amazes me that people who don’t understand numbers are so concerned with hitting them.”
“(Juggling 5.) Oh, and if you’re in management and you can do this? You get a 10 thousand dollar bonus.”
“And no, you don’t have to share that with your team.”
- Vacuum cleaner company;
- Their vacuums use water filtration;
- Their competitors use paper filters;
- They claim their vacuums are better for asthmatics:
“You see this unicycle here? This is the best unicycle on the market. Because this tire here is filled with water.”
“Yeah, just try and ride on a paper wheel. That’s what causes asthma.”
- Their employees had just sat through a long PowerPoint presentation …
- showing the 100 steps it takes to make the sunglasses they would be selling that year:
“…But first we must put on our safety glasses. (John & Scott put on pig nose glasses.)”
“These take 100 steps to make.”
“We have slides.”
- Company’s name was Siemens:
“(Katrine, wearing a dress for once in her life, climbs up on top two volunteers.) Don’t you look up my dress.
“What do you think you’re going to see anyway? If you say ‘Siemens’ I will kick you in the head.”
- One of the vice-presidents played tight end …
- for the Dallas Cowboys for one summer during training season:
“(While passing clubs around the now a bit chubby VP.) Head up. Hair back. …(Tapping VP in gut with club to indicate he needs to suck it in.)”
“Cowboys training camp was a loooong time ago.”
“(Tapping his butt with a club.) Back then he was a TIGHT end.”
- Closing night of a convention;
- The previous night’s entertainment was a terrible magician …
- who most of them hated:
“(After the audience went ‘awwww’ when we dropped on a trick.) You know, we could do magic instead.”
“(Doing a really bad back palm.) Now you see it. Now you still see it.”
- In a magic show I wrote for HP executives to perform for their sales people;
- They were announcing a big new server called “the N-Class;”
- Their competition, Sun, names their big servers e1000, e10,000, etc.;
- Sun’s CEO at the time was Scott McNealy:
“(VP picks a planted volunteer (me) out of the audience. VP ‘discovers’ I’m a spy from Sun. Puts me in a box. Flattens me. As I’m being flattened I scream …) What are you going to call your next servers? The P-Class? Will they be water cooled?!? Your Pee-Class?!?
“You’ll never beat us. You’ll run out of letters long before we run out of numbers!
“Help me Scott McNealy. You’re my only hope!
“What a world, what a world.”
None of these jokes were difficult to write. Most are barely even jokes. They’re just references. But other than the HP/Sun ones, they all killed.
Reading them here, none should seem particularly funny to you. When we performed them, most got huge laughs, in some cases cheers. That’s the power of even a mediocre inside joke.
And the ones that didn’t work weren’t a problem. Inside references that die almost always die gently, in their sleep. The audience doesn’t boo or turn on you. They just smile, think “that’s cute,” and wait for you to try again.
If you practice writing comedy, turning your clients’ answers into jokes as straight-ahead as these is quite easy. All you have to do is find a place in your show to make reference to the inside information. It doesn’t have to be any cleverer or more difficult than that. For instance you ask your questions and find out:
- There was a company golf outing the day before your show.
- The president of the company is named Leo.
- He is an avid golfer who brags, maybe even lies, about his scores.
- Their CFO is named Bill.
- Their stock price is at $40 a share, an all time high.
- Much of your audience knows and cares about some or all of the above.
So all you need to do is refer to Leo, golf, Bill, and the stock price in one of your tricks an the crowd will go nuts.
Give it a try before you read on.
I’ll wait …
Here’s one possible way to do it:
“This is a very difficult trick. It’s at least a par 5. Leo birdied it yesterday.
“According to his score sheet.
“Of course, Bill was the one keeping score.
“Maybe that explains the stock price?”
I’d be happy to try that sequence in a corporate show. I’d expect it to work. I might get a “boo” on the last line, but it’s a “boo” I’d be fine with. Maybe I’d tag the “boo” with:
“Go ahead and boo me. I bought in at 10.”
Some acts ask their clients to fill out a questionnaire in advance to get the information they need to write custom jokes. I never do. I believe people often censor or second-guess themselves when answering questions in writing. Both are bad for comedy. Plus, you can’t ask intelligent follow-up questions based on their answers. And I don’t like how cookie-cutter it makes the custom material look to the client.
Katrine and I always ask our questions in person or at worst on the phone, casually, just to “get some background.”
We also try to ask questions to the attendees rather than just to the person hiring us. Clients often hold back for fear of what we want the info for. Employees and attendees are never afraid of that. They look forward to it!
Some better advice
Always ask the follow-up question: “Do the people here care?”
Pepsi people hate Coke so you can get big laughs bashing Coca-Cola brands at a PepsiCo party. NUMMI Motors assembly line workers didn’t care at all about their supposed rivalry with Ford or Nissan but they did love to laugh at jokes about their managers. Army guys cheer and slap each other on the back at even the most inane jokes about their officers. Navy guys don’t even giggle at the best of jokes about their ship’s Captain. They do love to laugh at their D.O.s though.
How do you find out these differences? You could do what I did for my first 20 years and try to discern patterns from trial and error. Or you could just ask: “Do the people here care?”
One of the things wrong with my Scott McNealy references above was that I didn’t ask: “Do you guys care?” Another was that I had the butt backwards (the jokes targeted HP more than Sun). You could say that another flaw was that there were no twists, but I think you’d be wrong. Most of my other very successful inside jokes were straight-ahead with no twists and they killed.
I should have asked: “Do the people here care?”
Inside jokes for other audiences
Inside jokes like those above are easy to write and get bigger laughs than they deserve. Corporate crowds are naturals for inside jokes but so are many others: Rotary and Elks clubs, juggling-convention shows, dance recitals, school shows, college gigs, all these audiences have lots of inside information, so they’re all perfect targets for inside jokes. Do your homework. Ask lots of questions. You’ll get the info you need to write these inside jokes.
Remember: inside information doesn’t mean secret information. It just means information that the audience has in common, things that most them know. It’s a bit more powerful when they don’t expect you to know it, but that’s not necessary.
With this in mind you can often find inside information to make inside jokes for less obviously united audiences:
- At fairs, many people will have ridden the Gravitron or seen the hypnotist while eating many strange fried things.
- On cruise ships, everyone has eaten at the buffets, listened to the captain’s announcements, and interrupted their first day of vacation with a life boat drill.
- Everyone watching the juggler who’s opening for their favorite indie rock band has seen the tee-shirt vendors, bought their tickets through Ticketmaster, and is disappointed that the opening act is a juggler.
All of these are fertile grounds from which to reap inside jokes.
Write a couple of new, custom, inside jokes for your next audience. If you can’t think of any inside information that most of them share, ask them. I’m sure they’ll tell you some.