In my first column, Comedy Darwinism, I wrote about ways to leverage your creativity onstage. Or as a skeptic might put it: “How to flop around onstage, randomly trying this and that, until you get lucky enough to get a laugh.”
So if evolution through natural selection isn’t enough for you… If you think: “What are the odds that The Passing Zone’s incredible theater show just happened randomly? There MUST be a God!” then it’s time to become a creationist.
One Easy Way To Write Jokes
By the way, when I say jokes, I’m including jokes, gags, bits, physical bits, takes, beats, anything the audience laughs at. I use the words gag and joke as interchangeably as I use the words hypnotist and scum.
To start, get a BIG piece of paper. We need room to make lots of lists. Lists are a big part of most joke writing methods. The reason is, just like I wrote in my last column, The Secret to Great Comedy, “It’s hard to come up with a funny new joke. It’s not hard to come up with a lot of new jokes and then pick the ones you think are funny.” Lists help us do that.
Choose A Topic or Situation
I’ll choose: An MC introducing an act.
Break it Down
Make a list of each step or part of that situation. (For a topic this would be a list of specific examples and situations within that topic.) For us that’s going to be:
|1) The previous act leaves the stage.|
|2) The band plays them off.|
|3) The MC enters.|
|4) MC asks for a round of applause for the previous act.|
|5) MC introduces the next act.|
|6) The next act comes onstage.|
|7) The act starts.|
List Some Assumptions
For each step you make lists of all kinds of things the audience assumes about that step.
Here are just a few. I’ve provided links to lots more.
|1) The previous act leaves the stage.||1a) The previous act is really done.|
|1b) The previous act isn’t also the next act.|
|1c) MC has waited for them to finish.|
|2) The band plays them off.||2a) The playoff isn’t part of the act.|
|2b) The band is not the next act.|
|2c) The band can play their instruments.|
|2d) The band is ready to play them off.|
|(Click Here To See More Assumptions.)|
Please note that the numbering scheme I’m using here is artificial. I never number these things when I’m trying to write comedy. The numbers are here only to try to make the process clearer in this article. Numbers make it harder to be loose and funny. D0N’T U5E NUMB3RS.
If at any time you think of a gag during this process, write it down. This is not an algorithm where you have to wait for the halt command before you can be funny. Whenever you get an idea for a joke during this process write it down. That’s another reason why we want a BIG piece of paper.
Shatter Those Assumptions
Next to each assumption above, list one or more ways you can shatter it. Don’t just break the assumption, shatter it. Here are just a few:
|1) The previous act leaves the stage.||1a) The previous act is really done.||1a) The previous act is still going when the MC enters.|
|1b) The previous act isn’t also the next act.||1b) The previous is also the next act.|
|1c) MC has waited for them to finish.||1c) MC interrupts their big trick.|
|2) The band plays them off.||2a) The playoff isn’t part of the act.||2a) The playoff is actually the act.|
|2b) The band is not the next act.||2b) The band is next act.|
|2c) The band can play their instruments.||2c) The band gave their instruments to audience members.|
|2d) The band is ready to play them off.||2d) The band is busy playing poker.|
|(Click Here To See More Shatters.)|
Notice I didn’t say “list funny ways to shatter the assumption.” You don’t have to try to be funny. I don’t. I just try to fill the page. We’ll choose the funny ones later.
For many of you, just thinking of ways to shatter the audience’s assumptions will make you think of possible gags. Great! Write ‘em down. Let’s fill that paper with bad jokes.
Any of these shatterings can be the beating heart of a baby joke. Some will be stillborn. Some will be ugly. Many will be loved only by their parents but a few will grow up to be productive members of the society of gags that make up your show.
So it’s time to…
Turn Some Shatters Into Gags
For each of the shatters that interest you, the ones you think might be funny, write down a specific way to present it onstage.
You’re looking for setups that lead the audience to expect the assumption and then punches that shatter that assumption. These jokes are often called lead-aways because each leads the audience to expect one thing and then surprises them with something else.
Just as an exercise and an illustration I’m going to go straight down the complete list of shatters I just wrote and write gags for each of them until I run out of time tonight and tomorrow. Normally I would never do this. I would just follow up on the ones I liked.
|1) The previous act leaves the stage.||1a) The previous act is really done.||1a) The previous act is still going when the MC enters.||1a) MC comes out, asks for a big round of applause, and dismisses the previous act right as they’re about to start the big trick they’ve been building up to the entire act. (I.e. A magician finally exposing the lost card. The juggler starting to juggle after setting up an elaborate balance. The singer going for the climactic high note.)|
|1b) The previous act isn’t also the next act.||1b) The previous is also the next act.||1b) MC comes out, thanks the previous act: “Let’s hear if for Poetic Motion Machine!!!” and then says: “The great thing about a variety show like this is all the different kinds of acts you get to see. And with that in mind, please welcome to the stage our next act: Poetic Motion Machine!”|
|1c) MC has waited for them to finish.||1c) MC interrupts their big trick.||1c) The entire act is building up to the Francis Brunn combo trick. Just as all the pieces are in place, the 2 balances on the head, the rings spinning on the leg, the rings on the arm and right when he’s about to juggle, the MC comes out and calls for a big round of applause. The curtain closes just as we see the first throw.|
|2) The band plays them off.||2a) The playoff isn’t part of the act.||2a) The playoff is actually the act.||2a) A juggler comes out and does a ten second trick/routine. MC comes out and thanks her. She juggles as the band plays her off. She continues to juggle and do tricks. The band keeps playing. She does a hot 7 minute act while the MC stands there waiting for her to finish.|
|2b) The band is not the next act.||2b) The band is next act.||2b) MC introduces the Karamazovs. They walk over and take the band’s instruments. The original band members watch, pause, walk over to center stage, pick up the K’s props and start to juggle.|
|2c) The band can play their instruments.||2c) band gave their instruments to audience members.||2c) After an act which used a lot of volunteers, the band brings up a bunch more volunteers and gives them their instruments to play off the act.|
|2d) The band is ready to play them off.||2d) The band is busy playing poker.||2d) The act asks for “music please.” Nothing happens. Again: “MUSIC PLEASE.” The act opens the curtain that hides the band only to see them all playing strip poker. The MC is losing.|
|(Click Here To See More Gags.)|
Turn Your Gags Into a Routine
A nice thing about this method is that the gags you’ve written usually fall easily into a routine. You just choose your favorite gag from each step in your Break It Down list and then do them in that order.
How I Really Write Comedy
When I’m actually writing material, as opposed to trying to explain how to write material, I do not do all these steps. I don’t make lists that are near this complete and I never number them. I use several different methods, including this one, all at the same time. I slide through assumptions as fast as I can, without writing anything down and then jump directly to the most extreme shatters I can think of. I go from shatter to gag in my head and then write down any gags I find funny, promising, or interesting.
When I’m writing with a partner and either of us are using this method, we usually think up assumptions silently and then only say shatters out-loud that interest us. We then try to cap each other’s shatters, making them clearer or more extreme. We try to crack each other up with more and more tags. We usually wait till we’ve done a couple of rounds back and forth with a draft gag before we write it down.
I don’t get discouraged when I look back at what I wrote yesterday and see that the vast majority of it is crap. I just try to find a few raw gems in the giant page of muck I created.
Writing all the steps, assumptions, shatters, and the first 26 gags for this article, both the ones listed above and the ones that are in the links, took me about 5 hours spread out over 5 days. Plus another 8 hours to create and format the stupid tables. Out of the 26 gags I just wrote before I submitted this to eJuggle, Katrine, Goudeau, Jacob Jax & I think these 8 are good enough to try onstage:
2b) MC introduces the Karamazovs. They walk over and take the band’s instruments. The original band members watch, pause, walk over to center stage, pick up the K’s props and start to juggle.
2d) The act asks for “music please.” Nothing happens. Again: “MUSIC PLEASE.” The act opens the curtain that hides the band only to see them all playing strip poker. The MC is losing. (Katrine added this callback after she read my list: Have the band play spin the bottle, beer pong, hopscotch, & an implied game of cracker after the next 4 acts instead of playing them off.)
3a) The MC (Thomas John) begins to introduce the next act, “I’d like to introduce this next act but I just can’t.” He hands the microphone to an audience member with an intro card to read. Volunteer reads: “Our next act is probably the best and funniest juggler we’ve ever had or ever will have on this stage. Please welcome Thomas John!” MC does his routine. After he finishes and gets his applause he exits the stage and immediately comes back on as MC. He tags with the call back: “I’d like to ask for another round of applause for that last act because it was so good, but that seems tacky.” He hand to microphone back to the audience member. (FYI, Thomas John wrote this joke when he was giving me notes for this article.)
3b) MC enters to thank the previous act. His mic doesn’t work. The previous act comes out, crouches down in front of the MC facing the audience with his head at mic height and proceeds to YELL whatever the MC says.
3c) After a dog act leaves the stage, another dog, dressed exactly like the MC, comes out to the mic where the MC had been introducing all the previous acts and barks a few times. The dog exits and the band plays on the next act.
5a3) MC: “Our next act is world famous for his signature bounce piano routine. This unique routine went viral on YouTube. If you’ve never seen it, here’s just a taste.” Video shows Wally Eastwood doing the bounce piano. Video cuts to Charles Peachock doing bounce piano. MC: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Dan Menendez!”
5b) Dan Holzman (MC): “Up till now all our acts have been solo, juggling to music, but our next act is a comedy juggling duo. Personally I don’t care for that sort of thing, but you might like it. Please welcome Comedy Industries!”
5c2) MC: “Michael Davis is best comedy juggler I’ve ever seen. He’s act is smart, funny, inventive, and he’s been flawlessly putting all that together every night for 30 years. Unfortuantely he’s not here tonight. So please welcome: Thomas John!”
8 new jokes worth trying? That seems like a good payoff for 5 hours of work. I certainly couldn’t learn 8 new jugging tricks in 5 hours. Although I could buy 8 new magic tricks.
We’ll try some of these the next time we MC and see what happens.
Creation or Evolution?
Once you’ve created some gags that you like (using this or any other method), it’s time to try them onstage.
To really hone the ones that work into an effective routine, you’re going to have to try them lots of different ways in different orders and with different wordings and different deliveries to learn which ways work best.
And then you do this over and over again, selecting the fittest over thousands of generations. Intelligent design AND Natural selection. Both are necessary tools for comedy. And that’s the only good thing I will ever say about one of them.
Write a bunch of bad jokes. Choose some you think might be funny. Try them onstage. Keep the ones that get laughs. Cut the ones that don’t. Repeat until famous.