In last month’s column, Thou Shalt Not Steal, I wrote about an ethical way to steal jokes I called “switching to the bone.” The steps were:
Step 1) Write down the joke you want to steal.
Step 2) Write down the essence of what makes that joke funny. This could be the structure, the conflict, the type of ambiguity, the type of hypocrisy, the formula, whatever you think is the heart of the joke.
Step 3) Write a bunch of examples that express your answer in Step 2.
Step 4) Choose the examples from Step 3 that you find funny and turn them into complete, performable jokes.
Step 5) Make sure you’ve switched the original joke all the way to the bone. Would the author of the original joke know where your new joke came from? Would both get a laugh if performed in the same show?
Step 6) Try your new joke onstage.
This month we ethically steal another joke using a comedy writing method called “modeling.”
Step 1) What to steal?
Using our same 6 steps as before, let’s steal Steve Mills’ gag where he balances a pole with a dog on top and the dog pees on him.
Step 2) What makes it funny?
I’m going to say that the heart of this gag is: rigging an accident.
Notice that if we said what made this gag funny was something peeing on something else, then we couldn’t write switches. We’d just come up with new versions of the dog peeing on Steve Mills joke. And while anything peeing on Steve Mills is funny, we’re not looking for new versions. We’re looking for new jokes. So we have to go deeper, and closer to the bone with our answer.
Other possible answers might be bringing something private into public, or something of low status embarrassing someone of high status. Each of these would lead to a different list in step 3 and a different set of jokes at the end.
I’m going with rigging an accident.
Step 3) What else is like that?
What accidents could WE rig?
Notice I’m not asking “what funny accidents could we rig?” That’s a hard question. I’m asking a much easier question. We’ll work on the funny in Step 4.
Here are a few:
Club breaks in half.
Rola Bola board breaks in half.
Rola bola tube gets flattened by jump mount.
Unicycle seat fall off.
Microphone stops working.
Performer falls through the stage dismounting a tall unicycle.
Performer breaks his leg dismounting a tall unicycle.
Torch won’t light but performer’s butt, or hand, or head does.
Performer drops bowling ball on his foot.
Blindfolded, you intend to juggle clubs but pick up knives instead.
Use 4 silicones + 1 bean bag for 5 ball bounce juggling routine.
Archery act goes horribly wrong.
Balloon dog pops.
Unicycle tire is flat.
Top rung on freestanding ladder breaks.
Drink from fuel bottle instead of water bottle.
Katrine whips a cigar out of my mouth and my mustache, nose or toupee falls off.
Step 4) Choose some of examples from your list above and turn them into jokes.
You can do this step making positive choices only. You don’t have to cross out any ideas you don’t like. You don’t have to tell your writing partner why their ideas won’t work. You can just chose the seeds you think are funny and cultivate those.
If turning these seeds into fully formed jokes seems like magic to you, go back and read Comedy Creationism to give yourself one possible method for this.
Imagine one of your comic heroes in any of the situations above and write down what they would say or do. Surprisingly, your own internal Robin Williams, Mark Faje, or Louis CK is often funnier than you are.
Modeling works not just when you’re switching a joke, like we’re doing here, but also on its own, or combined with any other comedy writing methods you know.
When you’re modeling, you’re not stealing your heroes’ jokes. You’re stealing their entire comic way of thinking. And you’re doing it in a way that is totally ethical.
I use this method all the time. All hired comedy writers use it when they’re writing for someone else’s voice.
Here are a few jokes I got listening to the voices in my head:
This came from imagining what Mark Faje would do if he broke his leg on stage:
Juggler dismounts a tall unicycle and falls to the ground holding his leg wincing in pain. “I think I broke it.” Pulls up his pants leg and we see what appears to be a bloody bone sticking out of his calf. (Audience screams in disgust.) Performer pulls the bone out. Licks it. “Mmmm, tastes just like chicken.” Offers it to the most appalled audience member to taste. “Come on. Try it. I made it myself.”
Next, I tried to write in the voices of Ryan & Alex, two acrobats who do an act with a freestanding ladder:
(Ryan goes to step onto the top rung of a freestanding ladder. The rung splinters in half as he steps on it. He maintains his balance on the second to last rung.)
Ryan: That’s not good.
Alex: It’s fine for us. (Motioning to himself and the audience.)
Ryan: Hey! I could die here.
Alex: That’s what’s fine for us.
Ryan: Ladies and gentlemen, I know this looks bad … (Motioning to himself and the ladder in a way that could also only refer to himself)
Alex: And there appears to be a problem with the ladder too. But don’t worry. That will not stop my brother. He will balance on the top of the ladder even though there is no rung there. Because he is brave.
Alex: He is fearless.
Alex: He is stupid.
Ryan: That’s not funny!
Alex: It is for us.
Ryan: Brave, fearless, and stupid. Here we go. (Bit ends with Ryan balancing all the way to the top pads, above the rungs, of the free standing ladder.)
This one came from Katrine and me modeling ourselves. Yes, that’s allowed:
I place an apple on my head. Katrine aims a bow and arrow at it. “Watch now. I will shoot the apples … (She slowly lets the bow and arrow drift down till she’s aiming right at the center of my pants) … right off his head. She shoots and hits me right where she’s aiming. I reach into my pants and remove an apple with the arrow all the way through it, and the arrowhead sticking out about an inch.
This, from Katrine modeling Phylis Diller:
(While Scott’s riding on a standard size unicycle with a flat tire while a tall unicycle is clearly visible on stage.)
Katrine: It’s flat. It’s flat.
Scott: Oh, Don’t be so hard on yourself.
Katrine: It’s small. It’s small.
Scott: No. This is the normal size.
Katrine: I’m not talking about the unicycle.
This setup from trying to think like Teller and the punch from channeling Daniel Tosh:
Borrow an audience member’s iPhone. Secretly switch it for a fake iPhone. Place the fake on a piece of 9.5” x 7.3” cardboard on the ground. Cover it with a cloth “so it doesn’t get scratched.” Juggle a bowling ball, Frying pan, and hammer over it. Accidentally drop the frying pan onto the covered fake and then drop the bowling ball into the frying pan. “Whoops. Might as well.” Hammer the bowling a few times for good measure. Look at the flattened 9.5” x 7.3” cloth covered cardboard. “You should be happy. Now it’s an iPad.” (OR: “It still works better than an Android.”)
Here is one I wrote by first picking a seed from my step 3 list and then asking myself, “What juggler would be funniest in that specific situation?”:
Preparing to jump mount his unicycle, Frank Olivier says, “I will launch myself into the air and come down right here, making a perfect three point landing with my feet on the pedals and the rest of me on the seat … Or a less than perfect FOUR point landing … With my feat on the pedals and the rest of me …” Franky taps the seat and shudders thinking about the consequences.
“Here we go. Landing all at the same time. Pedal, pedal, seat.” Franky hits each with hand he says it. When he says “seat” he hits the seat HARD. The seat breaks off. This is followed by a long beat with Franky staring at the seat pole and laughing at himself in that annoying way he always does.
“It’s okay. We’re in San Francisco!”
“I’m not stalling. I’m just not sure how I’m going to tell my parents.”
The bit ends with Franky jump mounting and riding his now decapitated unicycle like an Ultimate Wheel and doing lots of what will seem to the audience to be unplanned tricks forced to be much more difficult because of the lack of a seat.
And finally this sequence from inviting Robin Williams to write with us. Not the real Robin Williams. Just the one in my head:
(Break a club by accident so that it hangs limp at a 90 degree angle from the handle. Rapidly switch into different character voices for each different line of dialog.)
“Remind you of anyone?”
“Ms. Lewinsky, can you describe what the president was like?”
“Wait, wait. We can rebuild him. We have the technology.”
(Tape the club up with blue tape while making Six Million Dollar Man sounds.)
“Oh yes. Blue tape. Always does the trick.”
(Slide the head of the club back into its standard straight position.)
“A little blue tape. Works just like a little blue pill.”
Step 5) Did we switch all the way to the bone?
Assuming Steve Mills could read, would he recognize any of the these jokes as coming from his doggie peeing from the pole gag?
Assuming any of them would talk to us, would Mark, Teller, Tosh, Franky or Robin accuse us of plagiarizing their souls?
Not a chance!
Step 6) Which of these jokes will we take off the page and onto the stage?
The most seductive question to ask about any new joke is: “Is it funny enough to put in my show?”
I suggest a different question: “Which of these jokes might be funny enough to try onstage, one time?” This looser, lower standard will get you a much funnier, much more original show much faster.
It is a scarier question though. It’s hard to put new jokes into your show when you don’t have a clue whether they’re going to work. Do it anyway. What’s the worst thing that will happen? The audience won’t laugh. It hurts, but only for a minute. As Vova Galchenko says, “Suck it up.”
So with that in mind, here are my judgments and plans for the 7 jokes Katrine and I wrote above.
I don’t find Joke #1 funny enough to bother to build the prop. So that one’s dead unless one of you wants it.
I think the second routine will get laughs. I’m going to offer it to Ryan & Alex.
I like the beginning of joke #3 but I don’t know how to rig the ending. Plus it’s probably too dirty for most of the places we perform. I’m not giving up on this one yet. Maybe we’ll turn it into a promo photo.
Katrine and I should at try #4 at least one time. Probably the next time we forget to inflate a tire.
I have no confidence in Joke #5. If you do, it’s yours.
I hate the “San Francisco” beat I wrote in #6. But it does bring up an important point. While you’re writing, there’s nothing that’s so racist, sexist, dirty, homophobic, inappropriate or misogynist that you can’t write it down. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t censor yourself. It’s only later, when you’re deciding what to perform or what to pitch that you edit out the inappropriate stuff. Like Greg Dean says: “separate the creator from the critic.”
And finally Joke #7 shows me that my inner Robin Williams is still stuck in the late 90s when his Six Million Dollar Man references were already dated.
When I look back the next day on those 7 new jokes, I don’t think any are as funny as the original gag: a dog peeing on Steve Mills. (Although #6 might be close.).
I’m not surprised. It took me about Katrine and me around 90 minutes to write those seven plus a few more we deleted for length. I don’t expect to be able to write a joke as funny as Steve’s in an hour or two. But if I work at it for an hour or two every week, eventually I’ll get there. And I have the whole rest of my life to try.
Spend an hour or two this week writing jokes. You can use assumption lists like Mike Goudeau. Or try modeling your comic heroes the way I do. Write some switches. Work with your friends. Write a lot of jokes. Don’t worry if most suck. Just play with them onstage, find the ones that work, and experiment to see how you can improve them. I promise if you do any of these things you will Be Funnier!