I’m writing this article on the plane home from the IJA festival in Bowling Green, Ohio.
What a fantastic week! If you’ve never been to an IJA festival, I highly recommend it. So much better than those magic conventions where they don’t have hover-chairs or a gauntlet.
For me it was a week of learning new tricks, seeing old friends, passing judgment on jugglers much better than me. What could be more fun?
Watching Wes Peden and Jay Gilligan intertwining their arms and legs while doing tricks I couldn’t even imagine was amazing. Their juggling was good too.
Erin Stephens was super charismatic and super sexy on stage. Where was she when I was single? I’m guessing third grade.
And those Austrians? Passing 17 clubs on stage for one whole minute! Or was it 1 club for 17 minutes? Either way. Superlative!
But none of this made me feel as bad about myself as watching Marcus Monroe, Mark Hayward, David Deeble, Mark Faje, Rob Torres, and Michael Rosman getting huge laughs, doing jokes and gags I wish I had thought of.
Whenever I see a really good comedy juggler, a little voice in the back of my mind says, “You’re a fraud. You’ll never be able to think of jokes that funny. That guy up there? The one who isn’t you? That’s what comedy juggling should be!”
But now, after decades of performing, doing good shows and bad, coming up with new jokes, some that work and more that die, there’s an even louder voice in my head reassuring me, “That little voice … The one that doesn’t love you? The one that wants you to fail? … That little voice is right.”
You Are Not Alone
Almost all performers feel some version of this. My partner, Katrine, gets depressed when she watches bad acts doing well. She hates watching hacks kill. They make her afraid that’s what she is.
Mark Hayward, the hilarious top spinning and eccentric trick act who just happens to be an IJA teams gold medal winner and World Yo-yo Champion (how can anyone be that good at that many skills?) expressed the same insecurity:
“We all have that voice in our heads. It’s the reason we keep working hard and the reason we eventually succeed. That little voice that says, ‘You are NOT good enough?’ That voice is in all of us.”
Except Jason Garfield. The voice in his head says, “YOU are not good enough.”
What It’s Like Inside My Head
When I watch an excellent technical or artistic juggler, I get some comfort from telling myself, “At least they’re not funny.”
When I was younger, I would watch the great San Francisco comedy jugglers one generation ahead of me: The Butterfly Man, Fly By Night, Frank Olivier. I remember thinking, “Where did they get all those great jokes? How did they create all those hilarious comic situations? I could never be that good.”
But at least back then I could tell myself, “They’ve been doing it for years. I’m just starting out.”
Now that excuse is gone, so I numb myself with poker, binge eating, and cleaning my driveway with a flame thrower. These distractions keep me from killing myself whenever I see an act better than mine. Instead, I just cut myself high up on my thigh where no one will see.
If these activities don’t soothe you, remember this:
You’re watching their finished products, the results of years of work, hundreds, even thousands of shows adding one joke at a time. If you just take it one joke at a time, you’ll get there.
Remember, you didn’t see all their rough drafts, failed jokes, and dead end paths. All you saw were their shiny end results, not all the turds they had to polish and later discard to get there.
One joke at a time. One trick at a time. One show at a time. This is how you build a routine. This is how you build an act. This is how you build a career.
It doesn’t matter whether Marcus Monroe is faster at adlibbing than you are, and that Mark Hayward is more likable. So what if Deeble has better stand-up chops, Faje is more original, Torres is balder, and Rosman is shorter and more Jewy than you? None of that matters. Your success is not measured against theirs. It’s only measured against yours.
Are you funnier than you were last year? Have you added any new tricks to your act? Did you write any new jokes this week? Did you test them in front of an audience? Have you added any of them to your show? Will your next idea for a routine be more original than what you’re doing now?
These are the only metrics you can control. They’re the only measures that count.
When you start out, you should expect to suck. All your comic heroes? They all sucked when they started. The first 100 shows don’t even count!
In my previous articles I’ve tried to present specific techniques to help you be funnier. In future articles I plan to present even more, but the truth is there’s really only one technique that matters: Don’t give up.
Whenever I watch a comedy juggler who’s better than I am, I try not to get stuck telling myself, “I could never be that good.” Instead, I force myself to think, “What can I learn from them?”
So, what did I learn watching all those wonderfully funny jugglers last week? (And by the way, those six were not the only comedy jugglers who performed. They were just the ones I saw and resented. There were many other great acts, like Sem & Teresa who rocked the Cascade of Stars, but watching them made me less angry at myself and more angry at Katrine for not weighing 90 pounds.)
High, Low, Goal, Crush, Bane, Surprise
Marcus Monroe’s relaxed style reminded me to listen to my audience more, to relax and actually chat with them. Not to worry about whether a punch is coming fast enough, but instead to trust that one will be there when I need it.
Mark Hayward showed me the value of stunts. He had all these modular tricks that he could string together or present separately as needed, little tricks that didn’t require volunteers or a big prop case. This flexibility makes him a masterful MC. I definitely want to work on that.
David Deeble’s polished comedy club style taught me that a variety act can do anything a stand-up can. Plus we can juggle!
Every time I see Mark Faje I think the same thing: “Holy crap. He’s really going to DO that?!?” I have got to find a way to get that feeling of out-of-control danger and psychopathy into my show.
Rob Torres’ focused hilarity demonstrated the power of comedy without language. He showed me how mime forces the audience to sit forward in their seats and pay much closer attention than they have to for a talking act.
And Michael Rosman gave me a wonderful compliment by asking me to help him write some custom opening jokes for his Cascade of Stars set. He then showed those jokes to Rick Rubenstein who made several of them better. Lesson #1: Collaboration? Good! Lesson #2: Go to Rubenstein first.
So with these goals in mind, it’s time to write jokes. Katrine and I are doing three shows a day at a fair in Alaska this week, so we’ll have plenty of time to try some new ones.
From Marcus Monroe
Modeling Marcus Monroe, we’re making it a point this week to slow down and listen to our volunteers, rather than just ramming our regular jokes through them like we often do. This has led to this new gag:
SCOTT: (After yelling at a child in a way that usually makes them giggle.) Don’t you laugh at me when I’m yelling at you. (Thus making the kid giggle even more.) You want something to laugh about? I’ll GIVE you something to laugh about! (SCOTT and KATRINE makes childish, goofy faces.)
And also this one:
SCOTT: (While talking to a child in the audience while setting up.) I’m sorry. I can’t hear you ‘cause you don’t have a microphone like me because you’re not special.
Both are getting fine laughs, but Katrine has told me I can’t do the second one anymore because it’s too mean, which I hear as: “Put it later in the show, after our characters are more established.”
From Mark Hayward
Yesterday, Katrine, who plays my wife onstage, ad-libbed this during a trick where we were dropping too much:
KATRINE: There’s a rule in show business. If a woman drops three times on the same trick? She has to marry a troll. (KATRINE then looks disdainfully at SCOTT.)
This got a nice laugh, but it killed when an audience member added:
AUDIENCE: How many times did YOU drop?
So now we’re looking for the right place to put this in our show. Normally we would try to add it to one of our existing routines, but in homage to Mark Hayward we’re trying to make it into a stand-alone gag, a little 30 second, Haywardian module. This is what we’ve come up with so far:
SCOTT: Ever since she was a little boy, Katrine has wanted to be a princess. One day, a wizard took a magic sword and granted half her wish. (SCOTT styles towards KATRINE with a knife, a bit too close to her crotch.)
KATRINE: But children beware. (Taking the knife.) This sword comes with a curse. If a princess lets her sword touch the ground more than three times, she has to marry a troll. (KATRINE does a take to SCOTT. She then prepares to balance the knife on her chin, pausing extra long to let the audience fill in the punch, “How many times did you drop?”)
(If they do, after laughing forever, trying and failing to compose herself, she eventually tags with.) Obviously one too many!
(If they don’t fill in the punch, she continues) As you can see, (gesturing to SCOTT) I’ve dropped mine one too many times.
(Bit ends with KATRINE balancing the knife on her chin.)
From David Deeble:
One common theme among stand-ups is celebrity centered humor. I’ll try to write a joke like that:
KATRINE: (In a bit where we’re encouraging the audience to clap louder) Oh, you can clap louder that THAT! Just imagine that Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus were up here …getting eaten by a bear.
From Mark Faje
We do a disgusting trick we call “Bacteria Juggling” where Katrine juggles bubblegum chewed by members of the audience. The bit ends with me catching the (now switched) gum in my mouth.
Driving home from a gig, Katrine and I tried to imagine what a performer as wild and fearless as Mark Faje would do with this trick. After several false starts and borderline illegal acts we came up with this:
After catching the gum in my mouth, I would chew it up, blow a bubble (showing the different colored gums from the three different mouths for extra disgust), and then have the bubble pop on my face.
Katrine would then pull the gum off my face, rolling it into a long thin piece of gum spaghetti. She would put one end in her mouth with the other end still in mine.
Our eyes lock. We start chewing forward towards each other from our opposite ends of the spaghetti gum, as if she were Lady, and I was The Tramp.
Then, when we’re centimeters apart, just before our lips touch, we stop, pull out the gum, and say: “Too gross? … Okay.” We then take the gum out of our mouths, wipe off our lips, as if cleaning them for a less disgusting kiss, but instead I gently place the end that was in my mouth into hers and she places hers into mine. Chew and smile.
I don’t know whether that’s what Faje would do, but I like to think it is.
From Rob Torres
I had a long conversation with Rob about the advantages and challenges of doing comedy without speaking. With this in mind, Katrine and performed an experiment. We took all the words out of this eight second gag I first did back when I worked with John Park over 30 years ago:
SCOTT: (While riding on a tall unicycle.) Throw me the knife. (KATRINE throws SCOTT the knife.) Throw me the cleaver. (She throws the cleaver.) Throw me the apple. (She throws the apple. SCOTT purposefully drops the blades and catches the apple in both hands.) And get me the knives.
And instead mimed it out to around 30 seconds. After a few shows playing with this, we managed to add three or four new laughs:
(SCOTT holds out his hand to signal for the cleaver. KATRINE throws him the cleaver. SCOTT catches it with the sharp side towards his face. He slowly rotates the cleaver so the sharp side is facing away from him.)
(SCOTT signals for her to correct the position of the next knife she’s about to throw. KATRINE rotates the knife into the safer position. She then raises her hand to throw the knife overhand, like a spear.)
(SCOTT holds up his hand to stop her, mimes an underhand throw, and puts his hand way out, away from his face. KATRINE throws the knife, underhand, straight at SCOTT’S face. SCOTT catches it with the point an inch away from his throat.)
(SCOTT opens his mouth wide, signaling KATRINE to throw the apple into his mouth. She throws the apple. He purposefully drops the knife and the cleaver and catches the apple with both hands.)
SCOTT: Get those, would you?
From Michael Rosman
Seeing Michael Rosman’s opening jokes improve with each iteration and each collaboration inspired me to put my money where my articles are and hire WhoopLaugh, Thomas John’s new comedy writing business focusing especially on jugglers, magicians and other variety acts, to help Katrine and me write a new routine leveraging our currently untapped talents as drummers.
This won’t be the first time I’ve hired Thomas to write WITH me, but it will be the first time I’ve ever hired anyone to write FOR me.
Reviewing these new jokes at the end of the week, I’m confident that we’re going to keep “Don’t you laugh at me when I’m yelling at you” and probably the silly faces tag.
We tried the modular version of “Marry a troll” several different ways and never really got it to work. The joke does work fine added to one of our existing routines though.
We love the joke about a bear eating Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus. Each time we performed it, several people in the audience would start to boo immediately after: “Just imagine that Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus were up here.” Then the whole crowd would laugh and cheer for the bear. This is definitely staying in the show.
We haven’t tried the Faje-inspired ending for our gum routine. Sadly, we rarely work at venues where we could even try it, but we’re not giving up. Someday I will get that scorpion down her pants.
Performing the new silent section has been both fun and effective. That one simple change, shutting up, has already led to several new laughs and makes that section feel different from the rest of our act. A personal note of thanks to Rob from Katrine: “Rob, you’re my hero. You got Scotty to shut up for almost 30 seconds. Where have you been all my life?”
Katrine and I will start working with Thomas (aka WhoopLaugh) on the drumming routine next month. He will start working on it this month. Hooray for outsourcing!
Just by thinking about what I could learn from all these hilarious jugglers I saw last week in Bowling Green, Katrine and I were able to add at least three new jokes to our show.
That seems marginally better than killing myself.
Watch a really good act. What can you learn from them to make your show better?