What is the secret of great comedy…? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not timing.
I don’t know how to sit down and write a funny joke. But I do know how to write two dozen jokes and then find out which ones are funny. And this is how every comedy writer that I’ve ever talked to creates material. VOLUME!
Some keep that process hidden and only pitch the jokes they think will work. Others vomit forth a non-stop stream of bad jokes until they hit the kernel of a germ of a decent idea. But every comic I know comes up with way more losers than winners.
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.
As you get more experienced it’s true that you learn a few tricks and tools to make your gags better. But what you really learn is how to come up with more gags faster.
Write Lots of Bad Jokes
How many clubs did you throw behind your back before you could do back-crosses? How many of those clubs hit the ground?
Each dead-end joke idea, failed gag, and fully polished turd that doesn’t even get a chuckle when you try it onstage is just one drop on your way to creating a 5 club back-cross laugh.
If you have to write a dozen bad jokes to get one decent one, and you put in the time, work, and concentration and write 12 bad jokes every week, after a year you’ll have a killer 8 minutes.
How long did it take you to learn back-crosses? How many hours did you practice each week? For a comedy juggler, 8 minutes of new material is way more valuable than back-crosses.
Write ‘Em Down or You’ll Always Be a Birthday Clown
I say “write jokes” as opposed to “make up jokes” because I actually want you to write them down. I don’t care if you have a pen a paper in your hand when you create them. Many of the best comedy writers don’t. But they all get them on paper (or computer) eventually.
If you don’t, you won’t remember them and the energy required to try to remember them will make it harder to write the next one. Having a joke in the chamber seems to block the next one from being fired.
If you do, it’ll help you separate the joke writing part of your job from the joke choosing, joke polishing, and joke editing parts of your job. That separation makes it easier to write more bad jokes.
Greg Dean calls this: “separating the creator from the critic.” If you think about how bad the joke you’re currently writing is, and trust me, it’s BAD, you’ll lose confidence in it – and in you. But if your only job for that hour or two is to fill a page with bad jokes, possible jokes, and germs that might become jokes, this gives your psyche permission and encouragement to spew out lots and lots of jokes. And this is what we want: VOLUME!
So to help you do this, always have your comedy notebook with you. In the old days mine was a spiral bound notebook I carried everywhere – like the juggler who goes to a Karamotzov show with clubs in his backpack hoping that this will be the day Dimitri finally picks him out of the crowd: “You there, with the 5 radical fish, come up here onstage and show us what you can do!”
My joke notebook is now usually my computer. Yours could be your phone. Siri, voice memos, text messages, typed notes… all great, all with you, all of the time and all emailable instantly so you don’t get a huge backlog that you never look at or listen to ever again. I still recommend and prefer pen and paper but I’m old.
Do more shows and wiggle
When I first started out, I did a lot wrong. Just check out the mullet:
But I did do a few things right.
My old nemesis John Park (Note to self: replace “nemesis” with “original juggling partner” before submitting to eJuggle) and I did LOTS of shows. Mostly street performing and fairs where we could try out tons of bad jokes .
We wiggled. Not enough to fully speciate from our “Fly By Night” ancestors but give us a couple of million more years of geographic separation and we won’t be able to interbreed with them anymore.
And when we had a lucky accident that got a laugh, we kept it in the show.
Basically we did the things I recommended in my first column: Comedy Darwinism.
Off the page and onto the stage
I took my joke notebook with me everywhere. I filled it with lots of bad ideas, along with a few good ones.
We tried as many of these ideas as we could in front of real audiences. Many failed. Most failed.
But a joke does you no good just sitting there in your notebook. You’ve got to try it out.
It’s a bit harder for me now because so much of what my fake wife Katrine and I write is for custom shows and one-offs so we can’t test it in front of an audience at less important shows first. We just have to trust our instincts and our experience. We’re still wrong much of the time.
But nevertheless, off the page and onto the stage. It rhymes so it must be true.
How long does it take to write a joke? Let’s find out. I’m going to try to write a dozen new jokes right now.
Next week Katrine and I are doing a show for AVG, which is a computer company that sells antivirus software. I’ll work on that.
1. AVG Internet Security has been the number one most downloaded software product for the past 3 years. We beat “Angry Birds.” We even beat “Angry Naked Birds.”
2. The average time on the Internet it takes for an unprotected Mac to get probed by a botnet? 45 minutes. The average PC comes with 3 viruses already installed: Adobe Flash, Internet Explorer, (shrug) Windows.
3a. Many experts think that Stuxnet, the virus that attacked Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities, was actually written by the US Government
1. because encrypted in the payload there’s an earmark for a rec center in New Jersey.
2. because it was 2000 pages long and no one actually read it.
3b. Many experts think that Stuxnet, the virus that attacked Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities, was written by the Israeli Government (written by the Mossad?)
1. because it comes with a coupon
2. because it executes from right to left
3. because it runs from right to left
4. because it calls its mother everyday
5. because the header had been snipped off
6. because the header was missing
7. because encrypted in the payload there’s a link to the Entertainment Book.
4. Oh, and by the way. We don’t call them “Trojans” anymore because apparently it offends people from Troy.
5. SCOTT: AVG Internet Security protects you from viruses, Trojans, worms, malware, spyware… Swine flu, bird flu and cooties..
KATRINE: Swine flu, bird flu and cooties?
SCOTT: Yeah, but only in the paid version.
6a. It’s a dangerous Internet out there. When you need protection, who you gonna call? Symantec? Macafee? Kaspersky? Names like that can’t protect you. What you need are letters!
6b. It’s a dangerous Internet out there. When you need protection, who you gonna call? Symantec? Macafee? Ghostbusters? Names like that can’t protect you. What you need are letters!
7. In nature viruses sneak into cells, hijack their existing machinery and fool them into making copies. On your PC? PowerPoint sucks.
8. KATRINE: I protect myself from viruses by juggling like this. (Katrine does chops with knives.) Scott does it by dressing like that .
9. I have a friend who is such a conspiracy theorist, he thinks that most viruses are actually written by the big AV software vendors. (Pause and look out into audience.) Who talked?
10a. AVG, which of course stands for: Anti Vampire Group. It was our first product. It never got passed beta. Sorry about “Twilight.” Our bad.
10b. AVG, which of course stand for: Anti Virus Geniuses… (Wait for groan) Okay, Anti Virus Groaning.
10c. AGV which stands for ALL Get Vaccinated. (Katrine confers with Scott.) It’s AVG? Wow. That’s a stupid name.
11. (While passing clubs around “Tom,” an audience volunteer.) Tom, imagine each of these clubs is a virus. With AVG they never touch you. But without AVG… (Long pause while passing, then just hit him with all the clubs.)
12. KATRINE: You know, back in the 50s. When Scott was first working with Alan Turing on the Tiger Stripe Theory… Whenever they would get bored. They would pick up three balls and juggle.
Okay. Those first 9 took me about 2 hours to write, working off and on while I was packing to go to the Damento Festival. My real wife Kat Meltzer who’s a very funny writer came up with the punches for #7 & #8. Katrine & I wrote the last 3 in the van on the way up to Damento. 4,000 year old jugglers Andrew Conway, Jade Ford, and Martin Frost helped us come up with the list of software for #2 that night at the festival. And then Greg Dean suggested 10b and something I turned into 10c while I was complaining that I couldn’t come up with a good acronym gag for the letters AV&G .
You’ll notice I’ve got multiple possible punches and versions for some of them. I always do that. I never try to figure out the best way to do a joke while I’m writing it. I just try to jam out as many as I can and then later, I work on choosing, editing, rewriting, testing, and refining.
Looking back at them with Katrine the next morning we rate most of them somewhere between feh and oy, but she thinks that #1, #2, and maybe #3a1 are worth trying. I prefer #3b4 but Katrine points out that if it doesn’t kill it could come off as anti-Semitic even though there’s nothing anti about it. I disagree but in all arguments regarding judgment Katrine automatically wins because I have none.
We both think #6 would work if the audience were all AVG employees and #11 if they all knew the volunteer, if he was a VP or something, but for this event the audience will be their potential resellers, not their employees, so both of those are out.
So three out of twelve worth trying? That’s better than I expected. Our next steps will be: Tell the three we picked to some friends. Gauge their reactions. Rewrite and refine as needed. Find a place for them in the script. Try to tag them. And then next week we try ‘em in the show. I’ll let you know what happens.
Write a new joke. Or 5. Or 10. And post some of them in the comments section for this article. If you’re at all embarrassed that maybe your joke isn’t good enough, post it under someone else’s name. I suggest: Neil Stammer. He’s not using it anymore.