As I wrote in my first column, Comedy Darwinism, whenever I’ve asked any group of comedy jugglers or comedy magicians where their jokes come from, most answer: “It was something that happened while I was onstage.”
Almost no one says: “I stole it from someone else’s show.”
And yet, if you watch most shows, and I’m definitely including my own in this, you’ll see gags you’ve also seen in others.
You may not know who stole what from whom. You probably won’t know what was bought or traded for. If you’re new to the biz, you might not know which bits are public domain (which usually means “stolen by a lot of people”). But you will at least know that those jokes are not original to everyone doing them.
There is, however, a moral, ethical, and original way to steal a joke. It’s called “switching.” When you do it the way I recommend, it becomes “switching to the bone.”
That’s what we’re going to learn to do now.
Step 1: Write down a joke you want to steal.
I’m going to steal a joke The Passing Zone does where Jon hits Owen in the face with what appears to be a bowling ball but is actually a large, black, rubber ball.
The Passing Zone pointed out this gag is an updated, and in my opinion much improved, version of the old clacker ball gag which dates back to vaudeville at least. I tried to find out who the first juggler to do that gag was but any Google search that includes the words “ball” and “gag” will quickly fill up an afternoon.
So I called juggling archivist and ball gag expert Andrew Conway and he found an ad for 2 solid and 1 rubber cannonballs for The Great Comedy Cannonball Trick in a 1921 juggling catalog.
But enough about the history of the joke. Let’s steal it.
Step 2: Write down what makes that joke funny.
This could be the underlying structure of the joke, the essence of the joke, the kind of conflict the joke expresses, the type of ambiguity the joke exploits, the type of hypocrisy the joke exposes, the formula the jokes follows, or any other element that you believe makes the joke funny.
This step actually takes some originality, understanding and comic creativity. Different people, looking at the same joke, can come up with very different answers to this step.
For my example I’ll say the essence of this joke is:
An object that appears to be one thing turns out to be something else.
Step 3: Write a bunch of examples that express your answer from Step 2.
You’re going to forget about the original joke itself and now concentrate on what you said makes it funny in Step 2. Write a bunch of possible jokes and ideas for possible jokes that follow the structure, express the essence, or exploit the type of ambiguity you wrote down in Step 2.
You could use the method from my earlier article Comedy Creationism or any other method you know. I’ll write about some more methods in upcoming articles. The specific method you use will often be determined by your answer in Step 2.
For example, my answer was: “An object that appears to be one thing turns out to be something else.” So my method will be: Start by listing all the different things that might be used in an act and then write down other things that each could turn out to be. Each of these could be the germ of a new joke.
Some will be funny. Most won’t be. That’s fine. Comedy writing is a numbers game. The key is to fill the page with possible jokes. Don’t judge any of them while you’re writing them. Just write ‘em down. Later, you choose the few you think are funny and move forward with those.
Here are some examples that express my answer from Step 2:
Juggling club is actually a liquor flask or wine bottle.
Juggling ball is actually a change purse.
Mustache is fake.
Hair is a toupee.
Use chainsaw not to juggle but to carve a juggling club to juggle.
Legs of prop table are actually juggling clubs.
Rabbit pulls a magician out of a hat.
Microphone is a razor.
Microphone is a lighter.
Prop case hides a person.
Performers are actually someone else.
Apple has a worm in it.
Water bottle is gas container.
Arm is fake.
Trick is faked.
Katrine’s ponytail is made of extensions so I can cut it off in every show.
Balloon animal is real.
As you’re doing this exercise you’ll probably think of a bunch of jokes you’ve already seen that fit the mold you’re writing for. That’s to be expected. Many jokes follow the same formula. Don’t spend much time on those. We’re not trying to list jokes we’ve already seen. We’re trying to write new ones.
Step 4: Choose a few you think are funny and turn them into complete, performable jokes.
For the method I’m using for this exercise, this step becomes: How do I put the object onstage, lead the audience to believe it is one thing, and then surprise them that it’s actually something else? How do I expose the surprise? In general I’m going to want to show them the surprise, rather than tell them the surprise.
1) In a standard looking IJA Juniors routine: Jr. does his 3 club routine. Turns to the side. Fourth club is thrown onto stage from the wings. Jr. catches it and does his 4 club routine. Turns to the side. Fifth club is thrown on. Jr. unscrews the knob, takes a big drink of liquid courage from what we now realize is actually a bottle of liquor shaped like a juggling club, screws the knob back on, and juggles all 5.
2) Balance a club on your chin. Prepare to juggle 3 clubs. One slips out of your hand before your first throw. Bend down to pick it up. The balanced club stays in place (hanging from an invisible thread).
3) Juggler with a mustache does the first half of his 3 ball act. Halfway through, he does armpits juggling to show how “How cavemen first juggled.” He pulls off his (fake) mustache and puts it between his eyebrows to create a unibrow and become a Neanderthal who’s armpit juggling the 3 balls.
4) Stage hand rolls on a prop case. MC Intros the act. No one comes on stage. Performer emerges from the prop case. (The smaller the case/table the better.)
5) Gothic theater. Marble statues adorn the proscenium. Music starts. Statues come to life.
6) Juggling while eating an apple. After bite #3 a worm is dangling from juggler’s teeth. (Pre-load a gummy worm into your mouth.)
7) Make a balloon poodle for a kid. “Hold on. Let me draw the eyes. It’ll make it look much more real.” Reach down behind table to get your pen. Switch the balloon poodle for a real poodle. Offer the kid the real dog.
8) At an IJA convention Katrine & I attempt to pass 11 clubs. We fail. (Duh.) A few of our clubs go so far that they end up offstage all the way in the wings. We each step into the wings to retrieve them and quickly come back onstage. You see and hear me say “This time for sure.” We then proceed to nail a qualifying run of 11 clubs. It’s not until we turn forward to acknowledge the applause that you see that we’re now actually Olga and Vova, dressed up to look like us.
9) Showing 3 juggling knives are sharp: Take knife number one. Cut through a piece of newspaper in half. Knife number two. Cut the half into a quarter. Knife number three. Go to cut the quarter into an eighth but it just falls in two before even being touched.
10) To show a knife is sharp. Katrine swishes it over my head. She then pulls my toupee off exposing that I’m bald.
It took Katrine & me about an hour yesterday to write those ten jokes. We think the #1 and #2 are funny enough to try but we’ll never find out because we don’t do an act like that (and even if we did we’d never get around to making the props). If you think either of them are funny, feel free to do them. We’ll try #6 and #10 later this month. And we’ll definitely do #8 if we ever get the chance.
Two new jokes worth trying out of ten from an hour’s work? I’m thrilled with that result.
Step 5: Verify that you’ve switched the joke all the way to the bone.
There is a simple test to see if your new joke is too close to the original joke you wanted to steal: Would the act you stole the joke from recognize it? If the answer is yes, then you didn’t write a switch. You wrote another version of the same joke. If the answer is no, that’s switching to the bone!
Do you think The Passing Zone would object to any of those ten jokes above? Would they say any were too close to their bowling ball gag? Do you think they’d even recognize any of them as coming from that bowling ball gag?
I called John Wee to find out and he said, “You’ve reached Jon Wee with The Passing Zone. I can’t come to the phone right now but throw me a message and I’ll try to catch it.” So I’m going to assume the answer is “no.”
Step 6: Off the page and onto the stage.
It’s time to try your new joke in front of an audience. If it’s good enough and it stays in your show, maybe someday someone will steal it from you. If they’ve read this article, I hope they’ll steal it ethically.
Steal some jokes. But do it in a way that no one will ever know that’s what you did!