Archive for the ‘Comedy Writing’ Category

Hiring a comedy writer

August 13, 2018

Hello Dave – Here’s a question: You advise us to get writing or keep writing. How do you feel about hiring a pro writer? And how would I go about it? Your pal – CA

There’s gotta be an easier way.

Hey CA – Hiring someone to write for you depends on your (comic or speaker or performer) career level. If you’re just starting out it doesn’t make any sense – to me anyway – to hire someone else to write your material. What’s the point? If you want to memorize another writer’s script and repeat it – become an actor. If you want to be a comedian or a speaker – then there has to be something YOU want to say.

It’s all about sharing YOUR humor, YOUR thoughts, YOUR ideas, YOUR observations, or anything else YOU want to tell an audience.

To me (again) it’s a creative art AND a talent. That should be the stimulus to get into this crazy biz. Otherwise get a head shot, memorize someone else’s lines and start auditioning for acting gigs.

Here’s a story…

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Years ago I had a guy take my comedy workshop. The first day everyone takes a turn on stage to talk about ideas for writing a comedy set. When it was his turn, he did an “act.” Five minutes of prepared stand-up comedy. But it didn’t seem realto me. It was just telling jokes that really didn’t pertain to who he was or what could possibly be going on in his life that would even interest him.

Let me explain what I mean…

I love funny jokes and great joke tellers. I’ve also been fortunate to work with a few of the best. For instance, Rodney Dangerfieldmade regular guest appearances when I was at both the NYC and LA Improv comedy clubs. He would tell jokes (of course) but the jokes fit who he was:

  • No respect
  • Nervous
  • Underdog
  • … well, Rodney!

My wife said she wanted to make love in the backseat of our car. She wanted me to drive. I get no respect.” – Rodney Dangerfield

Get it? I can think of dozens of great joke tellers I used to watch on TV when I was a kid. What made them great was that their jokes fit their personalities. Think Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Redd Foxx, Phyllis Dillerand Jackie Masonif you need a history lesson.

Their jokes worked because the jokes fit the comedian’s on stage personality.

Okay – back to the guy in my workshop. He did his comedy act, but nothing fit who he was. It was just some guy telling jokes anyone else could tell. Plus I’d heard a few of them before, which is never good when you’re striving to stand out in a creative business.

When he finished I asked who had written his material. He swore he did. When I said some of it sounded familiar and quizzed him more about his writing techniques, he finally admitted he got the jokes from a writer he found online – and had paid $50 for them. I told him there were undoubtedly a number of other aspiring comics who had also paid for the same jokes.

He really wanted to be a comedian. The problem was that he really only wanted to be a famouscomedian and was willing to pay for a shortcut.

That’s not how it works.

Since he had never actually done stand-up anywhere, he had no stage experience. He hadn’t even given himself the opportunity to find out who he was on stage.

Comics call that your comedy voice.

To find your voice it takes on stage experience – and lots of it. Since he hadn’t discovered his yet, how could he expect to find anyone who could write material specifically for him? That writer would have no idea except to peddle him jokes almost anyone else could do.

I told the guy in my workshop he had to start writing. That’s the first step and the key to becoming a comedian or speaker – or even a writer for someone else. There are plenty of styles such as joke telling or story telling, along with techniques, structures and different creative ways creativepeople write. He needed to find out what ways worked best for him and what subjects interested him enough to write about.

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The next week he came in with the basis of an original comedy bit. I remember it was about playing in a pick-up baseball game when he was a little too old and a little too out of shape compared to guys on the other team. It was based on something that really happened to him and filled with his personal experiences, thoughts, opinions and descriptions of events.

Oh yeah – and it was funny. AND it was a story only HE could have written.

He realized he had wasted fifty bucks on words that didn’t mean anything to him. And he had replaced it with something he couldn’t wait to share with an audience.

So the point is – why would anyone want to get into a creative business without being creative?

** Important announcement:I’m not knocking actors (remember what I said above about memorizing someone else’s script). No way. That is also a very creative and demanding craft. I know because I’ve done it. I respect creativity in all forms and efforts. I’m just focusing today on the comedy and speaking biz.

What’s the set up?

That wasn’t as eloquently put as a Shakespearean monologue, but I hope you catch my drift.

And to complete this drift, it’s not a smart idea to hire someone to write for you until you both know who you areon stage. The creative artist doing the writing must knowthe person he/she is writing for.

What is your comedy voice?

When you get to be Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel– or anyone else that burns up material at a breakneck speed – then you can hire writers. Good writers already know whothese personalities are and their style of humor. Good writers can write a Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel joke. But writing for someone just starting out… Well, they’re just writing words.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up ComedyComedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about upcoming comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2018 – North Shore Publishing.

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Comedy Stylings by The Rolling Stones

July 1, 2018

Dave – I am still trying to find my “style” or whatever it’s called. I have a lot of single thoughts, but I just never used them because I’ve always felt compelled to do longer bits on a specific topic instead of one thing after another on unrelated topics. I don’t have the transitional material thing down. I listen to some comics and they can go from short topic to topic without it. I just don’t feel comfortable in that manner yet. When I leave one topic for another, I want to be sure the audience is along for the ride with me. Any help is greatly appreciated. – S.E.

Takes stage time and experience!

Hey S.E. – I’m coming at this with some insider knowledge because I’ve seen you perform in my workshop. It’s obvious you already have a lot of comedy material and it’s a good mix between long and short bits. And you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, mixing things up might really be your “style.”

I’ve been fortunate to watch a lot of live comedy and many times I’ve compared a great comedy set to a rock concert. Like with any creative art, there are many styles. Some comics can blast an audience in the face for an hour or change tempos and take the audience on a bit of a roller coaster ride with some ups, downs, and unpredictable U-turns.

The example I use often relates to a Rolling Stones concert (cuz I’m a Classic Rocker at heart). They’ve been “The greatest rock’n roll band in the world” since Mick Jagger himself announced it at the beginning of their classic live album, Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out back in 1969. Their concerts have been selling out for over five decades because they are excellent performers AND because their song choices and playing order take audiences on a ride.

Getting their ya ya’s out!

For instance, they may open with Start Me Up and Jumpin’ Jack Flash – then slow it down with Angie or Wild Horses. The songs are all still classic rock, but the slower ones give the audience a moment to catch their collective breath.

Then they’ll kick it back up into high gear with Brown Sugar and Satisfaction.

The Rolling Stones take you on a musical ride with different tempos, rhythms and lyrics.

Does each song flow into the next one?

Sometimes and sometimes not. Songs can be short and sweet like the original recordings, while others stretch out so Keith Richards can have a drink and a smoke. I’ve also noticed they’ve been playing a few more slower songs lately since Mick ain’t twenty-five years old anymore.

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2018 Summer Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv

Saturdays – August 11, 18 and 25 (noon to 4 pm)

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Performance at The Improv Comedy Club – Wednesday, Sept 5th

(We skip Labor Day Weekend – September 1st)

For information, reviews, photos and to register visit…

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Okay, let’s take this back into the comedy world.

A good comedy show can do the same with long bits, short bits or variety (think props, music – whatever!). Just substitute the word “material” for “songs.”

Some comics are great storytellers. Others rely on the basic format of set-up, middle and punch line for jokes. Working comics have developed their styles through many years of experience and learning what works best for them. Does one or the other style ONLY work best for you? Since you have both long and short bits, I highly doubt it.

So there’s no reason why you can’t mix it up.

As a comedian, you’re the writer and performer. Like at a Stones concert, give your audience a Jumpin’ Jack Flash (short hard-hitting bit), and then throw in an Angie (longer storytelling) if you want to. No one says you can’t – and in the effort you’ll wind up finding your style.

Who are you?

As far as transitions – segues – some comedians need them and others don’t. It’s a personal choice and whatever makes you feel comfortable is what works for you. But either way, it’s how you deliver it (some prefer sell it) it to an audience. If they’re relating to you and laughing, then there’s a good chance they’ll go with you if you want to take them in a totally different direction.

In other words, short bits and long bits can co-exist together.

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It all depends on your comedy voice – which is another term for style or who you are on stage. It may also include a transition or segue between every bit, some bits, or not at all. You’ll figure it out – your comedy voice – as you get more experience on stage.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up ComedyComedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about upcoming comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2018 – North Shore Publishing.

Musical misadventures in comedy

May 21, 2018

Hey Dave – You had a question a few weeks ago about adding music. I’m thinking about ending my comedy set by doing a rap song. Just the background music like karaoke would be on a CD and I’d do a funny rap over it. I’ve seen other comedians and even speakers do this and think it’s a great way to close with a big ending. Any thoughts? – MW

Hey MW – Yeah, I always have a few thoughts. The first leans toward the music side. I’m not a rapper; I’m a rocker. So if the rap wasn’t rocked out with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry (think Run-D.M.C. and Walk This Way WAY back in 1986) I probably haven’t voluntarily listened to it.

It’s all about the rap

Involuntarily… well, that’s another comedy bit. I’ve had two teenage sons living in my house and know what it’s like to have rap songs blasting louder than my Aerosmith rock anthems. So in other words, I know it’s popular enough to make me a dinosaur when it comes to musical tastes. But…

My second thought relies on the above descriptive term – popular. In showbiz terms that means it sells. It also means – and I’m working off a personal opinion here – that most anyone cool (dinosaur term) enough to go to a comedy club will be familiar with rap. This is opposed to say, a Gregorian Chant which is a musical term that makes even someone like me sound new school.

Okay, enough musical nonsense. My creative recess is over. Let’s get to the point.

Music can add energy and raise the showbiz factor in a performance. It’s like bringing the glitz of Las Vegas to your gig. And it also keeps to my theory (and I explain this to public speakers in my college course) that live shows today are competing against what has become common on television and in movies:

Keeping audiences with short attention spans interested in the program.

Short attention spans

There’s a reason why TV commercials have shrunk from one minute to about 15-20 seconds over the decades. Short attention spans. And to keep viewers from changing the channel, these commercials have to be entertaining or informative all the way through.

With that being said, it’s the same with live performances. You must entertain your audiences and hold their interest. And with modern audiences used to 20 second entertainment bursts on television, it’s like competing against a 20 second commercial.

The problem with a live performance is that the viewers can’t change the channel. That’s why comedians and speakers need to up their entertainment factor. In other words, a mediocre set isn’t going to result in too many return engagements.

Using today’s topic, music can be a great attention grabber.

In fact, it’s become the standard way in most comedy clubs to rev up audience excitement for the comedians. When I managed the NYC Improv back in the late 80′s and early 90′s, the MC would be introduced and the show would start. The MC would then introduce each comedian. There was no musical fanfare – just words.

Now that’s all different. Now its SHOWBIZ!!!

Comics request certain songs to be played after they are introduced and are walking onto the stage. It raises the excitement and audience attention factor. Music will do that.

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Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv

Starting Saturday June 2, 2018 is SOLD OUT!

Includes evening performance on Wednesday, June 20th

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Space limited to no more than 11 people

For information, reviews, photos and upcoming workshops visit…

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Now to your question about adding a rap song to your set…

Yeah – try it. Why not? It’s all about entertaining and if it’s funny and energetic, chances are it will be entertaining. BUT here are a few things to keep in mind.

Sometimes techno things (my term that includes playing background music while you sing or rap) don’t go as planned. Here are a few warnings…

  • Make sure you really practice the words you are rapping or singing over the music.

If you screw-up the lines, the background keeps going. You still have to make it work for the audience. Ad-lib or admit you messed up, but make it part of the performance. You don’t want to just die on stage or let the bit fizzle out. You’ll look like an amateur.

  • Make it easy on the tech / sound person at the venue.

Don’t hand him a CD with 20 tracks and ask him to play a particular one when you give the signal. Sure, most can do it – but remember they have other sound, lights or audience distractions going on in the club and they might cue up the wrong track. What are you going to do? Will it ruin the bit?

Here’s an example…

Rap Album of the Year?

A comic in one of my workshops decided to open with a rap song. Not to rap over it – but to do a funny dance as he walked on stage. Now, this is not an exaggeration. This really happened. The sound guy got the CD’s mixed up and played Over The Rainbow instead of the requested gangsta’ rap. He didn’t know it was a mistake, so it continued to play.

The comic was shocked but went with it and danced to Judy Garland instead of… well, probably Lil Wayne. It turned out to be funnier than the original concept. But the reason it worked – and he just didn’t stand there looking duh – was because he had been warned this could happen. I gave him the warning, which leads me to another story…

Sometimes at the NYC Improv (not always and especially not during weekend shows) we used to screw-up audio cues on purpose. It could be very funny (at least for us – the staff and other comedians) and would throw the unexpected at the comic on stage. It was always fun to see how they would react.

So keep that one in mind. It could happen – even sometimes on purpose!

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The lesson is to just have the ONE song you want to use be the ONLY song on the ONE CD you give to the sound person. That lessens the odds for a screw-up (or great joke at your expense) on their part.

  • And finally – sometimes the tech thing just doesn’t work.

The CD player might be broken or already set up for the headliner (if you’re not closing the show). If it’s still your big closer, be prepared to do it a cappella (just your soulful voice and no backing music). It doesn’t matter if the equipment is working or not – the show must go on.

So the bottom line is to give it a shot. It’s showbiz, so go for it. But be prepared for the best and the worst. When you start adding effects to your stage performance, you’re no longer the only one in control of your act.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up ComedyComedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about upcoming comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2018 – North Shore Publishing.

How long do you go until you hit with a bit?

February 25, 2018

Hi Dave – At what point do you drop a bit? Is there a magic number or amount of time that you spend refining before you shelf a joke or bit? Thanks! W.K.

How many times for a joke to work?

Hey W.K. – I enjoy this type of question because it will always start a debate. In fact, it’s already started one – with myself. In other words, I have two answers…

The first falls back on my dedicated opinion that comedians and humorous speakers are creative artists. Writing and performing original material is an ongoing process. You create something and continue to develop it and make improvements.

Will it ever be perfect? Not really… at least for a creative artist.

Here’s what I mean. A lot of comics I’ve worked with have had killer sets. They come off stage knowing they’ve nailed it – the crowd laughed all the way through and both the performer and audience feel pretty good. But then the performer (artist) can usually find some fault. It could be delivering one line a different way or even using another facial expression that could’ve taken everything over the top.

Could it be called a perfect set? Maybe for the audience, but a creative artist will probably always feel there’s some room for improvement. It’s the curse of being creative.

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Workshop also meets Sundays – April 22 & 29 from noon to 4 pm

Includes an evening performance at The Funny Bone on Monday, April 30

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Here’s another example…

I’ve heard too many interviews with recording artists who’ve had No. 1 songs, but can pick out moments (that listeners wouldn’t notice) where – if they could record the song again – they would do something different (in their mind, something better). The song may have hit No. 1, but they can see room for improvement.

Name that tune!

The artist doesn’t stop selling the music – because it’s still good. It’s just not perfect. They might continue to change and develop the songs in live performances, which is something that has driven fans of Bob Dylan crazy for decades. He never seems to play his songs the same as the recordings.

Okay – now back to your question about comedy bits.

Just because a bit doesn’t work, that’s no reason to think it will never work. If you think it has promise and you’re dedicated to working on it… well, there’s always the chance.

In that case you would keep working on a bit for as long as you believe it can be made funnier. It will never be perfect, because in the back of your creative mind you always think it can be better.

Okay – that was answer No. 1. Now I’ll share with you a different opinion that I’ve also heard from so many comedians that I can’t ignore it.

I also share this in my workshops as a method for putting together a comedy set that might someday get you hired. It doesn’t take away from your creativity, but it saves the audience – and also importantly the club booker – the agony of paying for performances where the comedian is continually working on improving the same not-yet-working bit.

By the way, that’s great for open-mics and what open-mics are for. But when customers are paying upwards of $20 for a ticket, a two-drink minimum and parking it makes good business sense to give them a show with proven material.

This different opinion also shares the name of another comedy writing theory:

The Rule of Three

The best known example of this in writing comedy concerns the actual structure of a joke or bit. For an explanation I saved you time and looked it up in Wikipedia. Here’s the scoop:

One of the best examples of the power of rule of three is in comedy, where it is also called a comic triple. Two is the smallest number of points needed to establish a pattern, and comedians exploit the way people’s minds perceive expected patterns to throw the audience off track (and make them laugh) with the third element. Example: “How do you get to my place? Go down to the corner, turn left, and get lost.”

Okay, okay… That sounds too much like textbook theory, which is something creative artists don’t worry about (at least too much). It also doesn’t pertain to your question, but it leads me to a different Rule of Three…

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Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv

Starts Saturday – March 24, 2018

Workshop Marquee 150

Also meets Saturdays – April 7 & 14 (skips Easter Weekend)

Includes a performance at The Improv on Wednesday – April 18

For information, reviews, photos and to register visit…

TheComedyBook.com

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I remember conversations about this at the NYC Improv. As I like to say, I don’t make this stuff up and this idea seemed to be a general opinion with a lot of the comics hanging around the bar waiting to go on stage.

The idea is to try a bit or a joke three times in front of three different audiences.

Three things can happen:

  1. The audience will laugh
  2. Some of the audience will laugh, but not all
  3. The audience won’t laugh

After doing this three times, you add up the score:

  1. If they laugh all three times, you keep the bit or joke in the act
  2. If you get some laughs, but not a lot – rework it and repeat the process
  3. If they don’t laugh, cut the bit from you act

Of course the first result is the goal, while the last one is pretty much a death sentence for the material.

The second should spark the creative mind to continue improving the bit or joke. But eventually you’ll need to make a decision. If it’s only going to be a mediocre piece of material no matter how many changes you make, file it for later or dump it for something new and funnier.

Who’s out?

If you want to work in this business, you need material that works in front of an audience.

The creative artist will always continue to develop new material. The working comic or humorous speaker will have material that has already been proven to work in front of an audience – and that’s what they will be paid to deliver. So if the bit or the joke is not working, then follow a similar Rule of Three from the game of baseball theory:

Three strikes and you’re out.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up ComedyComedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about upcoming comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs, The Omaha Funny Bone; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2018 – North Shore Publishing.