Posts Tagged ‘comedy writing’

Memorizing material – is it comedy or acting?

May 5, 2019

Hey Dave – Do comedians write down their monologues and memorize it thoroughly? The more I learn about being a comic, the more it sounds like acting. Is there much of a difference? – D.J.

Comedy or acting?

Hey D.J. – Okay, before we continue with this, let me say that I respect the creative art and craft of acting. Make that good acting. It’s not easy being an actor because you have to learn how to express emotions on cue and make it all believable. When you’re in a long running play it involves a lot of repetition; every show, every night (including matinees). When you’re interacting with other actors you must be on the right spot at the right time and say the correct words to cue the correct response.

The words are in the script and need to be memorized to continue the scene as it was written – and how the writer intended it (and how the director interprets it).

Acting also involves the use of lighting, props, entrances, exits and even bows at the end. Plays, TV shows and movies are directed. A good actor’s work is not easy. Actors  use their talent, creativity and training to bring characters to life, while still relying on what directors tell them to do and say what writers tell them to say.

And one last thing – the audience is not usually involved.

People in the seats are there to watch. There is a fourth wall on the stage, which is an acting term for an invisible wall separating the audience from the actors. The audience does not exist in the play or scene. Interaction is between the actors. If it’s a solo monologue, it’s a “private moment.”

The Great Divide

As with just about everything else, there are exceptions. Improvisational acting often involves suggestions from the audience. And Marx Brothers movies (I like the classics) wouldn’t be as funny if Groucho didn’t break out of scenes and deliver a few lines directly to the camera/audience.

And now we’ve set the stage for what follows…

I’ve known some very good actors that were very bad comedians. They’ve written material, practiced (like for a play), but couldn’t buy a laugh once they were on stage. They were acting the role of a comedian but didn’t have the needed “on the job” training.

Working comics know exactly what I’m referring to – stage time.

A comedian (and yes, speakers too) need performing experience, rather than directed rehearsal time. This is because comedians (and yes – speakers) have to deliver funny and practiced material AND deal with an audience at the same time.

There is no fourth wall.

A comedian who only memorizes a monologue and recites it with no regard to audience response is acting. They are basically doing a one-person (acting) show. It may be written as a stand-up comedy routine, but it’s not really stand-up comedy.

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Summer 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv

Saturdays – June 8, 15 and 22 noon to 4 pm

Performance at The Improv – Wednesday, June 26 at 7:30 pm

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Workshops are limited to 11 people age 18+

For more details and to register visit…

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When I worked in New York, I heard the comics call it “sleep walking through your set.” In a great comedy show, the audience is part of the ensemble.

Again, there are exceptions. I’ve seen standup comedians who write and memorize a monologue and perform it in a comedy club. Lots of comics do it. But unlike acting, a great comedian deals with audience response.

An audience is unpredictable.

They may not laugh when expected and laugh hysterically when it’s not. An actor will continue playing a part while a good comedian will react to the audience. If the material is not going over as expected, a comedian can switch gears. This means they can pull out different material, work-off (talk with) the audience, or change their delivery style, (example; from high energy to low energy).

It involves having a lot of material, an ability to improvise, and lots of on-stage experience. Actors have to stick with a written script and hope the same material works better on a different audience.

If you memorize your comedy routine word for word, it should be conversational. The good ones make it seem as if they’re making it up on the spot and saying it for the first time.

Not everyone will laugh!

Imagine you’re at a family party. The old folks (think older than you) are sitting in the living room. They’re a conservative bunch, but you have a very funny story you share with them. They laugh and you didn’t insult or embarrass anyone who could potentially write you out of an inheritance.

Then you move into the kitchen where the crazy relatives (think of your peers) are hanging out. You want to tell them the same story, and there’s no worry about insulting or embarrassing anyone in the process. How would you deliver it in a way that makes them laugh?

That’s the difference between being an actor and a comedian. It’s the same story, but an actor is trained to rely on a script and direction. A comedian has material (could be scripted) but can base his delivery on audience response.

I’ve seen comics night after night deliver the same set word for word.

Does it work? Yes, because the good ones have valuable on stage experience performing in front of audiences and can change their delivery by reacting off their response. At every show it will look like they’re saying the words for the first time.

For example, there is a VERY famous comedian I’ve booked dozens of times. I won’t give his name – but if you’ve ever taken one of my workshops you’ll know the comic I’m talking about because I tell this story and mention his name.

Get everyone laughing!

At every show he delivered the exact same 20-minute set. We’re talking “word for word.” It took him years to write and develop his act on stage. It was funny and audiences loved it. We would stand in the back of the showroom and recite the act along with him (and we could do that with a lot of the best comics – we knew their acts by heart).

In fact, one night during a very late show with a very light audience, another famous comedian stood on stage behind him and mimicked his act exactly. It was like having a shadow. We were all in the back of the club laughing – and so was the headlining “star” comedian (he has a great sense of humor). But it didn’t matter because his material – his act– was practiced, audience-tested, and each time he did it he made it seem as if it was all brand new.

Each audience thought he was making it up on the spot – and that’s what counts.

Hang around comedy clubs and you’ll see what I mean.

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Watch some of the comedians more than a few times and you’ll see quite a few do the same routine in different shows. It’s memorized, but to make it work they don’t deliver it that way. It’s based on audience response – with no fourth wall.

Other comedians will follow a mental outline for their material. They deliver the same jokes / stories with the same punch lines but allow themselves to improvise and react off the audience. It also keeps the performance entertaining for the comedian and he / she won’t get bored doing the same show over and over.

There’s nothing wrong with memorizing your act if it helps you feel more comfortable. In fact, I just re-read an interview in my book How To Be A Working Comic from one of my favorite stand-ups with a reputation for being a great improviser. He said memorizing his act was the only way he could convince himself to go on stage in the beginning. The key is to make it look conversational and as if you’re saying these words for the very first time.

It’s like going to a different party and telling the same story to a different group of friends. If you did it successfully the first time and want the same reaction at this party, chances are you’ll deliver it in a very similar way. In other words – it’s 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 How To Be A Working Corporate Comedian: A Step-By-Step Guide Into Launching & Building Your Career.

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 2019 – North Shore Publishing.

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Creating a one-person show

February 12, 2019

Hey Dave – I’ve had some crazy experiences in my life that resonate in my memory and in my opinion are very comical. But also these were very serious moments. It’s hard to bring these stories out on the stand-up stage because they take a lot to build to a punchline. I am still very new to the stand-up world, let alone theater acting. I’ve taken a few classes, but don’t have a solid background yet. I’ve written about these crazy moments in a journal form, but am unsure of how I build a show off them because I am no play write. I guess my overall question is if you have a little experience, how can you start to build up to putting together a great One Man Show? Thanks! J.W.

Theatre stage vs comedy stage

Hey J.W. – The best advice I’ve ever heard from any working comic or writer is to just keep writing. You’re already doing that by keeping a journal and creating stand-up sets. The idea is not to get too far ahead of yourself. A one-person show is a big project – so you’ll want to create a few shorter ones (like laugh out loud five minute comedy sets) first.

You say you’re not a playwright (correct spelling, by the way), but that doesn’t always mean having to sit down at a computer keyboard and “write” a show. As I say in my workshops, some people can do that – most can’t.

Most stand-ups and speakers have to talk it out.

And by this I mean in front of an audience. It makes the material and delivery real. I think this way of working will suit you best. You don’t need to be a playwright to talk and convey your message in front of an audience.

Talk your stories into an audio recorder. Then transcribe – write them out. Edit, make changes, add your humor and tweak the material. Then do it again and write some more. Take it on stage and try it out in front of an audience. Are they interested? Are they laughing? If yes, then it’s working. If not, then you go back to work. Write some more and continue to repeat the process until you get the audience reaction you want.

Keep in mind this is not easy.

Writer’s room

Working writers, speakers and comedians dedicate themselves to these careers. Emotions range from failure to success and every hard knock in between. But if you’re serious, have a thick skin and really want it – then you’ll continue.

Okay, so let’s say you have very funny stand-up sets and get great audience reaction (laughs!). Now you also want to add “serious stuff” so the result is more of a one-person show (theatrical) rather than a Comedy Central stand-up special.

Create an outline for a planned show.

What is it you want to say? Who is your audience? But don’t knock yourself out trying to make it perfect – like a finished and polished script for a successful Broadway show. Everything always changes when you start to do it live in front of an audience. That’s why Broadway shows go on the road for previews in various cities around the country (like stand-up comics) followed by multiple re-writes, re-casting and more previews.

These changes are based on audience response. If audiences don’t like the second act or a certain character, the playwrights and producers fix it before bringing it to Broadway for the definitive make-it or break-it reviews.

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March 2019 Comedy Workshop at The Cleveland Improv

Saturdays – March 16, 23 and 30 from noon to 4 pm

Performance at The Improv – Wednesday, April 3 at 7:30 pm

Workshop Marquee 150

For information and to register visit…

TheComedyBook.com

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Shows, comedy sets, motivational speeches, books, plays, movies – whatever – go through many drafts before they are considered finished.

That’s important to remember so you’re not discouraged after each preview. My first book was re-written a number of times before I had a literary agent accept it. Then she made me rewrite it a few times before she would shop it around to publishers. Then after a publisher bought it, I had to rewrite a few more times before they printed and got it into stores. It was at least a dozen re-writes total.

You will experience the same thing.

But as I said earlier, don’t get too far ahead of yourself. You’re still in the first draft stage of creating your show.

Concentrate on what you’re doing now, which is getting stage experience in stand-up, improvisation and acting. Keep creating short (3 to 5 minute) comedy sets and trying them out in front of audiences at open-mics and in clubs. The comedians I’ve worked with find their comedy voice first. After that they “write for” that comedy voice.

Okay – got that? Now, if you want to continue into one man (or one woman) show-land, let’s visit television sitcom-land for a quick example…

One of my favorite sitcoms in the 1990’s was The Drew Carey Show. The pilot for that show was written around Drew’s stand-up act. In fact, when you watch the first episode you can actually see him doing bits that he did countless times in comedy clubs. The storyline for the episode was written around his comedy voice and what he was already doing on stage.

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It was the same with Everybody Loves Raymond, Home Improvement and many others that starred stand-up comedians.

Take one of your stories and see if you can make into a five minute stand-up comedy bit – as a storyteller. But keep your personality (comedy voice) and don’t try to be an actor. Right now it’s you talking about you. Later as it develops, you might want to try acting out some of the other characters involved.

A night at the theater

The best advice I can give is to realize a one-person show is also a theatrical production.

Creating and starring in a one-person show was a very popular career goal in the comedy biz during the 1990′s and many comedians failed because they didn’t realize that. It’s more than just doing your stand-up act on a stage with a couch and a table. It needs to be more of a night at the theater, rather than a set at a comedy club.

My favorite example of a comedian-writer-actor developing his own successful one-person show is Inside The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron by Robert Dubac. I’ve seen it many times – from it’s earliest first draft performed at The Santa Monica Improv to a sold-out Palace Theater in Cleveland – and highly recommend it whenever I can. If you’re not familiar with it, you can purchase the DVD for under $5 on Amazon.com.

It takes work to write and create anything. But hopefully it’s work you enjoy. Just keep writing and trying out your material out on stage. With talent, creativity, experience and luck you might wind up with something great. You never know unless you try.

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 2019 – North Shore Publishing.