Posts Tagged ‘comedy writing’

Experienced advice on getting hired as a comedy writer

August 14, 2017

Some time ago I ran an article about getting hired as a comedy writer. I asked if anyone had experienced advice to share with us and my not so subtle request reached one of my favorite writers in the comedy biz.

I’m happy to pass along his words of experienced wisdom.

Marc Jaffe is a stand-up comedian with numerous TV appearances, author (Sleeping With Your Gynecologist), playwright (Side Effects May Include…) and with his wife Karen founded Shaking With Laughter, an organization that helps support the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research. In Fall 2017 Marc and Karen’s efforts will surpass the $1 million mark for funds raised.

Marc is also known to many of us as a writer for the legendary television sitcom Seinfeld.

So for some very worthwhile – and again, experienced – advice on writing for other comedians, here’s Marc…

Re: How to write for others.

Good advice given. For what it’s worth here are a few things I would add.

Tremendously important to have the voice of the person you are writing for as you said, but I would point out that often you’ll have a better chance of getting the comedian’s voice if you like their act, so go after people who make you laugh, not just any hot comedian.

The best time to get an opening if you haven’t been a hangout pal is when the comedian you want to write for is busy or in transition and are taking the next step. I approached Paul Reiser just as he was getting hot and was doing Tonight Shows and Letterman regularly. He wasn’t doing sets on those shows, he was already a name movie star, but he was a regular guest and didn’t have enough material to “waste” on panel on those shows. So he was happy to have someone work on new things for TV that wouldn’t eat up his club act.

Seinfeld needed someone because he got a TV show and I think he felt this was something new for him and he needed to find someone other than a friend to help him.

So, much like comedy, timing is everything. Timing and being funny and prolific. If you do stand-up, you know the percentage of stuff you write that actually works and stays in your act is minor – 10% would be great. You have to churn out a lot of stuff because that percentage will probably hold when you write for others.

Be honest with yourself as a comedian too. I always knew I was a much better writer than performer. If your act is working because you are a great performer who can get away with mediocre writing, don’t try to write for others. When I got the opportunity to write for top name guys, it was phenomenal because suddenly 20% of the stuff I was writing worked. That was because the people I was writing for could always make what I wrote better. They also had a higher standard than I had so that even though 20% worked, it was back down to 10% that made it, because it had to be killer.

Be ready before you seek out an opportunity. If you are good for that first guy, they will recommend you. Reiser recommended me to Seinfeld and then I got other jobs because Jerry’s management was happy with my work for Jerry and they had a roster of other great comedians that needed help at various times.

Also, one of the great things about being a writer is that you can just call yourself a writer. Go to the clubs and give comics a line or two after their show. If they like them, tell them you are a writer, and you’d be happy to submit some stuff to them if they need material.

You never know who has something going on and is in need of some quality help. Reiser did a guest set at a club I was at in Pittsburgh and I asked him afterwards if he needed any help on anything and he had a Letterman coming up that he was too busy to work on. I got the Seinfeld gig because I went up to Jerry after a show and asked if I could submit some stuff right at the time he was looking for someone on staff for his just picked up sitcom.

I gave him some great pages and he loved them. And got a good word from Reiser, but if I hadn’t approached Jerry, I would have never gotten the job.

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Thanks Marc. This is not only great advice, but also experienced advice. I’m sure everyone appreciates you sharing this. Now go get a real job… HA!! Okay, okay… I know… that just proves I won’t be writing comedy material for anyone in the near future.

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Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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 Clubsprivate coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2017 – North Shore Publishing.

Only clean material? Know your audience

June 5, 2017

Hi Dave – I have one question. As a new comedian does my material have to be clean? – J.N.

Did you hear that?!

Hey J.N. – Your question will sound familiar to more than a few readers because it comes up quite often. But you know what? New comedians ask because it’s important. And there is no right or wrong answer.

Comedy is both a creative art and a business, but to be successful in this business as a creative artist there is one first goal:

Be funny.

How you get there is totally up to you. As one very famous comedian told me (and it’s in my book How To Be A Working Comic), “If you swear in real life, you’re going to swear on stage.” On the other hand, if these words aren’t already in your vocabulary, don’t add them simply because you think it’ll make you funny. That’s not who you really are and an audience will pick up on that.

There seems to be a market for everything, so whether to work clean or dirty is a personal decision. But since you brought up the question and I’ve never been known to give short answers, let’s look at your potential choice from another point of view. We’ll call it…

Your audience.

The deal is that everyone has to start at the beginning. Since you specifically said “new comedian,” that’s what we’ll focus on. Speakers already know they have to work clean. If they don’t, then they’re not speaking much – if at all.

Along with learning how to write and perform, you’ll also experience different audiences, different venues and different types of shows. For instance, many comedians love late night, beer-soaked crowds in loud comedy clubs. Others would rather perform for more sophisticated (and I’m using that term loosely) audiences at corporate events.

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Have you thought about that? I’m guessing it’s still too early in your career to even consider since your first step should be just getting experience on stage. But eventually it will become both a creative and business decision because different markets have different audiences and hire different types of entertainment.

What markets do you want to play?

Confusing?

These are questions every entertainer (not just comedians and humorous speakers) have to consider. As a creative artist with a unique way of expressing yourself, who is your audience? And as a business person (successful creative artist), how can you build an audience to support your creative endeavors?

When you’re just starting out it could be any demographic you can think of, from late night open-mics to charity fundraisers. And if you’re serious about this biz you need to understand the value of stage experience. You won’t become a working comic just sitting in your living room doing bits in front of your mirror or for the family dog. You must get in front of an audience and shape your material and delivery based on their response.

If they laugh it works. If they don’t, then you need to make some changes. An audience will tell you, which is why you want to get on stage as often as possible.

So… who is your audience?

Would they want clean or “adult” material? That will help determine what’s best for you.

I’ve worked with comedians who are Born Again Christians and I’ve worked with the most X-rated acts you’ve ever heard. It doesn’t bother me either way. I’m a coach and I’ll coach performers in whatever direction they want to go. And if you already know what direction that is, then find places to perform with audiences that will enjoy your material.

But regardless of what anyone else will tell you, there are also rules in the comedy biz. The rules are made by the people that hire comedians for specific audiences.

Should we allow that?!

For instance, you can’t perform X-rated material on network television shows such as The Tonight Show or Jimmy Kimmel Live. You can get away with a lot more than thirty years ago when Johnny Carson ruled late night, but these shows still have to deal with FCC (Federal Communications Commission) enforced  standards and censors.

On cable television and satellite radio, pretty much anything can be said. But it also depends on the show. I doubt The Howard Stern Show and The Disney Channel fight over guests from the same talent pool. But here are a few more questions to think about…

Would you rather appear on either The Howard Stern Show or The Disney Channel or someplace in-between? Who will appreciate (laugh at) your type of humor and material? What venues and markets do you eventually want to play?

It all comes down to knowing your audience.

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You can work X-rated if you want, but just be smart enough not to go on stage with your X-rated material if the audience is filled with grandparents taking their grand-kids out for a fun(ny) night of live entertainment. On the flip side, don’t expect to do your best Disney material in a late night dive bar in front of a beer fueled crowd upset that the bartender turned off the televised cage match wrestling extravaganza for your comedy show.

Get the picture?

A lot of experienced comedians can play to both audiences. Why? Because they have the experience AND material that can be customized (cleaned up or dirtied down) depending on the audience. In other words, their punch lines don’t get laughs simply because they contain the F-Bomb or other words that will get them banned by the FCC from network television. They can go either way because the material is just as funny with or without them.

A great example of this are comics that work on cruise ships.

These comics need two different sets; family and adult. The family sets are performed during the before and after dinner shows. These are two separate shows since passengers are assigned one of two dinner times. One group is entertained earlier in a large theater while the other group eats – and then they change places. As it says, these shows are for families. Later that night the same comics will do adult shows for (as it says) the adults in one of the lounges or bars.

Did you hear that?!

These comics go from G-rated to X-rated within a couple hours.

Keep in mind I’m not asking anyone to change who they are on stage if it goes against who they want to be on stage. Yes, this is a business, but it’s also a creative business and a way to express your creativity.

If your niche is X-rated, go for it. It’s the same with clean comedians. Just don’t go for it in front of the wrong audience. It’s really common sense when you think about it.

So to finally answer your question as a “new comedian,” I would suggest you work on writing funny material. And I’ll repeat: funny material. I’m talking about material that will stand up on it’s own and will be just as funny to an audience with or without a few gratuitous F-bombs and other choice words or expressions.

Practice and develop your talent as a writer. How would you deliver your set during an afternoon Rotary Club luncheon as opposed to at a late night dive bar? Better still – ask yourself which venue you prefer.

Wait a minute! I almost forgot to mention something…

Just to make your decision interesting, keep in mind the people that hire comics for corporate events, holiday parties, retirements, banquets, etc… are the ones who attend business or social organization meetings. They ALWAYS pay comics, humorous speakers and entertainers waaaaay more than any beer soaked guy in a dive bar. That’s why corporate events are much more desirable for many working comics than a weekend gig at Billy Joe’s Yucks at the corner of Dive and Bar.

Then again, an uncensored Comedy Central Special or a becoming a favorite guest on The Howard Stern Show can take almost any comic’s career to a new level. But to get there, the comics had to be funny. Working clean wasn’t a rule they needed to follow.

So…? Is it better to work clean or dirty as a new comedian? You need to make that decision – and one of the best ways to find an answer is to know your audience.

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 Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubsprivate coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2017 – North Shore Publishing.

Being influenced vs. copying

May 22, 2017

Hey Dave – I’ve been working on material and continue to search for my comedy voice. Although I want to do some improvising, I want a good amount of material to work off of. Someone said I have a somewhat eccentric and iconoclastic persona and should take advantage of that. Therefore, I’ve thought about using Prof. Irwin Corey and Steven Wright as influences and been writing material similar to theirs, especially since I like it. However, I’m afraid I’m not using them as an influence but just copying them. Is there a thin line between the 2 or just between fishing and standing there doing nothing? – JK

Hey JK – I was lucky to have worked with the late great Prof. Irwin Corey at the NYC Improv and interviewed Steven Wright for a magazine article. I consider both extremely smart and extremely funny. I also know that if I even tried to write like either one, I would be lost and confused. In fact, my brain hurts just thinking about it. But as usual I have a few thoughts about the topic, so instead of standing here doing nothing let’s go fishing for an answer…

“How did you say that?”

Yes – there is a line between being influenced and copying. Ideally it should be a wide one.

As Prof. Corey would have said, “Let me explain…

I often compare comedy to music. I’ve done this frequently in my workshops, books, and in more than a few previous FAQ articles. Basically, you can’t reinvent the wheel. And when it comes to music, someone somewhere had to hum the first tune. In comedy, someone somewhere made someone laugh for the first time. Musicians and comedians have been building on those firsts ever since.

One of my favorite all-time bands is The Rolling Stones. They’ve influenced countless bands for over fifty years and are considered by many to be the greatest rock’n roll band in the world. There are many bands that have copied their formula for success, but there is still only one Rolling Stones and their place in music history is written in… well, stone.

But who influenced them? Rock historians can trace the roots of their sound back to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and many others.

Did they copy? Yeah!

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They tried their best by performing a lot of cover songs when they first started out. But it’s not what made them superstars. Mick Jagger found his own voice as a singer and Keith Richards found his voice on the guitar. The duo ended up writing their own material and classic hits based on the type of music they liked and giving it their own spin based on their individual talent and personalities.

Like the Stones, comedians start by emulating what they like.

“How did you play that?”

Keith Richards is not going to play Bach or Beethoven because he likes Chuck Berry. Based on the way you described your humor in today’s email, I doubt you would consider bringing props on stage like Carrot Top or going redneck like Larry The Cable Guy. You like Prof. Irwin Corey and Steven Wright so yes, they are both are going to influence you as a comedian just like Chuck Berry influenced the Stones as musicians.

But the big difference between being a comedian and being a musician, The Rolling Stones can (and often do) play Chuck Berry songs during their concerts. But comedians can’t go on stage and say, “Here’s one from Steven Wright” and do a few of his best jokes.

That’s copying and comedians can’t do that – period. Its called stealing material. There are some that do – and most of us know who the big-name guilty parties are. There’s a total lack of respect for these thieves from other comics and industry people, and a lot of us wonder how they can sleep at night. Must be the drugs, but that’s another article…

Being influenced is not the same as stealing.

Creative artists, (comedians and musicians to only mention two) don’t reinvent the wheel. They can build on what’s already there. Just like in many original Rolling Stones songs you can hear a Chuck Berry riff or Bo Diddley beat in the background, comedians can’t help but be influenced by the type of humor they like.

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For example, Carrot Top didn’t invent prop comedy. As little kids many of us can remember holding up two paper plates on the sides of our heads and pretending to be Mickey Mouse. Carrot Top probably did that too, thought it was extremely funny – and built on it.

You as a writer and performer need to do the same, but with your own influences.

I think you understand your style of comedy. It’s similar to Prof. Irwin and Steven Wright, but when it comes to writing and performing it’s important for you to realize you are also very different. There’s no way you would have the exact same experiences or live in the exact same environment (city, neighborhood, families, education, jobs, etc.). You have a different life, different personality, different relationships and different conversations.

You also have your own personal thoughts about all of these experiences.

That’s what you need to put into your writing and performances – your spin. Don’t think about what Prof. Irwin Corey or Steven Wright would say. But respect that you admire what they do, are influenced to perform comedy in the same style, and then say it in your own words. Basically, they are intelligent writers and your writing should also have some intelligence to it.

I remember two comedians I worked with in LA. Sorry, I won’t name-drop this time, but one is now an international movie star and the other is an all-time favorite television character. They both admitted to being HUGE fans of Jerry Lewis. They loved every movie and consider him to be the HUGE influence that got them both into the comedy biz.

No caption needed

But never in a million years would you see either of them on stage yelling out Lewis’ famous line, “HEY LAAYYYDEEE!” That would be stealing. But I’ve seen both make wild faces and pretend to slip and fall during their stand-up comedy sets similar to what Lewis did in his classic films while talking about their own personal experiences and thoughts.

That’s being influenced. And to take it a step further, Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx were doing pratfalls long before Lewis.

The idea is to use your own mannerisms and personality to deliver your material to an audience. You are not going to hold two paper plates to your head and hope people laugh. You’ll want to dig deeper and put some thought into why something is funny from your personal point of view and then convey that to an audience.

Everyone is influenced by someone or something. It’s human nature. Again, none of us can invent the wheel because it’s been done – and car companies are still building on it. The same can be said about comedians when it comes to writing and performing comedy material.

But understand what makes you unique from everyone else (we all are) and explore topics that interest you based on your style of humor. Keep writing and performing. Eventually you’ll find your own comedy voice. Then in interviews you’ll be asked who influenced you – and you can tell them. I’ve interviewed comedians for my books, magazine articles and newspaper columns and believe me; every comedian has someone who inspired them. What made them successful was when they realized they couldn’t copy, but could use that influence to build on.

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 Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubsprivate coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2017 – North Shore Publishing.

Singin’ the (comedy) blues

April 24, 2017

Hey Dave – I have a confession to make and was wondering if this is normal or not and if so, how to deal with it? Is there such a thing as having the blues in comedy? I guess you could call it the Comedy Blues. I mean, I’ve been told “no” before and had terrible sets in the past. But I strongly feel it has made me the keen comedian I am today. But still, if I may… help! – A.

Taking your emotions for a ride!

Hey A. – Congratulations. You’re a creative artist. And I think you’re riding what comes with the territory – an emotional roller coaster. It can be a series of BIG ups and downs. That’s why a lot of people can’t deal with a career in the arts – whether it’s comedy, speaking, acting, music, writing or too many others to list.

It’s not easy.

If it was don’t you think more people would go for it? You have to admit that standing on stage getting laughs, greeting your fans after a show AND getting paid for it is a pretty cool gig. People in the audience see that and quite a few wish they could do it, but are afraid of rejection or looking foolish. But those who actually take a chance and really go for it don’t seem to have much of a choice. It’s what they have to do.

Okay, this might be more motivational today than instructional, but what the heck. I’m a creative guy so follow me on this one…

You got the blues?

Let’s relate this to music. A lot of great songs are about HIGHS while a lot of great songs are about LOWS. Let’s call this latter group blues songs since… well, that’s how you referred to your comedy state of mind AND that’s what they’re called anyway. Basically singin’ the blues is telling listeners nothing worth having or doing seems to come easy. Blues songs are usually about losing love, money or both.

But in our case, let’s relate it to being creative.

To be more specific – going for a career as a comedian (which from this point on will also include humorous speaker). You want soooo bad to have something good happen, but there are often road blocks. Things never seem to move as fast as you want them to. Yeah, there are big HIGHS to be had – like passing an important audition, getting your first paid gig or winning a contest.

There are also big LOWS when those things don’t happen.

But you know what? Every working comic will tell you from experience that you’ll hear the word “No” a lot more often than you’ll hear “Yes.” Especially in the beginning.

It comes with the creative territory.

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Comedy Workshop at The Chicago Improv

Starts Saturday – June 3, 2017

Workshop Marquee 150

Includes an evening performance at The Chicago Improv

Thursday – June 29th at 8 pm

For details, reviews, photos and to register visit…

TheComedyBook.com

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Do you want to stick around in this crazy biz long enough to (hopefully) have a career? Then you’ll need to develop a thick skin along the way.

Let’s move from music and relate this to sports. The best relief pitchers in baseball are going to lose a few games in the last inning during a long season. What makes them the best and others basket cases or unemployed is the ability to shake off the loss, forget about it and try to win the next game.

It’s a mindset they need to be born with or develop if they want to be successful in a competitive business (sports).

Being a comedian means you’re a creative artist in a competitive business. You put your creative work and talent on display to be judged by others, such as talent bookers and audiences. Some will like it and others won’t. It’s the nature of the biz. Hopefully your talent and perseverance will eventually lead to more likes than dislikes.

Likes are the highs and dislikes are the lows. The goal is to not get TOO high or TOO low. But it’s not easy when the results are based on your personal creative talent.

I remember working in NYC and hearing aspiring comics just breaking into the open-mic scene or at their first audition at The Improv saying they plan to have a sitcom within a year. I’m not lying about that. I’m serious and heard it said more than a few times. And I could look at the comedians hanging around The NY Improv at that time like Ray Romano, Dave Attell, Brett Butler and Larry David, and knew how hard they had been working at it for years. They didn’t get everything they auditioned for, but they had experienced the highs and the lows. There were no guarantees they would make it when they started, but someone saying “No” wasn’t going to stop them from continuing.

They were talented (duh!) but hadn’t scored television sitcoms or specials within their first year of doing comedy. The new comics at their first open-mics with unrealistic goals were setting themselves up for disappointment – big lows. They needed to be realistic and understand what to expect:

Will sing for laughs.

Comedy HIGHS and Comedy BLUES. It comes with the territory.

And to finish this thought, I don’t remember anyone getting a sitcom within a year of their first open-mic or Improv audition. But I remember the above mentioned comics coming to The NY Improv every night and paying their dues on stage.

Which leads me to another thought about riding these highs and lows. It’s called paying your dues. Some people drop out of the business because they can’t take the lows. Others have no choice (creative artists) and continue – with thicker skin.

But it’s important to realize that just continuing is no guarantee of success. Talent, business, connections and sometimes just plain luck are also involved.

Basically, there’s no straight answer to your question. It is what it is. Sometimes it’s good to take a break and regroup. Other times you put your head down and continue if that’s what you must do. For many creative artists there’s no choice in the matter.

Finally, here’s another creative thought…

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Consider bringing these feelings (blues) into your writing. You don’t have to talk about having “comedy blues” (blues singers go for the sad while comics go for the laughs). This may add more real emotion and real life into your material and delivery. Audiences can always tell when someone is faking it. They can also tell when creative artists are really going for it and sharing something real about themselves.

Most good comics and speakers have that ability. They talk from experience because they’ve paid their dues by riding the creative roller coaster.

Remember – it’s a creative art. And being a creative artist is not always easy.

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 Chicago, Cleveland and Tampa Improv Comedy Clubsprivate coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2017 – North Shore Publishing.