Read an Excerpt
From Part One: Warm-up Is There Any Hope for You?
What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?
"When adults ask kids, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' they're just looking for clues themselves."
There are a lot of ways to make a living from comedy. You can perform it, write it, draw it, or manage it. From the list below, check which ones you're interested in or think you know you're good at.
- Stand-up comic
Depending on the quality of your act, you can work at comedy clubs, hotels, concert venues, colleges, or corporate meetings, on cruise ships, at open mikes, or at your aunt Thelma's eightieth birthday party.
Sketch TV shows such as Saturday Night Live and Mad TV scout improvisers from improv troupes such as Second City (in Chicago and Toronto) and the Groundlings (in Los Angeles), as well as improv festivals (Austin, Texas, Montreal, Canada). Improvisers are in demand for acting and TV commercials as well as for voice-over work, feature animation, and game shows.
- Commercial actor
Funny people who can add sizzle to ad copy are cast in high-paying TV commercials.
- Voice-over performer
Comedy timing and technique are required in this field, which needs comics to add funny character voices to cartoons, TV commercials, and feature animation.
- Warm-up for TV shows
Most TV shows hire a comic to warm up the live studio audience before and during the taping of TV shows and infomercials.
- Radio comedy
Funny song parodies turned unknown "Weird Al" Yankovic into a famous and rich man. Radio stations buy prerecorded song parodies, impersonations, and other comedy bits produced by small production houses that specialize in creating this type of material.
- Radio talk show host
As more talk shows fill the AM and FM airwaves, radio producers are turning to comics to keep their listeners laughing and listening.
- Cruise ship entertainer
Imagine doing your act for your grandmother that's the kind of act you need to work cruise ships. If you've got four different twenty-minute clean sets and don't mind living with your audience for a few weeks, then this could be for you.
- Corporate humorist
If you can make people laugh with clean material, then entertaining at corporate events might be just your thing.
- Customized stand-up material
Some stand-up comics who perform supplement their income by writing for other comics. And then there are those funny people who have never done stand-up themselves but who write it for others, such as funnyman Bruce Vilanch, who writes for Bette Midler and the Academy Awards show.
- TV sitcoms
Comics are hired to staff sitcoms or develop sitcoms for stand-up comics who have development deals. Many of the most successful sitcoms are based on stand-up comedy acts. Stand-up comics Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld became billionaires when they turned their stand-up acts into one of the most successful sitcoms ever Seinfeld.
TV and film producers hire comics for the important job of punching up, or adding laughs to, a script.
- Screenwriting and directing
Comedy directors often start their careers with live performances. Betty Thomas started in an improv troupe and went on to direct features such as The Brady Bunch Movie. Tom Shadyac, director of Patch Adams, Liar, Liar, and The Nutty Professor, actually started out in my stand-up workshop. Two years later, he directed his first feature, Ace Ventura.
- Literary writing
"Funny" can also translate into books, magazine articles, and newspaper columns. George Carlin turned his unused stand-up material into the book Brain Droppings. Comedy director/screenwriter Nora Ephron (You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle) wrote short funny magazine pieces that later became a popular book, Mixed Nuts. Dave Barry expresses his "funny" in a nationally syndicated column and in books.
- Development and producing
Funny ideas often translate into projects for commercial TV and film. Paul Reubens's character Pee-wee Herman started out as a character in an improv show at the Groundlings. It turned into an HBO special, two feature films, and an award-winning children's TV series.
- Animation writing
All major studios actively look for funny people to write and punch up their TV and feature animation projects. Irene Mecchi began as a comedy writer, writing comedy material for Lily Tomlin. Now she works for Disney animation and was the screenwriter of The Lion King.
- Internet work
Because a good laugh can stop an Internet surfer at a Web site, companies such as Excite, Yahoo!, and AOL hire comics to write catchy copy.
Many CEOs and politicians turn to comedy writers to provide sound bites so that they get noticed, win over their audiences, and don't get stuck with their foot in their mouth.
"I know what they say about me that I'm so stiff that racks buy their suits off me."
Al Gore, 1998, written by Mark Katz
Funny ideas can turn into funny products, such as Pet Rocks, screen savers, or greeting cards. Skyler Thomas, who started writing jokes in my class, put his jokes on T-shirts. They became major sellers and he now runs a multimillion-dollar T-shirt business called Don't Panic, with stores nationwide.
- Ad copy
Who do you think writes those funny bits in ads that get your attention? Comedy writers.
"Most relationships don't last as long as the L.A. Marathon."
- Managing and booking
- Many agents and managers started by putting shows together for themselves and ended up booking others.
Right now, of course, you don't need to make a commitment to any specific comedy field. Actually, no matter which field of comedy you are interested in at the start of this book, be open to the possibility of shifting winds. You might be totally committed to performing stand-up until someone offers you a $50,000-a-year job writing funny ads for toilet cleaners. It could happen.
You might start off thinking you want to be a stand-up comic and end up discovering that you have a lot of ideas that can work as sitcoms. Billy Riback started out doing stand-up at the Improv at $25 a night, and now he produces comedy TV shows making millions. Conan O'Brien and Garry Shandling were both sitcom writers before they became comedy stars. In 1978 David Letterman was a joke writer for Jimmie "Dy-No-Mite" Walker. The Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams, who created and directed the movies Airplane!, Naked Gun, and Ghost, began their careers in a comedy improv troupe in Madison, Wisconsin, called Kentucky Fried Theater. And then there's Gary Coleman, who started off as a comedy actor starring in his own sitcom and ended up as a security guard. Go figure!
The various fields of comedy can morph into one another. Sometimes a comic's act becomes the basis for a sitcom (Roseanne), or a screenplay becomes a sitcom (M*A*S*H, Suddenly Susan). Even jokes have become merchandise: Rosie O'Donnell's slingshot toy has sold over 2 million units.
I became a stand-up comic thanks to United Airlines. I started off as a funny magician working at the Magic Castle in Hollywood I levitated celery, sawed a man in half, and performed a death-defying escape from my grandmother's girdle. United Airlines changed the course of my career when I arrived in Cincinnati and my act arrived in Newark. That night I walked onstage without my tricks, without an act. I was so scared that I just started babbling about what happened, and to my surprise, I got laughs. I then ranted about all the humiliations of my life and the laughs got bigger, and before I knew it, my twenty-minute set ended. It was then that I learned the biggest lesson about comedy: truth is funny and shows up even when your luggage doesn't. I became a stand-up comic, because why schlepp around a bunch of props when people will pay you just for your ideas? Recently I've added to my work schedule by doing funny motivational speaking at Fortune 500 companies. Who knew?
The bottom line is, funny people are not limited to one field of comedy, and many of them overlap. For right now, you don't need to know what you want to be when you grow up all you need is your sense of humor. But first, let's make sure you have one.
The Right Stuff Do You Have What It Takes?
Some people, no matter how hard they try, just aren't funny. It takes a certain disposition to do comedy. So, how do you know if you have the right stuff?
The Yuk Factor
Circle the answers that describe you best.
yes no Do you think that you're funnier than most of the schmucks you see on TV?
yes no Every time you open your mouth, does an inner voice say, "You should be writing this down" even during sex?
yes no Are you jealous of everyone who makes a living from comedy?
yes no Could you think of funny jokes even at a funeral?
yes no Do you ever think that you are the only sane one in your crazy family?
yes no When you get angry, do you get funny?
yes no Would you tell people your most embarrassing moments and inadequacies if you could get a laugh?
yes no Do you notice the quirks of life that other people miss?
yes no Do you study the minute details of life, such as lint?
yes no Do you sometimes imagine a future full of the improbable? Such as, "What if men got pregnant?" "What if you were born old and grew young?"
yes no Do you think you look funny when you're naked?
yes no Do you talk back to your television?
yes no Did you grow up in a family where few things were really discussed and communication was at a minimum?
yes no Do you imitate your family behind their back?
yes no Do you have opinions about everything?
yes no Do you get accused of exaggerating?
You Are As Funny As You Think
Garry Shandling, famous comic, would answer all twenty questions "Yes." Teri Aranguen, my accountant, answered only four "Yes." If you answered more like Garry and less like Teri, then give up the spreadsheet you have a comic's disposition. You might be working as an accountant but you are thinking like a comic. It's not how you currently make your living that makes you a comic but how you think how you see the world, your attitude about the absurdity surrounding you, and of course, how you can make people laugh. If you imitate your family members behind their backs, you're not being rude; you're doing what we call act-outs. If you are funny when you get angry, you already know how to deliver with attitude. If you have opinions about the service in a restaurant, the new TV season, interest rates, don't think of yourself as a know-it-all; you have a hit on a topic. And if you are insanely jealous of other comics' success, it just might be a healthy expression of your own desires for success. But if you want to watch other comics in clubs, follow them home, and watch them through binoculars, you're not an observational comic you're a stalker. Get help.
We funny people are not normal. In my workshops, the normal ones are not the funny ones. We think differently. For instance, having a hard time at work? Normal people think, "What a bad day." Comics think, "A bad day...and material!"
"I used to work in an office. They're always so mean to the new girl in the office. 'Oh, Caroline, you're new? You have lunch at nine-thirty.' I worked as a receptionist, but I couldn't get the hang of it. I kept answering the phone by saying, 'Hello, can you help me?' It's so humiliating to go on job interviews, especially when they ask, 'What was the reason you left your last job?' 'Well, I found that after I was hired, there was a lot of tension in the office. You know, I found it difficult sitting on the new girl's lap.'"
Normal people express their sense of humor by memorizing jokes; comics transform their life experiences into punch lines and write their own jokes.
We funny people are a strange sort. We like laughs, even at our own expense. We funny people were the cave people who probably slipped on the banana peel just because we were certain that it would get a laugh. We think a lot about little things, such as lint or hotel soap.
"I like tiny hotel soap. I pretend that it's normal soap and my muscles are huge."
We think slanted out of the box.
"A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me I'm afraid of widths."
Most people hide their defects; we comics show them to the world. Matter of fact, the more people who know about how fat we are, how bald, how insecure, the better we feel as long as we get a laugh.
"I have low self-esteem. When we were in bed together, I would fantasize that I was someone else."
We love to expose stupidity.
"Please, if you ever see me getting beaten up by the police, please put your video camera down and help me."
We generally grew up in a family where few things were really discussed and communication was at a minimum, but we remember every humiliating thing that happened.
"I don't feel good about myself. I recently broke up with this woman. Why? I felt she wasn't into me. I said, 'I love you. I adore you. I worship you.' And she said, 'Ain't that a kick in the head.'"
We've kept a mental record of our family's weirdness because we knew even at an early age that they were a source of material.
"Both my parents got high my entire life. We used to go on family trips together without even leaving home. I don't have childhood memories. I have flashbacks.
I think that's why I hate to travel, because we never went anywhere. Oh wait, we did...rehab. That was fun."
We usually think that we are the only sane ones in our families, but usually we are sorely mistaken. We are not normal. We are comics.
Most people have misconceptions about what comics are like. Comics are not necessarily funny, happy, outgoing, laugh-getting clowns. I have a friend who had the misplaced idea that she would have a really fun dinner party by inviting a bunch of comics. She anticipated a laugh-a-minute kind of night. Wrong! It was a Nietzsche sort of night: her cooking was analyzed, two people felt too depressed to talk, and three others felt too fat to eat. At one point, when the conversation turned to creative ways to commit suicide, the hostess decided that this would be a good time to go to a movie and asked that we lock up when we left.
"If I ever commit suicide I'm going to fling myself off the top of a skyscraper, but before I do I'm going to fill my pockets with candy and gum. That way when the onlookers walk up they can go, 'Oh, Snickers, hey!'"
Being a comic or a comedy writer is not for normal people. It's a way of looking not only at your life but at your dreams. If you are a comic, you probably even dream funny. It's a discipline to pay attention to ideas that come at all times, even during sex. "Hold it right there, honey, I've got to write this idea down." It's about living in the funny zone twenty-four hours every day watching life, having opinions, recording them, and fleshing them out to a finished piece. That's the discipline.
Starting with Your Ideas
We all have funny ideas. We wake up with them; we get them in our sleep, or while drinking coffee or driving our car, and even in times of grief.
Ellen DeGeneres is an example of someone who managed to turn tragedy into comedy. A close friend of hers had died, and while alone and grieving in her fleabag apartment, she was inspired to write a routine that would one day make her a star "A Phone Call to God."
"I don't understand why we have fleas here because fleas do nothing at all beneficial. But I thought at times like this when we can't figure it out for ourselves...wouldn't it be great if we could pick up the phone and call up God and ask him these things. Just pick up the phone and call up God 'Yeah, hi God, it's Ellen...Listen, God, there's certain things on this earth. I just don't understand why they're here. No, not Fabio. No. But there are certain things, I mean, Jesus Christ. No, I didn't mean that. That was great. We're still talking about that. No, I was thinking more about insects. No, bees are great. The honey. That was clever. You're welcome. I was thinking more about fleas...they seem to have no beneficial...[waiting] No, I didn't realize how many people were employed by the flea collar industry...not to mention sprays. Well, I guess you're right. Of course you are...'" [edited]
Whenever I tell someone that I'm a comic, they bend my ear about their idea for a sitcom, a screenplay, or a joke. "You know, a lot of people tell me that I'm funny!" the person will say.
"OK, and please install my cable, Mr. Funnyman."
So, what is the difference between someone making a living from their ideas and someone who sees their ideas on TV and says, "Hey, I thought of that?"
It starts with paying attention and writing your ideas down. Many funny people aren't even aware that the ideas flying through their minds have the potential to become successful creative ventures. Some people are so overwhelmed with the day-to-day struggles of life that they don't even pay any attention to that quiet insightful voice, the one that says, "This is really funny, I should write it down," and the voice that says, "This would be a great television episode." You might say to yourself that these ideas are nothing. But look what Jerry Seinfeld did with "nothing." There are a thousand little observations about the details of life that fly past us every day. Don't let them go to waste.
Pro Talk with Carol Leifer, stand-up and writer/producer on Seinfeld
"I get my ideas from life. I was out at dinner and ordered a bottle of wine and the waiter gave me the cork to smell, and I felt stupid sitting there sniffing it. 'Yeah, that's a cork.' And then the waiter laughed, so I wrote it down and put it in my act 'You feel like such an idiot, the guy hands you the cork and it's like, "I don't know what I'm supposed to do..." Like, "uh, yeah, yep, that's cork."'"
Buy Comedy Supplies
- small notebook (one that fits in a pocket)
- large binder
- 100 index cards
- small tape recorder (digital is the best to save your ideas as individual sound bites)
Exercise: Keeping an Idea Book
You've probably been thinking up ideas for many, many years. Well, now it's time to write them down. Get yourself a notebook that you keep by your bed and another, smaller one that can fit in your pocket. Carry this, a working pen, and a small tape recorder with you all day. You don't want to lose the next major sitcom hit that will boost the profits of NBC because that day you didn't have a pen that worked. Write down all ideas within a few minutes of thinking about them.
Divide the big book into sections for example, jokes, sitcom, film, and career ideas. Each morning before you get out of bed, before you pee, spend just ten minutes writing down fresh ideas. If you don't have any, then just keeping writing about anything your dreams, your revenge fantasies, anything. They don't have to be funny. Just the act of writing down these ideas will keep the mental pipeline open.
The morning is the best time to write. Keep the paper and a pen by your bed so that when you wake up, all you need to do is reach over and start writing. If you need coffee badly, then prepare it the night before and put it in a thermos by your bed. Any activity that you put between you and writing will give you an excuse not to do it at all. If you have to go to work early, set your alarm ten minutes earlier. It's a start.
Do not get out of bed before concluding this brief writing period. And do not give in to any self-negotiations, like "I'll skip today because tomorrow I'll have the whole day to write." This line of thinking is a formula for sabotage. Very few writers write the whole day. It's unrealistic. Can you write for ten minutes? It might not seem like much, but if you fill three pages a day, in a week you'll end up with twenty-one pages. At the end of a year, that's a book, a screenplay, an act.
These morning writings are not supposed to be masterpieces. Occasionally you'll produce an incredible idea, wonderful dialogue, hysterical jokes, but for the most part it will be drivel, and that's OK. Get the juices going, the records in place, and the discipline in gear. The more pages you have, the more likely you are to hit on some truly inventive stuff. As anyone in sales knows, it's a numbers game. The more darts you throw, the more likely you are to hit something. The more people you date...You get the idea. It's like Amway.
Pro Talk with comic George Wallace
"I write my joke from seeing stupid things. Stupid signs. 'Quiet Hospital Zone.' And there's nothing making noise but the ambulance a big siren going 'Woooo.'"
If something does strike you as a workable idea, put it on an index card. These index cards will come in handy when outlining a sitcom or putting together your stand-up act.
Pro Talk with comic Richard Lewis
"I carry a pad of paper everywhere and if something strikes me funny I write the premise down. Over the course of a few months I will have thousands of these premises and I circle those that really make me laugh, and think about how I can actually say it onstage. Over the course of a tour, premises develop and grow into routines and oftentimes strong one-liners. I tape every show and if I ad-lib, I add that to the show."
Some suggestions about this free-form writing:
- Do not judge it.
- Be messy.
- Do not try to be funny.
- Don't go back and reread your stuff for at least a month. That way you'll be able to reread it with fresh eyes.
Habits: Honoring Your Ideas
Ideas are starting points and are neither good nor bad. There are half-baked ideas, crazy, wild, tiny, and big ideas, but none of them should be judged before you take each for a run. One of the mistakes neophyte comics make is that they are too quick to label an idea bad, wrong, or stupid before they investigate it.
For instance, which of these ideas is "bad"?
- Idea for a sitcom "How about a sitcom where a nun has a big hat that makes her fly?"
- Idea for a film "It's the middle of the Korean War. Everyone is getting blown to bits. But the doctors are really funny."
- Idea for a joke "I'm so depressed I want to kill myself. I wonder if there is a punch line here?"
All of those ideas led to comedy that made money:
- The Flying Nun was a popular TV series starring a very young Sally Field.
- M*A*S*H was a wildly popular film directed by Robert Altman and served as the basis for a long-running and very successful sitcom.
- One of comic Paula Poundstone's signature pieces was about suicide.
"I tried using carbon monoxide, but my building has a big underground parking garage so it was taking a really long time. I had to bring along a stack of books and some snacks. People would go by and tap at the window and say, 'How's that suicide coming?' and I'd say, 'Pretty good, thank you, I felt drowsy earlier today.'"
Exercise: Writing Your Ideas
What are the ideas that you've been carrying with you?
Remember, ideas are starting points. If you are like most creative people, you probably have been carrying around a lot of ideas. Whether you are interested in stand-up or scripts or something for the printed page, it's good to explore different forums. Write at least one idea in your notebook
- for a joke
- for a sitcom
- for a magazine article
- for a film
Studying what makes you and others laugh is a great starting point for understanding comedy. Sometimes it's someone's attitude, the way they say something, the combination of different points of view, an argument, or simple stupidity. Carry around your idea book with you for the next forty-eight hours and write down exactly what you saw, heard, or said that got a laugh or a smile. Telling a joke does not count, unless it was a joke that you wrote. Rather, your laugh-getting comment could be an off-the-cuff remark you made while at your therapist's office, at a party, at the office, or at the dinner table. Get off the couch, out of the house, and pay attention!
Make a list of what got laughs.
Describe what it felt like to get laughs. Be descriptive rather than just saying, "It felt good."
Look over the lists you just made. You might have noticed that when you are getting laughs, there is something that you are doing differently that is making you funny. It's important to know what that something is. For example, if you got a laugh while telling a friend a painful story about something that happened to you, did you exaggerate the humiliation? Did you make up things that didn't really happen? Did you make yourself more of a victim?
Find five things you or someone else did that heightened the "funny," and write them here.
The Funny Zone
"People ask me, 'Steve, how do you get so funny?' I say to them, 'Before I go onstage I put a fish in each shoe. That way I feel funny.'"
Look over your list about the feelings you get from making other people laugh. Are the following some of these words on your list alive, present, playful, angry, imaginative, energized? If so, then you know what it's like to be in the funny zone.
All of us funny people have been there. You're at a party and the subject of bad dates comes up. You join in with stories about your own dating hell, but you're in the funny zone and you're getting laughs. Matter of fact, the more horrible the story is, the more everyone laughs. You ride it, and you get a feel for controlling the laughs, exaggerating just the right amount, acting out your date, adding the perfect amount of sarcasm you are in the zone. And that is how you create comedy material. It was spontaneous and it worked. The trick is to write it down as soon as you can, before you forget what you said. Keep track because life is full of comedy material.
"I hate singles' bars. Guys come up to me and say, 'Hey, cupcake, can I buy you a drink?' I say, 'No, but I'll take the three bucks.'"
Have you ever had a fight with someone that turned funny? There you are, both yelling at each other when suddenly you take a turn into the funny zone still angry, but funny. You might be still fighting, but you are also creating great comedy dialogue. Write it down. And you'll probably win the fight, too. We are more likely to win fights with a punch line than a punch-out.
"Does it hurt your back to kiss your own ass like that?"
from NBC's Will and Grace, Will's retort to a friend who is bragging about what a ladies' man he is.
Looking in the mirror you notice that you've gained weight, but instead of calling yourself a worthless tub of lard you start playing with your bulging midriff and start seeing some advantages to being fat. You have leaped into the zone. And you write it down.
"I used to think it was weird that dogs had nipples on their stomach...then I looked at myself naked."
Getting into the Zone
My experience as a comedy coach has been that when students bring in material that they carefully plotted out on their computers, it can be clever and smart but sound too literary and contrived to get laughs. The best way to write killer material, the kind that will rock a room and threaten to create hernias from laughing too hard, is to capture and expand upon spontaneous moments. That means that you want to create material when you are in the funny zone.
As children we play and joke and aren't worried about what others think. Put a comic and a kid onstage and the audience invariably will watch the child, because children are always in the zone. You can write comedy while sitting alone at a computer, but it might end up sounding forced and devoid of energy. This doesn't mean you necessarily need to be standing, talking, writing, and improvising all at the same time when you create comedy material. It's different for everyone. You need to find for yourself what it takes to put you in the zone.
For me, it's working in front of another comic someone who doesn't judge me and understands that 80 percent of my attempts at comedy material are going to fail. Someone who keeps the energy going. I almost never create material alone or sitting down. I need to be standing up. I am not funny in a chair. I also never fully write my material down. Instead, I jot notes on the back of unopened junk mail envelopes. That is what works for me. What works for you may be very different.
Exercise: Finding Your F-Zone
Look back at the exercise "Writing Your Ideas" on page 40, where you listed what you were saying when you made others laugh. Describe the circumstances. Were you standing? Was there music on? What else? Recreating these circumstances will help to put you in the f-zone no matter what kind of mood you are in.
But getting into the zone is just a start. Whether it's a joke, a script, or a greeting card, comedy takes work. I've seen a lot of very funny, talented people quit when the going got tough. Comedy can get scary.
Copyright © 2001 by Judy Carter