I once had the pleasure of working with the late Sammy Davis Jr. when he appeared for two weeks at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City. Sammy had a dynamic act of singing, dancing, and comedy that wowed each audience. I would listen to people as the exited the club and would hear statements like, “Boy, that Sammy Davis can adlib, can’t he?” “It’s amazing how he thinks those things up right on the spot.”
Comments like that were a great tribute to Sammy Davis’s talent. However, he adlibbed the same jokes at the same spot each and every night. Sammy Davis’s night club act was well-prepared and well-rehearsed. That’s why it appeared so spontaneous.
Comedy is usually most effective when it appears to be unrehearsed, off the top of the head. Good planning is what makes good comedy appear unplanned. The more thought that goes into the preparation of an act, the less it should appear rehearsed.
Focus is an important part of writing and preparing a comedy act. Focus means concentrating on one part of your act, or even one joke, until you are satisfied that it is the best possible line you can come up with. Charles Schultz, the brilliant creator of the comic strip Peanuts said this about cartoonists: Why do they put down the first idea they come to? Why don’t they think a little deeper and come up with something really creative and original?
As comedy writers, we should heed Schultz’s advice. Yes, we should jot down any comedy ideas that occur to us. Yes, get them on paper. But at the same time, realize that there may be a better setup, a better punch line – in short, a funnier joke if we think about it a little more.
Focus means to concentrate on one gag – and only that gag – until you have explored many variations. Would it be better if you tried this? Would it be better if you said this? Would it be improved if you tried an entirely new approach? Some of these may improve the gag slightly. Some will improve it not at all. But if you persevere and continue to think of improvements, your chances of getting the best possible line are greatly enhanced.
As Charles Schultz advised; think a little deeper and come up with something creative and original.
Be a tenacious bulldog when you’re writing bits for your act. Stay with one concept until you’re satisfied with the results. When I was a beginning comedy writer, our staff was trying to come up with a solid punch line for the script. I wanted to go with the line that was already on the pages. One of the veteran writers said to me, “When it comes to comedy, you’re a pioneer.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah. You’re an early settler.”
Don’t be a pioneer in your writing. Don’t settle for any joke. Keep pursuing the best possible gag until you find it.
This can help in improving a bit that you’re already performing. Often, we have a gag in our routine that is simply not working as well as it should be. It’s a part of our dialogue that should be getting stronger laughs than it’s getting.
Focus on that line. Attack it. Try new setups. Try new punch lines. Try a completely different approach to the punch line. Reword it. Rearrange the wording. Try anything, but concentrate on it until you get a more effective line – one that gets a better audience response.
You may be wondering what happens if nothing you try makes it better. So what? You always have the original line to fall back on. Nothing you’re trying can make it any worse because if it does, you revert to the original.
I will warn you, there are times when you look at that gag and convince yourself that there is no way it can be improved, no way it can be made funnier. Focus on improving it anyway. Something you try may be the catalyst that turns a mediocre gag into a block buster. When you get that, it’s worth it.
If you keep doing this with parts of your act, you’ll improve bit by bit over time. Each time you improve a part of your act, you improve the entire routine.
Try to make it part of your writing routine to focus on a specific gag until you’re satisfied that it’s the best you can make it. You’ll begin to see your writing and your act improve tremendously.
Have fun with it.
Learn more from Gene Perret with his books, classes, and newsletter. Information available at www.comedywritersroom.com/store. Gene also has a free joke service,Perrets’ Humor Files, featuring original lines. Take a look at www.jokecrafters.com. You can email Gene at RTComedy@cwo.com.
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