Youngsters learn to play baseball, football, and basketball, by watching their heroes play those sports. All of us kids played sports when I was young and we never went to baseball school or took football lessons or had a private basketball instructor. We enjoyed and watched those sports and as a result we learned how to play them.
If we liked the way a certain player took his stance at the plate and swung at the pitch, we tried to duplicate that. If we enjoyed the way a football player ran, we tried to run just as he did. If a basketball player impressed us with his athletic moves, we tried to make those same moves. We watched what our idols did, and we attempted to do the same. Consequently, we learned the sport.
Of course, as some of us progressed we did refine those skills. Maybe our Dad taught us a trick or two to make us better. A few of us had high school coaches who guided our talents. College and maybe even professional coaches built on our natural abilities. But basically, we learned the game by watching and replicating.
We learn simply by absorbing. This technique works in writing and performing, too.
I worked for years with Bob Hope. He admitted that a vaudevillian he admired was Frank Fay. Since Frank Fay was popular around the 1920’s I never saw him perform and couldn’t appreciate the comparison. Then when we did a Bob Hope 90th Birthday special, I had the chance to see some film clips of Frank Fay. I was amazed at how much Bob Hope’s comedy rhythm and style matched Frank Fay’s. It was obvious that Bob Hope built his career on what he had learned from observing this comedian.
Anyone who wants to learn to create or perform comedy should spend a great deal of time just watching accomplished comedy practitioners. As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” Many study techniques are difficult. You may have to memorize, research, cram for tests, and so on. With observation, you simply follow Yogi Berra’s advice – you watch.
But observing provides many benefits:
- You become familiar with various techniques. You get the opportunity to select your favorites. And you gain an appreciation for the good, techniques as opposed to bad techniques. You gain an appreciation for solid comedy. That should serve you well as you begin applying some of these styles.
- You observe and study methods that have proven results. The youngsters I mentioned earlier study ball players who were professionals. These mentors had made the big leagues. They could not have played in the top ranks if they used ineffective systems. What these professionals did, worked. It worked for them. By observing and replicating them, those styles can work for you also.
- You get practice applying the methods that you observe. Bob Hope developed a style similar to Frank Fay’s. I watched Bob Hope and began writing in his style. The more I purposely duplicated Bob Hope’s techniques, the better results I got. Eventually, this system worked so well for me that Bob Hope asked me to write material for him. I did for twenty-eight years. You can often see performers reflecting the idols that they have had. Robin Williams was similar to Jonathan Winters. Johnny Carson admits that he idolized and tried to replicate Jack Benny. This doesn’t imply that they copied their heroes. It simply means that they patterned their delivery or writing on those people they admired. As they did, they added more and more of their own style and eventually created a new style which molded in the style of their favorites.
- Observing builds enthusiasm. I remember as a youngster I would go to watch my brother’s high school football team play on Sunday afternoon. When I got home from the game, I couldn’t wait to change into play clothes and get out on the street and play a game of tag football with my friends. Just watching made me that eager to participate. I know that my colleagues on Bob Hope’s writing staff would generate enthusiasm to help their writing. Many would play a tape of previous Hope monologues to build up zeal for their current writing assignment. To this day if I see a concert featuring a legendary star, I get renewed enthusiasm for show business and performing. Enthusiasm will help in any endeavor. Norman Vincent Peale expressed it very well when he said, “Enthusiasm spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment.
Whatever avenue you explore — whether it be writing or performing or whatever – watch, listen, and read the work of those who are expert at that craft. Admire them and observe them as often as you can. Without even realizing it, you’ll absorb much of their expertise. Learn from them. Add as added benefit, you’ll have lots of fun doing it.