Don’t you hate when you go to test your eyes for glasses and the technician keeps annoying you with the same questions: “Is it better like this or better like this?” “Is it better with number one or with number two?” Just when you think you’ve answered all their questions correctly and they know what they’re doing, they come back and start over again. “Is it better like this or better like this?” But you know, eventually they get it right. They keep trying different lenses and different whatever it is they’re finagling with. Then they write you a prescription and when your glasses arrive, you can see better than you could before.
You can use that same philosophy in perfecting your comedy routines. Sure you have a joke and it’s a pretty good one. Nevertheless, you can ask yourself, “Is it better like this or better like this?”
I’ve worked with many comedy writers over the years, and they do this almost as a reflex. If a person creates a joke for a show (and it’s a pretty good joke) the other writers will almost always offer a variation of that gag. One will change the wording. Another may change the punch line slightly. A third writer may alter the setup. None of this is saying that they don’t like the gag. What they are saying is “Is it better like this or better like this?”
You may have heard the saying: There’s never been a horse that’s never been rode and there’s never been a rider that’s never been throwed. The same principle can apply in comedy. There’s never been a joke that might not be improved.
Understand now that you might not make the joke funnier. All the improvements that are suggested and tried may not improve the gag. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the time and effort to try.
Once I was rehearsing with Bob Hope for a special that we were doing on location. We taped during the day and rehearsed at night. One evening we were running through a sketch at about midnight. This particular sketch was playing like gangbusters. Everyone in the room was enjoying it and laughing out loud.
Toward the end of the rehearsal, Mr. Hope asked me to have the writers gather in his suite. I asked why. He said, “I want to work on this sketch.” I said, “The sketch played beautifully. Why do you want to play with it?” He said, “If we come up with a few more good jokes, we can make it better. If we don’t, we’ve still got a pretty good sketch.”
That’s the idea behind playing with your routine. There’s always a chance that you can improve it. If you don’t, you’ve still got something that works pretty well. But I will tell you this. If you improve a routine even slightly, and you keep doing that, eventually, it will be spectacular. It’s certainly worth the gamble.
William Goldman, a renowned screen writer once said about the powers that be in Hollywood that no one really knows what’s good and what isn’t. They’re all only guessing. And that’s basically true. When we write a routine, we’re guessing that the jokes will make an audience laugh. No one really can guarantee it.
But then who does know what will make an audience laugh and what won’t. The answer is surprisingly simple. The audience knows. If you tell a gag and the audience laughs, that’s a funny joke. If you tell a joke and the audience doesn’t laugh, it needs work. So then why not let your audience decide for you? Tell a joke one way to several audiences and judge the response. Then try it another way and see which works better. The version that gets the biggest laugh is the one you should use.
If you utilize this process, obviously, you’ll be improving the individual jokes. And that’s wonderful. Take a gag that gest good laughs and change it so that it gets bigger laughs and you’ve done yourself a big favor. However, there is an added benefit to being aware of and using this process – you also improve the quality of your entire presentation.
Change a joke here and a joke there and gradually your act will get better. It will become tighter and more coherent. When the gags are good, the routine improves even more.
I once had a humorous routine that I would deliver at banquets. I had certain gags that I knew were surefire and I kept them in the act. As one speaker said, “It’s easier to get new audiences than it is to get a new act.” Yet I noticed that when I would do repeat performances, I would continue to get good response. Why? Without realizing it, the act was changing constantly. The more I did the routine and changed different parts of it, the more the entire routine would change. To me, it seemed like I was doing the same material, but I was doing it differently.
Make an effort to revitalize your individual gags and your routines. You’ll find that it gives a fresh new feel to your material. Another benefit you’ll discover is that your material may seem like more fun for you to perform. It feels fresher. You give it more enthusiasm.
As good as your routine may be. It’s never quite as good as it can be. Keep playing 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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