Recently at our monthly Comedy Discussion Group, one person was recounting how they had performed a stand-up routine. He said, “Some of it was pretty funny.” Another member of our small group jumped in and said, “You just made an interesting comment – ‘some of it was pretty funny.’ The first person said, “Well, it was.” The other person added, “But in order to be a good, solid comedy routine, all of it (and he emphasized the “all of it”) should be funny.
It was a valid point. Reflecting on it, I had to agree. When I think of all the comics that I’ve enjoyed over the years, it seems they have been absolutely relentless in keeping their audiences laughing. Henny Youngman rarely went more than a sentence or two without a laugh. Bob Hope was nicknamed “Rapid Robert” because he kept the laugh lines coming at a tremendous pace. Phyllis Diller kept the audience laughing throughout her routine . . . and many times she joined them in their laughter with that cackle of hers that often provided even more laughs. Even story tellers like Jack Benny, Buddy Hackett, and Flip Wilson kept the laughs going as they were telling longer, drawn out stories. It seemed fairly obvious that in order to be popular as a comic, you had to keep the listeners in stitches.
Johnny Carson used to kid when a gag in one of his monologues didn’t get a great response. He’s explain that comedy has peaks and valleys. He used this to explain why his last joke was one of “the valleys.” He is correct, though. Comedy does have peaks and valleys. Sometimes the valleys are when we sneak in the setup lines. The peaks are when we hit them with the punch lines.
Yes, comics need high points and low points. The problem which we should avoid though is when the low points overpower the high points – when the quiet time is longer than the laughter.
As the fellow in our Comedy Discussion Group mentioned, “All of your act should be funny.”
There are two ways to accomplish this. There may be more, but I’ll deal with two in this article. If you have other innovative ways, by all means utilize them.
The first way is to work on your act. Polish it, revise it, listen to it, listen to the audience. Build your act with solid pacing in mind. Read it over and predict where the low spots might be. When you uncover a dull segment, spice it up. Add a laugh. If you can’t come up with a good gag to put in that spot, then maybe the spot should be shortened or even dropped entirely.
Not too long ago, I did a column for this website about how television writers would write in the margins. That meant that anytime we spotted a weak section of a script, we would try to liven it up by writing new dialogue in the margin of the script. When we found that gag we were looking for, we’d insert it, retype the script and pick up the pace of the entire program. The idea was to keep ‘the funny’ going . . . keep the laughs alive. In other words, as my colleague said, “Instead of some of it being funny, make all of it funny.”
The second idea is to rehearse your act. You’ve now tightened it so that it’s brilliantly hilarious throughout. Now you must deliver it with that same consistency. I’ve recently gone to many stand-up comedy shows and I’ve noticed a tendency for the performers to “ramble.”
Here’s what I mean by “rambling.” Let’s say that a comic has three clever, witty, solid laugh-producing lines. That’s wonderful. However, if he or she spaces them out over too long a period with meaningless words and ideas, that’s rambling. But if the comic has the routine well-rehearsed and can confidently move from one solid line to another, the act is vastly improved.
This doesn’t mean to rush through the punch lines. It doesn’t necessarily mean to limit your act to punch line after punch line. What it does mean is that you space the laugh lines intelligently and you avoid those segments where you don’t really know what you’re going to say next, so you just say anything.
So the secret is to construct a well-paced routine – one that is funny all along the way. And then to rehearse that act so that you know where you’re going next and how long it’s going to take you to get there. If you can do just those two things, you’ll be in charge of your stage time, and you’ll be in control of your audience. You’ll be able to get them to laugh when you want them to laugh. You should be able to keep them laughing, too.
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, Perret's Humor Files, featuring original lines. Take a look at www.jokecrafters.com. You can email Gene at RTComedy@cwo.com.
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