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Are Comedy Formulas Hack?

I'm going to teach comedy in Russia - a place not known for being hilarious. To make matters even tougher, I'm teaching the entire workshop through a translator. "Take my wife... please," might translate to "Be with my wife ... if it pleases you."
Judy in Red Square
Judy in Red Square

Trying to figure out what's funny in another culture is a huge challenge. I know thatwriter/producer Phil Rosenthal was hired to bring "Everybody Loves Raymond" to Russia, and apparently the documentary on all the difficulties he faced is hilarious.  You can rent it from Netflix here.

So, to avoid disaster, I decided to keep things simple, and I dusted off some of the comedy formulas from the early drafts of "The Comedy Bible." To test one out, I put this formula on my Facebook page:

"I'm half ____ and half ____ -- and that means _________."

To my surprise, many of the comments I got back were hilarious!

"I'm half Russian and half Checknyan and that means, I'm at war with myself."
"I'm half French and half Irish, so i'm fully alcoholic."  
 "You might know this, but I'm half French and half German, and that means either way, I apologize."
Are these jokes hack? (And does that really matter if it gets a laugh?)

All successful comics do use formulas, whether they do it consciously or unconsciously. I blogged before about Chris Rock studying the structure of the old-timers to improve his material.

The same principles apply for writing. Screenwriters who want to be "creative," and so reject any formula to writing screenplays are often called "waiters"- because formulas exist for a reason.

Charlie Kaufman [Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind] is considered by many to be the most innovative screenwriter in the business, but he still follows a traditional three-act structure that has been in place ever since humans started telling stories.

Certainly, in this inexact art of standup, we can all use some exercises to help us get started in writing our material -- since that blank page can be pretty scary. When you're trying to come up with six minutes of new material, standup exercises are no more hack than sit-ups are when building your six-pack.

Being successful in creating material is a combination of knowing the formulas, and having truly authentic premises with a unique point of view.

The formulas in my books on comedy ("The Comedy Bible" and "Standup Comedy: The Book") might lead you to authentic premises and (I hope) funny material. But the real art is to make the process invisible, like a magician who amazes you because what comes next isn't obvious. The formulas are like stitches that need to be removed as a final step. Use them to get past the blank page, but before you perform, take out the clichés like, "I'm half this and half that" or, "I know what you're thinking..." followed by the obvious something that's exactly opposite of what we would think from looking at you.

Replace those clichés with your own words, but keep the underlying idea intact. In other words, know the rules, practice the rules, and when you've mastered them, break them.

Let's face it... any formula that exercises your talent is worth using. It's better to spend some time building your comedy muscles -- than four hours playing "Angry Birds".



eljaye said...

I needed to read this today. Thanks for writing this one. Also, thanks for continuing to be an integral part of my stand up career!

Mr. Ed said...

To open up the safe you have to use the combination.When you bake something you have to follow the tecipy. When you get good at it then you can change things a bit. Do I agree with you Judy? I think I do.

Mr.Ed said...

I ment Recipy!!!

Carl M. said...

Thanks, Judy. Incidentally, I'm half Chinese and half German. An hour after I eat, I want to invade Poland.

Kare said...

You saved my life. My pastor just asked me to do 5 min. for a annual church celebration on Sunday and I didn't want to do my usual act. You've already got me thinking I can put something together by using some formulas . . . and who knows . . . maybe it will be better than my old stuff.

funnyguy said...

"I'm half Welsh and half Hungarian...
which makes me well-hung."
Billy Riback

submitted by Alan Rudolph

Ron Rigby said...

I have a hard enough time getting English speaking people to laugh...

Ron Rigby said...

and I'm half Irish and half Macedonian which I guess would make me an iMac!

Justin Kuvich said...

Helpful blog entry, Judy. Thanks for sharin.

ComedianBobFarrell. said...

I went to a comedy seminar and I was the only one that was told had "potential". I use the formula found in your book "The Comedy Bible" to write my jokes.There's nothing wrong with using a formula. Btw I'm so white that even Clorox Bleach is more ethnic then me.

jhubbel said...

I did a program in Dallas for ADT. Started with six PPT slides of here's all the shit that's wrong. They were shell shocked. The next slide said: THE REAL ISSUES. Which said: People steal your yogurt out of the fridge, send you illegible texts and they wear white after Labor Day!!! They nearly hurled. They so needed that comic break and they loved me for it. This stuff works.

Jim G said...

Love your I keep working on being funny.
Anton Chekhov is a good source for Russian humor, albeit rather dated...and depending on the translation you read.