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."
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".