“Honey…Is This Funny?”

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

    One of my current students reminded me today of an age old problem that needs to be brought up and discussed. It’s gone on for ages, and I’m sure it will never fully stop – even though it sure needs to immediately. The lesson to learn is that you don’t have to fall prey to this giant mistake.

   What I am referring to is the natural but highly mistaken desire to consult someone in your life you are close to for comedy advice. This could include anyone from spouse, lover, friend, parent, sibling, neighbor, coworker to third cousin’s brother in law’s uncle twice removed by marriage.

   Do NOT ask these people to help you with your comedy. The absolute worst thing any newbie can do is keep asking “Honey…is this funny?” I totally see why this happens regularly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a mistake. It is, and it will stunt your comedic growth far more than help it.

   The fact is the people closest to you know you far too well to offer any useful advice. First off, odds are extremely low any of them have ever been on a stage before doing anything much less standup comedy. They have no idea what the process is, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.

   It’s exactly like some blithering buffoon on a barstool, bus bench or at a bowling alley blurting out ‘expert’ medical advice or ‘secrets’ how the local sports teams can win a championship with no problem if they’ll just ‘make the right moves’. Would you listen to that halfwit? I’d hope not.

They Just Don’t Know

   No matter how well their intention, someone who has known you for a long time can’t offer an accurate opinion or useful advice to be used in front of an audience of strangers. If anyone wants to pursue a career of any length, he or she needs to learn early to depend on their own instincts.

   That can be extremely difficult at first, and I get that. What’s funny? Who can say, other than a live audience? Since there isn’t one readily available, the next best alternative is to ask somebody close by what they think of a particular line or concept. This is a great way to develop bad habits.

   Other than maybe once, that person is never going to be in your audience. They wouldn’t know how an audience thinks, and they might not know the basics of what funny is. What if you asked if something was funny and they said no? You wouldn’t have asked if you didn’t think there was some funny in it somewhere, so chances are your instincts told you to try it. GO with that hunch.

   You might guess wrong, but that’s totally ok. You’ll guess again and again, and again after that until you learn what works for you. This is a crucial part of the comedy process, and one that can never be rushed or faked. It absolutely has to be earned, and no spouse alive unless he or she has been through the actual process can ever offer anything of real value. It might be good to develop relationships more closely, but when it comes to comedy – keep a distance. “Honey” can come to your show, but if so let he or she be surprised by your jokes like everyone else in the audience.

It’s ALL a Guess

   I once had the chance to work with Jackie Mason, and it was an unbelievable education. At that time he was celebrating fifty years in the entertainment business, and we were talking about what he’d learned. What stood out for me was that he said every joke he ever writes is always a guess.

   Even after fifty years of practice, he said he was still never 100% sure an audience would buy a particular joke. He said he might think they would, and he’s got fifty years of shows as a point of reference, but in the end the audience is always the final judge. They call the shots completely.

   I would agree from my own experience. Over the years I have had audiences remember certain lines or pieces of material and come up to me after shows and recite them. They wouldn’t be the lines or bits I would necessarily choose to be representative of what I do, but I’m not in charge.

   The same will happen to you. After a while, you will see what audiences will accept from you and laugh at and what they won’t. Every audience is different of course, but with time you’ll see specific and well defined patterns develop. This is what will shape you into the act you will be.

   The sooner you can learn to start listening to what your audience tells you, the farther you will progress. Unfortunately, it takes time for this process to play out, and the only way to play it out is on stage. Asking your sweetie pie if they think your latest fart joke is funny will not help a bit.

But I Just Can’t Wait

   Countless hordes of aspiring comedians have made this mistake, and I’m sure there will be that many more that do it in the future. That doesn’t mean you have to fall into that common trap, and I sincerely hope you avoid it. A smart student will rely on the comedic instinct they’re born with – not the half baked ill informed suggestions of some clueless mope they work with at a day job.

   I realize these are harsh words, but I can’t think of any other way to get the message across. It’s hard to be a comedian, but even harder when bad habits are developed before one even goes on a stage for the first time. I know it can be difficult, but resisting the urge to ask friends is correct.

   What’s funny to YOU? Chances are if you think something is funny, there’s a reason for it. If a joke or idea seems funny to you, my suggestion is to get on stage and TRY IT. It just may reward you with a face full of stinging silence – but at least it is accurate feedback. You can adjust later.

   Standup comedy is very much a lone wolf pursuit. You’re up there alone, and live and die from what comes out of YOUR mouth and yours only. The audience has a part in the process, but you are the one leading the dance. If this frightens you, standup comedy may not be your true calling.

   Acting or improvising may be more suited to your needs, and there’s no right or wrong answer. Everyone is different and has different needs. I happen to love standup comedy and all that goes with it, and that’s always going to be my focal point. I have spent a lifetime observing everything about it, and I form opinions only after much thought. That being said – keep “Honey” out of it.

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Maxwell’s Law

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

   I think it’s safe to assume most people have heard of ‘Murphy’s Law’ – that everything that can go wrong will go wrong. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case for everybody, but I’m living proof old Murphy was on to something. I have had my share of problems in life and then some.

   One thing I have learned after spending a lifetime in standup comedy is that no matter what the situation should happen to be at any time – it will ALWAYS pop up again in the future without a doubt. It may take years, but it will happen again. This is a word to the wise for future reference.

   Whenever you happen to encounter an oddball scenario of any kind – and you absolutely will – file it away in your head and know that at some point you will relive this same scenario at some point in the future. That’s what the term ‘experience’ is all about. It takes a lifetime to learn it.

   The question is, what does one do with that knowledge? Johnny Carson was known as a world class ad libber. He could pull out the perfect line for a specific moment like few others. He had a razor sharp wit, and knew how to use it. But not everything he said was made up from scratch.

   I read an article about him once that said he would file away lines in his head, and knew when to pull them out of the archives at exactly the right time. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t the writer of every line, what mattered was that he knew how to use them and more importantly – when.

Start Simple

   There are certain scenarios that are absolutely sure to happen to every live speaker of any kind. Being prepared with a line – even a mediocre one – at the right time can make you look like one of the ‘wittiest’ minds of all time. I’ve seen it happen countless times, and it always amazes me.

   There are lines that have been used for decades and probably centuries that continue to work as long as they’re used in the correct context. Here’s an example: someone comes in a few minutes after the show starts and distracts everyone’s attention. It happens all the time, and will continue to happen as long as there are humans inhabiting planet Earth. It’s safe to say you’ll encounter it.

   The line (or any variation thereof) “Hey, glad you could make it! Can I get you anything…like a WATCH?” is a common comeback. I’ve heard this line literally thousands of times, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it not get a laugh. Is it original? Not anymore, but it’s still very effective. It doesn’t matter if it’s original in that scenario. The audience doesn’t know it – but you do. Use it.

   Another common situation is someone coming from or going to the bathroom smack dab in the middle of your set. That’s another all timer that will never ever go away. Sometime, somewhere, you will have to deal with this one too. What do you say? Again, it doesn’t have to be brilliant or ground breaking. It just has to be quick and make the point. Here’s an example for someone that gets up to leave during your set. It’s quick and to the point. “We know where YOU’RE going.”

   Is that necessarily a funny line? Not at all. There’s no joke there – it’s just a statement. It isn’t off color or mean spirited, and depending on the person delivering it there is a possibility of that line being milked for more than one laugh just by using pauses and/or goofy facial expressions.

   Lines like that used at the right time can get powerhouse laughs over and over again. It’s up to you to file away a list of those lines, but if you take the time to do it you will never be sorry. I’ve never regretted having an archive of ready to use lines in my head. They always come in handy.

Build Your Arsenal

   My mentor C. Cardell Willis was a master at using lines like this. One night I was on stage at a show he was hosting, and someone got up to use the bathroom. I’d never had that happen before when I was on stage, and it rattled me. My timing was thrown off, and all I could think of to say in my confusion was the line I’d heard Cardell use so often – “We know where YOU’RE going.”

   It got a big laugh, and I was able to continue with my bumbling set. I was a very new act then, and didn’t have much in the tank at that point. The bathroom line quite possibly could have been the biggest laugh I got all night, and when I got off stage I went to apologize to Cardell for using ‘his line’. Before I could apologize, Cardell congratulated me for using it to manufacture a laugh.

   I’ll never forget that night, as Cardell’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. He was proud of how I knew when to use a line like that, and told me so. His words of wisdom were passed on to me, so now I’m passing them on to you. He said “There are all kinds of lines that a comedian can use to get laughs that aren’t jokes. Be good to those lines your whole life, and they’ll be good to you.”

   Boy, have they ever. Time after time, year after year, situations come up again and again and it feels great to have lines ready to go that I know will make me look brilliant when in fact I’m not even close. Audiences don’t know these tricks, but I do. Every time I use them, they work again.

   Know now that there will be all kinds of situations that arise unexpectedly, and pay attention to whenever they do. Maybe you won’t know what to do the first time they happen, but that’s not a big deal. Nobody will care at the time, but you can be sure that same situation will happen again.

   It may be years later, but eventually you’ll be in the same scene and if you’re smart you’ll have a killer line to pull out of what seems like nowhere and it will blow the room away. That’s what being a professional entertainer is all about. It’s knowing what to do and when you need to do it.

  There are all kinds of situations in your future that you will have NO idea are going to occur as you start out on the comedy trail. Had I known I’d have to deal with so many unforeseen hassles, I may not have continued. It makes me wonder how I made it this far but I did – and you will too.

   As my gift to you, here is a partial list of situations that will undoubtedly arise on your journey. There will be others, but for now this is a great starter list. See if you can plan ahead and think of what you’d say if you were in that situation. Be good to those lines, and they’ll be good to you.

A Partial List of Scenarios That Can (And Will) Happen When You’re on Stage

   These are all actual situations that have either happened to me personally or somebody I know. Some, most or all will eventually happen to you, so try and store up some lines to use when those moments occur. They don’t have to be the most brilliant lines in the world, but if you’re prepared it will make you look like a genius. Nobody has to know you saw it coming. Be smart. Be ready!

-The show will start much later than expected

-There will be an audience much smaller than expected

-Someone will arrive late

-Someone will go to the bathroom

-Someone will come back from the bathroom

-Someone will be texting during the show

-Someone’s cell phone will ring, even though they were told to turn them off

-There will be problems with the sound system

-There will be little or no stage lighting

-There will be a bar in the room, and blender drinks will be made

-There will be food served while you are on stage

-An inexperienced server will walk in front of you and/or talk loudly during the show

-A server will drop a full tray during the show

-There will be a television on within eye and earshot of your performance

-There will be a police/fire/ambulance siren in the middle of your show

-Someone will have a coughing or sneezing fit

-One or more wheelchairs will be right in the front row

-Someone will have a seeing eye dog

-Someone will have a medical emergency, and the show will have to be stopped

-There will be a baby, child or children in the audience – usually in the very back

-There will be someone extremely old in the audience – usually right up front

-Someone (or group) will be from another country and not understand a word you say

-You will be in front of a group who are completely of a different ethnicity than you

-You will be in front of a group who are radically different in age than you

-You will be performing outdoors, and there will be many unforeseen distractions

-You will be in front of an audience who is not there to see comedy (charity events, etc.)

-You will be performing in front of a window when the sun is still up

-The room will be way too hot

-The room will be way too cold

-The room will be next to a room where loud music is being played

-The act on before you will be absolutely horrific

-The act on before you will be absolutely terrific

-A celebrity other than a comedian will be on right before you

-Someone will announce a death or tragedy right before bringing you on stage

-Someone will mangle your introduction and badly mispronounce your name

-You will be asked to cut your performance time drastically on very short notice

-You will be asked to stretch your time indefinitely because the next act is not there yet

-Someone will buy you a drink, and it will be brought to the stage during your show

-Someone from the audience will try to come on stage when you didn’t ask them to

-A fight (verbal or physical) will break out in the room at some point in the evening

   Again, this is in no way a complete list of all the things that can happen during a comedy show. That list doesn’t exist, as there are always new and wacked out scenarios happening all the time. It’s part of what keeps things interesting I suppose, but it’s also the source of unbelievably high stress – especially for the new performer. Hopefully this will give you a head start on everything.

   Try to put yourself in each of these scenarios and imagine what you’d do if it really happened. It wouldn’t hurt to write a few lines for when it does, because you just never know. Also, be very observant when watching other shows, as any of this could and will happen to somebody else out of the blue and you can learn from that too. Always be on the lookout for things to learn. You are never past this stage, and I still learn things myself. I wish I had this list when I was starting out.

How To Handle Hecklers (Part 1)

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

   By far and away and without a doubt, the two most frequently asked questions I’ve gotten over and over since I started teaching standup comedy are: “When will I need a manager?” and “What do I do about hecklers?” I laugh every time I hear either question, but they get asked constantly.

   Nothing could be less important in one’s first year of comedy than these two questions, but I’m going to deal with the heckler issue now only because so many people feel they need to know the ‘secret’ when it comes to ‘defeating’ this perceived peril that will be an issue during every show.

   In a word, RELAX. There are no secrets, and there is no peril. It’s all a myth – just like the one that says women like men with a sense of humor best but that’s another topic for another day. I’ll focus my energy on stomping out this fire before attempting anything else. This needs attention.

   First off, there are far more important things to think about when learning this insanely difficult craft. Getting heckled should not even begin to be part of the conversation until much later. Does it happen? I’m not going to lie, of course it happens. Every standup comic eventually has to deal with this issue to one degree or another, but in one’s early stages of development it’s a non issue.

   Let’s compare it to learning how to drive a car. Do multivehicle spectacular flaming accidents involving violent bloody injuries or even fatalities happen? They absolutely do, but can you ever recall one happening in a Driver Education car? Maybe it did – but it was a very rare exception.

First Things First

   My point is, if you’re reading this there’s an overwhelming chance you’re a beginner. There’s nothing wrong with it, and in fact every single entertainer who has ever stepped on a stage was a beginner at some point. You’re in first grade right now, so let’s worry about first grade lessons.

   There are plenty of lessons that need learning before you have to deal with any heckling in the next little while. It will happen soon enough, so let’s not rush it. Dealing with it on a professional level can absolutely be learned, but it’s like calculus or physics. A first grader isn’t ready for it.

   First graders need to learn the very simplest of the basic fundamentals of everything. They will have enough to deal with learning their ABCs. After that, then they can start to work up to bigger challenges. Nobody expects a first grader to know how to dissect an isosceles triangle, and that’s equally true with a newbie comic. Audiences won’t expect a greenhorn to have to deal with that.

   What kind of lowlife slime would heckle a new comedian anyway? I hate to admit I’ve seen it done on rare occasion, but the audience will always support the comic. Most people have an idea that comedy isn’t easy, and seeing a rookie get heckled would be like seeing a child get attacked. Most decent people wouldn’t stand for it, and the same is true in this situation. All a new act has to say is something like “I’m very new at this. I hope you feel like a big person attacking me.”

   That alone usually takes care of it more than effectively, but I’ve also seen comics get frazzled and leave the stage prematurely. That’s their choice, and I respect it. Usually, the person hosting the show has some experience, and can deal with a heckler accordingly on a more even platform.

Why Does It Happen?

   Why anyone would want to come to a live show and purposely try to disrupt it always has been and still is a befuddling mystery. I would never dream of doing anything like that, but I’m a huge fan of live entertainment in general. I know from years of experience how difficult it is to put on a live show of any kind. I have respect for all performers, and want to show all the support I can.

   Unfortunately, this is not true with a frighteningly large percentage of the public. I’ll remember a quote my grandfather told me when I was about ten years old. He said “The masses are asses.” I didn’t know what it meant then, but I’ve since learned to embrace it in my journey through life.

   I thought Gramps had come up with that himself, but it was actually a quote from a gentleman named Alexander Hamilton. Does that name ring a bell? He’s the guy pictured on a US $10 bill. He said it in 1790, so that tells me a lot about the human race. We were stupid then, and still are. All those ‘asses’ from 1790 bred and we’ve perpetuated generation after generation of imbeciles.

   My grandmother grew up on a farm in a small town in Central Wisconsin. She wasn’t much on mincing words, and usually got straight to the point on any topic. When it came to her opinion of the masses she said “The cattle on the farm I grew up on knew how to behave better than most of the American public.” I hate to admit Grandma was right, but she was – and it’s getting worse.

   For whatever reason, there are idiots who walk the planet freely that seem to think they’re why the rest of us are here and it’s our job to cater to their every whim, urge or impulse. That must be why they have no qualms whatsoever about yelling out incoherent gibberish during a live show.

   I will say from experience that alcohol often contributes to this scenario, but not always. I have seen more than my share of sober simpletons start babbling idiocy without the aid of intoxicants. It never ceases to amaze me how often people feel a need to contribute to the collective dynamic.

Three Basic Types

   I’ve had a lifetime of experience with hecklers, and I can’t think of anyone who can speak with more authority than me when it comes to this topic. I’ve gotten things thrown at me, started a riot or two and been escorted to my car by security on several occasions. I’ve played this game often, and have a rich backlog of experience on which to draw from. I know well of what I’m speaking.

   I’ve thought it through at length, and my conclusion is there are three basic types of heckler:

         The Bully/Coward

         The Intoxicated/Idiot

         The Contributor/Helper                           

   There can be subtle variations on all these themes, but they basically boil down to one of them in the end. I’ve dealt with all three extensively, and here is my advice from the front lines so you can hopefully get a head start for when this will be part of your world – and it will. Don’t rush it, it will get here soon enough. There’s nothing to worry about though, as you can win every time!

   Let’s examine the three types:

   ‘The Bully/Coward’ – this is the type from which the stereotype heckler is drawn. He (rarely if ever she) is a mean jerk type who allegedly brings the bag of rotten fruit to throw at the stage. I must say I have never seen that in all my years, but I have had other objects hurled stageward.

   This type of heckler is almost always a frustrated performer who lacks the guts to get on stage or is too lazy to put in the massive effort it takes to become a professional entertainer. It’s easier to just sit in the crowd and toss out caustic remarks. I absolutely love these types, as I’ve learned to verbally squash them like the cockroaches they are. I’ve laid out countless bullies in my day.

    Part of the reason I can deal with this so easily is that my father was a bully. Quite often in my early years I’d go after these kinds of hecklers so badly the audience would actually sympathize with heckler after a while. In my mind, I wasn’t just squelching the heckler. I was getting back at my father, and I’m not going to lie – it felt REALLY good! I have since softened my demeanor.

   ‘The Intoxicated/Idiot’ – Steve Allen said decades ago that sooner or later everyone who does live entertainment will get sick of entertaining drunks. Amen, Brother Steve! I reached that point years ago, but it continues to go on. I don’t judge people, and just because I’m not a drinker I am not crusading against all those who choose to enjoy a cocktail or two. Being a drunk is different.

   Dealing with a bully requires one method of defense, and this requires another. Bullies are very aware of what’s going on, and they want to outsmart the comedian on stage. Drunks don’t know they’re being out of line, and depending on how far gone they are can be a difficult challenge to keep control of the show. Many venues won’t bounce them, and it’s up to you to work through it.

    Other times, alcohol isn’t the reason and they’re just plain DUMB. Sometimes it goes further than that and it’s just plain old mental illness. That can be extra difficult, and requires a delicate and experienced hand. I will go into much more depth in the future on all of this, but not now.

   ‘The Contributor/Helper’ this has always been the most baffling type of heckler. Once in a while someone will say something out loud during a show, but it’s not a heckle at all. In fact, it’s a major compliment to the performer. The audience member relates to something the comic said and says something in response like an actual conversation. This is usually not a problem at all.

   Then there’s the weirdo who for some reason thinks the comedian needs ‘help’ and decides to volunteer his (and too many times her) ‘services’ as a verbal punching bag throughout the night. They’re the first ones to come up afterward and look for kudos on their ‘performance’. This has never made sense to me, but it does occur with alarming frequency. Run from these crackpots.

Embrace The Situation

   It may sound crazy, but part of me really enjoys dealing with hecklers. The main reason is that I know before any situation ever starts that I’m going to win no matter what happens, and that’s a position of power. It’s like being a seventh degree black belt. I’m not afraid to walk home alone.

   But just like with the black belt, that power and knowledge is never to be used to hurt anybody. It’s not like I look to go around making fun of random strangers just because I know what to say. I’m just saying I know how to defend myself in heckler situations, and I’m not afraid to exercise my combat muscles when necessary. I don’t ever start it, but should another do so I will finish.

   Every comedian has a different opinion. George Carlin talked about his preferential method of vanquishing hecklers. He said “Some comedians like to have a stockpile of witty lines stored to use when they need them. I always prefer to use a verbal sledge hammer to the base of the skull.”

   And that was his right. Jerry Seinfeld chooses to deal with it in a totally different way. He just stops the whole show and says something like “Are you alright? You seem upset. Can I help you in some way?” This is a great way to disarm almost any situation, and you can choose to use it as well if you like. Personally, I would never do this. I enjoy the challenge of barbecuing the idiot.

   But that’s me. Not everyone is as warped and twisted as I am when it comes to enjoying such a frightening scenario. It’s like someone walking through a bad neighborhood looking for conflict. Maybe they get off on the excitement, I don’t know. For me, I have no problem going toe to toe.

What Should I Say To A Heckler?

  Students constantly ask me what to say in heckler situations. Like I said earlier, it won’t be your concern at least in the very beginning. Focus on your comedy first. My friend Bill Gorgo has one of the best answers I’ve ever heard. When someone asks him what to do about hecklers, he’ll say “Simple! Don’t get heckled.” Then he’ll wait a few seconds as his wisdom penetrates a skull.

   Most students don’t get it, but Bill is 100% correct. What he means is, have a well constructed funny act and get the audience laughing soon and often. If they’re doing that, nobody will have a chance to heckle. The whole idea of standup comedy is to get laughs from the crowd, not insults.

   Again, does heckling happen in standup comedy? Definitely yes. Does a bear defecate rurally? Is Seven Up? It will always be a part of comedy just as accidents will always be a part of driving, but that doesn’t mean you have to worry about it every time you get behind the wheel. If you are careful and focus on DRIVING, 99.999% of your trips will be trouble free. Comedy is the same.

   If you focus on your act and getting laughs, hecklers won’t have time to interrupt you as there won’t be the opportunity. The audience will be enjoying your show, and their laughter will act as insulation so one lone nut’s comments will have no way to penetrate that force field. I’ll leave it alone for now, but I still have a lot more to say on this subject. Next time I’ll share combat tips.

Power Lines (101 Jokes)

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

    As a lifelong fan of standup comedy and humor in general, I find myself continually drawn to the anatomy of a well written joke. I never tire of studying flow, structure and choice of wording and I still dissect to the core the work of both myself and others. I love how the process works.

Since I do standup comedy for a living, that’s an area of extreme interest but it’s not limited to that alone. Movies, sitcoms, comic strips and humorous articles are also included in my scope of study. I’m attracted to what I call ‘power lines’ – gems that stand out from the rest like hit songs.

Good solid jokes are not easy to write, and rarely are they written in one sitting. It takes time to hone a joke on stage, and polish the structure and delivery to the point of having it get consistent laughs with a variety of audiences – and even when it happens it’s ONE joke. Many are needed.

The “X’s and O’s” of Jokes

   For my money, nobody breaks this process down better than Gene Perret. He’s the master, and like a sports coach he breaks it down into “X’s and O’s” better than anyone I know. I don’t try to compete with him, as there’s no reason to. Gene has written books and articles on many facets of joke structure, and I recommend them all. He also teaches a correspondence course and it’s great.

I have read most if not all of Gene’s books, taken his courses and consider him a friend, mentor and hero. Not only is he a fine craftsman, he’s an even finer person. I have been personal friends of the entire Perret family for years, and they have been nicer to me than my own blood relatives.

That being said, I admit I have a bias when it comes to Gene but it’s not because I have grown to be friends with him and his family. I read my first book from him before I ever stepped on any stage, and I found what he wrote to be not only fascinating but in retrospect it was very helpful. I am biased because after a lifetime of study, I objectively find Gene’s works to be the very best.

It saddens and disappoints me that many aspiring comedians I run into have never heard about Gene, so I want to take an opportunity to pay him proper respect and hopefully turn someone on to him and his work so they can learn the “X’s and O’s” of writing jokes as I did. He’s the king.

One of the exercises that Gene gives is to write 101”Tom Swifties”. If you aren’t familiar with what that is, you need to become familiar with Gene’s books and find out. I’m not trying to tread on his territory, but I am going to suggest you make it a point to complete that exercise yourself.

Everyone I have talked to who has compiled the list of 101 Tom Swifties as suggested by Gene is in full agreement that it was a difficult but rewarding process. I found it to be that way too. It’s not easy to compile that many, and at first it can seem overwhelming. After a while, it becomes a labor of love and eventually it’s almost impossible to stop. The mind has become trained to keep the process going, and that’s the whole idea. It’s important for comedians on all levels to do this.

Compile a List of Jokes That Strike You Funny

   I strongly suggest that every aspiring comedian begin compiling a list of all time favorite jokes. This serves several useful purposes. First, it causes one to pay attention to joke structure. How is anyone supposed to create anything of value without first studying examples that already exist?

Aspiring songwriters need to study existing songs, as aspiring screenwriters and directors need to delve into films and their scripts. Woody Allen said “If you want to write, you have to read.” I couldn’t agree more. Familiarity with joke structure is an essential ingredient of standup comedy.

Another positive that comes from listing jokes is that it allows one to exercise power of choice. It doesn’t matter which jokes are chosen, only that choices are made at all. There are no right or wrong choices, it’s entirely up to an individual to choose the examples they happen to like most.

Yet another benefit is that it allows and encourages exploration of the work of others. That’s an excellent way to learn about what’s already out there and also discover one’s own personal tastes so as to eventually develop an individual style. Everyone is different, and therein lies the beauty.

What one person chooses as their all time favorite line may not make another’s list at all. It’s totally fine, but I think it’s important to compile the actual list to be able to make that distinction. I especially think it’s useful to do this early in one’s comedic journey to lay a solid foundation of reference points on which to build one’s own act and style. I never regretted studying the greats.

I even studied the not so greats. I just studied jokes, and over decades of working with all kinds of comedians with all kinds of styles I’ve been able to develop a sharp eye for picking out a good joke. Just about everyone who performs has at least one good line at some point – even bad acts.

Start With Ten

   I would suggest eventually coming up with a list of 101 jokes, but that will require a significant amount of time and effort. For now, start with ten and keep adding to it. Write down lines as they strike you, and try to figure out why. Did the line paint a picture? Did you like the way it flowed?

There are many places to find jokes, but I suggest a series of books by Judy Brown that feature a well rounded assortment of lines from a variety of people – myself included. They are available in most book stores, and are reasonably priced. Titles include ‘The Funny Pages’, ‘Jokes To Go’, ‘Squeaky Clean Comedy’ and others. This is a great place to begin sampling well written jokes.

I also recommend studying the work of people like Rodney Dangerfield, Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg, Emo Philips, Wendy Liebman and Woody Allen. These are all craftspeople who know how to deliver consistent high quality. Studying them and others will help you learn the process.

Jokes are only a part of what goes into the entire standup comedy package, but an essential part it is. Character and stage persona are also part of it, but that comes later. For now, focus yourself on individual jokes and why you like or don’t like them. Give your ‘funny muscles’ a workout.

A Randomly Assembled List of Jokes

   Here are some jokes I compiled for you to use as a starting point:

“I’ve got my own lie detector at home. I call her ‘honey’.”                                               -Jason Love

“Divorce teaches you things…like fractions.”                                                                   -Buzz Nutley

“I broke up with my girlfriend because I caught her lying…under another man.”                     -Doug Benson

“I find that a duck’s opinion of me is greatly influenced by whether or not I have bread.” -Mitch Hedberg

“They say the best exercise takes place in the bedroom. I believe it because that’s where I get the most resistance.”                                                                                                   -Jeff Shaw

“They say that computers can’t think, but I have one that does. It thinks it’s broken.”             -Gene Perret

“If it wasn’t for pickpockets and frisking at airports, I’d have no sex life at all.”           -Rodney Dangerfield

“If her lips are on fire and she trembles in your arms, forget her. She’s got malaria.”            -J. Kannon

“I’m not a good cook. At Christmas my family got together and bought me a stove that flushes.”                                                                                                                          -Phyllis Diller

“I became a father. There’s a lot to do with kids. I had to hold him, pat him on the back and burp him. Luckily, I’ve had a lot of practice on my mom.”                                              -David Letterman.

“My brother-in-law died. He was a karate expert who joined the army. The first time he saluted he killed himself.”                                                                                                        -Henny Youngman

“I was walking through the park. I had a bad asthmatic attack. These three asthmatics attacked me. I know…I should have heard them hiding.”                                                 -Emo Philips

“I bought some powdered water. I didn’t know what to add.”                                                 -Steven Wright

Start the Process Immediately

   This was a random list of jokes I threw together for a class I was teaching one night. I wanted a cross section of unconnected lines from a variety of sources in order to receive feedback from the class. I told them not to hold back in their critiques, and to give their opinions with total candor.

I encourage you to do the same. Look over these lines, and see which ones you think are funny and which ones you don’t. Maybe you’ll like all of them. Maybe you’ll dislike all of them. There isn’t any right or wrong answer, and this isn’t a “secret test” of any kind. I just want you to begin the process of forming your own opinion on what you do and don’t find funny. It’s a crucial step.

Look at these lines, and rank them in order from first to last. I didn’t list them in any particular order, so don’t read anything into it. I was late for class that night, and wanted to have something to hand to the students and this is what came out. In retrospect, it was a very good cross section.

There are jokes from famous people and not famous people, young and old, Jewish and gentile, male and female. All of these comedians happen to be Caucasian, but that was unintentional. All I wanted to do was establish a starting point, and I did that. There are a lot of points to discuss.

Other than deciding which ones you like or don’t and coming up with a running order for your favorites from strongest to weakest, the issue of what’s appropriate comes up. Believe it or not, I have had people express opinions that some of the lines on the list were in poor taste or off color in some way. I didn’t intend that when I made the list, and they’re not wrong in feeling that way.

Again, there are no right or wrong answers and I want everyone to say what they think. You’re going to have your own opinion about this list, and that’s great. Maybe we’ll agree or maybe not, but it doesn’t matter as long as we’re both THINKING. That’s the whole purpose of this process.

A Very Important Disclaimer

   I think you will find it to be very useful to compile your own list of favorite jokes as you climb the comedy ladder. Some of them will be from your peers, and that is perfectly acceptable. What is NOT acceptable is using those lines yourself without permission. Joke thievery is a passionate topic I will discuss at great length and in detail later, but for now I want to make this disclaimer.

I want to be crystal clear on the point that I am suggesting the cataloging of individual jokes is to be used for study purposes and study purposes only. I have credited people whenever possible in what I have listed, and I do not claim to be the owner or licensed user of any of that material.

Unfortunately, the unauthorized use of jokes has always been and always will be a byproduct of the comedy business. I wish it weren’t so – but it is. You’ll soon learn how extremely difficult it can be to put just one joke together much less an act, and when it’s taken from you it’s painful. For now, let’s not go down that road. We’ll have to go there soon enough. Learn to enjoy coming up with your own unique perspective on a topic. In the long run, that’s the biggest reward of all.

Subject Matters

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

   George Carlin had a famous routine about the seven words you can’t say on television. It’s still a classic, and if you aren’t familiar with it I strongly suggest you make the effort to locate it, hear it, study it and hopefully enjoy and learn from it. It’s not for the prudish, and there is profanity so I have to make the disclaimer that it’s for ADULTS ONLY. If you are of legal age, check it out.

I can preach on and on frequently do without being asked about how I think all new comedians need to keep it clean in the early stages, and I truly believe it even though this routine is the total antithesis of that point of view. But George Carlin wasn’t a beginner. He was a practicing master of his craft, and it took him years to be able to pull that off. He had paid his dues, and was ready.

There are seven other words I can think of that can intimidate new comedians enough to cause discomfort and panic to the point of sweaty palms, lightheadedness and severe orifice puckerage. I wrestled with these words when I started, and I’ve seen countless others struggle with them all my time since. These words come in the form of a question, and most beginners can’t answer it:

“What should I talk about on stage?”

   Who can answer that question correctly, especially with little to no experience from which they can draw? The choices are limitless as to what subjects can be mined for gold humor nuggets and that can be overwhelming to someone starting out. It’s like going through a massive buffet with a tiny plate. There’s way too much to choose from, and something good is going to get left behind.

But everyone has to talk about something, right? How does one choose what topics to address? I don’t claim to have a definitive answer, but I do have several suggestions you probably would not think of so hopefully you’ll be able to make your decision with a lot more thought behind it.

Just going on stage and rambling randomly about whatever half baked thought flies into one of your ears is not the way to go – yet I see 90% or higher of beginners doing exactly that. Having a clue of what direction you want to go puts you way ahead of the herd before you say one word.

It’s good to look at your time on stage as being introduced to some people for the first time at a party.  It’s a fun party, and everyone seems to be having a good time. You like the people you’ve been introduced to, and you want them to like you back. What’s the best way to make that work?

Basically, just relax and be friendly. There’s no need to complain or be a jerk or think that you are better than everyone else. There is no need to bring out any unpleasant or controversial topics in those first few minutes either. It’s a very poor risk. You want to be the sweetheart of the party.

Your first few minutes on stage are exactly the same. The audience doesn’t know you yet, so it becomes a matter of getting them to know you, like you and trust that you’re funny. That will let you be free to eventually take them anywhere you like, but at first it’s crucial to obtain their trust.

Baby Teeth

   All too often I’ve seen clueless beginners go up and try to be ‘edgy’ or ‘make a statement’ way before they even have half a clue as to what those terms mean. They seem to think for some odd reason that a comedian hasn’t ‘arrived’ until a reputation has been gained for walking audiences.

You’ll get a reputation alright, but not the one you’re looking for. Getting consistent laughter is always the best reputation to shoot for, and that’s the direction I am trying to point you with what I’m saying. I’m not trying to neuter your ‘edge’ or censor you, but you need to learn basics first.

I like to equate the first subjects a comedian uses with baby teeth. Everyone has baby teeth, and they serve a very important purpose. Then, one by one they all fall out and are never ever needed again. Standup comedy is the same. The subjects one starts with are often used for a limited time.

This is a good thing in my opinion. As one’s stage chops get sharper, skill level rises and that’s what it’s all about. Putting together a quality act that grows organically takes years of hard work, but the process can be extremely satisfying along the way. It’s the progress that keeps one going.

Until a level of competence is achieved, why waste the lack of skill on a subject that isn’t ready to be handled just yet? Would you have your kid attempt to tackle a difficult college course when that kid is in kindergarten? Of course not. The kid isn’t ready for that yet. Comedy is the same.

Dig Deep, Not Wide

   I also strongly suggest a beginning comedian limit the amount of topics or premises to no more than three at the very most for a five minute routine. There just isn’t any reason to have any more than that, and I’d recommend using one or two if possible. Usually two is about right, as it offers an opportunity for some comedic contrast and possibly some callbacks. Much more on this later.

I’ve had people drive themselves crazy trying to adhere to these ‘rules’, when in fact I’d like to reiterate that nothing I ever say should be considered a ‘rule’. There are always exceptions to all of them, and that’s just how it is. What I do is make strong suggestions, but they are based on my many years of hard earned hands on practical on stage experience. I’ve thought all this through.

A very important point to remember when deciding what to talk about on stage is that YOU are the one who makes that decision in the short run. It’s an educated guess as to what an audience is going to laugh at, and the audience will tell you if you were right or wrong. Some will respond to certain material differently than others, and that’s where your comedic instincts have to be used.

At one time or another, everyone guesses wrong. You will too, so don’t sweat it. You’ll dream up an idea for a bit you know will be your career maker, but for whatever reason audiences don’t seem to share your vision. It’s frustrating, but they make the call. This is all part of the process.

Whatever you decide to choose as your stage topics, try to keep them lighthearted and ‘safe’ – at least at first. Learn how to be a real comedian before you venture out into the realm of ‘edgy’.

Give Me A “High Five”

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

    Five minutes doesn’t sound like a significant amount of time, does it? And in the big picture of the cosmos, it isn’t. But there are times when five minutes can seem like an absolute eternity. For example, try standing completely naked in a blizzard or outside the bathroom door of a Mexican restaurant that long. Better yet, try holding your breath five full minutes. It can be a LONG time.

In standup comedy, those five ‘short’ minutes can seem even longer than eternity – especially when things aren’t going well. The stage quickly transforms into the land time forgot, with each and every tick of the clock becoming another direct sledge hammer blow to the head. It’s torture.

I’ve been in that horrific situation more times than I care to count. It’s like an exhausted fighter trying to find any way possible to get through the last round when there’s nothing left in the tank. The arms are heavy and the gloves feel like they’re loaded with cement. When WILL a bell ring?

Like it or not, if you plan on doing standup comedy for any length of time you will experience the exact same scenario at one time or another and probably a lot more than once. It’s inevitable, just as a baby learning to walk falls down at some point. You’re learning to walk as a comedian, and there will be some rough spots to overcome. They can be far less painful if you are prepared.

At first, standing on a stage in front of a room full of strangers (or worse yet, other comedians) is unbelievably intimidating. Try as one might, sustaining consistent laughter for that long seems like trying to make love ‘all night long’. It may be the intention, but it’s usually over a lot sooner.

Eventually, it gets a little easier (the comedy, not the love making) and it’s not all that difficult to stand on a stage that long and at least appear to know what to do. It might not be a stellar show in every respect, but enough people can be fooled to think an actual comedian is in front of them.

As years progress, so does stage stamina. I remember very clearly when I was just starting how I watched someone go on in front of me at an open mic and do twenty solid minutes of comedy. I couldn’t fathom being on stage that long, and it blew my mind then. And the comedian I watched didn’t do any crowd work or stall tactics either. It was all comedy material, and I was impressed.

Now, it’s laughable to even think I ever thought that. If someone asks me to do twenty minutes it’s a night off, and I can do it in my sleep. If I had to go up and do three different twenty minute sets in the same night for the same crowd I could easily do it and have a lot of material left over.

I’m not bragging, but I could do it. I’ve come a very long way, but it took multiple decades of unbelievably hard work and silently suffering through stupid mistakes to get there. I’m doing ok now, but I sure wish I’d had much more of a well laid out battle plan to follow along the way rather than just randomly hacking my way through the thickest part of the jungle the way I ended up doing it. I wouldn’t recommend that method for anyone, and hopefully I’ll help you avoid it.

If I had to point out the one major mistake I’ve made on my personal on stage comedy journey, it has without a doubt been not coming up with what I call a ‘high five’. What I mean by that is a roughly five minute chunk of material that gets honed to razor sharpness and is ready to perform at a moment’s notice in any situation. It’s in essence a verbal resume to be used to sell one’s self.

This is an extremely valuable tool to have at one’s disposal, and it will come in handy time and time again. I can’t believe it took so long for me to address this issue myself, but it totally did and as usually happens with me it came at the absolute worst possible time. It rocked my world.

I had been doing standup comedy full time for almost twenty-five years when I finally got my first opportunity to appear on national television on ‘The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson’ on CBS in 2009. I was thrilled beyond words, but then it occurred to me I didn’t have a ‘TV set’, or ‘high five’ to do. I’d been a headliner in top comedy clubs across the country for years and did consistently rock solid sets of 45 minutes to an hour – but I didn’t have a five minute set for TV.

I felt like a complete idiot, and quite rightfully so. I had not properly prepared myself for when my opportunity came, and I found myself scrambling to work out my set before I flew to L.A. to film my segment. It was awkward and painful, and I only had about six or seven chances to work on the set that I had come up with. That was not close to being enough, and I totally paid for it.

I read somewhere that before Jerry Seinfeld made his national television debut on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson he performed that specific set about eighty times. Eight zero! WOW! That’s a lot of work to hone one set, but looking back on my experience I can see that it just isn’t possible to be too prepared. I had enough experience to fake my way through, but it wasn’t easy.

One thing I still can’t believe I was stupid enough to do was perform brand new material I had never tried before on my national television debut. That’s totally insane, but what’s even more insane is that it worked! Well, some of it did anyway. About halfway through my set I ended up flat out blowing a line when I juxtaposed something and for about half a second I was in a panic.

Lucky for me, I have a vast backlog of experience to fall back on and I did just that by bringing out a bit I hadn’t planned on using and finishing out my set with that rather than what I’d told the producer I was going to use. It was the heat of the moment, and my experience got me through it.

Afterward, the floor director walked over and congratulated me on my ability to recover with what appeared to be no effort when I told him in fact it had taken decades of effort to know how to get myself back on track like that. He didn’t care about that though, all that was important was that I did the job that particular day, and I did. By all accounts, I had a successful network debut. I have been on all kinds of local and regional television shows, and each time I learn something.

Doing standup comedy on television is not the same animal as doing it live in a club scenario. It isn’t important to go into the exact details why now, although I plan on discussing and dissecting it at length in future writings. What is important is starting to put your own ‘high five’ together.

I more than strongly suggest that anyone with even the slightest aspiration to pursue standup comedy as a career start embracing this concept immediately if not sooner. However the message needs to be digested, please do so. Don’t make me tap it on your skull with a Louisville slugger.

Having your ‘high five’ in constant development throughout your career will pay you back like no other investment you’ll ever make. It’s a wonderful habit to get into, and I’ve learned to make it a part of my life every time I step on a stage. I wish I’d done that from square one, but I didn’t.

I was too busy trying to ego stroke myself by trying to stretch the actual number of how much material I had at my disposal. This is a way too common mistake made by almost everyone, and as of right now you don’t need to be one of them. Comedians like to boast for some reason about how much material they’ve got stored in some mysterious inner comedy vault nobody can touch.

I’ve heard it all and then some, and my bung hole winks every time I hear it again. “I’ve got well over three hours of material,” one particularly cocky but completely clueless idiot said with misguided self assuredness at a show not long ago. When I asked why we all had to sit through the same mediocre thirty minutes over and over again he had no retort to defend his false claim.

There’s never a reason to make a claim like that other than to massage the ego so please don’t do it. Even if indeed it happened to be true, what good would it do? Does any network or cable television outlet on the planet have any three and a half hour comedy shows? I haven’t seen any.

But what DO they have on a regular basis? Standup comedy in five minute segments. There are half hour and hour specials yes – but I can’t think of anybody who started off with one of those. Most if not all of us have to start out with a five minute spot somewhere. Actually, my Late Late Show spot was only four and a half minutes. People’s attention spans are shrinking by the day.

So when I say ‘five minutes’, that could end up being six and it could be four and a half. That’s not the issue. The issue is you need to know what you want to do with that time when you get it. It doesn’t have to be an actual television appearance either. Most auditions for comedy club work are guess how long? Bingo! Five minutes. And how long are most open mic sets? Take a random stab at it. You’re right. Five minutes. That’s the bite size chunk anyone needs to sample your act.

Like I said, it’s a verbal resume that hopefully paints an easy to digest picture to both potential bookers and the audience of exactly who they are looking at on the stage in front of them. There should be no problem for anyone who has just seen your act to describe who you are in just a few words. You may not be able to do that just yet, but it’s something to start building toward NOW.

That five minutes should flow so smoothly after a while that you could do it without having to think about it. If you had to go on stage in a pinch for any reason, you could do that five minutes with your brain turned off. That may seem odd now, but it’s totally possible. Start thinking about your ‘high five’ now, even if it’s a few years away from being a reality. You’ve got hundreds of times to practice it, and the only one who knows will be you. You’ll have the jump on everyone.

Clean Makes Green

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

    As I sat around looking at my laundry list of topics, subtopics and tangents I wanted to address concerning the subject of standup comedy, the one I think is most important to get to before even thinking about getting started with anything else is the term “clean”. What does it mean exactly?

I’ve been around a long time and this has always been a major point of heated discussion to the point of bitter argument. The term itself is rather cloudy, and has a different meaning to everyone who uses it. It’s like describing a potential blind date’s looks to a friend using the word “cute”.

There’s a whole lot of room for error there, and probably more grey area than actual black and white. What it boils down to is basically a judgment call, and everyone ends up thinking they are not only the judge but the jury and executioner too. I have often seen these decisions end poorly.

Before I offer my opinion on this topic – and it is deeply rooted and well thought out – I would like to make extremely clear that I am NOT trying to censor or squelch anyone’s creative process in any way. I am in full support of freedoms of every kind, but especially of the artistic variety.

If anything, I’m one to encourage the stretching of boundaries and to challenge creative people to constantly grow and expand new horizons. This is not about moral judgment either. I couldn’t care any less from a personal standpoint what anyone chooses to do or say to express themselves.

It’s not like I haven’t heard it all before. My childhood was chock full of every imaginable way to use foul language and then some. My father rode with a biker gang, and that’s not exaggerated to make my point. The vast array of hoodlums, scoundrels and roughnecks that hung around then didn’t bother to edit their language because children were around. We heard it from an early age.

Most of my childhood was spent being raised by my grandparents however, and even more off color than all of the bikers combined was my 5’2” German grandmother. She was a virtuoso with vulgarity, and when she let loose with one of her tirades bikers would cover their ears in horror.

I want to go deeper than just talking about a few four letter words though. “Keeping it clean” is a lot more than just the avoidance of using the seven words George Carlin got arrested for saying on stage at Summerfest in Milwaukee in 1972. It’s knowing where the line is, and not crossing it.

As a performer develops, straddling that line can add delightful comedic tension to a show and I’ve seen comedians do it masterfully. It can be a thing of beauty when executed properly, but an extensive amount of stage experience is needed before venturing off into that high risk territory.

Until then, it is my very strong opinion that ALL new comedians should avoid not only the use of “off color”, “dirty”, “salty”, “blue” or “foul” language – but also be extremely careful of what topics and premises they choose to approach on stage. Natural instinct often tempts and attracts a new comedian to be “edgy” or “naughty”, but those instincts need to be pushed back for a while.

I’m not saying it has to be forever, but until one learns the fundamentals of the craft of standup comedy there is absolutely zero need whatsoever to engage in a number of topics. It’s asking for big trouble that doesn’t need to be, yet I’ve seen it happen again and again over years and years.

It would be like giving a two year old a loaded pistol with the safety off and then telling him to “be careful and not get into any trouble with it”. How effective would it be? A new comedian has more than enough to deal with in that first year without adding dangerous explosives to the mix.

Still, there are always people that vehemently fight me on this point. They’ll bring up examples of several comedians old and new that have become extremely successful being ‘dirty’ or ‘blue’, but those people forget that the comedians in question all had to learn how to be comedians first.

Let’s use Richard Pryor and George Carlin as prime examples, as those are two names that I’ve often had thrown in my face. A lot of newer comedians don’t even know who either one of those people are, and if that’s you you’ve got some homework to do. You need to study both of them.

Watch and enjoy their later work, swear words and all. That was the way they chose to express themselves, and I have no problem with it. Then, go back and look at their early work to see their starting point. It was very different from where they ended up, but they earned a right to evolve.

Rodney Dangerfield is another example. There are recordings of his earlier work that are about as different from his later work as pork chops are different from karate chops. Everyone who has been a comedian for years has evolved, and you will too. Be smart and master all the basics first.

There are far more important things to focus on when starting out. You need to gain experience in a variety of areas, and that only comes from being on stage. Stage time should be work time in my opinion, and a well thought out plan should be in place to make the most of every single time you perform. There’s no stage time to waste, as there is more competition now than ever before.

There should be smaller goals in play at all times, but a long term goal should be to eventually appear on some sort of network television. Although network standards have dropped quite a bit through the years, they still don’t allow the use of ‘the big ones’ when it comes to swear words.

Cable networks and the internet are much more lenient, but there are too many people with lots more experience fighting for the attention of a limited audience. Coming up the ranks it’s hard to get anyone to pay any attention at all, so why risk the chance of offending anyone with language or content? It’s not smart business, and that’s the reason I feel so strongly about keeping it clean.

Subject matter is another important choice. Stay away from disgusting whenever possible. I’ve seen new comedians go off on hideously grotesque tangents with vivid descriptions of the bowel movement or bloody discharge they just experienced, then come off stage bragging how “clean” their set was. Just because one doesn’t use swear words does NOT mean a set is either clean nor does it mean it’s ready for network television. In the future, you just might be the one from your generation that’s compared to Pryor or Carlin. For now though, you’re a ways off. Keep it clean.

Now does that mean I am suggesting every last punch line out of your mouth has to include the words “and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ?” Of course not. I want you to be free to explore the topics you want to explore. There are ways to make almost any topic funny – INCLUDING SEX.

Again, I’m not trying to censor anyone and sex is a huge topic in both life and comedy. There’s a lot of potential for big time funny there, but I don’t think it’s a wise choice for beginners. There are a lot of potential pitfalls, and without sufficient experience launching into a routine about sex would be like running through a minefield wearing big blue clown shoes. It raises the risk factor.

It’s much smarter and safer to start out with topics that have little chance to offend the majority of people who will be in your audience – which unfortunately is not likely to be many at first. An unnecessary detour into dirty or disgusting is a great way to alienate one’s self from an audience.

It’s an even better way to alienate one’s self from getting asked back to open mics or getting an actual paid booking. No headliner I have ever met ever wants to follow a dirty act. NONE. It sets a definite tone for the entire show, and if an audience isn’t into it for whatever reason it can make things a whole lot more of a challenge than they need to be. Why even make it a tiny possibility?

Using ‘the words’ or talking about sex or body functions in detail should be used with extreme caution – especially by those in their first few years in comedy. There are innumerable things that can go very wrong by doing this and scant few if any that can go right – including getting laughs.

The laughter a new comic might get on occasion by being vulgar is not a pure laugh that comes from delivering a solid well written joke. It’s out of nervousness that an audience may happen to laugh, and it won’t be sustained very long. It’s a great way to burn them out early and infuriating all those who have to follow it. Make no mistake by thinking getting a laugh makes it acceptable.

An effective way to decide what may or may not be a subject to approach on stage would be to look at your time on stage as meeting someone new for the first time at a party. What would your opinion be of someone who brought up some sordid intimate detail about themselves right away?

Hopefully, a big red flag would go up. People need to get to know each other at least a little bit before the heavy artillery is brought out. The same is true with standup comedy. There’s no need to launch into some long ugly painful diatribe about how your uncle touched you when you were six – even if there are no swear words in it. Comedy should make an audience laugh, not squirm.

There are more than enough usable subjects to tackle that are loaded with potential punch lines that will keep any newcomer busy for several years. This is part of paying one’s dues, but it does not have to be unpleasant. In fact, it can be extremely rewarding to come up with material that is clean and able to be used in any situation without fear of censorship or reprimand from anyone.

If nothing else, remember that keeping it clean will be the fastest way you’ll be able to get paid for being funny both as a writer and performer. You can evolve any way you choose later on, but for now three powerful and time tested words to hold next to your heart are “clean makes green”.