By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com
Here’s a concept that might sound a little goofy at first, but if you stay with it I feel it can be an extremely simple but effective guide for your entire career. The earlier you can implement it into your thinking process, the more it can help you stay focused and on a clear path of development.
I call this concept “three magic words”, and it sounds pretty simple. There are a lot of concepts that sound simple from “world peace” to “cure cancer”. The matter of effectively executing those concepts is an entirely different story, and it tends to consume all who make an attempt to do so.
Hopefully, that’s exactly what will happen to you. It may take you years or even decades to put a definite three words together, but the effort it takes will absolutely be worth it. You will have a recognizable product that stands out from everybody else’s, and that’s a large part of the battle.
Virtually every successfully established comedian can be described in about three words. There may be a few exceptions that need four or can be done in two, but much more often than not any comedian who is known even a little can be summed up with three words. Those words describe what that particular comedian does or who his or her comedic persona is on stage in a nutshell.
Examples of Comedians Past
Let’s start with a list of 20th Century comedians who established themselves as leaders of their generation. If you’re not familiar with anyone on this list, make it a point to look them up so you can study their work in detail. In alphabetical order, here are ten of the top comic personas ever.
Woody Allen – ‘Neurotic paranoid nebbish’
Roseanne Barr – ‘Housewife/Domestic goddess’
Jack Benny – ‘Cheap vain narcissist’
George Carlin – ‘Clever word smith’
Bill Cosby – ‘Father figure storyteller’
Rodney Dangerfield – ‘Sad sack loser’
Jeff Foxworthy – ‘Intelligent Southern spokesperson’
Bob Hope – ‘Smart aleck playboy’
Richard Pryor – ‘Unvarnished social commentator’
Jerry Seinfeld – ‘Extremely detailed observer’
Plug In Your Own Descriptions
I chose these ten acts because I thought they were a random sampling of well defined comedic characters, but by no means do I claim to have described them all with final authority. There are a lot more words that could be plugged in for most of these acts, and there’s room for you to play around a little and see what you come up with that might describe that comic in even more detail.
You might find that a completely different trio of words describes someone on the list more to your liking and that’s fine. The point is to narrow down one’s entire act and persona to just three words. It can be a lot more difficult than it seems at first, but with some practice it’s much easier.
I feel this exercise is so important I want to present an alternative list of three words for every one of the acts on the list. That way you can compare and decide for yourself which are better or better yet come up with three entirely different words of your own. The point is to apply focus.
Woody Allen – ‘Overwhelmed Jewish nerd’
Roseanne Barr – ‘Frustrated complaining female’
Jack Benny – ‘Egotistical insecure manipulator’
George Carlin – ‘Opinionated social observer’
Bill Cosby – ‘America’s funny grandfather’
Rodney Dangerfield – ‘Gets no respect’
Jeff Foxworthy – ‘Regional family storyteller’
Bob Hope – ‘Current events ridiculer’
Richard Pryor – ‘Frightened urban outsider’
Jerry Seinfeld – ‘Human experience cataloger’
I don’t claim to be 100% correct with all of these attempts, and if any of these acts themselves were to see how I described them I can’t guarantee they would agree. It doesn’t matter. They’ve all established themselves and had successful careers, and I’m using them as examples so you’ll be able to practice this concept until you get good enough to come up with three words that sum up your own persona. The sooner you can do that, the easier it will be to build upon in the future.
This should be a constant evolving process as long as you perform comedy. Look at somebody like a George Carlin for example. He had several personas during his run, and depending on any particular one of them his three words changed when his act did. It’s ok for you to do this as well and in fact it’s a good thing because it will keep you on a single path rather than trying to mix up different ingredients and present something neither you nor any paying audience can figure out.
What are YOUR “Three Magic Words?”
Alas, this is the million dollar question isn’t it? If everyone could easily answer this I wouldn’t need to teach another class. We’d all have it figured out. The truth is most of us never nail it. I’m not being negative – just realistic. It’s rare for any comedian to get his or her personality polished to the point it can be described in three words or at least three words that would be marketable.
Unfortunately, ‘maniacal raving lunatic’ doesn’t work as far as marketability goes. I’ve seen all kinds of beginners try to force being ‘different’ or just plain weird, but that burns out quickly and never has any staying power. This is an exercise in subtlety, and one that can frustrate for years.
The important thing is that you start somewhere, even if your three words to start are ‘direction lacking newcomer’. We all start there, and the trick is to evolve as quickly and efficiently as one can. If a comedian isn’t sure of what he or she is trying to present on stage, how can an audience or more importantly a booker know? Having a direction helps everyone identify who you are.
What are some possible beginner term examples? Try to think of words you feel describe you:
Examples: single, married, frustrated, angry, nervous, confused, dissatisfied, rural, urban
Another clue is to try and nail down what it is you do or aspire to do when you’re on stage:
Examples: complainer, observer, impersonator, commentator, storyteller, exaggerator, liar
Maybe physical characteristics help set you apart from the crowd. Whatever it is, consider it all:
Examples: tall, short, gangly, pudgy, youthful, aging, ethnic, sickly, well dressed, sloppy
This is a good starter list to give you some ideas on how to come up with your own. I’ve had to change mine time and time again through the years and I’m finally starting to settle in on the one that works for me. Had I started sooner as you are, I’d have shown far more consistent progress.
Play around and experiment until you can come up with your own trio of magic words – even if you write them in pencil. Tweak one word at a time, and see what you come up with. I have been at this for years myself, and sometimes I’ll change two words in one year but other years I won’t change a one and maintain that for several years running. Really be careful which words you use.
Use this formula often – and nobody has to know
Now that you’ve learned this formula, I suggest you use it as often as you can. Every comedian you see from now on, look at him or her objectively and try to fit their act and their persona into a three word description. Some acts will baffle you, but you’ll be able to figure out most of them.
One word of caution, there is never a need to get tricky or fancy with this exercise. If all you’re able to come up with honestly is something like ‘excellent joke teller’, there’s something to work with and you can build on it. ‘Superstar billionaire sexpot’ is an ego stroke. Use your discretion.