Keeping A Diary

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

   Another one of far too many things I now wish I’d done differently on my comedy journey is to have kept a detailed diary from the very start. I have done a thorough job in more recent years, and in fact have kept a daily journal since March 14th of 2006 that can be found on my website.

   It’s much easier to keep track of things now with the advent of technology, but when I started it was not an option. Still, with a little effort I could have had an outstanding chronicle of a lifetime journey which took me all over North America and allowed me to meet some legendary names in the comedy business. I didn’t realize how important it was then, and I think that’s true with most.

   I was fortunate enough to come along at an amazing time in history that will never ever happen again. The stars and planets all aligned and the boom of the ‘80s exploded with America jumping on board the standup comedy bandwagon. It was red hot, and I got to be a part of the explosion.

   None of us knew it, but we were in the right place at the right time and rode a wave that spread across the entire nation. There was no internet to distract anyone, and people came out in droves to experience standup comedy live. We were the flavor of the time, and that time lasted a while.

Big Names Weren’t Always Big

   I was just a beginner when the boom hit, so I missed out on the big money by a smidgeon. Had I had the solid polished act then I have now, I’d have been hauling in some serious bank. Still, it allowed me to make a livable wage while learning my craft and touring all over the continent.

   Not only that, I got to work with and become friends with talented people from every corner of North America – quite a few of them on their way to bigger and better things. Every week was a brand new adventure, and we never knew who fate would match us up with at any given time.

   Names I distinctly remember from those early days are some you may have heard of including Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, Robert Schimmel, Drew Carey, Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Jimmy Fallon, Rosie O’Donnell, Steve Harvey, Richard Jeni, Frank Caliendo and Andrew “Dice” Clay.

   And that’s just off the top of my head. Other legendary names I crossed paths with at one time or another include George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and my very favorite comedian of all time Rodney Dangerfield. I was very lucky to come around at the time that I did.

   In addition to the big names, I also got to work with some wonderfully talented people who are no longer here including George Miller, Ron Shock, Ed Fiala, Zack and Mack, Shirley Hemphill, Dennis Wolfberg and my early career mentors C. Cardell Willis, Jimmy Miller and Gary Kern.

   All of these people touched me in some way, and almost all of it was good. I learned how to be a professional entertainer by interacting with all of these names and I wish I’d kept better track.

Change Is Constant

   Another part of the journey most everyone neglects is the actual venues where we perform. For example, the first place I ever did standup comedy was a jazz club called “Sardino’s on Farwell” in Milwaukee. It’s also where singer Al Jarreau began his career, but it’s since been torn down.

   The first place I ever got paid to do standup comedy was just a few blocks down the street also on Farwell Avenue called “Teddy’s”. It was a rock club that would eventually become a comedy club a few years later called “The Funny Bone” where I would end up cutting my early chops.

   There were also plenty of local dives, toilets and hell holes I worked along the way that are not around anymore – and probably shouldn’t have been around when they were. Looking back, they were all part of the journey and it wouldn’t have taken much to snap a photograph of all of them.

   One of my very first road bookings was at a nightmarish old hotel in Iowa, and my cousin rode along to keep me company in the car. It was filthy and rickety, and the room they tried to put me in had stains I was afraid to try to identify. My cousin and I still joke about it all these years later, but how hard would it have been to take a few pictures? I would truly love to possess those now.

Record Your Journey. If Not For You – For Others

   In painful retrospect, I wish I would have recorded every single place I ever worked, and every single comic I worked with – good or bad. I wish I had pictures of the slimy booking agents who chiseled us for anything they could, and the tiny radio stations I drove to at 6am to go on and try to promote my show between farm reports. It was all part of the trip – and it was all fascinating.

   There was only one comic I ever remember doing it correctly, and his name was Chip Chinery out of Cincinnati. Chip always took pictures of the comics he worked with, and then would send us one in the mail a few weeks later. I always thought that was neat. He was way ahead of us all.

   Today’s world is completely different. I don’t know if it’s better or worse, but the opportunity to record the journey of life is not difficult at all. I highly suggest anyone embarking on the epic life long journey that is standup comedy start keeping detailed records and keeping them early.

   Anyone who is in the entertainment business for any amount of time will experience the same things we all do. There will be people of all kinds who come in and out of the game, and some of them will rise to great heights. Others will die unexpectedly, and still others will quit or vanish.

   Memories will evolve or get fuzzy over time, but having the picture to refer to will bring things back into accurate perspective. Good and bad events will all morph into good in time, and having the record will be a wonderful souvenir of a life spent chasing a dream. I speak from experience.

   If you drive through a blizzard or stay in a crappy hotel – take a picture and file it away. You’ll relive it later and laugh. I know I sound like an old fart – and I am. I have a lot of great memories of a life doing what I always dreamed of, but I could have easily kept a better trip log. Do better.

What To Do?

   Had I to do all over again, I’d have put my complete heart and soul into cataloging my journey. I put my heart and soul into taking it, so why not record it for the future? It’s like taking a doggie bag home from a fine restaurant. You’re full at the time you leave the restaurant, but later on it’s an unbelievable treat to sample a few more bites of that delicious food. This is the same thing.

   How many people get the chance to chase their life’s dream? Maybe that’s the wrong question. How many people actually DO it? I did, and I don’t regret one second. Even the stupid mistakes I made along the way were an education, and I’d rather do that than suffer at a miserable day job.

   When I started, I was a naïve punk kid who thought he was bullet proof. Now I’m the war torn grizzled old cuss I never thought I’d become. I’m a seasoned veteran of many missions, and I put everything I had into learning my craft. I lived what most people only dream of, and it would be a tremendous treat if I could look back over it now from this perspective – but I blew my chance.

   While it was all happening, I was too busy dealing with whatever was going on at the time. My eyes were always looking forward to the next thing, when in fact I should have been enjoying the events one at a time as they happened. I had a lot of fun adventures that are only a memory now.

   It wouldn’t have taken all that much to keep better records, and I’ve proven that with the diary I have kept every single day that’s now in its eighth year. I’ve got over 3000 pages packed with detailed stories of my life on the road and on stage, and it has become habit like taking a shower or brushing my teeth. I may fall behind a day or two, but I always catch up. I’ve been consistent.

Record It ALL!

   My advice to anyone and everyone would be to make a point to record everything about one’s journey from the earliest point possible. If you can have your first time on stage recorded – do it! I’d love to have a recording of my first time on stage, but it’s gone forever. That ship has sailed.

   I also missed out on taking a picture of the venues where I started, and most of the comedians I started with. When I started to travel, I wish I’d have recorded the places I worked, the less than ideal places I stayed, the rattletrap cars I used to crisscross the country and everything else I did.

   I should have kept track of all the out of the way restaurants where I had delicious meals of the highest order, all the sights I saw, the people I met and more. I stopped at every oddball museum, tourist trap and roadside attraction I saw, and I should have it all chronicled – but I totally don’t.

   I also made remarkable progress on my act. I could easily have monitored what material I used where, and what I may have ad libbed that later became a part of the show. That happened often. I also vanquished an endless string of hecklers, and it would have been fun to keep track of those as well. I’ve had some legendary stories I wish I’d be able to examine from my perspective now.

  You have a chance to do better. I highly recommend you take this opportunity and keep track of your personal journey as it unfolds. You won’t even notice after a while as you’re doing it, but at some point in your future you’ll enjoy looking back and seeing what a fantastic voyage you took!

Three Magic Words

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.

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.

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”.

Your First Year In Standup Comedy

By Dobie Maxwell – www.dobiemaxwell.com

   There is no more singly important year in a person’s comedy journey than the first one. There’s a whole lot going on in a lot of different areas, and trying to sort it all out as it unfolds can be the most difficult task of all. I had no clue what to do in my first year (and a lot more after that), and I think it’s important to bring up a few key points that can help make it as productive as possible.

As strange as it may appear, one of if not the least important parts of your first year in comedy is your actual act itself. Don’t get me wrong, it’s extremely important to always work on making it better – but there’s only so far anyone can go in a year. There are other things that rank higher.

You’re basically back in first grade – or if you’re Canadian ‘grade one’. Is the actual content of what any kid writes with that big fat blue pencil important? Not in the least, but it’s not the point. The point is to learn how to get used to the process of what it takes to accomplish the task later.

Those first few attempts of anyone learning to write are pretty similar. They’re horrible, but it’s expected. Everyone has to start somewhere, and that’s why we have schools. ‘Art’ is even worse. Look at the pathetic attempts we all make in first grade to draw a picture of anything. It’s brutal.

Still, these beginning attempts often become placed in a position of exalted prominence on the side of the refrigerator. Why does this happen? It’s a matter of love. Parents don’t care about the art itself, they care about the one who did it. Unfortunately, entertainment doesn’t work like that.

Comedy or any other performance genre can be a very cruel business in a very cruel world. It’s cut throat, nasty and not for the weak of heart. I wish it weren’t like this, but it absolutely is. That shouldn’t stop you from pursuing it, but you need to know it’s a jungle out there. You need to get yourself ready for ultimate survival, and that requires an extremely thick skin and a set of tools.

The thick skin will come eventually from consistently getting on stage, but it won’t come in the first year. There are going to be some lumps, and there’s no way around it. If you don’t panic and just accept that it’s part of the process everyone must endure, it won’t be as scary as it may seem.

I keep referring to ‘the process’ – but that’s exactly what it is. It’s the step by step accumulation of individual firsthand experiences that grow to become one consistent body of work. That’s how a craft is learned, and that’s what standup comedy is. No one single event makes one a comedian.

Little events, strung together over years, add up to the collective. I’m trying to offer insider tips from someone who has been down that path, in order to prepare future travelers to make the most of their journey. There will still be hard work required, but it will hopefully pay more dividends.

That being said, I want to offer up a list of useful tools I wish I’d taken full advantage of when I started. Some were at my disposal, others weren’t. These are all things I highly recommend for anyone’s first year in standup comedy. It will lay a solid foundation on which to build upon later.

BOOKS TO OWN (AND READ – NOT JUST COLLECT DUST)

1)      ANYTHING BY GENE PERRET

New comedians of any era need to know who Gene Perret is. He was Bob Hope’s head writer for years, and if you don’t know who Bob Hope is there’s another assignment. ‘Old school’ can have a tendency to be looked down upon with disdain by young comics, but that’s a huge mistake. It’s something to be revered and learned from. I read Gene’s fantastic book ‘How To Write And Sell Your Sense Of Humor’ before I ever stepped on a stage, and I still have it – personally signed by Gene. He is a wonderful talent and an even better human being. He has several books and a very informative newsletter called ‘The Round Table’ which is affordable and packed with insight.

Other great books by Gene are ‘Successful Standup Comedy’, ‘Comedy Writing Step By Step’ and ‘Become a Richer Writer’. His focus is mainly on comedy writing, but he’s the master in my opinion – and a lot of others share that opinion. I get nothing from recommending him so highly other than I really mean it and know that if you study his works like I did you will improve a lot.

Gene’s daughter Linda is also someone you should know. She handles the subscriptions to The Round Table and has a website at www.comedywritersroom.com. Tell her I sent you, then order a book and get started. I still refer back to my library of Gene’s books to brush up on my skills.

2)      ‘COMEDY WRITING SECRETS’ by Melvin Helitzer

   This is another book to get your hands on early. There are a lot of easy to follow nuts and bolts concepts in it with excellent examples of great jokes to study to get a feel for the process. It’s not hard to find, and will serve you well for a lifetime. That’s another one I go back to over and over.

3)      ‘COMIC INSIGHTS – The Art of Standup Comedy’ by Franklyn Ajaye

Can be a challenge to find, but well worth it. This is a combination biography/how to book and packed with interesting and informative content. Ajaye himself is a veteran comedian with many TV and movie appearances to his credit and is a passionate student of the standup comedy game.

4)      ‘BRAIN DROPPINGS’ by George Carlin

   Basically, this is George’s comedy notebook printed into book form. There are bits and pieces and scraps of all kinds of ideas, and I dare you to open it randomly to any page and not find one or two things to make you laugh out loud. There are two more books following this one, but this is the best in my opinion. Also, his autobiography ‘Last Words’ is another recommended read.

5)      ‘THE COMEDY BIBLE’ by Judy Carter                                   

   I don’t know Judy extremely well, but I know her and respect her effort for decades to keep up with the pulse of standup comedy. Like Mel Helitzer’s book, there are excellent snippets from all kinds of sources compiled and put together in one place. It’s an excellent reference guide for contacts.

6)      ‘JOKE SOUP’ (and several other titles) by Judy Brown

   Judy has compiled the best jokes from a vast number of comedians ranging from the famous to the obscure, and put them into bite size digestible nuggets. Not only that, she arranged them into categories by subject matter. There are several of these books, and every one is a fantastic source of study for aspiring comedians or anyone else looking to dissect and analyze the joke process.

7)      ‘FINDING THE FUNNY FAST’ by Jan McInnis

   Jan comes from a corporate background, but has been doing standup comedy and doing it well for many years. This is yet another packed full source of practical tips or people starting out on a journey in comedy. Jan is on target, and this is a reasonably priced gem. www.theworklady.com.

8)      ‘THE SERIOUS GUIDE TO JOKEWRITING’ by Sally Holloway

Sally is a very nice lady from the U.K, and she approached me to ask if I would mind looking over her book and telling her what I thought. I’m recommending it on this list, so you’ll be able to correctly guess what my reaction was. This is a well written and helpful book and worth tracking down.

9)      ‘COMEDY AT THE EDGE’ by Richard Zoglin

   This is a biography of many of the comedians that made up the comedy scene of the 1970s and how it changed America. It has a lot of back stories and off stage information, and is a must read for anyone who wants to know the history of standup comedy – which should be all comedians.

10)   ‘COMIC LIVES’ by Betsy Borns

   Another one that can be a challenge to find, but I come across copies from time to time. When I do, I loan them out to other comedians to read and learn. This is also a biography, but about the next generation of comedians from the 1980s. Again, a must read for students of comedy history.

11)   ‘GREAT COMEDIANS TALK ABOUT COMEDY’ by Larry Wilde

This is probably the granddaddy of comedian biography books, and covers comedians a lot of people today have sadly never heard of even though they were giants in their day. There is also a series of audio recordings available at www.laugh.com.  Get the book at www.larrywilde.com.

12)   ‘IF I STOP I’LL DIE: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor’

   This is a warts and all biography of Richard Pryor, and I discovered it in a used book store. It’s a bit intense, but very interesting. Comedy is not for the squeamish, that’s for sure. This is a very real portrayal of a very complex human being – something most if not all standup comedians are.

This is not close to being a complete list by any means, but it’s an excellent starting point that will help lay a rock solid foundation on which to build in the coming years. Enjoy these books!

RECOMMENDED STANDUP COMEDY AUDIO AND VIDEO TO STUDY:

1)      ‘LENNY BRUCE – Let The Buyer Beware’ (CD)

This is a 6 CD anthology of the audio recordings of Lenny Bruce. Every new comedian should know who Lenny Bruce is, and what his place in comedy history is. It doesn’t mean anybody has to like his style or think he’s funny, but his place in history is unquestioned. Study his life story.

2)      ‘WOODY ALLEN: THE NIGHTCLUB YEARS 1964-1968’ – Rhino Records (CD)

Again, personal opinion about someone can taint the objectivity of their work. Woody Allen is an unbelievably prolific and multitalented performer, writer, director and musician. If there’s any other performer in the 20th Century who equaled his output of quality work, I can’t think of it. He is well worth studying on many levels, and his standup comedy is simply some of the best ever.

3)      ‘JOHNNY CARSON – The Best of The Tonight Show: Standup Comedians’ (DVD)

This is an amazing compilation of the first Tonight Show appearances of some of the very top names in standup comedy from Jay Leno to Jerry Seinfeld and many others. It’s an education in itself to watch the first television appearances of so many big names, and see how they have all evolved into what they’re known as today. Again, it’s always a process, and this is revealing. It can be ordered from www.johnnycarson.com and is an excellent investment in comedy study.

4)      ‘NO RESPECT’ and ‘WHAT’S IN A NAME’ – Rodney Dangerfield (CD)

   Rodney is a fascinating study on many levels, and these two audio recordings are proof. He put in his time and paid his dues and then some. The ‘No Respect’ recording is him just as his hottest period was kicking in during the early ‘80s. ‘What’s In A Name’ is him many years before, and a very different product. It’s educational to compare the two, and see how a superstar evolved over a significant period of time. I play these in class and rarely does anyone know it’s the same guy.

5)      ‘BRIAN REGAN LIVE’ – Brian Regan (CD)

   Brian Regan is quite simply one outstanding comedian. His style is his own, and his comedy is able to be enjoyed by anybody. I always preach in my classes “clean makes green” – as in money – and it’s true. Clean comedy done well is extremely difficult, but Brian Regan nails it. If you’re not a fan, I will hopefully turn you into one eventually. He delivers high quality product. www.brianregan.com.

6)      ‘EAT OUT MORE OFTEN’ (and others) – Rudy Ray Moore (Adults Only) (CD)

   For every yin there’s a yang. Brian Regan is ‘squeaky clean’, and Rudy Ray Moore is about as XXX rated as there is. He along with Redd Foxx and several others produced ‘party records’ for many years from the 1950s through the ‘70s. Richard Pryor rose from this pedigree and started a pedigree of his own. Again, this is not for everyone and is VERY adult in content. Still, it’s part of the big picture of standup comedy and historians of the game (you) should be aware of it all.

7)      ‘RODNEY DANGERFIELD – The Ultimate No Respect Collection’ (DVD)

This is a packed 3 DVD set of Rodney’s TV work, including classic ‘Tonight Show’ shots and his young comedians specials from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s  that featured the debuts of major names like Jeff Foxworthy, Tim Allen, Jim Carrey and others. There’s a lot to study with these.

8)      Anything by RICHARD PRYOR  (CD, DVD)

I must admit, I have never found Richard Pryor’s standup comedy funny. For whatever reason, he has just never done it for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect his influence, as I totally do. I also find him to be an extremely interesting case study – and so should you. He influenced a very large number of comedians, and comedy is always a matter of taste. He has my absolute respect.

9)      Anything by RICHARD JENI  (CD, DVD)

   I’ve been a fan of standup comedy all of my adult life, and I have never seen any comedian get as much from any one premise as Richard Jeni. He was an unbelievably proficient comedic mind and he left us way too early. When he digs into a topic, he DIGS IN. He’s the man when it comes to bearing the gold standard of fleshing out a comic premise. His technical skills are impeccable.

10)   PHYLLIS DILLER interviews (You Tube)

   This is a link to a wonderful series of interviews with the great Phyllis Diller. Old school? Yes. Relevant today? Absolutely. Phyllis Diller’s greatness lasted forty plus years at the elite level of the entertainment business, and her influence lives on today. http://youtu.be/Ma0FbWLSOcU

11)  ‘COMEDIAN’ – Jerry Seinfeld

   This is an excellent and all too accurate documentary of how the standup comedy game works, and I admire Jerry Seinfeld for having the guts to do it. This is a must for any aspiring comedian. Jerry Seinfeld is a master comedy technician, and there is a lot to learn in studying what he does.

12)   ‘DOBIE MAXWELL – The Dented Can’ (DVD) – ‘Hard Luck Jollies’ (CD)

   The only reason I’m including myself in such elite company is that I wanted to prove I am not just some babbling schmucko pontificating on something I know nothing about. I’ve practiced all I am preaching, and here’s some of my work to be hopefully enjoyed – but learn from it as well.

These are more than enough leads to get you started on your comedy journey, and will all serve you well as time passes and you can review them again and again. These are meant to inspire and educate, even if you don’t find it all funny. That’s ok. It’s your first year, just soak everything in.

I tried to list some more obscure and/or ‘older school’ sources, as those are not what everybody else is looking at. There are many places to learn and grow today, and I need to stay current with my own study. That’s great, but for educational purposes I wanted to give you a list of the classics to get started.