Theory of Comedy

Discuss your favorite platform magic and illusions.

Postby Guest » 12/03/01 11:40 PM

Hello All,

Could someone recommend a good book... or books on comedy? Writing, theory etc. I work as a stand up comedy magician and I am always looking to study and improve.

Thank you kindly.
John Zander
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Postby Guest » 12/04/01 09:32 AM

Here are some very good books, but I don't know if they are in or out of print at this time. Comedy Writing Step by Step, Comedy Writing Step by Step and Comedy Writing Workbookboth by Gene Perret, former writer for Bob Hope and Carol Burnett Both teach a nice, disciplined approach to writing. Good Luck.
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Postby Guest » 12/04/01 10:06 AM

Thank you very much Karen. I will try to find those. Sounds like they are exactly what I am looking for.

Thanks,
John Zander
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Postby Jim Maloney_dup1 » 12/04/01 12:36 PM

I have Comedy Writing Step by Step by Gene Perret...good book. Another one you may want to check out, if you haven't already is Stand Up Comedy by Judy Carter.

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Postby Guest » 12/04/01 01:06 PM

I second "Stand up Comedy the Book" By Judy Carter. It is a wonderful teaching/learning tool. Also check into books on creative writing ( if you haven't already) the techniques can be employed in comedy as well.
Keep 'em laughin!
Jay
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Postby Guest » 12/04/01 01:15 PM

I am in the process of reading Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy by Jay Sankey. This book is targeted at the working comedian, (of which I am not, just interested in comedy) filled with many observations and theory about what makes comedy work.

I would also like to second the recommendation on Stand Up Comedy by Judy Carter. After reading this book, I have a lot more insight into what makes something funny. This book is targeted more towards the beginner/amateur/interested.

Burt
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Postby Guest » 12/12/01 11:34 AM

Thank you all very much for the suggestions.... off to the book store!

Thank you,
John Zander John@ZanderMagic.com
Zander Magic
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Postby Pete Biro » 12/26/01 11:23 PM

Reminds me of...

Seabrooke and I did a lecture on comedy magic and gags once... following the lecture one of the attendees came up to us and asked, "How can I become funny?"

Seabrooke asked, "Are you?"

The fella said "No."

Terry told him it was not likely that he could, that most all comedy performers he knows of are just naturally funny.

:eek: :( :D :confused: :o ;)
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Postby Tom Stone » 12/27/01 04:30 AM

Originally posted by Pete Biro:
Terry told him it was not likely that he could, that most all comedy performers he knows of are just naturally funny.


I'm not sure that I agree to that.
First, there's a difference between being able to write comedy, and being able to deliver it.
So, if a person isn't naturally funny, it is still possible to learn to write funny material - and that process, in it self, will make it easier to learn to deliver it as well.

Sure, if a person isn't naturally funny, it might be difficult to become a world class comedian, but it is always possible to become funnier than before.

A book recommendation:
Impro for Storytellers by Keith Johnstone.
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Postby Guest » 12/27/01 05:38 AM

Tom Stone makes a very good point. Many funny lines are ruined by the delivery. I think it may be easier to be a comedy writer than it is to be a comedy performer because in writing, you can edit and rewrite until you have a finished product. Then again, I have been cursed with writers block so many times I have lost count, yet I never run out of smart assed comments to make verbally.

To answer John Zander's question about which books to receommend. I haven't read any of the ones listed so I cannot offer any good advice. Sorry.
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Postby Guest » 12/27/01 02:17 PM

I, too, find it odd that some would suggest "If you're not funny, don't try to be." Don't even TRY? Not even give it a SHOT as we search for our magical voice? Come on. What ever happened to "If at first you don't succeed, try try again"? Its like Lorayne's books would always warn us to not change anything! He experimented with all ways! His way was best! Final even! What ever happened to progress? Then to top it off, Lorayne's latest book is FILLED with variations of his earlier stuff. But to be completely honest, he proves his own point. Most of the effects were better before! End of rant.
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Postby Guest » 12/28/01 10:25 AM

I think Terry was only kidding with the person who asked the question. That sounds like he was making another joke. I could be wrong and that would be terrible to say to a person. Hopefully Pete can clear this up.
Cheers,
Jay
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Postby Steve Bryant » 12/28/01 10:32 AM

No, it's sound advice and Vernon among others has preached it. If you aren't funny, if you don't think funny, then don't try to be funny. Magic can be wonderfully presented without the magician trying to be funny. As to standup comedy, I can't imaging anyone trying it who isn't naturally funny. I've seen some who have, and one just cringes watching them. I can't sing, for example, and no amount of lessons can cure that deficiency. From me, Darren Romeo has nothing to worry about.
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Postby Brian Marks » 12/28/01 01:19 PM

Steve

I am a stand up comic. You could not be further from the truth. Yes I believe Vernon was wrong too. Being funny has nothing to do with singing. I have seen plenty of people who are "naturally" funny in normal situations who bomb on stage because they have no idea how to bring their sense of humor to a stage. There are people who are considered not to be funny go up and kill with a good set of well prepared material which they had written themselves. Alot of them have gone on to be successful pro comedians.

You can learn to develop your sense of humor which everbody has. Go to a comedy club and watch comedians tell jokes. Second, create a defined performing persona(usually an extension of yourself) and it becomes easy to write jokes for that persona. Anybody can do it with work. Timing and persona come from performing frequently to develop it. Read the Mac King article. Mac King did what stand up comics do all the time with performing a ton to develop an act. Ive seen him and he's increadible. I assure you he didn't start off funny but over the course of developing a stage persona, he wrote jokes and picked magic tricks that would fit with the "Howdy I'm Mac King" persona character. What you see a comedy/magic act honed over thousand of performances.
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Postby Guest » 12/28/01 01:30 PM

Being funny is tough across the board. Some people are funny in certain situations and are not in others. George Carlin is a terrific stand up comedian but did you see his show when it was on Fox? Not funny and I wanted to like the show because I am a huge fan of George Carlin.

It is definitely possible to be a stand up comedian without being naturally funny or even funny in another situation. there are probably many examples of it. I would have to say that Terry Seabrook is wrong.

It also depends on what is interpreted as funny I guess. There are some comedians that I think totally suck, yet they have large followings of paying audiences.

Interesting topic.

PS - there are some close up magicians that attempt comedy that totally suck at it too. I saw a lecture that was filled with one liners and it was embarassing.
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Postby Pete Biro » 12/28/01 07:14 PM

Shecky Greene, on stage, with time to build, is one of the funniest guys in history.

6 minutes on TV... forget it.

No, I think Seabrooke was serious about someone not funny trying to be funny.

He wasn't talking about material, but just being funny.

There is a big difference in being a COMIC and a COMEDIAN.

Comics do lines.

Comedians are just funny no matter the material. IMHO

What is the longest word you can touch type with only your left hand?

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Postby Pete Biro » 12/28/01 07:16 PM

I know one of Jay Leno's top writers and met two of his contributing writers.

The first guy IS FUNNY and is a good performer. The other two seemed like accountants or secret service guys.

In talking to the latter two, I found they have regular jobs, like accounting, and get up each day, listen to the news and try to write 10 or 20 gags, then they fax 'em in to Jay's office.

They get paid for those used.

Not sure how many folks he has doing it that way. They had never met him before that night (we got together in the dressing room at a concert Jay was doing).
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Postby Brian Marks » 12/28/01 10:26 PM

Jay Leno has a staff of workers who sit around an office writing. usually they are stand up comics or sketch writers. That was the first guy you met. Anybody can submit Jay Leno a joke and if they decide to use it you can get paid. Obviously these guy produce enough material they are well known on the staff. I am not sure the details on the guys who fax in the jokes and how it works. The staff writers I have the basic idea of. Look up the "Ross Reports" online or at a Barnes and Nobles. The Ross Reports will tell you how to submit work to people like the staff at the Tonight Show. Ross Report lists agents, managers, films currntly being shot and where television shows are shot along with its staff. Its common in NY and LA to have Ross Reports at news stands but may be harder to find other places.
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Postby Brian Marks » 12/28/01 10:51 PM

1.Everyone is an expert at stand up comedy especially people who dont do it. Comics dont just say lines. I dont mean to be insulting but you have complete lack of understanding of what stand up comedy is and the processi involved in writing and performing comedy. The difference between a comic and a comedian only exists at low talent levels. It disappears as on trains their sense of humor and increases their own acting ability.

2. I've seen people who weren't "funny" make a living at stand up comedy. This was due to analyzing comedy and developing a sense for it. It is possible. Everyone here has told a joke and made people laugh in a conversation. You can harness this ability to work on stage even if Terry Seabrooke and Dai Vernon think you suck and dont belong near a stage. Chances are I think you suck, especially if you listen to me, I have enough competition as it is.
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Postby Tom Stone » 12/29/01 07:34 AM

Originally posted by Steve Bryant:
No, it's sound advice and Vernon among others has preached it. If you aren't funny, if you don't think funny, then don't try to be funny. Magic can be wonderfully presented without the magician trying to be funny.

Hmm.. There is some truth in this, but perhaps on another level.
Vernon, I guess, based that opinion on his mantra "Be natural", i.e. try to evolve and refine the abilities that nature have given you. If you are naturally funny, take advantage of it in your work as a magician. If you have other talents, evolve them instead. And sure - that is good advice for people who has gotten the impression that comedy is required to become a good artist, for people who doesn't have a true desire to become funny, but believes that success is impossible without comedy. Many people have such beliefs.
But what nature has given you is only a suggestion, and not a rule. If you really and truely desire to become funnier, it is certainly possible. As long as it is your own desire, and not something that you think that others expect of you.
We all crawled in the beginning. If there were any truth in a thought like "be satisfied with what nature have given you", most of us would never have learned to walk.
As to standup comedy, I can't imaging anyone trying it who isn't naturally funny. I've seen some who have, and one just cringes watching them. I can't sing, for example, and no amount of lessons can cure that deficiency.

I don't believe that. How many singing lessons have you taken? If you took more than a few single lessons, there must have been some improvement.
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Postby Steve Bryant » 12/29/01 10:02 AM

I realize it is futile to continue this point because I'm failing to establish the basic fact that all people and especially all would-be comics are not born equal.

Everyone here has told a joke and made people laugh in a conversation.


Everyone here may have told a joke, but some have bored the hell out of their listeners, even if they used a well-written script and delivered it word for word. And yes with enough training (like a parrot) they may be coached to do it better (many politicians and other public speakers are good examples), but that still doesn't make them funny in the sense of becoming another Jack Benny or whoever you think of as funny. When Mac King _first_ uttered the word "Howdy" he was already being funny, wickedly so (Of course I've read the articles!), and he had the keen intelligence and sense of humor to later turn the word to gold. Not everyone has the innate ability to do just anything; some just don't have the IQ or talent to become a physicist or a physician or a painter or whatever, and this applies to humor as well as to any other field of endeavor. For those who do have possibility, sure, they can improve. As to my singing, no, I haven't taken lessons; that is the funniest suggestion that has been made here. But I have taken golf lessons, repeatedly. Contrary to you idealists out there, I don't get better. Oh, better than the first day I started (you wouldn't think it was possible to completely miss a ball 50 times in a row that was just sitting there, mocking me), but after a certain point, forget it.
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Postby Brad A._dup1 » 12/29/01 11:36 AM

This might help as a good example:

There's an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show where a mobster hires Rob to write a standup act for his nephew. Rob and his gang work hard at writing excellent comedy. The mobster's nephew does the act, and ruins ALL the jokes.

He can't deliver. He doesn't understand the way the comedy works, or how the audience will respond.

This fellow just can't do comedy.
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Postby Bill Duncan » 12/29/01 12:13 PM

Brad,
You do realize that you're quoting as evidence of "fact", a piece of fiction, right?

Also, I think you just made the opposite of your point. The Dick Van Dyke show was created by the guy who played Alan Brady, a very funny writer/comedian named Carl Reiner. Carl wasn't photogenic enough for the networks so a popular ACTOR named Dick Van Dyke was hired to play the character Carl had originated in the pilot.

The actor was taught to be "naturally funny" in order to play the part of a writer/comedian. That this is possible proves at least that people (if talented actors) can pretend to be funny.

I've seen Mr. Van Dyke as himself a number of times and consensus opinion is that his brother Jerry is "the funny one" in the family.

:D
click here for a mini history of the Dick Van Dyke show
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Postby Pete Biro » 12/29/01 12:23 PM

I have noted that a good comedian can really do a good job at serious acting (Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, et al) but few actors can do comedy.
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Postby Brad A._dup1 » 12/29/01 01:12 PM

Bill,
I was using that episode as an example of how sometimes people just aren't funny.

Even when one has great material, they still just can't do it. This was stated earlier on in this post.

There IS some type of "natural" talent that is involved with comedy. Learning how to present and use those skills all depends on the performer.

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Postby Brian Marks » 12/29/01 02:16 PM

who on this thread has performed stand up comedy(no magic tricks) besides me?
I just want to see anyone who might understand the process of writng and performing comedy.

Ive noticed that very few people who have never before been in comedy actually know the difference between conventional wisdom that the lay public believes and what actually goes on behind the comedy scene. Its sort of like magic in that sense who believe you need quick hands to do sleight of hand.

Many professional comedians including famous ones started off not being funny on a comedy stage. Rodney Dangerfield quit in his mid twenties because he was so bad only to return ten years later. Jerry Seinfeld bombed all the time when he started until he learned how to create material. If you judge somebody as not being funny on a stage or just naturally, doesn't mean they aren't or can't become so. You must agree that a serious attempt is worth it. It includes performing several times, not just once. The performing usually comes after careful preparation

How does this relate to magic an deal with the original question of the thread? Here is my advice to people geting into stand up comedy/comedy magic as originally asked for.
1. go to comedy club and watch the other comics. Watch both good and bad comics you learn what to do and more importantly what not to do. You learn more about comedy here than from a book or from the magic world (which focuses on magic. Who would have figured that one out?)

2 dont try to be funny! sounds ironic but if you have never done comedy and you try to be funny, you end up being silly. This happens to people who suck as well as naturally funny people. Its a trap for beginners! I am willing to bet this is what Dai Vernon and Terry Seabrooke were trying to say.

3. If you live in a major city, even in most minor cities, I am sure there is a comics open mike. Try to perform your act there. If your real ballsy, youll write some of you own jokes and try stand up comedy. This way when you go back to magic the act becomes more about you than the tricks.

4. If youv'e done this for a year and still cant make a crowd laugh with original comedy material, your either not working hard enough or maybe Im wrong and you cant learn comedy
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Postby Pete Biro » 12/29/01 03:33 PM

Correcto... open mike nights, mc work, you name it WORK WORK WORK...

One night Leno told a couple of new guys "EVERY NIGHT YOU DON'T WORK YOU GO BACKWARDS."

He was great to new guys in the green room. Always took time to watch 'em and comment.
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Postby Guest » 01/18/02 01:58 PM

Also try

The Comic Writers Toolbox
How to be a working comic

but none are as good as Zen and the art of stand up comedy by Jay Sankey.

If anyone is interested, I have a email newsletter for comedy magicians. Email me for more information at laugh@funnybones.com.au
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Postby Jon Racherbaumer » 01/18/02 05:00 PM

Actors can't do comedy, Pete?
How about Albert Finney, Alec Guiness, Peter Sellers, Steve McQueen, Tom Hanks, James Garner, and even Clint Eastwood...
The list is long...
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Postby Guest » 01/18/02 06:07 PM

I have just finished a degree in sociology in which I looked at the sociology of comedy. I came across this definition of comedy. (paraphrased)

"The visualized biosociation of two mutually exclusive frames of reference on the perimeter of societal norms."

I.e. two disaparete ideas brought together in the subject's head that question society's norms without breaking them.

e.g. a business man falling the mud is funny as long as he doesn't break his neck. (unless it is done in an accpetable way) The two ideas are the mud (dirty and undignified) and the business man (clean and dignified.)

However, using this theory to write funny material is another kettle of fish all together....
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Postby Brian Marks » 01/19/02 11:37 AM

"Being funny is tough across the board. Some people are funny in certain situations and are not in others. George Carlin is a terrific stand up comedian but did you see his show when it was on Fox? Not funny and I wanted to like the show because I am a huge fan of George Carlin."

A television and stand up comedy are different. If a stand up comic fails its his fault. He writes, produces, directs and perfoms his own material. In televison you are working with a network television who have their own ideas of whats funny, a budget, a deadline, FCC rules reguarding what you say, a producer who actuially runs the show, a director, a staff of writers, a cast of actors and other limiting situations. George Carlin could not really be George Carlin. Stand Up comedy is easier due to fewer people trying to control your material and freedom to do what you want.
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Postby Guest » 01/21/02 08:10 AM

Okay, truth is, comedy is very subjective. What you consider funny or who you consider funny, I might not. But anyone can learn comedy and timing, just as anyone can learn magic - if they really want to. I am taking a class right now where, on the first day, someone announced they were taking the class b/c they were not funny and had no ability to remember a joke or tell a joke. Then they told a story that was very funny- and they told it well.

If you couldn't learn comedy, there wouldn't be "How to" books on the subject. I am part of a two-person comedy magic show and when we started our timing was completely different and did not work together. But with the help of Bob Fitch and Richard Kaufman (and lots of practice) we learned to work together and our timing is pretty exact now. People even laugh during our show :D
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Postby Guest » 01/21/02 08:50 AM

Jon is right - there are tons of actors who are funny and vice-versa.

Plus, George Carlin's show flopped b/c the writing was bad, not b/c he can only do stand-up. Did you see Dogma? He was very funny in that. But the writing was excellent.
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Postby Geno Munari » 01/22/02 07:59 AM

And then there was Cary Grant, Zero Mostel, Jim Backus, Ed Asner, Carroll O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, and I think even Vincent Price!
There is a lot of comedy in the assembly.......
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Postby Guest » 01/22/02 08:03 AM

Not to nitpick, but George Carlin wrote most of the stuff for his show in 1994. His style of comedy doesn't have the punch once it runs through the censors.

Yes, I did see Dogma and Carlin was funny in it.
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Postby Guest » 01/22/02 10:19 AM

I think Carlin's style of comedy may very well have the right punch. we'll never know since he stopped doing comedy and is now focusing on being angry.
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Postby Guest » 01/22/02 10:43 AM

stopped doing comedy and is now focusing on being angry.


I know what you mean. Did you see his last HBO show? Ouch! There are "Insult Comics" and then there is just being insulting. That is one angry guy. I didn't find much humor in it.

And I am a big fan of his. I remember when I was a little kid and my mom would buy his records. I probably didn't understand most of what I was hearing, but he really killed me, and always has.

But an hour of "you know who else I hate" was a bit much for me. Maybe a few heart attacks will do that to you. That has got to be unimaginable. His career has lasted longer than most, because he is good at what he does, one of the best. But after that last show, I lost interest.
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Postby Guest » 01/22/02 11:35 AM

Carlin has kind of turned into a ranting cynic over the last several years. I think alot of it may have had something to do with his wife dying from cancer a couple of years ago.

The first time he slipped into a political tyrade that lasted for about 20 minutes of his comedy that I can remember took place about 10 years ago. It was tough to get into the rest of the show after he started out with the "what is wrong with the United States" bit.

I didn't see his last 2 shows because of how his approach has changed.

He used to be my favorite because he focused on silly things and things everyone can relate to instead of talking about how corporate america has ruined everything.
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Postby Pete McCabe » 01/22/02 02:56 PM

Just to swing this thread back to its stated topic, I know of two primary theories of comedy:

The first comes, I believe, from Neil Simon, although I might be wrong and even if I'm right it may well go back much further than Neil. It is: Real people in unreal situations.

Seinfeld (the series) uses this type of comedy almost exclusively. In almost every episode, the comedy is generated by one of their "ordinary people" characters (i.e. Jerry, George, Elaine) interacting with someone else who is rather unreal (the close-talker, the quiet talker, the ludicrously serious library detective).

IMO this type of comedy can break down if the unreal situations become too unreal, but there's no doubt it is a tried-and-true formula.

The converse of this idea -- unreal people in real situations -- was pioneered Monty Python. The man getting a license for his bee; the talk show with three people, one of whom only said the beginnings of words, one who only said the middles, and one who only said the ends, etc.


The second primary theory of comedy is that comedy comes from a change in perspective. This was first postulated (as far as I know) by Isaac Asimov, of all people.

Asimov's first example (paraphrased): A boy stops a man on the street and asks what time it is. The man says Two thirty. The boy says Good -- at three o'clock you can kiss my a**. While the man is chasing the boy down the street to give him a spanking, he comes across a friend and tells him the story. "I see, but why are you running," the friend says. "You still have twenty minutes left."

Asimov's Treasury of Humor gives the full story and many more jokes and anecdotes, which illuminate his theory. Not all comedy follows this definition, but a lot does, and I definitely think that studying Asimov's theory will help you create humor for your own use and from your own character.


Of course, these are not contradictory or independant theories at all. Frequently the humor in "real people in unreal situations" comes from a change in perspective from the real person to the unreality of the situation.

But the more you know about what makes different types of comedy work, the better you'll be able to use them.
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