Thursday, February 20, 2014

Comedy Advice (part 1)

Everyone once in a while, I talk to people who are interested in writing comedy. They have funny ideas, but don't know where to start. (And I can tell you from experience, trying to eat the heart of a clown is not the most efficient way to get better at comedy...despite the shoes those guys are really, really fast.) Since clown cannibalism is pretty much out of the question, we have to realize that there is no one, easy way to learn how to be funny. So here's my advice on how to work on improving your comedy skills.

First, you need to find funny people and spend time with them. Humor is one thing that can be absorbed through osmosis, sort of. One of the best ways I got better at being funny and writing comedy is spending time with people smarter and wittier than me. It forced me to keep up, to train my brain to have an ear for comedy. It took a while to get the hang of it, but eventually I was able to make people laugh with a casual comment, and that's helped my writing.

What's also helped is having people around me who can read and critique my work. My wife is usually the first person who reads my comedy script drafts, and she has a fantastic sense of humor. If I can make her laugh, then I know I've got something special. Find someone like that for you, who you can bounce ideas off of. If possible, find a mentor who can help you craft better comedy.

If possible, try joining a theater group. Community theater is a great place for comedy. Get yourself a part in a comedy show if you can. Learning how the classic comedies operate from the inside out might help you understand how comedy works. There's nothing quite like being onstage and delivering the great laugh-lines to an audience rolling in the aisles.

I know a lot of people want to specialize in their comedy. Some prefer political comedy. Myself, I'm pretty focused on Christian comedy. But before you focus on one area of comedy, you must know what makes comedy work in general. That's why you need exposure to all types of comedy. Read funny things. Watch all types of stand-up comedians. Watch comedy movies. Watch Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report. Listen to NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. The essense of humor is universal and should be studied from all angles.

Even when those examples don't work, when SNL is having an off night for instance, that can still be educational. A comedian who bombs or a "comedy" movie that's not the least bit funny can still teach you some basic truths about humor. Knowing what doesn't work is just as instructive as seeing what does work.

I will tell you that there's one thing you must understand about all successful comedy: it's honest. Comedy is truth. Great jokes have an element of truth to them. The truly great comedians and comedy writers know that before they start telling the truth about others, they must first accept the truth about themselves and be willing to joke about their own failings. Furthermore, they must be willing to admit that they have failings.

As I said, I'm a Christian humorist, and that means that my first target is usually Christians. That's why I'm a big fan of the website "Stuff Christians Like." This is a perfect example of Christian humor. It's written by a Christian, and it includes a lot of great comedy bits  including "How metrosexual is your worship leader" quiz. The humor is lovingly honest about what it means to be a Christian and a member of a church. It is a celebration of Christ and His people, using humor to  celebrate and sometimes criticize the Christian church.

When Jesus taught His followers to first remove the plank from their own eye before looking at the speck in their brother's, I thing He may have been talking about comedy as well. Before you even think about lightly teasing someone else, you need to first take a look at yourself, your group, your beliefs, and be willing to poke fun at it in a truthful way. That's why most of my comedy scripts poke fun at Christians.

This is where most issue based comedy fails. The goal isn't humor or truth, it's about making your side look good by mocking the other side. If that's what you're looking to do, be it about religion, politics, animal rights, social/gender issues, or any other issue, you're going to be frustrated. The idea that your side is perfect and everyone else is wrong isn't funny. Good comedy tells it like it is,even when those truths aren't convenient or don't fit your narrative.

For example, I'm looking at this article I've just written about comedy, and for the most part it really isn't funny. Rather than tell jokes, I'm like an old man yelling at the kids on his lawn. At any moment I'll start ranting about how movies like Airplane and Blazing Saddles are far better comedies than anything produced today. And don't get me started about music today. One Direction? That's not a boy band. In my day, we had New Kids on the Block. THAT'S a boy band. (And don't even get me started about my blatant product placement.)

Finally, when it comes to trying to write comedy, there's one ting you must absolutely do. Write. Just start writing. Write down everything you can think of. Just start writing and see what happens next. Funny writing, like anything, takes time and practice to fully develop. A lot of what you write won't necessarily be funny at first. But keep writing, keep trying, and you'll get better.

So that's my advice. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to tell young people how I had to walk to school, uphill in the snow, both ways.

More of my Musings

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