Wednesday, February 25, 2015
I was the interviewer and John was the “man on the street.” We got the preliminaries out of the way. I asked him his name and where he was from (New Orleans). The objective of this exercise is to force you to really create a “character.”
This too got a big laugh.
John answered my question then launched into more outrageous nonsense, much to the delight of the audience.
I finally broke in with “What side of the street in New Orleans?” Again, a big yuck.
The bit worked for several reasons. First, John figured out immediately what I was doing and played along. And secondly, the construct was very funny. We all know interviewers who don’t listen.
But here’s the dirty little secret: I was essentially doing a Bob & Ray routine. Bob & Ray were a radio comedy team back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Their sketches were uproarious. Always dry, always underplayed, but their premises were always absurd and their timing was impeccable. Although they did not do this exact bit, they did a lot of similar interviewer-guest sketches. Once John launched into his crazy UFO scenario I thought to myself, “This feels like a Bob & Ray sketch. What would Bob & Ray do?”
So two points I want to make: The first: seek out Bob & Ray radio shows. They’re hilarious. And two: comedy evolves. Current comedy has been influenced by what has gone before. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bob & Ray didn’t borrow some of their routines from old Vaudeville comedy teams of the early 1900’s. Comedy wasn't invented in 2005.
Just being a “funny” person isn’t enough. You need to do your homework. You need to study forms of comedy in the same way that musicians analyze the greats that have gone before them.
If you want to be a sitcom writer watch great sitcoms like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, CHEERS, and twenty other classics. If you want to be a stand-up comedian watch borscht belt comics like Alan King, great storytellers like Bob Newhart, edgy comics like Lenny Bruce, edgier comics like Richard Pryor. Louis C.K. is fucking awesome, but he didn’t invent stand-up.
If the theater is your goal -- read plays by Noel Coward, Kaufman & Hart, Herb Gardner, and Neil Simon. Screenwriters -- watch Preston Sturges screwball comedies, and Billy Wilder comedies, and Mel Brooks parodies. Long before there was SNL there was Sid Caesar’s YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS. Yes, some of the routines are dated. But watch how they construct sketches. How they get in them and out of them. How they create characters.
Ask yourself the question: why is this funny? You don’t have to deconstruct every line, but figure out the game plan. Recognize and appreciate templates that work. And then make them your own.
Often you’ll find it’s a lot easier to get laughs by creating a funny comic premise than just coming up with “jokes.” I got laughs with “Where in New Orleans?” “What side of the street?” It was all about context. Do your homework. The good news is it’ll be the most enjoyable homework you’ve ever done.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM