You Can Learn to be Funny, No Joke.
Everybody knows how great it is to use humor in a speech or presentation. Funny always seems to win the day. Unfortunately, many speakers are afraid to even attempt it. The idea of telling a joke and having it be met by a long, awkward silence is terrifying to most people but it’s not the end of the world, take it from me, someone who knows the feeling well. Other speakers use jokes that were written by other people and this works sometimes if the joke is actually funny and the audience hasn’t heard it several times before. The good news is you can actually learn to be funny using your own material. Comedy is a learnable skill like most everything else. You may not be able to become the next Robin Williams but you can definitely learn to be funnier than you are now.
I’m currently taking a course in stand-up comedy. This is actually the third time I’ve taken Jonathan Solomon’s School for Stand-up course at Santa Monica College. It’s not that I’m a slow learner (well maybe). The fact is, I really enjoy the course, it’s a chance to meet some really interesting people and I’m always trying to improve. In order to be a successful comedian, you have to deliver a line that is “laugh out loud funny” (LOLF) about every 20 seconds. That means a laugh line 3 times a minute. I’m preparing a 6-minute set for the upcoming Graduation Show at The Improv so I need about 18 good jokes. I’m developing a couple of ideas; “The absurdity of owning a pet” and How it’s all the fault of The Founding Fathers”. I’ll continue to write jokes for both until one looks a little more promising than the other. We’ll see how it goes.
24 Minutes a Year
There’s a lot that goes into being what I call LOLF but I think the main thing is how you write your material. It’s all in the writing. When you see a really funny comedian on stage, you may think they’re up there just having a good time and winging it. What you’re really seeing is the result of weeks, months, even years of effort, writing and rewriting, honing material with almost mathematical precision. It’s been said that Jerry Seinfeld thinks it’s been a real creative month if he can come up with 2 minutes of really, good, new material… in a month! Think about it, that’s about 24 minutes of really good stuff a year! Writing good jokes is hard work.
The Funny Formula
There is actually a formula to the funny. I’m not going to give away any of Jonathan Solomon’s trade secrets (you’ll have to take his course to learn those) but basically it boils down to three things: premise, set-up, punchline. Everything has to fit and when it does you’ve found the funny. When it doesn’t you can be amusing but you won’t have them laughing out loud, rolling in the aisles. It’s really very precise. Once again, Jerry Seinfeld has been known to spend hours taking an eight-word joke down to five. Sometimes, he even counts syllables. He says it’s almost like songwriting. Here’s Jerry talking about the writing process for the New York Times.
A Little About Jonathan Solomon
It’s great to take a comedy course from someone who has been there, done that and lived the life. Jonathan began his career in New York when comedians would sometimes do five or six shows a night at different clubs all over town. It was a great way to hone your comedy chops and to develop a solid knowledge of public transportation. Over the years, as a comedian, Jonathan appeared on over two dozen talk and variety programs including regular visits to the Late Show With David Letterman. Writing for television, he was on staff with the Emmy winning sitcom, Mad About You, and Michael Moore’s Emmy winning news and variety show, TV Nation. In short, he knows his stuff. Taking a course from Jonathan is also fun because he’s first and foremost, a comedian and his classes are naturally funny. He can’t help himself.
A Night at The Improv
The six-week course culminates with a show at The Improv in Hollywood which is taped in front of a live audience. You can check out my comedy debut at The Improv and a follow-up performance, below. Later, I’ll post my next show which should be sometime in August and you can be the judge. Was I able to be “laugh out loud funny” or was it simply nice and maybe even amusing?
A Few Good Books on the Subject
You don’t have to go the full stand-up route to learn to be funnier in your next speech. Humor is a great way to win over and engage an audience. If you don’t have the time or inclination to take a course in stand up, check out Judy Carter’s book The Comedy Bible or the book by David Nihill. David’s story is particularly interesting. He had a solid corporate job and a good life but a horrible fear of public speaking. One day, he decided to face his fears, quit his job and become a stand-up comedian named Irish Dave. He hit the comedy clubs for an entire year and you can read all about his experience and what he learned in his book, Do You Talk Funny?
You Don’t Have to be the Next Seinfeld
Comedy is one of the most demanding, challenging and exciting forms of public speaking there is. In comedy, you definitely know whether you are winning or losing, succeeding or failing. It’s as simple as, did they laugh or not? You don’t have to be the next Seinfeld to be a great public speaker, but elements of humor in your speech or presentation will definitely help you win at The Sport of Speech.