If you gave an open mic comic and a headliner the same joke in front of the same crowd, the headliner would be able to perform it much better using almost exactly the same words. The difference is this: A headliner will say the same words in a funnier way. (Saying funny words is not the same as saying words funny.) To do that, you need to show the audience what’s happening instead of telling them. I’ll use an old bit of mine as an example (it’s not gold, thus I’ve dropped it, but it works for the point I’m making).
Telling: I walked into the bedroom the other night and my wife had the space heater and the ceiling fan on at the same time. What is she thinking? That’s a warm front and a cold front, she’s going to start a tornado!
Showing: I walked into the bedroom the other night and my wife had the space heater and the ceiling fan on at the same time. “What are you thinking?! That’s a warm front and a cold front, you’re going to start a tornado!”
When I originally ran this bit by my wife years ago, she told me it wasn’t funny. She’s right because it’s not, on paper. Yet, I was determined to show her I could get laughs with it and I did. Here’s how:
In the 2nd example, I address my wife as if she’s there, thus putting the audience in the scene with me. They’re more connected to my point of view and emotion. It’s also a lot easier to add more energy and emphasis to the punchline. Also, I would point down and then up for the space heater and ceiling fan, adding to the visual.
It’s the difference between telling and showing/performing. When you show the joke you can perform with real emotion. It doesn’t need to be an angry rant to have energy. Anger is easy to show, but you can add goofiness, fear, confusion or anything else depending on the context. You don’t need to be a theater major to portray any of these emotions.
Odds are you’re already doing this in some of your best material. That’s the difference, you’re putting the audience in the scene with you and letting them witness whatever it is first hand. This is part of the margin between beginner and more advanced bits.
Next, find a way to make your setups shorter and funnier. Is there a one-liner you use elsewhere that you could include here instead? If not, skip the setup (especially if it’s asking the audience if they’ve heard about or are interested in whatever the topic is). For the above joke I set it up this way. “We have a hard time agreeing on bedroom temperature. Especially during those 3 days we refer to as “spring.” (Yes, a cheap weather joke, but people can relate because we never get spring in the Midwest, so they laugh.)
Finally, tag lines. The best tags often come from other comedians’ suggestions so be willing to listen. We all need a little help. See if there’s a tagline that relates to a previous joke and make it a callback. For the example joke I never did have a great tag, thus it’s not in my headliner set anymore. Instead, I had another bit about other arguments we’ve had.
It’s really that simple. At the next open mic, watch the comics who headline and notice the difference from showing vs. telling (by the less experienced comics). You’ll also get much closer to finding your “comedy voice” because it makes you use your own emotion rather than that same dry, uptalk delivery 75% of open mic comics use today.
I’d like to add that I’m considering writing Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage 2.0. It would have a different format, and while a lot of the information would be the same. This would also include a lot of updates on things I’ve learned since publishing the original book in December of 2011. I’m also going to add a memoir element to it, giving stories and anecdotes from when I learned these lessons which would paint a better picture of what the business is really like. A lot has changed in the comedy industry in the last decade, so I hope to share more that I’ve learned. It’ll be awhile (at least a year or longer), so if you want to grab the first book, it’s still available here as an ebook or paperback.
Shares are always appreciated!