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Mad Genius Behind Bruno & Borat Tells All! (Larry Charles on How to ‘Crack the Code’) | UN-CABARET FREE-RANGE COMEDY

Great creative advice from an alternative comedy icon.


Scalpel... Sponge... Story...

Scalpel... Sponge... Story...

What’s in your toolkit? (11 Different Ways to be Funny) | UN-CABARET FREE-RANGE COMEDY

Sometimes people come to our workshop or a private consulting session and say something like, “I want to perform like Eddie Izzard” (meaning energetically pacing and schpritzing comedy bits) but the material they’re generating is contained and contemplative.

Or they say, “I wish I could do a show like Julia Sweeney” (meaning emotional linear narrative storytelling), but their comedy and personality is more loopy and silly.

The key to creating great comedy material is knowing what tools are in your toolkit, then writing to your own particular strengths. So here are 11 different creative techniques that might be available to you (we can’t think of anyone who has them all).

1) JOKES – Jokes are great if your mind works that way. But if it doesn’t, don’t panic. There are a lot of other ways of being funny.

2) STORYTELLING – Assuming your audience or readers have the attention span, a good narrative with twists and a funny premise is a great way to get to comedy. Of course, not everyone is a good raconteur.

3) FAST-TALKING – This technique is obviously more for performance, but a rapid-fire stream-of consciousness rant can access all kinds of funny – and often will get you an applause break. It’s also a great idea to record your live performances because you never know when you’re going to strike gold and it’s great to be able to listen back – and transcribe – what you said in the moment.

4) PASSION – Most comedians tend to go for hate, but I’ve seen love work as well. Anything that you’re genuinely worked up about, especially if you have a clear attitude. A surprising attitude is an even more direct route to the funny.

5) DEEP THINKING – I’m thinking here about comedians like Steven Wright or Beth, whose philosophical insights can be surreal, surprising and funny to audiences.

6) SPONTANEITY – Again, mostly for live situations. This is a great tactic if you’re good with audience interaction or your mind works best in a reactive mode. If you have this tool in your kit, invite yourself to play off the person onstage before you, the introduction from your host, or anything in the room.

7) SEX – Not usually funny, but can be if pushed to an extreme. Just ask Mae West or Sarah Silverman – although ‘sex’ is often really just a shock tactic. And, like in actual sex, boredom can set in if you’re not careful.

8 ) PHYSICALITY – Obviously hard to do on paper, this technique is more applicable to performance. Like Butch Cassidy (or was it the Sundance Kid?), some people are looser, more communicative and funnier when they move. If this is in your toolkit, find something physical to do when you first get onstage, even if just adjusting the mic stand or the curtain. Look for stories and situations that involve physical components and try to physicalize ideas rather than obsessing about finding ‘the right words’.

9) DETAILS – Minutely-observed details are a technique used by David Sedaris and other literary ‘humorists’. They’re also great to season a story or scenario.

10) CHARACTERS – Often, the painful relationships in your life involve other characters who can be funny for an audience – as long as they’re funny for you too. Look at what Julia Sweeney did with her Mom. If you’re handy with this tool, be especially open to stories or ideas that involve other people and dialog.

11) VOICES – Funny voices are, after all, the basis for most cartoons. If you have a talent for accents or vocal dynamics, this tool is for you. Although, for god’s sake, please try to include some actual content and don’t just coast on sound effects.

Can you see the forest for the words?

Can you see the forest for the words?

Writing, of course, isn’t just one thing. (What is these days?) The bad news is you have to be pretty good at all of them. The good news is that you have at least 7 different ways of moving forward with your project:

  1. OUTLINE/RE-OUTLINE – A great way to plan your project or get perspective if you’ve been slinging words down in the trees is to take a look at the proverbial forest. Try to take a bird’s eye view, noting major landmarks.
  2. MAKE NOTES – These are seeds for your trees. They could be bullet points to expand later, details about characters, lines of dialog or specific moments in your story. But not vague philosophical thoughts about the project.
  3. EXPAND NOTES INTO ROUGH DRAFTS – Pick one of your notes or bullet points and expand it. Think of it as getting your seeds to sprout. Of course they’ll be weak and helpless at first, but if you keep sending them love they might grow into mighty oaks.
  4. REWRITE – Turn your rough draft into an acceptable first draft, or punch up your acceptable draft into something special. Of course, rewriting can easily turn into re-arranging deck chairs so be careful. Often best done in short bursts when it’s harder to delude yourself.
  5. TRANSCRIBE – This is sort of the ‘chop wood’ of writing, usually done to avoid ‘real writing’. Includes transcribing ‘relevant’ material from recorded performances or longhand journals. Do try to restrict yourself to directly relevant material or you’re likely to get a blister. You can always come back for other stuff that might be relevant to another project.
  6. TRAWL – I guess that makes this the ‘carry water’ of the writing process – when you go back through previously-written material for stuff that can become part of the current project. This almost never works, except as a way of avoiding real writing, because material written for one context usually doesn’t work in another context. But, hey, it’s your bucket.
  7. TALK – Yes, talking can be writing. You can do it on the phone with a friend (keep a pen and paper handy, please, and write down anything good you say, just the way you said it). You can also do it onstage in public or in our writing & performance workshop, where Beth and I can listen and write down lines for you.

For an inspired rap about more ways to write, listen to Beth’s audio blog.

The image, by the way, is a lithograph by a great artist named Vito Acconci, whose gallery sound installation I once had the pleasure of installing. Unfortunately, I also worked at the gallery and had to listen to it all day every day for a month.

Accentuate the Obvious

Accentuate the Obvious

One day a student arrived a little late for our writing & performance workshop. She apologized and said she was late because she had a ‘hand job’ that morning. What?!

It turned out she worked as a hand model and while she had been doing funny material about other things in the class, this was the first we’d heard about her day job. And everyone was fascinated.

Emily Aiken is a brilliant strategic consultant and (don’t cringe) ‘brand strategist’ who came up with a great phrase: Low-Hanging Content.

That perfectly describes a whole category of potential material that a lot of writers and comedians overlook because it just seems too obvious and too familiar (to them). To easy.

Over the years we’ve worked with a lot of very talented people who kept searching farther and wider for material when they had a wealth of great stuff within easy reach. For Adele (referred to above) it was hand modelling, for another it was makeup (she worked at a makeup counter and was obsessed with it in the rest of her life too), and for another it was a job selling cemetary plots.

They all wanted to be working more as actors and/or comedians so they discounted their day jobs as a source of material and a keyhole into a world which held inherent interest for an audience – and through which they could connect to family, money, love or anything else they wanted to talk about. For you it might be, dog breeding, your collection of Hummels or your obsession with porn.

Low-hanging content is what you actually spend your time thinking about.

Audiences are almost always interested in worlds they don’t know anything about. And they love it when you can fill them in. And it gives you a constant flow of new material and a potential for ongoing story developments. Plus, you know the vernacular and human dynamics involved so you can make your story (or rant) compelling – and funny.

So before you send out a search party to mine for material about your family or politics or whatever else you think you should talk about, consider the low hanging fruit that’s easy, accessible and ripe.

What are the odds?

What are the odds?

In yoga there’s a great phrase, “stay on your own mat”. In other words, don’t worry if the person next to you is doing some pretzel-twist inversion, just focus on what you’re doing.

It’s really hard in comedy because it’s so tempting to emulate the comedian who went on stage before you and got big laughs from the audience or the writer with the major publishing deal and media appearances. But the truth is that you really can’t win playing their game. The only chance you have of winning is by playing your own game.

So the question is: what is your game?

Do you specialize in physical comedy? Enacting scenes? Miniatures? Observations? Stories? Rants? Spontaneous interaction? Think about it and see if you can analyze your own work for its strengths (I’m sure there are weaknesses too but for now let’s focus on the strengths) – or come to our workshop and let us tell you what we see.

We’ve seen this happen onstage countless times, especially with beginning performers. One comedian excels in telling stories, and even has a particular story to tell, but the comic onstage before them is getting big laughs telling jokes so they try to follow suit with disastrous results. Likewise writers who have a great talent but get lured away from their own instincts by the most recent successful book they read.

Malcolm Gladwell’s article about underdogs prevailing in the New Yorker this week makes this point using some great examples from girls basketball, Lawrence of Arabia, and David – of David vs. Goliath. Like many New Yorker articles, this one goes on and on at some length, so don’t beat yourself if you don’t read the whole thing (or any of it). After all, you aren’t playing the New Yorker’s game, you’re playing yours.

And remember, comedy is an underdog’s game!

Dreams Do Come Ture (although it may take 25 years)

Dreams Do Come True (although it may take 25 years)

File this story under S for ‘Stamina’, F for ‘Follow Your Bliss’, D for ‘Dreams Can Come True’ and Y for ‘You Just Never Know’.

Our friend recently told us about her friend Steve who’s been obsessed with Burt Bacharach’s music since the age of 8 and made a show of Bacharach songs that he performed at various stages for years. He got burned out on it and stopped doing the show all together, but it kept gnawing at him. He just had to do the show again, so he found a tiny theater, literally in a mini-mall in some tiny town in Southern California, and put the show up for a couple of nights. Then guess what?

Burt Bacharach’s wife happened to be in that tiny town, happened to hear about the show, happened to come to a performance and happened to love it. She brought Burt back to see it and he loved it too. And even though he’d never authorized a show like this featuring his music he not only gave his blessing, but became a producer. That show is Back to Bacharach and it just opened in LA.

I’m sure there were many twists between Burt seeing the show and the opening, but you couldn’t ask for a better scenario. Unless Steve got totally screwed on his deal, but we don’t think he did. All in all a pretty good argument for keeping at it even when it seems like you’re swimming upstream. Alone. In shark-infested waters.

Write on.

Let's break it down

Let's break it down

This clip is really fun, but it’s also really instructive about stand-up and comedy writing in general. Patton Oswalt delivers a great personally motivated piece of comedy about falling in love. Then the ever-vigilant Beth Lapides prompts him to dig a little deeper for some more comedy and he finds gold, which will go into the piece the next time he performs it. Check out the full-size annotated version of “A Nerd in Love” by Patton Oswalt for specific notes and benchmarks.

The ‘back mic’ is the structural innovation that Beth created at the Un-Cabaret. She uses a second microphone to talk to other comedians while they’re onstage, to keep them in the moment and push deeper for more comedy, since often the material is first-time out or spontaneously generated. She can do the same for you at the Un-Cab Lab Writing & Performance Workshop.

Beth Speaks

Beth Speaks

What are your writing and performance goals? What form and medium is best suited?

Beth defines the differences between standup, readings, essays, acting and one-person shows, using analogies from visual art and food prep.

Recorded at the Un-Cab Lab Writing & Performance Workshop.

Define and accomplish your creative goals. Audit class on Saturdays, April 18 & 25 – only $10 per class. Next session: Saturdays, May 2, 9, 16, 23 (1-4pm) at M-Bar, 1253 N. Vine LA 90038. Register now for super sale prices.62

Keep it down in there!

Keep it down in there!

At the beginning of each class of the Un-Cab Lab Writing & Performance Workshop, you get a chance to ask questions about your creative process. A couple of weeks ago, someone asked how to deal with the negative voices in her head that distracted her from giving a great performance and here’s Beth’s answer: How to Quiet the Negative Voices in Your Head

Quiet your own voices (and find out what they’re trying to tell you). Audit the workshop on Saturdays, April 18 & 25 (1-4pm) – only $10 per class.

Register now for super sale prices on the next session: Saturdays, May 2, 9, 16, 23 (1-4pm). Classes meet at M-Bar, 1253 N. Vine LA 90038. Call 323-993-3305 or e-mail for more info.

Moon Zappa on Editing

Moon Zappa on Editing

Editing is really hard – whether you’re cutting, re-cutting, re-writing or just trimming. Here’s some advice from the pros:

Comedian and author Moon Zappa talks about when to edit. Watch video.

Paul Doucette, drummer of Matchbox 20, has advice on what to do with your ‘outs’ after you’ve edited them – whether its music or words. Watch video.

Michael Patrick King, writer/director/executive producer of Sex and the City, tells you how to avoid including things that you’ll have to cut later, and encourages you to write before you edit. Plus Beth’s ‘Couture/Read-to-Wear Theory” of editing. Watch video.

And here’s two cents from comedy icon Buck Henry, who has appeared on the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, co-created Get Smart, and wrote several movies including a little film you may have heard of called The Graduate. Watch video.

These were all recorded at the release party for “Editing is Cool” by Allee Willis aka Bubbles.