Saturday, February 25, 2012

One Question - #3 - How do I Write Funny Material?

Today's "One Question" series inquiry comes from Tom Farrell and his question is one I hear often:

"I really need help in writing funny material."

That's a tough one to answer as there are so many pieces to this, but let me give it a shot.

First, I think you really have to have some sort of a sense of humor, or a "funny bone" to be funny in your comedy. If you have a good sense of humor, chances are that you can develop that into good comedy writing technique and write the majority of your own material.

Or, you can purchase some pre-written comedy vent routines (there are several good selections on my website) and the key here is to alter the routines to fit your personality and THE CHARACTER of the puppet. Don't purchase a script book and just do it word for word. You must interject your own style into the routine.

There are also lots of comedy writers out there who you can hire to write custom routines for you. Be careful, though. Since these writers won't know you, your act, your personality, or the character of the puppets you are using, they may not write something that fits you and you'll end up with a routine that may be funny if the person who wrote it performed it, but not work for you. If you hire a writer to pen a custom routine for you, make sure they are asking you questions about you, your style and the kind of show you do. A good writer will ask you a lot of questions up front to make sure they are writing in a style that is "you."

When Jeff Dunham was ready to start writing his biography "All By My Selves" a couple of years ago, he tried working with some well respected ghost writers/co-authors. He found that what they wrote did not "sound" like Jeff, if you get what I mean. Jeff ended up writing the whole biography on his own and I think that's part of why it's such a good book. It's "Jeff."

If you are writing your own comedy and/or blending your own writings with jokes from other sources (joke books, the Internet, whatever) you want to have a "theme" in mind for the routine. Do not just hook a bunch of unrelated jokes together into a script. There has to be a common thread to the various parts of the routine. And find a re-occurring call back hook/comment/bit you can return to from time to time during the act.

Use only material that sounds funny to you. If you hear or read a joke that doesn't make you laugh, don't use it just because it fits the theme of your routine. If you don't really find the joke funny, you won't have your heart in it when you perform it and it probably won't get a good response.

Good jokes have a set up and a "punch." The trick is to take the audience down a certain path with the set up (where they think they know where you are going with the joke) and then POW! go a different direction and catch them off guard with the punch.

For example:

Setup: "My brother is so stupid. He stole a car. Really stupid..."

You think the joke is taking you down the road of then talking about how the brother got into trouble with the law, went to jail, or something to that effect. But taking the punch down a different alternate road that the audience doesn't expect will really make the joke funnier.

Setup: " My brother is so stupid. He stole a car...Really stupid..."
Punch: "...he kept making the payments on it."

Here's another:

Setup: " I walked into a bar last night and saw some poor guy on the floor getting the crap kicked out of him by a bunch of big dudes. I asked the bartender why he didn't call a cop."

You think this is going down a road where the bartender will say "they're busy writing parking tickets" or "they're down at the doughnut shop for free coffee night" or something like that. The typical stereotype of police. Let's take it a different way.

Setup: "I walked into a bar last night and saw some poor guy on the floor getting the crap kicked out of him by a bunch of big dudes. I asked the bartender why he didn't call a cop."
Punch: "He said, 'Are you crazy? After the beating they just gave that one?'"

See how we took the setup one way and then went in a completely different direction? Try this technique. It will really help you write funnier material.

Try to write from personal experiences. If you really think about it, there are all kinds of really funny things you've experienced in your day to day life that either have happened to you (that in hindsight seem funny to you now, even if it may not have appeared so at the time), or something you witnessed that happened to someone else.

People love personal experience comedy. It easy for an audience to laugh at things that probably may even have happened to them or someone they know.

Look at news stories and find topical subjects that you can put the setup/punch spin on as described above.

I personally recommend taking it easy on corny puns.

"So, you like girls, I gather."
"No, I like girls I gather."

"I see you're a chicken. Do you lead an egg-citing life?"

One in as show may be OK, but in my opinion, a routine full of puns just isn't funny. It's egg-scruciating to listen to.

Get my point?

Once you get a routine or bit put together, try it out on a few friends or other professional performers and see how it goes over. Be willing take criticism. Re-write parts if necessary and fine tune it a bit before performing it before an audience. Don't try out a brand new routine at a really important gig. Perform it at some smaller venues first and work the kinks out before doing the bit at a big deal show.

If you feel you really have a funny bit that doesn't go over the first time you do it, don't toss it out right away. Try re-wording it, changing it around in, etc. and see if it gets a better response.

Writing comedy is not easy. Wait. Let me rephrase that. Writing GOOD comedy is not easy. Anyone can string a bunch of corny jokes together and write a lame routine. Those performers either won't be working often (no one will re-book them) or not for long (because they'll get frustrated and quit).

Really push yourself to be unique in your comedy and work hard on crafting a truly funny routine.

Once you have a solid routine, you'll know it's going to be fun to perform because you'll know when and where folks will laugh.

But, like any other skill worth learning, writing good comedy takes practice.

Some of the best resources I've seen for comedy and writing comedy are books by Greg Dean ("Step by Step to Stand-Up Comedy") and anything put out by Tom Ladshaw (both pre-written material and "how to" comedy writing resources), Bill DeMar and Al Stevens. Greg's book is available from and I carry the others books on my website.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

One Question - #2 - How Do I Create Character Voices?

Continuing my series called "One Question" where I try to answer challenges vents and performers have, this question was sent in by Gene Pritchard:

"OK, I believe my biggest challenge in this business is "Voices"... maintaining a voice for each
member of my "family."

Here is how I approach character voices and what I find easiest.

First, I don't purchase a new figure unless I feel in my gut that I have a character in mind for the puppet. There are so many vents who look around on eBay, or in the ventriloquist convention dealer's rooms and see a figure or soft puppet that looks cool, but don't really have an idea in mind as to what to do with it. In the frenzy of wanting a new puppet, they pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for the puppet and it ends up sitting on a shelf in the closet at home and eventually ends up being sold off.

As you search for a new character and are looking at all of the choices out there, take your time. Really look at the features of the puppet and envision in your mind using the puppet. And, try to think of a personality for the character. If you can't, don't buy it.

Chances are you will struggle with finding a character and voice for the dummy and it won't get used.

When you see a puppet that is "right" for you, you'll know it. Ideas will start to come to mind immediately to you as you look at and/or handle the figure (if you're at a convention or some other place where you can physically hold the puppet). And, a voice that suits the character will also some to mind.

Be sure to choose a voice that fits the look of the character. If you have a goofball, kind of backwards puppet, don't use a sophisticated English gentleman voice. Pick a style of voice that matches the facial features of the puppet.

As far as ideas for voice types, I always look to cartoon characters to model my puppet voices after. My favorites are the original Looney Tunes voices - Bugs Bunny, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Marvin Martian, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and the list goes on and on. Looney Tunes are my favorite cartoons from the past and you can model (not exactly copy) a voice for you character after one of these classic cartoon voices.

There were also some excellent voices on the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show.

You can ususally find segments of these cartoons on YouTube.

Or, think of people you know - either friends and family, or celebrities that have unusual or unique voices. Those can be made into great puppet voices as well.

Try several voices and see which ones work best for the character you have in mind. Be sure to pick a voice you can do easily.

Good luck!

Saturday, February 04, 2012

One Question - #1 - Learning Routines and Finding Time To Practice

Several months ago I emailed subscribers of my VenTips email newsletter and asked them to submit their toughest "One Question" that was a challenge to them in regard to ventriloquism, writing, marketing, comedy, whatever.

I received a lot of really good questions and I'm now going to start posting the questions here and answer them as best I can. I'm calling the series, "One Question." (imagine that!)

The first question is kind of a two-parter, but the topics tie together.

The question comes from Will Jacobson from Lexington, KY:

"I have a hard time learning routines and finding time to practice. Any suggestions?"

Here is how I've always approached practicing and learning a new (or brushing up on) a routine. First, once I have my script written for me and my puppet, I record it using a microphone connected to my computer and the free audio software, Audicity and read the routine as I record it. Then I either burn a CD of the routine or put it on my iPod. Then I listen to it over and over at home, in my car, whenever I get the chance.

It works the same as when you hear a song on the radio over and over. Soon you can't get it out of your head (sometimes that's a good thing...other times not!) and before you know it, you can sing along and have all of the lyrics memorized.

Do the same thing with your vent routines. Listening to it on a recording, then talking along with it, then doing it without the recording can cut 60% off of the time it would take you to memorize a script if you were just trying to learn it from paper.

As an aside, I know a lot of people don't memorize routines. They use cue cards or cheat sheet reminders hidden on their set somewhere on stage. In my opinion, and again, this is just my opinion and the way I personally do it, I've always memorized my routines. It's just the way I've always done it.

When I know I have a script memorized, I always have a lot more confidence with my act while on stage. When I am in command of my routine, it allows me to ad-lib some, get side tracked and still be able to get right back into the script again.

Another benefit of memorizing a script is that it is very easy to brush up and recall it if you don't do that same routine for a while. Just like you remember certain song lyrics forever, you'll find once you've committed a script to memory, it comes back to you quickly when you need it again.

As a test, I pulled out the written copy to a routine I haven't done for over 2 years this week as I was perparing to write this post. I read the opening two or three exchanges between myself and my figure and then I put the paper down to see how much I could remember. I was able to do about 80% of the routine that I had not done in over 2 years on my first try. I could spend 20 minutes looking over it, or listen to the recording once or twice and it would all come back to me.

I have all of my routines on CD, my iPod and my PC so I'll always have them to reference when I need them. Again, the key is that they are on audio and listening greatly speeds up the learning of the routine! Try it!

As far as finding time to practice - I know how hard that can be with everything else going on in our lives.

I use a variety of techniques. First, I always consider practice time fun - not a chore. And I try to practice short periods of time more often than trying to do one really long practice session a week. So, I'd opt to do 10 minutes of practice a day rather than an hour once a week.

I try to practice at home the same time every day so it becomes a habit to do it.

And I practice whenever I am in my car. When you realize how much time you spend driving around during the day, it 's a perfect opportunity to work on your routine and voices. You CAN fit in a consistant practice regiment it you think of ways to do it!

I hope this information is helpful to you. Look for the next installment of "One Question" soon!

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