Nail This To The Church Door!
There is a long-established secular religion in the world of comedy that defies all reason and logic. It is a strongly held belief of accepted common knowledge that pervades our media and culture, and yet it is a completely fabricated lie.
The belief is that people are either funny or they aren’t, that they have always been and always will be that way, that sense of humor and the accompanying ability to communicate it is innate talent that can’t (or even shouldn’t) be taught, and that the state or ability is predetermined by mysterious unknown mysticism or genetic programming.
All of this is utter nonsense.
To make matters worse, and more convoluted, those that do profess great knowledge in the area of comedy foster another equally misguided, if not entirely evil doctrine: Only a small number of people truly have enough raw talent, ability, experience and accumulated wisdom to be qualified to teach comedy to others, and their secrets are so powerful and complicated that very few can ever learn them—and then, only by those that leave their hometowns at a nubile young age and travel long distances to become monks of the orders of Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles.
I don’t know about you, but the idea of leaving my wife and kids to go “join the circus” (as my wife likes to call it), wait tables to pay the rent on my futon with four roommates, and sit in two hours of Los Angeles traffic only to waste away my most productive years of life in front of three drunks at three-in-the-morning, spewing self-hatred and vulgarity in order to shock someone into a reaction, doesn’t sound like living the good life to me.
All of this so that one in a million (or ten million?) might finally make it on America’s Got Talent and perhaps get picked up by a big agent and then “get to” travel America’s dive bars for fifteen years to possibly end up with an HBO special (or Netflix or whatever is the rage by the time you are reading this).
I am not saying that going the traditional route to success is a bad thing. If it is your calling, then, by all means, go for it.
However, I do challenge the entire notion of “traditional route” in comedy. After all, how long has what we consider a career path in comedy even existed? The truth is, like most other innovative movements, that this accepted “comedy career path” is a shockingly new pattern that really only was established in the 1970s and 1980s in the stand-up comedy and improv comedy clubs and TV shows of the last few decades. It was only a few fads earlier that comedy duos and clowns had to dance, sing, joke, and juggle to make a nickel in Vaudeville.
What we consider the established comedy success path is so loosely established that it is already being supplanted by newer trends of younger generations. Case in point: The rise of YouTube sensations and overnight stars that completely circumvent the traditional media and entertainment caste system altogether.
What used to take a decade or two of groveling and grinding in Hollywood to appease the big money networks is now overshadowed by millions of viewers staring at their hand-held devices (while driving, mind you) at a guy cajoling an innocent bystander on a city street corner. Instead of trying to get on HBO, this young millennial in less than five minutes decided to make his own instant reality TV which he easily uploaded or live-streamed directly to his global audience.
When you combine all these factors; sense of humor predestined and raw genetic talent vs. learned skill, teaching elitism, and geographic-centered career path barrier-to-entry, it is no wonder we have all collectively decided to leave comedy to the “professionals” and prefer instead to be consumers-only, who occasionally attain a sense of cotton-candy release with our gobbling up of Internet memes and stand-up comic sound bites.
Improv was originally taught to children to help them develop their playful creativity toward the craft of acting. Children naturally do improv (instead of overanalyzing improv) and are brilliant at it since they have not established the tirade of inhibitions us adults are indoctrinated with steadily over years of habit-force. By the time we are thirty-five years old, most of us have not only abandoned our dreams but forgotten what they were in the first place.
One of the first things to go due to that sense of entrapment is our ability to allow ourselves to play. We trade play in for work, ironically abandoning the one thing that would make our work flourish: playful creativity.
Improv was eventually picked up and refined by the pioneers of the Chicago comedy scene in order to brainstorm, write, and workshop ideas that would ultimately end up as sketch comedy pieces. It was commonly believed that no one would want to see shows that were entirely improvised and that scripting was the inevitable destination. Improv was viewed as a way to train actors; essentially a means to an end.
As people began to see that the process of creating improv resulted in a product worthy in its own right, a trend toward improv-as-audience-worthy began to grow in popularity, and theaters sprouted up all over the world.
Sketch comedy, although the end-goal for early improv efforts in Chicago, did not avoid the same fate of homogenization, conventionalist thinking, and orthodoxy. As shows like Saturday Night Live achieved worldwide popularity, sketch comedy became something that could only be taught in specialized schools or by world-famous comedians.
Similarly, when stand-up comedy was pioneered out of the vaudevillian traditions of comedy duos and then radicalized during the ’60’s social upheavals, it became mainstream and “productized” over time. By the 1980’s a glut of comedy clubs hit the United States market en masse and was completely over-saturated in the 1990’s which led to an eventual slump.
“Everybody thinks they are a comedian.”
… And therefore it is human nature to create economies around it.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against any of the industriousness shown by theaters, promoters, and producers. I would definitely be a hypocrite if I did since I am admittedly one of them, in the sense that I run an organized program.
What I am against, however, is the rigidity of comedy forms and the closed-minded doctrine taught by a few people that either fear change or fear loss of control.
Let’s not forget that only a generation or two ago, none of this even existed, and therefore in a generation or two, it might completely vanish back into the ether from which it came. It is not Holy or Divine. It is just the popular forms of the day, and by natural evolution will and probably should change.
To me, this means the only thing that we can know is solid and true are principles of comedy, and that people are naturally funny if given a chance to explore and nurture their raw talents and abilities.
If people were not funny, then they would not and could not laugh when someone else said something funny. There would be no acknowledgment of a commonality in understanding. Someone laughs in reaction to someone or something else. Therefore, they have to be able to identify something funny in the first place, and by definition have the ability to understand funny. If they can understand funny, they can learn to be funnier or at least to develop their natural sense of humor into some form of communication that they can send out into the world as well as receive.
This is all a long way of saying that I believe that anyone can do it. Anyone can be a comedian.
I also believe that a form of comedy, such as Improv Comedy, Sketch Comedy, or Stand-up Comedy are not static unchanging things that can never be improved, deconstructed, combined, altered, augmented, or transmogrified. Truly, I would be discouraged if no one ever tried to mate them in various ways until they found a winning combination.
Why not sketch comedy that has elements of improv, or improv comedy that has some stand-up comedy in it? Why not shows and classes and workshops that teach new variations, new forms, and new methods of achieving something funny and successful?
After all, the audience doesn’t care if you are following the “rules” of stand-up so much as you make them laugh. And the average person doesn’t care if you are sticking with the “established” method of writing a sketch comedy piece. The average participant in a class just wants to learn new things about themselves and others, improve their abilities to communicate, make others laugh, make themselves laugh, and have a blast doing it.
Yes, we should learn from those who have come before us. Yes, there are many people who have done amazing work in pioneering ways to teach and coach better technique. I read all their stuff and watch as much as I can, and I think you should too… Until you get the idea that it is Gospel. It is not. It is not law, but more like examples to be learned from and drawn from. You need to extract as much good wisdom from others as you can, but the ultimate purpose should be to create your own version. You can’t be somebody else, so you might as well just focus on being the best you that you can be.
Crackpot Comedy Cavalcade Commandments
- Show up. It’s critical for success.
- Know that you indeed have talent.
- Pay Attention! (Be aware of who and what is going on around you.)
- Learn to play like a child and explore.
- Be fearless and take chances.
- Not judge others too harshly, as you shall surely be judged.
- Learn discernment.
- Read, watch, and listen to lots of comedy.
- Read, watch, and listen to lots of non-comedy.
- Notice what works and assimilate it for personal gain and community benefit.
- Be a team player.
- Make your teammates look good.
- Strive for improvement and wins, not perfection.
- Do your homework.
- Practice, Rehearse and Visualize everywhere and all the time (it will make your day so much more interesting and fun)!
- Learn Patience.
- Look for ways to incorporate your comedy into your everyday life.
- Look for ways to incorporate your everyday life into your comedy.
- Teach comedy to others. It’s the best way to learn.
- Remember your time will come.
- Remember that comedy is fun.
8 thoughts on “Crackpot Comedy Cavalcade Manifesto”
Jesse, I just nodded in agreement to this all the way through.
I especially resonated with the paragraph,
“I don’t know about you, but the idea of leaving my wife and kids to go “join the circus””””
It’s like the Radiohead song “Anybody can play guitar” or The Roots “Everybody is a Star”
I inherently agree that one practices funny by finding their inner funny and that your thoughts have a deep empathy for people and their behavior.
Love the Commandments. Can we get these printed out for class?
Thanks for the comment, Jack! Yes, the operative word you just used is “empathy”. Very insightful! …and printing these out for class is a great idea.
Very encouraging post! Too many years of commuting and deadlines definitely robbed me of my ability to play, and at the same time I felt like I lost my social skills too. I think improv is helping me find my playful creativity again, and that’s reason enough to participate on it’s own in my book!
This is a great perspective, Jonathan! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Thanks for all the insight, never really analyzed why I though some people were so funny. I love humor, and taking 101, I thought, this is just where I want to be and never knew how to get there. I’m amongst my own kind! I love learning about people and their sense of comedy
, and what provokes them to genuinely laugh is enjoyment to me!
Barb, this is exactly where you should be! 🙂
I think you have a great way of looking at this process.
Jesse, Your words really helped me. As I am a bit nervous about the upcoming show I trust after reading this that I am safe to play freely with such good people. I trust you and the cavelcade very much. I am so glad to be learning from you. It means a lot. This certainly is the right class.
Denise, I greatly appreciate your kind words and we are fortunate to have you dedicating your talent to our project! I am excited for what lies ahead.