Synopsis: Everyone likes a good comedy show, and these days there seems to be a comedian around every corner. Comedy club comics, television shows, movies and plays that try to make us laugh at the absurdities of life are very popular, but did you ever wonder just how they come up with their material? We talk to a veteran comedy writer about the process of writing funny stuff and the successes and failures that make a comedian a star.
Host: Gary Price. Guests: Joe Randazzo, head writer for @Midnight on Comedy Central, former editor of The Onion, former creative editor of Adultswim.com, author of the book Funny on Purpose: The definitive guide to an unpredictable career in comedy.
Links for more info:
- Twitter @Randazzoj
- @Midnight on Comedy Central
- Funny on Purpose: The Definitive Guide to an Unpredictable Career in Comedy
- The Onion
Where’s the Funny? Advice on Writing Comedy
Gary Price: Have you ever thought you’d like to write comedy, but didn’t know how to get started? Would you like to be able to ask successful comedians and writers for career advice but never had the nerve visit them backstage or even write to them? Well, Joe Randazzo has come to your rescue. Randazzo is the head writer for At Midnight on Comedy Central, and former editor of the satirical newspaper, The Onion and creative editor of Adult Swim.com. He’s written a book titled Funny on Purpose: The Definitive Guide to an Unpredictable Career in Comedy. It covers everything you would want to know about the business of being funny, including stories and advice from pros such as Joan Rivers, John Hodgeman and others about the process and pitfalls of doing improv, stand-up, sketch, T-V, writing, directing and Internet comedy. First, though, Randazzo says it’s important to understand just what comedy is before you start to write it.
Joe Randazzo: Something funny is essentially when there is an abnormality in the normal course of events – so something that’s funny to you – and you see something heading a certain direction and then it takes a weird turn. That’s what a joke does – like the punch line sort of takes turn from the unexpected and you’re surprised by that, and you find it’s funny. There’s other kinds of humor where it’s referencing something that you’ve seen before that’s kind of funny. And there’s humor that is based on people slipping on banana peels and falling on their butts. Comedy is trying to take what is funny and put it into a form for consumption – at least through the lens of my book to do that for money.
Price: So what does it take to be a comedy writer or comedian? Randazzo says a thick skin is helpful.
Randazzo: The biggest thing is that you have to be willing to throw out 90 percent of your work for 90 percent of your career. A big part of it, first of all, is getting over your laziness, getting over your procrastination and working through that, continuing to put stuff out even when you have a lot of doubts about it. Even when you’re feeling that you don’t want to. Then, once you’ve done that – and overcome that existential hurdle – you need to be really brutal with yourself and be able to see what works and what doesn’t, you know, you’re going to have to fail. The degree of your failure depends on what genre of comedy you’re working in, you know, if you’re doing stand-up comedy and you fail miserably, that’s a lot more hard to deal with than if you’re doing a web comic, or something like that, that only eight people are going to see.
Price: Not only is a thick skin necessary, so is the ability to take risks and venture into unknown territory. Randazzo says no one taught this better than Del Close, the legendary coach for Chicago’s The Second City improvisational comedy troupe.
Randazzo: His big distillation of what improv is – is I think – a good distillation of what comedy is, and what you’re talking about taking lift, and that is to follow the fear. The three word phrase that kind of sums it all up. That is trusting yourself, trusting the moment and trusting the people that you’re doing the comedy with to know that no matter where you go, you’re going to find interesting discoveries there. The more you move towards something that you are scared of and inhibited by, the more you unveil about yourself and the situation; I think that’s as small as doing an improv scene or as big as tackling large social issues. You got to be able to go towards that stuff that we’re not willing to talk about or not willing to look at.
Price: Watching other comedians who make a living from their acts is a good way to learn about being funny, but Randazzo says that you shouldn’t put their performances under too powerful a microscope. If they’ve got the audience laughing out loud at a joke or a sketch, don’t dissect it to try and figure out why it’s funny.
Randazzo: There’s a part of it that cannot be looked at because when you parse something out to its most basic technical terms, you lose the composition of the whole. You take the individual components, pull them out, see how they interact – you’ve lost the artistry of it. I mean, and that’s the beautiful thing about writing comedy is that it’s as much about technique as it is about presentation. You have to be able to do both. You have to be able to look at something that you’re writing and say, well, the rhythm here feels off as a whole. Look at the piece as a whole: what is missing from this beat? This feels like I want a three-syllable word here – and then to be able to go in and fiddle with it technically. But if all you’re looking at is the technical aspect, then you sort of lose that vision of the whole and it becomes about science more than about artistry, and it’s really a balance of both.
Price: Presenting comedy on the Internet – whether in a blog, cartoon or video – is big now and getting bigger by the day. Randazzo says that most of the time online comedians and writers are working alone, and though the Internet provides a good opportunity to get their stuff out to the public, there are some definite pitfalls.
Randazzo: We don’t immediately write a post or get a video that gets a hundred thousand views, and you don’t know what’s working or not. It’s kind of harder, like there’s a real benefit to working within a group – to have somebody looking at your work and chiming in and telling you what they think, to have somebody to collaborate with, which is very much the way it works in TV. The writers’ rooms were sort of strict hierarchy. You’re brainstorming ideas in the room with other people who are also working on the same thing, but each person had a different strength and a different weakness and a different point of view. Then you go and write your first draft and you come back and people look at it and tear it apart, punch it up and make it better. When you’re just sitting alone doing it on a laptop at Starbucks, you might be great at it and many people are, but you’re not drawing the benefit of other people’s experience, other people’s point of view.
Price: Even successful stand-up comedians need to hone their skills by having input from others before committing to a joke. Randazzo says that the late Joan Rivers, who had been in the business for decades, told him that she still tried out her jokes at small clubs before she decided they were keepers.
Randazzo: A woman who had been doing comedy for sixty years, goes up on stage and still does an open-mic style show, will have scraps of paper from envelopes and grocery bags and notebooks laid out on the stage before her with just little bits of jokes, little things that she thought of throughout the week, and she’ll go from scrap to scrap to scrap and then try out a different joke. If it worked three times, she puts it in her act. If it doesn’t work after three times, she throws the scrap away, and then she would file every single joke she wrote on an index card and keep them in her office. So she always has reference to every joke that’s ever worked on in her sixty-year career. Now that’s sort of a perfect example of what a comedian is. You know, very hardworking, very disciplined, but also always a little bit unsure because you can always get up on stage and find that nothing that you’re doing is working. In fact, you’re guaranteed that that’s going to happen.
Price: Approaching touchy subjects can be tricky. Part of the role of comedy is to bring unpleasant incidents to light – especially if it’s a performance of political or social humor, but no one wants to turn the audience away. Randazzo says that good comedians and writers figure out how to approach and journey through a topic, such as the Jerry Sandusky – Penn State child abuse incident, in a way that makes the audience think, and perhaps laugh, but doesn’t turn them off.
Randazzo: I think if you were to listen to the average person with the sort of average moral compass, they would say you shouldn’t make jokes about child abuse. You shouldn’t do it. Hack comedians have been doing it about Catholic priests and stuff for years, but you shouldn’t do it, it’s not a funny topic, and, like I said, it really depends on who you’re going after, like going after the University, going after Penn State, going after Jerry Sandusky himself, and going after a society that is willing to turn a blind eye on a person’s misdeeds as long as they continue to contribute to the thing that we really appreciate; namely, a successful college football team; then your jokes are okay. People might still not find them funny, and in fact, they might not be laugh-out-loud funny, but an organization like The Onion or a comedian like Louis C.K. or Chris Rock are able to find their route into a topic that other people are uncomfortable even talking about and come out of it having people laughing – and ideally – sort of looking at that topic in a different way.
Price: Of course, as he said, everyone who goes into comedy is going to have setbacks – a lot of them – guaranteed. Randazzo says that individuals handle rejection in their own unique ways, so he can’t offer a one-size-fits-all answer on how to cope with it. He can only offer his own experiences on how he manages failure.
Randazzo: I sort of developed a coping mechanism, which is that to try to learn from your mistakes and rejections, but then forget about the feeling of them very quickly, just move on to the next possible success. I’ve been really lucky to fall into organizations and to meet great people where I’ve been able to work at these wonderful, wonderful places, and it seems like, “Oh wow its just been great sort of skipping from one great thing to the other,” but then if I slow down and remember all of those rejections, it is a bit more like “Wow there’s been a lot of uncertainty, sadness and depression along the way here.” But each success that you have kind of energizes you and gives you a little more fortitude and strength to get through the next failure.
Price: He adds that everyone who has ever tried and succeeded in comedy has experienced failure, self-doubt and fear so you’ve got plenty of high-powered company in your endeavor. Work through it, take the small victories as they come and if you really want a career in comedy, don’t give up. You can find loads of advice on writing, the techniques used in various comedy genres and information on the business side of comedy writing and performing in Joe Randazzo’s book, Funny on Purpose, available in stores and online. You can also follow him on Twitter at @Randazzoj. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can also find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.