We all have to start somewhere. In comedy, you start right where you are. And in a way, every time we get on stage, we’re starting again, because we’re in front of a new audience.
And it is the bravest thing in the world do get on that stage, for the first time, or any time. And then to write a joke! One that makes people laugh! AMAZING! You are on your way! I’m not being sarcastic. It’s something many people dream of, but never even ATTEMPT.
AND I have seen hundreds and hundreds of hours of live open mic comedy, showcase comedy, and amazing headliners. And at this point the honest truth is I am bored to death by most of it.
Once you get past the magic of realizing you can write a joke – a statement with a surprise ending – you may start to consider new elements beyond the obvious easy stuff. Character! Nuance! Vulnerability! Clean comedy! Just to name a few options.
There are a few specific things you can do as a comic that may automatically alienate half of your audience (the female half), and maybe more. This is simply one comic’s strong opinion. Stop reading here if you love what you’re doing already. I support you to keep doing it better and better.
If you’re curious however about how to avoid silently alienating huge amounts of your audience – or perhaps even more – potential audience members. When people hear I’m a comedian, many of them say they love to laugh, but they won’t go to comedy because it just doesn’t feel good. These people are usually my whole target audience.
So when I refer the dick joke (in the title), I’m referring to a whole class of humor… a dick joke, rape joke, chicks are easy joke, bitches are bitches joke, sex joke, or really most jokes coming from you if you’re 19, straight, white (in the US), male, and think you’re being “edgy”. (For the record, I love blue humor that is raw and real and honest and not gratuitous.)
So let’s go over why I, who am normally enthusiastic and supportive toward new comedians, need to get some things off my chest.
5. You’re not breaking new ground.
Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor broke all the ground already. They had shovels. There’s already a big hole in the ground now. With skyscrapers built all over that “edgy” ground.
In a time when that shit was taboo, they spoke it. They mastered the profane. It wasn’t ok to say, and so saying it was ok! And now that it’s ok, you’re really, really not sharing anything new with me.
INSTEAD: Find something try breaking new ground. Not by getting even MORE obscene, but by being even MORE creative or MORE vulnerable. What would that sound like?
4. You just started doing comedy a year ago.
You still think the dick joke you wrote is the most revolutionary bit ever because people are actually laughing at it.
INSTEAD: Go watch ten old comedy specials from the 80’s and see what they were doing back then. Play it like Yahtzee. Cross out any joke of yours that is at all similar. Now, go watch 10 live open mics, and cross out any joke of yours that is at all similar. Throw out your old set and write a new one. Pat yourself on the back for just keeping going, and just keep going. It gets better. And you will too.
3. You can influence people with your comedy, even if your comedy is evil.
Comedy is supposed to be subversive. That’s why we love to be edgy on stage. Edginess gets its strength from subverting the dominant paradigm. But guess what? The systems in place still support the people in power, who are STILL straight, white, relatively rich men (give or take a few). If you’re not poking fun at power, you’re not being subversive. If you’re not being subversive, you’re not being edgy, you’re just being shocking, and that’s empty and gratuitous. And I’m bored.
And now that straight (usually) white men think they’re oppressed, so they now think that telling their boring old dick jokes is actually edgy, subversive, shocking, revelatory, and controversial all over again. Guess what? It’s not. It’s just more old paradigm bullshit, and it’s uncreative.
INSTEAD: Find a unique way to expose and make fun of a powerful institution or person who is abusing their power. Hint: politics!
2. You’re not Louis CK.
If you’re not bringing your own vulnerability, your own specificity about a real situation, I’m bored.
Any joke that doesn’t reveal something about your vulnerability is a missed opportunity for us getting to hear your true voice. people who are willing to be vulnerable with their dick jokes, like Louis CK. This was his brilliance. His comedy wasn’t (for the most part) gratuitous. It wasn’t made up, written for shock value, or to sell albums. It was created vulnerably, for self-expression. It was art.
People who are not being as vulnerable, but are poking fun at those in power are also doing something revolutionary. Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert. Change the landscape.
Truly vulnerable humans touch their own pain and their own hearts and their own insecurities, and when they do, they touch ours. It’s nice when somebody is finally getting touched. The audience can only go as deep as the comic can go, and if you’re playing at surface-level emotionality, or you’re in your head that’s where you’ll take the audience.
INSTEAD: Show us your heartbreak. Show us what you care about. Show us the thoughts you wish you didn’t have. Make fun of yourself. It will change everything.
1. You’re not that funny.
Let’s say you’re brilliant. you’re on par with Emo Philips or Mitch Hedberg (I’d give you an example of female comedians, but you only know two of them). Let’s say you are really, really good. You could say something I totally disagree with, and even find offensive. But you’re so creative and you do it so well that I’m still impressed, and I laugh. If you do that, congratulations! Here’s your frickin’ tiara.
The truth is, being that good at comedy is like being a major league baseball star. You’re probably not there, yet. You’re probably not that good. So…
INSTEAD: Don’t try so hard to be funny. Give being real a try. After a while, people will start to want to hear what you have to say. You will find punchlines naturally. You will get better and better. I promise. And then I’ll be excited to come see your show.
I want more from you. I believe in you. You can do it.