Yesterday I posted a video of a joke that’s been consistently hitting for me. In this post, I attempt to track the idea from conception to finished product.
You’ll notice that I document the performance history of the joke, tracking which lines garnered laughs and which did not. It’s in my technical nature to break things down like this, as unartistic as it may seem.
First Iteration – Works Right Off The Bat
The first time I wrote the joke, I was nervous because it took me a long time to deliver the premise. The audience would have to sit tight for a whole minute before getting any laughter. What if they didn’t laugh?? Scary stuff.
However, the artistic side of me liked the idea of having a joke with a long premise build-up. I’ve always said that I wanted to present arguments and ideas rather than just telling jokes without a thesis of some sort. Furthermore, I believe that there is a certain amount of positive tension and anticipation built when the comedian is purposefully excluding jokes when building towards a particular point.
Amber Harper-Young, an AMAZING Toronto comic, told me that I was onto something after this show, and I immediately thought to add a few more tags (additional one-line jokes to the bit) to extract more laughs.
Second Iteration – New Lines Hit and Miss
With the new lines added, I went out again. You’ll notice that the ‘This doesn’t tell me long walks on the beach…this tells me you swallow‘ line doesn’t hit. I was the last to go on at Groove Bar on a Thursday and it was around midnight (I came late; totally my fault).
In addition, you’ll notice that when I say, ‘Even animals understand what this position means‘ the audience starts laughing and I wait for them to stop before proceeding to my next line. After watching the video I made a note to pause after delivering that line in future performances.
Third Iteration – Adding Expression/Relishing the Joke
This time, I subtly changed the delivery of the joke itself. As a writer, I sometimes get caught in the mold of writing jokes, rather than looking for opportunities to act jokes.
For example, I realized that I could get a small chuckle/base hit laugh by using facial expressions and slowing my turn away from the camera, allowing the tension to build further. You’ll notice the audience slowly chuckling more and more in this video as I use my appearance rather than just my words. Oh, and see if you can notice me getting a bit unsettled when they don’t laugh right away at the ‘Even animals understand what this position means‘ line.
Lastly, since I knew this joke was going to work, my entire attitude towards the delivery itself changed. I relished the premise, taking my time, knowing that I was going somewhere that would make up for the vacuum of laughter that preceded.
Fourth Iteration – Everything Falls Into Place
Everything clicked. The other comedians before me had already been talking about online dating sites and so I took some time in the beginning to try to make it seem like I was telling a joke spontaneously. Notice that with the added facial expressions, they’re now starting to laugh earlier (i.e. 1:00 when I say, ‘However…’). Lastly, keep in mind that given that this performance was in a bar pretty late into the night, the way I deliver the joke is much more conversational than if I was in front of a packed room.
What’s next? I might try and add more to the bit. Sometimes it’s great to keep going deeper and deeper when the audience thinks that you’re done with a premise…or maybe I might add some stuff to the beginning of the joke…who knows…
Fifth Iteration – The Audience Falls Into Place
I can’t lie – this joke contains references that urban audiences understand on a deeper level than regular audiences. They know that I’m doing a dancehall pose, they have friends that use slutty usernames and email addresses, etc. In the end, the last piece to fall in place was the audience, people that would understand the joke the way I understood it.
The Intangible: Emotional Content Makes Stories Memorable
My favourite nursery rhyme is Hansel and Gretel. I remember being scared when I was a kid because the illustrations showed a brother and sister getting lost in the deep, dark forest (I have a sister, so I probably identified with the story).
Professor Gruman, a professor of mine from the University of Toronto, once told me that nursery rhymes are memorable because of their emotional content. Hansel & Gretel isn’t simply, ‘Couple kids get lost on a walk one day, get captured by an old lady, then escape and shove her fat ass in an oven.’ Here’s an excerpt to illustrate:
Next day, when their stepmother discovered that Hansel and Gretel had returned, she went into a rage. Stifling her anger in front of the children, she locked her bedroom door, reproaching her husband for failing to carry out her orders. The weak woodcutter protested, torn as he was between shame and fear of disobeying his cruel wife. The wicked stepmother kept Hansel and Gretel under lock and key all day with nothing for supper but a sip of water and some hard bread. All night, husband and wife quarreled, and when dawn came, the woodcutter led the children out into the forest.
It’s hard to ignore the emotional content jam-packed into that short paragraph. That’s what I’m trying to do on stage with my new material. With my words, inflection, facial expressions, and actions I’m trying to arouse the negative/annoyed feelings that women have when they get sexually propositioned time and time again on online dating sites.
I want to be more than funny; I want to be remembered.
Subtle comedic acting at it’s finest,