By Dave Terruso
Laughter is the best medicine.
Well, medicine is the best medicine. Laughter is great and all, but if you break your arm, laughter won’t heal it. But it will make you forget it hurts for a little while.
They say everyone has at least one great novel in them. I believe that everyone also has at least one hilarious stand-up routine in them.
The purpose of this lesson is to help you make your friends, your family, and yourself crack up laughing for five minutes.
You’re going to write, rehearse, and perform five minutes of stand-up comedy on the theme of love. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, familial love, etc., just whatever aspect of love you find fascinating and funny. It could be about your love of Twix if that’s a subject you can wax comedic on for 300 seconds.
If possible, get a group of friends or family to all write five minutes, and put together a virtual show where you each take turns performing your routines for the group.
1. Write your material. You have two basic options here:
Write jokes. Simple setups and punch lines. For instance: A horse walks into a bar. The bartender looks at him and says, “Why the long face?”
Here, the set up is A horse walks into a bar. It’s a funny premise because horses don’t belong in bars. The punch line is Why the long face? a play on words since horses have long heads and bartenders traditionally help people drown their sorrows.
Write one five-minute story. It can be hard to master joke structure quickly, but mastering story structure is much easier because we tell stories every single day.
A story has three main parts: Conflict, complication, and resolution. Set up a problem, make that problem worse, and then fix the problem. There are two examples of writing classes use for this: 1) put your hero in a tree (conflict), throw rocks at them (complication), get them out of the tree (resolution). 2) Put your hero in a pot of water, light a fire under the pot, get them out of the pot.
If you tell a story, it’s best to tell it in the present tense, it makes it feel like it’s happening at the moment (notice even in the one-liner, the horse “walks” into a bar instead of “walked”).
2. Rehearse your set. After you get your material written and polished, use the stopwatch on your phone to time your set. If it only comes out to 3 minutes, add jokes or lengthen your story. If it comes out to 8 minutes, find things you can trim out. It doesn’t have to be five minutes exactly, but somewhere between 4 – 6 minutes is ideal.
Once you have your set down to the proper length, you have the option of memorizing it or typing it up and reading it.
Memorizing it will give you the most natural performance since you’ll be able to make eye contact and use gestures, but that can be a lot of pressure for someone who’s never done comedy before, so there’s absolutely no shame in reading your story.
A third option is to write down just the bullet points from your set. If it’s a story, write down the 5 – 7 major things that happen in the story. If it’s a series of jokes, come up with a short name for each joke and list all the joke names on your paper (something like TWIX LOVE, for example). This will keep you from getting nervous about forgetting your routine, but will free you up from having to read off your paper the whole time; you’ll just glance down to see the next bullet point or joke.
Whether you’re memorizing or reading, practice your set over and over until it becomes second nature. Practice it at least a dozen times.
3. Perform your set. If you live with family or friends, have them sit together all facing you and then stand in front of them (people will give you their undivided attention more easily if you’re physically above them, that’s why stages are raised).
If you’re doing this virtually, send out an invite for a Zoom call (or whatever app you use) and do your performance that way. Make sure your audience leaves their microphones on so you can hear them laughing, but ask them politely not to talk during your set, because all our computers have very sensitive microphones, and even a whisper can come over people’s speakers as a loud distraction.
What’s something funny that happened to you or that you did that involves love? It should be something that you think anyone can relate to, and that is good-natured as opposed to mean. This routine should be fun and uplifting, so if you’re going to make fun of anyone harshly to get a laugh, it should be yourself.
What does love mean to you? Write out a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole page that summarizes your take on what love is, and keep that notion in mind when you write your routine. This notion could be what inspires your set, taking your view on love and illustrating it through a funny story or joke.
What makes you laugh? There are only a few ways to make someone laugh when you get right down to it. One way is with an unexpected twist. Another way is with a funny pun or play on words. Yet another way is with a lighthearted resolution to what, up til then, was a very tense conflict. You can use pop culture references. You can compare two things that people normally wouldn’t compare and get laughs from how similar they actually are. You can use sarcasm, purposely describing something the opposite of how it really is. The point is, whatever makes you laugh makes other people laugh too.
What does your audience need to know? Make sure your audience has all the information they need to understand the joke, and that you tell it to them as early as you can. If the climax of your funny story hinges on the fact that your grandmother is under 5 feet tall, you want to make sure your audience knows that as soon as you introduce her, rather than saying, just as you get to the funny part, “Oh, by the way, Grandma Grace is 4’10”, that’s important.”
So, once you write down your joke or story, imagine you’re telling the story to an alien who just landed on Earth. Take nothing for granted about what people know. You may know that aglets are the plastic tips on the ends of shoe laces, but most people don’t know that, and if aglets are part of your punch line, you need to explain what they are in your set up.
What senses can you describe in your story or joke? Sensory information pulls people into your mindset and puts them in your shoes. For each joke or each part of your story, ask yourself: What was I thinking? What was I feeling? What could I see? What could I hear? Could I smell anything? Did I touch anything? Taste anything? You may not need any of it, but it’s always helpful to mine the senses for funny details.
If you’re really stuck for ideas, watch your favorite comedian, or your favorite funny movie or TV show, and see if that reminds you of a funny idea or event from your personal life.
About a half-hour, before you perform, practice your set two more times so everything will be fresh in your mind.
Five to ten minutes before you perform, take deep, cleansing breaths to relax and focus. Close your eyes and imagine your set going over perfectly; picture yourself having a good time and everyone laughing and smiling.
When you perform, relax, and enjoy yourself. Even if people aren’t laughing at every joke, they’re having fun being entertained by you.
Just be yourself. Don’t try to imitate your favorite comedian. We’re all funny people, and we’re at our funniest when we’re genuine.