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Gene Perret

On Comics & Writers [43018]

By Standup

Let me begin with a Bob Hope story. Bob Hope had a career in show business that was flourishing in the 1930’s. He had been an established act in Vaudeville for many years, which led to his being a leading man on Broadway. He had appeared in a few short films, but his reputation was firmly established with The Big Broadcast of 1938. That’s the film in which he sang “Thanks for the Memory” to Shirley Ross. It became his theme song from then on. He guested on several radio shows in the early 1930’s and then landed his own broadcast in 1938.

            Hope told me that he realized even then that success on radio depended on a solid writing staff. He searched out a group of eight fantastic writers to get the show off the ground. They included Mel Shavelson, Norman Panama, Jack Rose, brothers Sherwood Schwartz and Al Schwartz, and paid them out of his salary. Later that staff grew to 15.

            It must have worked because the show zoomed quickly to the top spot in radio and later moved to television where it compiled a list of high ratings through the years. The original writers all moved on to fabulous careers as film and television writers, producers, and directors.

            This fabulous string of successes for so many people all began with a comedian saying, “It all depended on the writing.”

            Years later, on the occasion of a special honoring Bob Hope’s 90th birthday, an interviewer asked him exactly how much he depended on his writers. Bob, of course, replied with a joke. He said, “I’ve never needed writers . . . unless, of course, I wanted to say something.” Then he gave a sincere response: “I know show business. I could’ve made it without writers . . . but I never would have made it big time.”

I began this article with that story because it shows the symbiotic relationship through the years between comics and writers.  I realize that today, many comics don’t have writers. Many, in fact, don’t want writers. There are several reasons for this.

            First, beginning comedians can’t afford to pay for writers. It’s simply a financial fact of life. As I mentioned in the anecdote above that Bob Hope had a good career going when he began his radio career. He could afford to pay writers from his salary. Most of us can’t. However, I will mention quickly that with some ingenuity and aggressiveness, it is possible to work with some writers even when funds are low. However, that may be the basis for a separate article.

            Second, many of today’s comics take satisfaction in that they write their own material. That’s commendable. They’re willing to put in the effort and the time to develop their own routines. And they have the talent to do that.

            Third, comedians may find it difficult to find writers –even talented writers—who can write to their unique style. Of course, in the writers’ defense, some beginning comics have not yet created a persona to write to. I found it was easier to write for established comedy stars rather than newcomers. The established stars had already created a character, an image, that you could use as a basis for writing jokes.

            Even with these valid reasons, comics may find it useful to have a writer or writers help with their routines. This is in no way saying that comics who use writers are better or worse than comics who do their own stuff. It’s the final material you bring to the microphone that matters.

However, there may be times when a performer may need more input. For instance, in the opening story I recounted, Bob Hope already had a solid act, but he realized that a weekly radio show was demanding and needed tons of material. Writers could replenish the supply. Jay Leno had a successful career on the road, but as host of The Tonight Show a staff of writers was required.  Even with comics whose careers are just beginning to flower, the demand may become overwhelming. If a comic faces new audiences each evening, fresh material may help the act.

Again, I’m not taking sides with comics who write their own material or against comics who write their own material. The only point I’m making is that it might be good to find some dependable writers and work with them periodically. When the career takes off, you may find this quite useful.

©2023

Clearing the Mind to Write Comedy: 5 Helpful Tips [43017]

By Articles
[Editor’s Note: ROUND TABLE Publisher Gene Perret once revealed, in a letter to a beginning comedy writer, some of his tricks for clearing the mind when writing comedy — and–voiding what sometimes is called “writer’s block.” Here are excerpts from that highly useful advice. In many respects, it can apply to ALL writers – but Gene says it’s still especially useful for comedy writing.]

            So you’ve hit a mental block with your writing. You have so much to do, you’re keeping such a blistering pace, you don’t know where to start first.

            I know how you feel. Everyone gets up to their neck and other parts of the anatomy in alligators. I have five secrets that I apply whenever I reach the snapping alligator stage, and I generally apply them in this order:

1. RELAXATION: As long as you’re worried about all your problems, that worry will joke out your thinking processes. It’s like blanking out on a test. I once took a test at college in a subject I was well-versed in. I fully expected and deserved a 100 on it. But when I read the first question, I panicked. I sat there and stared at the thing until the full test time was nearly over. A friend whispered to me, “Write what I tell you.”

            I did and got 100 on the test. When I looked at the questions later, they were so simple I could have gotten 200 – but I worried and blocked my mind.

            You can shake that feeling by doing anything that’s a diversion for you. Read a book, watch TV, do exercises, whatever relaxes you. I’ve been up to my tail in work, but I just walked out the door and went to a movie. Then I’d come home relaxed and find time to do my work.

2. PLANNING: All big jobs are nothing but a much of small jobs tied together in a common package. A little time spend in planning your work will save you quite a bit of time in executing it.

            I did this writing a book on being a Catholic. I decided to try for two chapters a day. I sat down to write about “practicing for Holy Communion.” I sat and looked at blank paper. No results. I did a line or two but not nearly enough to complete a routine. Then it dawned on me: PLAN the routine. What about Holy Communication? Okay, we spend so much time in church, the nun demanded perfection, we had to wear white, we had to repeat the steps over and over again, and it took all our free time. I did five jokes on each subject and had my routine written in less than two hours.

3. CONCENTRATION: You have to devote your energies thinking about the problem at hand. If you can’t, then it’s time for that relaxation. Take a break, clear your mind, and then come back…and concentrate.

            In my work, I find it easier to concentrate if I visualize. Close my eyes and actually see myself in church with that nun practicing to make my First Holy Communion.

            Planning helps you concentrate. Spending time planning helps you to pinpoint your concentration. When you concentrate on too large an area (like trying to solve a crossword puzzle all at once), your mind can’t contain it and it wanders. So planning and concentrating actually complement one another.

4. REMEMBERING: I’ve gabbed a lot about how you must believe a goal to accomplish it. The same applies here. Believe you can get done what you want to get done in order to get it done. Do this by remembering you did the same thing in the past. You visualize your past successes, then calmly set about doing it again.

            Example: When I was in industry, writing jokes for banquets and 25-year parties, I would close my eyes and visualize myself before the crowd. The crowd was just broken up with laughter, as they always had been. This picture alone was enough to make the jokes come.

5. STEALING TIME: Do a little bit of your work when you’re busy doing nothing. Then when it comes time to do the work, it’s already started.

            For instance, if I know I have to do a routine for Bob Hope about the President, I’ll think about it when I’m shaving…think about it as I’m getting changed…think about it lying in bed. Maybe I’ll get an idea or a joke. It’s happened that I’ll get out of bed and do a whole routine, then I can take the next day off. Your most creative work is often done when you think about a problem lightly and then consciously forget it. That’s when your subconscious works on it diligently. When you call it to your conscious mind again, the problem may be solved.

            Doing what you want to do is fun. Relaxing, planning, concentration, remembering and stealing time – they’re five secrets that can stave off the snapping alligators for many writers. They work for me.

©2023

Prepare for your Best Work by Planning [43012]

By Articles

Many writers ask me, “What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to the typewriter to begin an assignment?” Actually, to do your most creative work, you should begin long before you approach the typewriter.

            I’ve found from personal experience and in reading about others that creativity builds in the subconscious. The mind is working on the assignment whether we are aware of it or not. So that’s really my first priority to get my mind interested in what I have to work on.

            You can do this by some simple advance planning. Know what you’re going to be working on, give it some causal thought, and then forget it. The creative part of you won’t forget it. It will mull it over, analyze it, dissect it, prepare ideas, and then present them to you when you’re ready to receive them.

            Most geniuses that we study say this same thing in different ways. Musical composers often claim they hear the music in their head and then just write the notes down. Thomas Edison worked hard on the problems that he tried to solve, but noticed that the right solution would just pop into his head from who knows where. But these people were “thinking” about their work constantly, even if they weren’t aware of it.

            Sleep is supposed to be good thinking time for the subconscious, possibly because it’s free to work at that time without annoying distractions from us – from our conscious minds. I have great success with thinking about an assignment right before bedtime, then “sleeping on it.” It’s amazing how creative my mornings are after that. Often I’ve written an entire routine in that twilight area between trying to wake up and actually becoming alive again. I grab a pen and a notepad and write key-words or entire jokes that my subconscious has presented to me after a night’s work. Of course, I have to transcribe quickly since my writing at that time of the morning is mostly illegible.

            Even when you don’t have the luxury of time to allow ideas to roam around your sub-conscious, preparation is still necessary before pounding the typewriter keys. Your subject should be analyzed, organized, and outlined before attempting execution.

            Let’s suppose, as an illustration, that a client wants a 30-joke routine on his lazy brother-in-law. You should first give some thought to that subject. Make some observations about the topic in general. Lazy brothers-in-law are annoying. They eat too much. They’re always there when you don’t want them. They cause arguments between you and your wife, and so on.

            Now take these generalized thoughts, categorize them and place them in some logical order. We’ve noted before that it’s difficult to write 30 jokes about any topic. It’s overwhelming. So we make it easier by dividing it into ‘bite-sized’ chunks. We list 5 or 6 sub-topics and then we only have to write about 5 jokes about each. The end result is a 30 to 35 joke routine on your major topic.

            Now your preparation may look something like this:

  1. How lazy he is
  2. Always lying around
  3. Won’t get a job
  4. Never has money
  5. Eats like a horse
  6. How I plan to get rid of him

Now that your work is laid out, you can take the cover off the typewriter. You can now concentrate on item 1 and generate some good lines because your thinking is better directed.

      This preparation applies to larger projects like teleplays and full screenplays, also. As a

producer of several sitcoms, we always asked that the freelance writers submit a full outline before beginning their work on the teleplay. This assured us that they would go in the same direction that we had discussed at the story conference. Without the outline, it’s easy to get lost in the middle and to begin writing along tangents. Besides, it just keeps your writing organized and makes the creation of dialogue that much easier.

            Here’s the kicker. The preparation, even though it uses some of your valuable writing time, makes your work better. It also makes it go faster. The advanced work you do makes the actual writing easier, thus you can get much more done. If you give it an honest try, you’ll find that taking time out to prepare will allow you to get much more written in much less time. Try it and have fun with it.

©2023

Write the Joke; Not the Joke Concept [43004]

By Articles

Let’s begin by understanding the terms. A joke is . . . well, it’s a joke. It’s a recognizable truth or exaggeration that’s expressed in such a way that it produces laughter among the listeners. For example, Rodney Dangerfield said, “If it weren’t for pick-pocketers, I’d have no sex life at all.” Funny line. Rita Rudner told a joke that went, “I was a vegetarian until I started leaning toward the sunlight.” Terrific one-liner.

            A joke concept is an idea that has the potential for a joke – or for several jokes – embedded in it. For instance, the thought behind Dangerfield’s line above is that women don’t find him attractive enough to have sex with him anymore. The only intimate groping he experiences lately is the inadvertent titillation from strangers feeling around in his pockets. The concept behind the Rita Rudner line above is that she ate so much plant food that she began acting as a plant would.

            Sometimes we comedy writers can allow ourselves to be mislead that the joke concept can be the joke. And occasionally that can be true. George Carlin’s observation about freeway traffic is a good example of that: “Have you ever noticed that anyone driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” It’s really a factual statement, yet just pointing it out to listeners produces a solid laugh.

            Even though unique observations can often be funny on their own, most of them are rather bland without the innovative wording of the joke. Putting a twist on the idea and expressing it in a unique and surprising way produces the joke. Also, as we noted earlier, a good joke concept can produce many different jokes. As an example, Phyllis Diller would kid about her own cooking. One concept was that her food was dangerous. People could die from it.

            One of her jokes based on this idea was “I serve my meals in three stages—set the table, serve the food, bury the dead.” Another was, “My Veal Parmigiana recipe has been registered with the local police as a lethal weapon.” Also, “No matter what recipe I follow, it always turns out tasting like Hemlock.” You could probably produce another half-dozen lines very quickly based on the idea that Phyllis’ cooking could be fatal.

            In fact, we are also publishing an exercise that ties in with this instructional article. We will list several joke concepts and invite you to create solid laugh lines based on that premise. That exercise is listed under “exercises” and has the same title as this article—Write the Joke; Not the Joke Concept.

            Before you turn to that, though, let’s cover one other bit of advice on when you should be aware that you’re writing the concept rather than the joke. In reviewing your writing be wary of anything that appears to read as a simple statement, such as “I think I married the laziest man alive.” Take that pronouncement and convert it to a full-fledged joke, with a set-up, and a strong punchline that shows why you believe you married the laziest man alive. Your writing will be much stronger if you write powerful jokes rather than bland statements.

            Turn to the related exercise now and give it a try.

Write the Joke; Not the Joke Concept [43101]

By Exercises

This exercise is tied in with the instructional article Write the Joke; Not the Joke Concept. In that piece we tried to show the difference between the joke concept and the joke. (If you haven’t read the instructional article, you might go back and read it now in order to better understand this exercise.

We claimed there that the concept had within it the potential for several solid jokes. This practice session offers a chance to sharpen your skills in converting a joke concept into powerful jokes.

Below are listed 10 joke concepts. What we suggest is that you select maybe one or two of these each day, and find the gags that are embedded in that idea or an idea closely related to it. That will give you one or two weeks of practice sessions. However, when you exhaust the concepts we’ve listed, you can come up with some of your own and follow the same process.

Here are the concepts:

I’m an old man. Anything you’ve ever heard of . . . I’m older than it.
My wife is such a bad driver, when you see her coming, it’s best to go indoors.
They say all babies are cute and irresistible. I wasn’t.
I have the kind of body that everyone laughs at.
I know I have to go on a diet. My talking scale told me so.
Even when I say something correct, My Mother-in-Law corrects me.
My Mother-in-Law has the personality of a pissed off boa constrictor.
Being my wife is my wife’s hobby. Shopping is her occupation.
If I see a parking place, I take it. Who knows, someday I may have a car.
Traffic is so congested in my town, all the major roads have a waiting list.
Take them in any order you wish. And do as many jokes based on the concept as you can. We recommend getting a half-dozen gags for each.

Just as a reminder and an illustration, take a look at this joke concept and the jokes it might have generated:

Concept: When I was a kid, I went to a tough school.

The Jokes:

I went to a tough school. The kids in our school would steal lunch money from the teachers.
When we had fire drills, we used real fire.
Everyone was scared. The Principal only came out of his office on Groundhog’s Day.
When they called my Mother to school, she’d always arranged to meet them half-way.
We didn’t have a “Honor List.” Getting your picture on a Wanted Poster was reward enough.
It was good training, though. When I finally did get accepted into college, I majored in “detention.”
One kid correctly answered the question “Who killed Abraham Lincoln?” The rest of the class beat him up for being a “stoolie.”

That’s the idea. Have fun with the exercise and see if it doesn’t sharpen your skills at turning out more and better gags.

Set a Quota & Keep It, Gene Says [43023]

By Articles

One of my favorite quotes is from Hugh Prather. “If the desire to write is not accompanied by actual writing, then the desire is not to right.” I like it because it throws the ball right back into my court. It puts the burden back on me, the aspirant.

That prompts another quote. J. Milburn Smith said “The burden of learning is on the person who wants to learn, not on the person who wants to teach.” Combine the two and you get something like, “If you want to do it, you gotta do it, and the only way to do it, is to do it.”

            The only one who can really teach you to write is you. The only way you’re going to learn to write is to write, write, and write. If you want to learn to write, or if you want to improve the skills you already have, or if you want to keep your wit sharp, you have to keep writing.

            I began my comedy writing career as a gagwriter. I did one-liners for nightclub comics. When I graduated to writing television sketches, I still maintained one contract for the one-liners. Why? To keep that skill in trim. As I wrote sketches, I also began writing half-hour sitcom scripts as an exercise. When variety shows disappeared from the TV scene, I was ready to write teleplays. Then I began writing screenplays.

Did I have a contract? No. I did it just for the exercise. A few have been optioned, but to date none of them have been produced. I tried writing books and I’ve had three of them published, two of which are still on the stands, and one of which has been translated and published in Japan.

None of these projects, including the books, generate near the income of my basic television contract. Some of them have produced some income, but that’s not why they were undertaken. They were simply exercises designed to keep my writing skills in different arenas sharpened.

The first advice and the best suggestion I can give to any aspiring writer is to set yourself a quota. Decide what type of writing you want to learn, and decide on a pace for yourself. If you want to begin with one-liners, pick a number for each day or each week. If you want to do short stories, set a goal for a plot outline, then decide on a certain number of words or pages per day. The same applies to teleplay or screenplay. Even a novel is a finite amount of pages. Set a quota and attack it.

Your quota need not be too demanding. That would only frustrate you and make it easier to abandon the project. No, make it comfortable and realistic. Of course, don’t make it too easy or you won’t get any benefit from it, you won’t be stretching yourself. And remember that it is flexible.

If your original goal is too soft, add more jokes or more pages. If it’s driving you up a wall, back off at a touch. This is not a contest to test your endurance. It’s a learning process. So experiment and find the right goals for your writing, but once you set them, meet them.

I’m not a big champion of extreme organization. I have friends who have the rest of their life so well organized and prearranged that they don’t even have to show up for it. I do some of that, but I also leave plenty of time for improvisation and spontaneity. I don’t advise applying every spare minute of leisure to writing or thinking about writing, but I do suggest that even the most capricious personality can allow time for writing. As an example, I used to have a quota of 60 jokes per week on two separate topics. Working six days a week on it, that comes to only 10 gags a day. Monday morning, I would decide on topic number one and do some thinking about it. By doing this, I would automatically think about the subject even when I wasn’t consciously working on it.

While driving to work and listening to the radio I was working on my writing, and it cost me not one bit of time. Then I could write three jokes while having breakfast and or shaving. I might think of a joke while driving or even while working period I would jot it down. I would begin my lunch period by writing three jokes. Then I might do another three or four right before retiring. If the jokes just wouldn’t come at those times, then I’d sit down for an hour or so in the evening and work hard to generate my 10 gag daily quota, but usually, it was a lot less than 10 because of the work I’ve done during the day. The work costs very little of my free time period

Keeping to your quota is good training for several reasons. First it teaches discipline. Probably the virtue that is most important to a professional writer is discipline. You have to learn to produce on demand. You have to be competent whether or not you’re inspired. You even have to be good working on some projects that you don’t fully believe in because the person paying your salary believes in them. It’s an important tool for a writer and the time to learn it is now.

Secondly, the training is constant. It’s repetitive, so you learn faster. Weekend athletes tell you that you can’t play well when you only play on Saturday. You have to get out there several times a week to learn golf or tennis. In fact, one hour of play a day for five straight days is probably better than five hours on the weekend.

Third, by sticking to a quota, you won’t be rushed. You think about your project then work on it. Your mind begins to ponder it again, then you produce more. It’s a steady relaxed flow of creativity. Compare that to letting your daily goal slip by unachieved, then rushing to catch it up in one massive burst of dedication. You may get your work done, but it probably won’t be your best and it won’t be as beneficial a learning experience.

Most steering processes are a series of errors and corrections. You go off target and you correct. You overcorrect, and adjust in the other direction. Gradually, the error factor diminishes to practically nothing.

I remember as a child I used to wonder why people driving a car kept moving the steering wheel when we were going in a straight path. They were constantly correcting to maintain that reasonable straight path. The learning process is pretty much the same. So, you want to keep making corrections as often as possible. If you leave too much time between

corrections, you may stray so far off target that the corrections you made previously are now useless. You have to start over again. My friend, Vic Braden, who teaches tennis, has a great line for that. He says, “Some people say they should be better players. They’ve had 11 years of experience. I tell them they’ve had one year of experience 11 times.”

You don’t want that to happen to your writing, so set yourself a quota make it reasonable, and stick to it.

©2021 Perret Ink

Explore the Fringes of Comedy [43020]

By Articles

It takes dedication, persistence, a pinch of luck, and a little bit of time to make it as a stand-up comedian or a writer for either stand-up comics or situation comedies.  That’s meant more as encouragement than discouragement because only those who remain dedicated and persistence will find that luck and in time make it.  The less devoted competition will fall by the wayside.

            However, there are other avenues where you can utilize your comedy skills while you’re waiting for that pinch of luck and the passage of time.  Some of these fringe areas of comedy can often sharpen your skills, gain you exposure, and expedite your career.

            Magazines are always looking for good humorous articles. Those monologues you want to write can be transformed into 800 or 1000 words that some periodical publisher might be interested in.  It’s getting your name in print, earning a little cash, and honing your comedy writing skills.

            You probably belong to some organization or another, either at work or socially.  They could probably use an emcee for some of their functions.  In that capacity, you can open with an entertaining three or four minutes of stand-up material.  It’s fun and if it’s kept to a reasonable time, and with appropriate material, it’s appreciated.

            One friend had children who played on the high school football team.  At the awards banquet, he opened with a funny monologue about the season, the team, the coaches, and some of the players.

            Some folks use their comedy talents on the job. Some give seminars, work related speeches, or offer training programs in house. These can be made more palatable with a touch of appropriate humor.

            Others actually offer one-line writing services to executives at the company who are always called on for speeches someplace or another.  These executives have learned, as politicians have, that a sprinkling of humor helps tremendously with audience acceptance and attention.

            Offer to write a short humor column for the local papers or even your company bulletin.  Or even put together homemade humorous books for co-workers to enjoy.

            One acquaintance of mine gained a local reputation by assembling a book of captioned pictures for special occasions – a friend’s retirement, an anniversary celebration, a birthday.

            These are only top of the head suggestions. With a little thought and creativity, you’ll come up with your own avenues. Remember you become a better writer as you write. These will hone your skills.

            One fringe benefit of these avenues, though, is that you gain recognition, even if it’s only local recognition. A big factor in moving a career along is word of mouth publicity. Your friends know you’re funny. They mention it to a friend. That friend tells a friend of his. Who knows where it can lead?

            My own comedy writing career got a big boost in just this way.  I emceed company parties, wrote in the company paper, and had books floating around the office with jokes and captioned pictures in them.  One co-worker also worked as a stringer for a newspaper.  He interviewed Phyllis Diller, mentioned my work, and she asked to see some of my material.  I began writing for her and things snowballed from there.

            Keep your eye on your career, but do some other writing along the way. It could help.

Write a Sitcom that’s already been Written [43103]

By Exercises

Wait a minute.  Let’s read that headline again – WRITE A SITCOM THAT’S ALREADY BEEN WRITTEN.  Isn’t that plagiarism?  Isn’t that unethical?  Illegal?

            How many times have you seen a western where the young gunfighter wants to challenge the legendary gunfighter?  You’ve seen variations of it a few times, right?  Now did you ever see the movie, The Hustler?  Wasn’t that about the young pool player who wanted to challenge the legendary Minnesota Fats?

            Surely you’ve heard the story of Faust, who sold his soul to the devil.  Have you seen the musical play or the movie, Damn Yankees?  It’s about a Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil so he can have one season as a great baseball play who will help the Senators beat those “Damn Yankees” and win the World Series.

            Jerry Lewis made a movie called The Nutty Professor.  It’s based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  I’ll bet Robert Louis Stevenson never thought he’d be providing material for Jerry Lewis.  Dean, maybe; but not Jerry.

            Why not get some practice in sitcom writing by going through the classics and coming up with a great story line that can be converted to a script for one of your favorite shows.

            It’s a great start because you’ve got, as you’ve heard so often, a beginning, a middle, and an end.  You’ve got a basic plot.  Now convert it to the characters who populate your show.

            How about the story of Androcles and the Lion where Androcles removes a thorn from the lion’s paw and the lion later saves Androcles’s life.  Try turning that into a premise for The Drew Carey Show or Becker.

            Shaw’s Pygmalion was turned into the musical My Fair Lady.  Maybe you can turn it into an episode for Friends.

            Even Fairy Tales can make interesting starting points for your writing.  Jack and the Beanstalk might be translated into a story that could be appropriate for Frasier

            And you don’t even have to go back as far as the classics or Aesop’s Fables.  You can borrow from modern scripts.  The story of the shootout at the O.K. Corral has been done several times by Hollywood, but it might make an interesting premise for a Friends script too.

            So just for the practice of writing a sitcom script that’s already plotted, do some research.  Find an interesting story that’s already been done somewhere.  Now suit that story to the characters you want to write about – the people who populate your favorite sitcom.

            Write an entire script based on that plot line. It can be funny.  Strangely enough, it can be original, too.  If it’s well written, chances are that no one will recognize the original source.

            In any event, it can be practice in writing a sitcom and in plotting them creatively.

            Have fun writing something that’s already been written.

Make It Better [43022]

By Standup

Once I worked on a Bob Hope Special that was being televised from the road, not NBC studios.  We were rehearsing late one night in the hotel.  The last sketch we rehearsed played like gangbusters.  It got big, continuous laughs.  When the rehearsal ended, Hope called the writers over and said, “Let’s go up to my suite.”

I asked, “Why?”

Hope said, “I think we can make this sketch funnier.”

I said, “What?  It’s playing great.”

He said, “If we get some more big laughs, it’ll play better.  If we don’t, we still have a great sketch.”  We went up and worked on the sketch.

It’s good practice to work on your material or your act with that same thought in mind.  You may have some nice laughs in there.  Could they turn into GREAT laughs?  You won’t know unless you try.

A good exercise for this is to take some big laughs and play with them.  Try to turn them into bigger laughs.

For example, there’s a standard riddle, which I’m sure you’ve heard.  It goes, “What’s black and white and red all over?  The answer, of course, is a newspaper.  Clever gag.  But there are other things that might be black and white and red all over?  I worked on that once and found a few and I’m sure you’ll be able to find some more.  Here are a few of the answers that I came up with:

  • A wounded nun
  • A sunburned zebra
  • An escaped prisoner who’s embarrassed about being captured
  • A communist race riot

As an exercise, take some good (or not so good) gags that you know and work on them.  Make them better.  “Why do firemen wear red suspenders?”  I’m sure there are other reasons (maybe funnier ones) than to hold their pants up.  “Why do chickens cross the street?”  Might there be a more comical reason than to get to the other side.  How about “Take my wife…please.”  It’s a classic one-liner, but you may be able to come up with some variations on it…with a little bit of effort.

Now put the exercise to some practical use.  There are some gags in your routines that are pretty good.  Make them better.  Work on variations.  Add a few more tag lines.  Improve the punchline.  You might turn a pretty good line into a major laugh.  And again, if you don’t, you still got a pretty good line.

This is great practice for your comedy writing, but it also can raise your routines a notch or two.  And it’s just those little improvements that can transform a mediocre act into a great one.

Define Your Premise-Exercise [43025]

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By Gene Perret

It’s helpful in doing any kind of comedy monologue, or even in writing humorous articles, to begin by defining your premise. Tell the audience right up front exactly what you’re talking about.

            And, of course, since you are doing comedy, the more laughs you can get, the better off you are. Therefore, it pays to make your definition funny.

This month, I’m offering an exercise that will give you some practice in definitions.

            We’ll take some abstract ideas and try to write some one-liners that define them. I’ll suggest a few, but you might try to come up with more of your own.

            Let’s begin with words like: fear, heaven, hell, heroism, dedication, politeness. Now take each of these (or selected ones) along with those of your own, and write some one-liners that give a good, solid, funny definition of that particular word.

            For example:

  • Fear is that little voice inside you that says, “I don’t know how I got into this situation, but you can bet the farm I’m never going to get into it again.”
  • Fear is when little butterflies form in your stomach and try to get out. Often times your lunch goes with them.
  • Fear is when your courage goes AWOL, and you’d like to go with it.

This is a valuable exercise because your topic is very specific. That forces you to focus on just one thought. The more you can learn to focus in comedy writing, the stronger your material will be.

            Also, these are topics that are unique. They haven’t been overdone by comedians. That will force you to be original and to investigate the topic thoroughly in your own mind.

            To get the most benefit from this exercise, do several jokes on each topic. Again, that forces you to analyze your premise thoroughly. The first gag might be great, but there are other areas within that premise that can be explored.

            I recommend that you do at least 7 to 10 gags on each topic that you select. As a variation on this exercise (after you’ve explored this one fully), you might try opening a dictionary to a random page, finding an intriguing word there, and writing several gags, or even a routine on that word.

            This one will really force you to think.

With both of these exercises, Have Fun!

Success Requires an Investment in Yourself [43027]

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I had been writing for Phyllis Diller for some time before I met her. She invited me to see her performance at the Latin Casino outside of Philadelphia. The first thing she said as I walked into her dressing room was, “You’re the best writer I’ve got.” I said, “Then how come I’m not in Hollywood?” She responded honestly, “Because you’re not ready yet.”

            Naturally, I was delighted with her compliment, but disappointed that she felt I wasn’t yet prepared for the big time. It was confusing. How could I be so good on one hand and not good enough on the other? She was right, though, and since then I’ve come to learn what she meant.

            Reaching a certain level of success—especially in the arts—requires more than ability. You have to convince others that you’re talented. That requires a lot of persistence and a touch of luck. There’s another phenomenon to consider—if you’re really good, sometimes the powers that be won’t recognize your skills. You’re too advance for them. I’m not claiming that happened to me, but it has happened to others. They were ahead of their time. I can remember as a television writer reviewing tapes of Steve Martin many years before he became a household name. He was so outlandish that no one would admit he was funny…until audiences forced us to.

            It would be an ideal world if we could acquire a certain amount of proficiency in our profession and immediately be recognized for it and paid for it. It just doesn’t often happen that way.

            However, I will go out on a limb and suggest that if you do learn your craft, be it speaking or writing, you will eventually earn the recognition you deserve. It does take some time, though.

            There will be times when you deserve pay and don’t get any. There will be times when you deserve more than you get, but no one will give it to you. These are the times when the true professional invests in the future. You invest in yourself.

            During one of our writer’s strikes I was walking a picket line outside of Universal Studios. A young man approached and began talking to us. We welcomed that. We welcomed anything that broke the monotony of walking in a circle. This gentleman was an aspiring writer who was studying TV scripting in a class taught by the Writer’s Guild. Many members volunteered to teach classes regularly to the underprivileged and this lad was one of the students.

            We talked about the good and bad facets of the television writing. We all knew what was wrong with TV and how to cure those ills. We all knew that if only we were in power, the medium would be improved two hundredfold. There’s a word for what we were doing, but it doesn’t belong on the front page of a classy newsletter like this.

            Then this aspiring writer told us that he had written a short presentation that his teacher felt had potential. He went to his car, brought back the document, and asked us to read it quickly. It was only one or two pages long. We all agreed that it was a workable idea that could possibly result in a sale.

            This student told us that his teacher advised him to rewrite this premise into a full treatment, which might be ten to twenty pages. We thought that was good advice and were happy for him. Then he said, “If he wants me to do that, he’s going to have to pay me for it.”

            That was about 15 years ago and I doubt if that lad every became a TV writer. I doubt if he ever sold anything. In fact, I doubt if he ever completed that treatment.

            Each aspiring writer or speaker reading this page can put the moral to this story in his or her own words. I know the lesson I learned from that day’s chance encounter struck me heavily…otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it 15 years later.

Why Round Table? [43001]

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All of us on the staff of ROUND TALBE are happy to see this first edition finally in print and we welcome all our readers.

            We’re quite proud of this publication, and we unashamedly wish ourselves much success. You’re welcome to join the good wishes if you like.

            We feel that ROUND TABLE is a unique periodical written by comedy writers and humorists for comedy writers and humorists. But then why the mysterious name, ROUND TABLE, a gathering place for comedy writers and humorists? Why not simply COMEDY WRITERS MONTHLY or the COMEDY WRITERS JOURNAL? Is it because the comedy writers who put the first edition together simply can’t bring themselves to use such trite, hackneyed, expected titles? That’s part of it. We humorists always think we can top anything

that’s been done before. But that’s not the real reason.

            We wanted the title to reflect the purpose and the content of the publication. Years ago, the finest humorists of America would meet periodically for lunch at the Algonquin hotel in New York. People like Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and others would exchange ideas and insult across what became known as the Algonquin Round Table. It was at the meeting place that Robert Benchly once said, “It took me 15 years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”

            We want this publication to have the same relaxed and friendly atmosphere as the original Round Table.

            This journal is not intended to be merely a fact finding and news reporting bulletin. It’s intended, rather, to be exactly as the subtitle says, a gathering place for comedy writers and humorists. It’s really an instrument for you readers and subscribers to exchange ideas. We solicit and welcome your input.

            Writing is supposed to be a lonely profession. That’s especially true for the comedy writer. Even the most popular writers magazines virtually ignore this specialized field. In every city that I visit I invariably meet at least one comedy writer who wants to know “Who do I show my material to?” “How do I sell my material?” and similar questions.

            ROUND TABLE is designed to take some of the loneliness out of comedy writing.

            Through this publication, writers and humorists will meet on these pages. They can ask questions of the experts, the experienced writers and humorists, or of each other. We want to know of your successes and how you achieved them, because others can learn from your innovations and gather some residual confidence in your achievement.

            We’ll provide a showcase for your writings. We’ll provide interviews with successful performers and some accomplished writers will pass on their experience to you. Notice, we don’t say “expertise,” but experience. A long-time writer isn’t necessarily more skilled than the beginner. He just has learned how to use those skills more effectively. (Go back and reread the Robert Benchly quote. It has as much truth as humor in it.)

            One advantage this ROUND TABLE has over the original…they only had room for the elite of the world of humor. We’re grateful that we have plenty of room for everyone.