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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.


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.