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.