Comedians have unusual opportunities to test material that print writers never have. They can do jokes in small speeches and they can try out their monologue bits in small comedy clubs.
There are more than 300 comedy clubs in the U.S. and Canada. These clubs and performers are tracked monthly by the trade newspaper Just For Laughs, 22 Miller Avenue, Suite G, Mill Valley, CA 94941. These comedy clubs are rehearsal halls for many of the big names. Crowds at clubs like the Comedy Store (Los Angeles), the Improv, and Caroline's (New York) are frequently delighted by surprise appearances of such high-priced talent as Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, and Billy Crystal.
Even though Rodney Dangerfield has his own Manhattan nightclub, Dangerfield's, every few nights he'll walk over to the Catch a Rising Star comedy club, amble on stage and unemotionally read new jokes to the audience. That's right—read—he doesn't even try to perform them. He wants to know how strong they are without the talent element factored in. If he gets a strong reaction, he'll nod to his manager and a check will be in the mail within a few days. Only then does he start to rework the joke into his routine.
Before his concerts were filmed for Live on Sunset Strip, Richard Pryor practiced night after night for nine months at a small comedy club in Los Angeles. It took him that long before he was confident enough of his material to go before the cameras and the live audiences—and even then it took three separate concerts to be able to edit enough winners into the final film.
Lily Tomlin has one of the most carefully choreographed acts in comedy. Before her big openings in New York or Los Angeles, Tomlin and her writer will move across the country putting on "work shows," where a small door charge entitles audiences to put up with half-acted, half-read material onstage.
Comedy is written word by word, as a football team grinds out touchdowns yard by yard. Jay Leno describes his technique this way: "If I sat down and wrote ten jokes, maybe one of them would be funny. So, I don't try out new material in bulk. In an hour show I'll try out only ten seconds of new material—one or two lines. If they work, the next night they stay in the act and I'll try out something else. At the end of a week, I'll have done sixteen shows, and I might have another solid minute and a half of material. Then, I feel I've been working at it."
The comedy clubs are a good place for beginning writers to talk to active comics and hand them some material. Once club owners know why you're hanging out there, you won't be thrown out as a drifter. Of course, if your material is bad . . . !
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