StandUp or Sit Down Humor for Live Entertainers

The Need For Humor Writing Seems Inexhaustible because every professional performer needs fresh material: they need it when they're getting started, and they need it even more when they're on top, because that's when they're the most fearful.

David Letterman says, "Now that my ratings are good, I have a different kind of fear. It's like a tap on the shoulder from an ominous unknown force. That's the position you don't want to find yourself in, the one you can't sustain. It's like a warning that I've got to do better, and keep doing better, or the ratings will go down and I'll be left a lonely broken shell of a human—like I am now."

Next to drops of water on a hot frying pan, nothing evaporates faster than the value of a topical joke on TV. Comedians are constantly being interviewed and their best quotes are reprinted. That's why jokes the pros use for the freebies (press publicity interviews) are different from their act material.

But no matter how they try to contain it, comics cannot resist overdoing everything—they can turn a simple interview into one long comedy routine. But what's even more frustrating to their writers is that reviews are often illustrated with examples of their best lines. The result is that the best material has the best chance of being dated first.

Many have said that there is a correlation between humor and math.

Well, there is when you plot out material for a show.

Bob Hope has seven writers. In his typical TV monologue of eight minutes, he covers twelve topics, such as the latest Presidential exploits, an earthquake, the Miss America pageant. Each topic will last approximately forty seconds at the rate of about four to five jokes per topic; that averages one joke every eight to ten seconds including a predictable amount of laugh time. According to Phil Lasker, each writer must provide twenty gags on each topic, and that (7x20) equals 140 jokes from which Hope and his chief writer will select the best five.

Breaking In

It isn't a waste of time to send your material to big-name entertainers through the mail. Only a fool would refuse to look at new material. But some entertainers are afraid that unknowns may not be sending in original material, and they don't need more aggravation. So until they get to trust you, we have a Catch 22 situation. One way to promote this trust is to be sure you don't waste the performer's time by submitting unusable material.

On the other side, neophyte writers are afraid of being ripped off. Sometimes they are, but not as often as they fear. There are several reasons for this. Performers are anxious to develop reliable sources of material, not steal one joke. They are looking for consistency as well as quality, writers who can produce today, tomorrow, and next week.

Gene Perret, in his book How To Write and Sell [Your Sense of] Humor, offers this advice: Start locally. Find out where comics are performing and offer them material (hint: have it typed up, with name, address, and phone number, and ask a waiter or usher to take it backstage) so you can start out your careers together. Once you have a few names, you may find local comics listed in the phone book—you can call or write them. Payment may not be much at first, but the experience will be invaluable.

But don't hesitate to contact the big names in the business. How do you reach them? Don't fight the crowd trying to go through their agents or reach them at home. Instead, find out where they're performing and send them a letter there—a collection of gags or routines, not just a single item. Again, make sure you enclose all information needed to contact you if they like what they see. You can find out where they're performing by looking at the current issue of Variety, which has listings of who's appearing where. They might even be coming to your home town. But don't try to corner them on an elevator: submit material in writing. The professionals know what funny is and what jokes will be right for them. If they like your material, they'll get in touch with you.

A final hint: Whether a comic is just starting out or established, he or she will probably be a member of the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA). If there's a chapter where you live, they may be willing to put you in touch with a particular performer you'd like to offer material to. AGVA headquarters is at 184 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10010 (212) 675-1003; by calling or writing, you can find out the location of the chapter nearest you.

There are a number of topflight comedians who are willing to look at an unknown's material. And they're not just being friendly. They include Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, and Rodney Dangerfield, among many others. If they read something they like, they'll try to test it before purchase. A joke that's never tested cannot be called funny; it can only be called a bit. If it works, it's called a funny bit.

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