Comedy Tips from Stephen Rosenfield

One of your “A” jokes that consistently earned big laughs stops working. Here is a checklist that will help you pinpoint the reason why this is happening and what to do about it.

Reason 1: You’re not doing it the way you did it when it was working. This is the number one reason that “A” material stops working. Its been months since you created the joke and you’ve forgotten the attitudes that caused you to write the joke in the first place and that you played on stage when the joke was still fresh in your gut. You’ve unintentionally changed the attitudes that made the joke work.

Solution: Go back to the original attitudes. If you have a recording of the performance where the joke worked, review the recording and determine what the original attitudes were and play them again when you do your next show. The laugh will return.

Reason 2: The joke is dated. Sadly, audiences do not have an infinite desire to hear Monica Lewinsky jokes. If your joke is about something in the news, and this item has been fodder for talk show hosts and an uncountable number of other comedians, at some point audiences have heard all they want to hear on this subject. They communicate this to you by not laughing.

Solution: Cut the joke.

Reason 3: You’ve moved the position of the joke in your set and the move has hurt the joke. For example, you’re looking for a new opening for you set. Your current opening is getting “B” laughs and you want to open with something stronger. There is a killer joke toward the end of your set, so you move it up to the front and it stops working.

Solution: Move the joke back to where it was. Something about this joke requires information that earlier jokes are supplying. Without this information the joke doesn’t work. It is not a stand alone joke. It is a joke that is partially set up by information in earlier jokes. Put it back where it was and the laugh will return.

Reason 4: The material is inappropriate for a particular audience. I worked with a comic whose set included sexually graphic as well as clean material. He was funny, and eventually he got his first paying gig. He bombed. “Not a single laugh,” he told me in the day after IbombedandI’mquittingthebusiness phone call. “What material did you do,” I asked. ” The blue stuff,” he replied. “Where were you” I asked. “A bar mitzvah.” “Oy,” I replied. A group of thirteen-year-old boys and girls, their parents, grandparents and the rabbi is not the right audience for “dick” jokes. Underline that last sentence if you are printing this out. Sexually graphic or blue material does not work with young teenagers; it embarrasses them, and parents; they don’t approve or think it’s sophomoric, and elderly people; they don’t remember what you’re talking about, and rabbais. Blue material works with the late night, 20-30’s, met the 2 drink minimum before the show started, horny and single crowd. The older and more sophisticated the crowd is, the less they go for fart jokes. Listen to the show. If the comics who go on before you are getting big laughs with clean material, don’t do your roll on the ten ways your girlfriend passes gas. Save it. Try to hold it in. Thank you.

Reason 5: Rosenfield’s Law of Relativity: You’ve been closing your set with a killer joke that sweeps you off stage to the sounds of laughter, applause and adulation. Several months later the joke is tanking and your schlepping offstage to the sounds of lint falling. You’ve been through the checklist- you’re closing with the original attitudes, it’s not dated, or inappropriate to the audience, you haven’t changed its placement- so what’s going on?! People laugh hardest at what is relatively the funniest material in your set. Your best jokes get bigger laughs than your so so jokes. What may be your best joke now may not stay that way if your writing keeps improving. As you add higher quality material to your set, what once was your killer joke may now be marginal. This is the best reason in the world to have a joke stop working. You’ve become a much better writer and your old stuff is not up to your new stuff. Congratulations!

Solution: Cut the joke.

You want strong laughs from the beginning to the end of your set. You want them to be consistently strong from one show to another. When you accomplish that with about twenty minutes of material, you will start getting booked into the clubs as a regular.
Accomplishing an all “A” set requires several things. First, you have to make up your mind that you will not settle for small laughs. I hear comics defend a joke by saying, “it gets a laugh.” That’s true. It gets a laugh. A laugh does not lead to a career. You headline when you rock the house from the beginning to the end of your set.

Second, you need to listen to your audience. They will tell you, through their response to your material, where the strength is in your act, what areas need work and what material you should toss. Your audience is your editor-in-chief. This is so important that I am going to repeat it to help you remember. Your audience is your editor-in-chief. Say it with me, “Your audience is your editor in chief.” Oh, you can do better than that. Let me hear you! “Your audience is your editor-in-chief!” Good. Now we can get on with the chapter.

Always audio record your set. Use your voice recorder and leave it in the back of the club. Don’t bring it up on stage with you. What you want to record is the audiences’ laughter. After the show, like the next day (I don’t want you doing what I’m about to tell you while you are up on stage. On stage your only focus should be on having a great time with your audience.) play back the recording and grade each laugh. Don’t try to grade your performance. That is much too subjective. Grade the laughs, their volume and length.

An “A” laugh is the big laugh. It’s what’s known in show business as a house laugh because the whole house is laughing. Material that works for you as an “A” laugh, 75 to 80% of the time; much more that half the time, is “A” material. Nights when the other comics are coming off the stage and saying the audience is dead, and you go up and get house laughs, that material is “A” material and should become the bedrock of your set.

Material that sometimes gets a big laugh and sometimes gets a smaller laugh is “B” material. What you want to do with “B” material is to move it up to an “A.” Usually, a joke that is good enough to get a “B” laugh, with work, can be brought up to an “A” laugh. In a future article, I will tell you how to accomplish this.

Sometimes a “B” laugh doesn’t budge. It clearly gets a laugh but it’s not consistently a big laugh. Here is what you do with “B” material. When you want to do your absolute best, use your best material, the “A” material. If there is someone in the audience from the entertainment industry-an agent, a manager, a producer, a casting director, you only want to perform your funniest and most original material. You want to do what comics call their “industry set.” However, if it’s a regular night and the only people in the audience are the good people who’ve come out to hear comedy, “B” material is okay to include in your set. If you need to include some “B” material in order to do the time the club is requiring you to do, do it – as long as it is getting a clear laugh, not a chuckle but a laugh.

You should not include “B” material in your industry set. Only use your “A” material.

Now that we know what to do with “A” and “B” material let’s look at “C” material. A “C” laugh is a chuckle or nothing. “C” material should not be in your set. Little tiny laughs get in the way of big laughs. Getting an “A” laugh is like blowing up a balloon until it explodes. The set up for an “A” laugh builds tension in the audience and the punch line explodes that tension into laughter. Little laughs just let the air out of the balloon. It makes it harder to get that explosive laughter.

If it’s a new joke and you love it and it gets a “C” laugh the first time out, do it again. You always want to give your material a chance to work. It’s possible that with practice and greater confidence you can make the joke work. But, if after a few tries on stage, the material is still getting a little laugh, toss it.

The Great comedian, Groucho Marx said that there are two things to look for in determining whether a comedian is going to really make it. One is that he or she knows how to edit their material. They know what to keep and what to throw out. By recording the audience at every one of your performances, and then grading the laughs, you will begin to get a clear picture of what to keep, what to work on, and what to throw out. You will be on your way to creating an all “A” set. I’ll tell you the second thing Groucho said to look for in an upcoming article.

All Rights Reserved
Copyright October 13, 2004
stephen 3:32 PM

A current truism in the industry is that a set should avoid observational jokes (your observations about things, i.e. the Leno monologues) because in order to get a sitcom comedians have to put their lives into their material so that sitcom producers can see who the main characters of the sitcom are (the main people you hang out with) and where the locations of the sitcom is – (where you hang out.)
For this reason a set should be comprised of personal standup- stories about you life.

Good strategy.

But what about Leno and Letterman and Conan and Jon Stewart and George Lopez and Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres – virtually all of the comedians who host their own shows. They do practically nothing but observational jokes about politics, pop culture and celebrities. They hardly do any personal jokes. It would seem that if you wanted a major TV show of your own, you’re better off avoiding autobiographical material and instead focusing on political and cultural observational standup.

Good strategy.

But… what about SNL and MAD TV? The comics on those shows do a variety of characters and celebrity impersonations. So, it would make sense to create a set where you do a lot of characters.

Good strategy.

But what about Borat? In this film (see it; it’s absolute proof that comedy can be in appalling taste and hilarious, and artistically satisfying all at the same time) Sasha Baron Cohen impersonates a Kazakhstani in search of America and true love.

Cohen is a master of character comedy, a form of comedy where the comedian creates and impersonates an outlandish character, who he/she pretends to be all the time. Andy Kaufman, Pee Wee Herman (Paul Ruben), Steve Martin when he did standup and Jose Jimenez (Bill Dana) are other examples of character comedians.

So it would make sense that, rather than create lots of characters, you should focus on creating just one.

Good, strategy… but that excludes all the other good strategies.

Confusing right? There are, however, several solid conclusions that can be drawn from the current state of comedy and that will apply to future states of comedy as well.

One is that it is useful to be aware of comedy trends. The industry is aware of these trends and most often make their decisions based on these trends – so you want to be aware of them, too.

Two is that it is important to understand what a trend is: It is an attempt to replicate success by imitating whatever is currently considered successful.

So, as an example when Seinfeld was the king of comedy , in the late 80’s and 90’s, comedians were advised to emulate his observational style. They were warned not to do stories about themselves. I remember sitting in on a class taught by an industry savvy standup teacher and watching this teacher interrupt a student who was working on an autobiographical piece of material with the admonition, “Stop. No one is interested in your stories.”

A few years later, the pendulum swung in the totally opposite direction. Ray Romano was now king and under his reign standups were advised to emulate him. Tell stories about you personal life – observational stuff isn’t personal enough. How can you get a sitcom when nobody knows who you are?

So what’s in today is out tomorrow.

This insight leads us to the third conclusion. You have a choice. Either you can keep adapting your act so it fits whatever the current trend is.


You can be aware of industry trends, but put your focus on following your own star, confident in the knowledge that trends come and go but genuine comic talent whatever shape or form it takes, always finds an audience and the larger and more honed the talent, the larger the audience.