Professional comedians will tell you that you cannot “learn” to be funny. You either have it or you don’t. You either are or you aren’t.
They are, of course, lying.
For there is a craft to comedy, and it is learned. And comedians spend the early parts of their careers developing their craft. They get onstage. They suck. They get onstage again. They suck again.
Eventually, however, those that persevere get the hang of it. They gradually begin to suck less. The audiences begin to laugh more.
However, beyond the craft itself, there is also an art to truly fine comedy, and this is what separates the gifted from the merely competent. This quality, perhaps, cannot be learned (or if it is learned, it is learned through life experience and not through practice of the craft).
But all comedians must learn the craft. It is a prerequisite to anything greater. And comedians (the gifted as well as the competent) spend considerable time and effort learning the craft.
We can look at the early careers of the gifted and see that this is true. Before Richard Pryor found his voice and changed the comedic world, he paid his dues in a conventional nightclub routine. Before George Carlin broke and redefined the mold of counterculture comedy, he began with safe media stuff (“Wonderful WINO! Wonderful WINO radio!”). Before Chris Rock shocked us, awed us, and brought us the pain, he languished as a second-string player on Saturday Night Live. Everyone spends their proverbial 40 years in the wilderness.
And undoubtedly, the “40 years” (let us hope not a literal timeframe) must involve practice, bombing, and failure. It can’t be learned from a book.
Having said that, there is one excellent book I have found which can speed the process of learning to be funny. It cannot substitute for the painful process of comic development (no book possibly could), but it does a commendable job of laying out many of the basic structures of comedy.
Helitzer, a journalism professor with over 30 years experience in writing comedy, public relations, and ad copy, takes an ordered approach to explaining the dynamics of humor. In Helitzer’s view, the essential formula depends upon the performer’s ability to develop a sense of superiority within the audience (often at the performer’s expense), create a certain tension, and then burst the bubble with the element of surprise. He likens the process to coaxing the audience onto a rug and then pulling it out from under them repeatedly.
In outlining how comedians make audiences laugh, Helitzer explains such basics as why things are funnier in threes (you establish a pattern with the first two elements and then violate it with the third), the pattern a routine must take (moving the audience from chuckles to outright laughter in a process akin to rocking a boulder before pushing it down a hill), and why the callback (a reference to an earlier joke in the act) is an effective way to build the effect and keep the tempo. He also provides a very informative description of the long process (known as “the road”) that comics undertake in building and refining their material.
These are, are of course, mechanics, and Helitzer’s book has a distinctly Catskills flavor to it, but this in no way diminishes the relevance of what he has to say. When he tells you that the “k” sound is an inherently funny sound, there is the temptation to dismiss it with a rimshot. It would be a mistake to do so, however. Although abused by hacks who make their livings telling 7-11 jokes, the “k” sound, along with the other basic techniques covered, is an essential part of the working comic’s arsenal. And the masters, while they also do a lot more, never abandon the tried and true techniques.
When Chris Rock performed his seminal “Niggas versus Black People” routine in his breakout HBO special and challenged the “low-expectation-having M.F.,” he did so with the following coupe de grace:
“What do you want, a cookie?”
Not a ribbon. Not a medal. Not a slice of pizza. A good old-fashioned hard “k”-sound “cookie” straight from the Catskills.
Because it was funnier.
So even the virtuousos are mindful of the mechanics. What sets them apart from the crowd is where they take the craft. When Chris Rock delivers an effective callback, that’s craft. When he does so along the razor’s edge of a culture’s still-unresolved racial tensions, that’s art.
The craft is a requirement. The art is where the real fun begins.