Don't you know everyone wants to laugh
COMEDY is hard, but at least stand-up is easier than sketch comedy. The huge proportion of boring sketch comedy is one reason I'm no longer watching Aaron Sorkin's new drama, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." ("30 Rock" is wackier and therefore better.) And I'm trying to figure out why.
Most of us have a little wit. That's the easiest form of humor: just bantering with friends, alluding to shared experiences and peeves. Drive-time radio jocks make hay with this talent every day.
And then there's sketch comedy, where you get to play off each other, but it's scripted, so you've sifted out the gems to show off. You see this in great sketch comedy and in the best sitcoms. And you get to introduce surreal situations when they enhance the joke.
So why do "Saturday Night Live," "MadTV" and most sketch comedies you've seen stink?
My guess: It takes so much effort to write and hone a skit that too many writers and actors are reluctant to give up on a subpar one.
Stand-up requires that you do it all yourself, without the scaffolding of conversation. I think the advantages outweigh the difficulties. Here I provide a formula I've devised to manufacture observational-humor stand-up. As long as you are not an introvert, you can do a fair job at some open mic.
Think of something you are cranky about, or one of those anecdotes you always pull out at parties. Example: When I was at UC Berkeley, I was (I believe) the only Sumana on campus, so I thought it would be easy to get email@example.com.
But I couldn't, because it was already taken by Stacy Umana.
Humor comes from incongruity, specifically the difference between what is and what should be.
Extrapolate this into absurdity, preferably retaining a kernel of the original truth-in-paradox. To increase the chances you'll get a laugh, make multiple jokes about each premise for a cascade of punchlines at the climax of each bit. Repeat for each topic. By now you should have a few unrelated "bits" on, say, your neighbor's kid's eccentricities, a really bad meal and the fact that Joseph Lieberman is technically not an Independent (he belongs to the Connecticut For Lieberman party).
Now you turn the bits into a set by constructing the segues. Move the bits around till there's some logical flow.
Practice saying your set in a little speech to yourself or to friends who have a sense of humor, testing rhythm and diction, iterating through better and better versions of the set. Preferably you'll have at least three punchlines per minute.
Once the set reliably makes people laugh, it might not make you laugh anymore, but it's ready for the stage.
A few tips:
-Be accessible. I wasn't, but then again I was OK with dying instead of killing onstage.
-Certain words are funny. Get them in there, put them at the heart of the punchline, and put the punch word at the end of the punchline so the audience doesn't laugh over you. If only Bangkok were in Malaysia — two funny words together at last.
-And if you love spontaneous wit more than you love dry-curing and carving it up for stand-up, do improv — sketches that you make up on the spot.
Improvisational comedy, I've heard, is for happy people, while stand-up is for bitter people taking out their need for therapy on the audience. So maybe I should try it, and maybe Aaron Sorkin's characters should too.
Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.