The Joy of Failure

Many thanks to today’s Guest Blogger – comic Danny Rouhier!

Danny Rouhier is the host of Overtime weeknights from 7-11 on 106.7 The Fan in Washington, DC. His highly acclaimed show has landed him spots on Comcast Sportsnet, features in the Washington Post, and the regular slot hosting the station’s Redskins post game show with Lavar Arrington. As a comic, Danny has traveled all over North America performing at clubs, colleges, and festivals. Combined with his incredible gift of impersonations and character imitation, Danny uses a lightening quick wit with a charming self-deprecating style. His unique voice resonated with Washington Redskins fans and the weekly videos he produced about the struggles of the team have garnered over 200,000 views to date.

Danny has performed with industry giants like Jim Gaffigan, Kevin Nealon, Bill Burr, Dave Attell, Jim Norton, Todd Barry, Daniel Tosh, Bob Saget, Reggie Watts, Adam Ferrara, and more. In addition to many of the best clubs in the US and Canada, he has performed at numerous festivals including the Bumbershoot, DC, Boston, and Detroit Comedy Festivals. Danny has also been featured on numerous TV programs including: ‘The A-List’ on Animal Planet, ‘TV’s 25 Biggest Blunders’, and ‘The History of Sex on TV’. He was also the studio comic for the Tyra Banks Show which means he performed in front of over 300 judgmental women per day.

Check out his website  and follow him on twitter – @funnydanny.

 The Joy of Failure

I’m typing this is I watch one of Chris Rock’s HBO specials. He has the crowd eating out of his hand. Through his hour special, he takes the audience on a winding road. He is like a conductor of a symphony calling on applause and laughter almost at will. He has the audience applauding at their own faults and even at assertions like the federal government hates rap music so much, they’ve prevented law enforcement from finding Tupac Shakur’s killer. They love everything he does. At this point, he could take out the phone book and read it with comments and get a standing ovation. That’s the end game. That’s the pinnacle. That’s the perfection point.

Standup comedy is hard. The great ones make it look easy but it was hard for them too. For every sold out theater show where a famous comic kills for a crowd who paid to see him, there’s a million shows at bars where they don’t turn off the tv, shows in cafeterias, or shows in conference rooms. The process can be frustrating, humbling, and terrifying. To really be a standup comic, you have to face a litany of fears. There’s no net. It’s YOUR material. It’s YOU up there. The audience can see you and you can feel them. If it doesn’t go well, you’ll know right away. In addition to the fear of failing in front of a group, a comic must confront his own faults and quirks and learn to share them with the crowd. You’re going to fail and you’re going to fail a lot. The most important thing you can do as you embark on this incredible experience is embrace that simple fact: You are going to fail.

I suppose it’s like anything else in life in that you need experience to get better. We all fail at first to a degree. It’s of course what you choose to do with that failure that makes you who you are. Failing in standup comedy is different. It’s live. That’s what makes it both exhilarating and scary to those from the outside. Comics know the rush they get from a joke gone well and seek that feeling every time they write a joke. But to have it go bad? That feels like dying. That’s why comics call it just that when they have a bad set. To fail onstage, in front of a crowd, is one of the top fears that human beings have. On every survey that comes out, public speaking ranks right up there with fear of heights, spiders, and things that can actually kill you.

So, where does that leave us? We know comedy is hard and we know people are afraid to fail in front of others. It also means that you are to be congratulated. It means you are willing to put yourself out there. It means that you are willing to go on an incredible ride of self-discovery, face your fears, fail, learn, grow, be humbled, seek to be more than you are, hope, not be satisfied, desire, believe, and create. Embrace the process. Understand that this will be an incredible challenge. Believe in yourself and your ability to meet challenges. It’s not a race so don’t worry about how fast you progress or don’t. Just know that this will be what you make of it.

Congratulations. I mean that more than you can know.

Quick Review – I’M DYING UP HERE! Book by William Knoedelseder

This is a fantastic read if you are a Wannabe comic or even if you’re just a stand-up comedy fan like me.

This non-fiction book follows the rise of comics such as Jay Leno, David Letterman, Richard Lewis, Elayne Boosler, Andy Kaufman, Tim Dreesdon, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams and more. This book is a great read for Wannabes of all kinds as it recalls the days when Jay Leno slept on the back steps of a comedy club and many comics survived on less than one full meal a day.

I eagerly snatched up the book as I love to read biographies of people I admire and this book promised to deliver the goods about numerous well-known comics. The biggest surprise of this book is that it reads like a suspense novel. It chronicles the rise of the aforementioned comics at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, which was owned by Mitzi Shore (mother of Pauly….). Mitzi had a strict “no-pay” policy for the performers as she considered the comedy club a kind of training ground / comedy workshop for green performers to hone their craft. Even after the club became a huge success and Shore implemented hefty cover charges, she still refused even the meager $5 the comics requested for gas money and breakfast (this being the 70s, I guess 5 bucks was sufficient for all that). The comics organized a boycott and picketed the club, resulting in a painful split between those who thought of Mitzi Shore as the patron saint of new comics and those who felt she was cruel and power-hungry, insisting that she be able to control “her” comics.

It also includes the harrowing story of Steve Lubetkin – the tragic story of his life is enough to strike terror in the hearts of any Wannabe. His life shows how thin the line between success and obscurity truly is. His career trajectory was comprised of a lifetime of missed opportunities and very close brushes with success. If something, anything, could have gone his way, his life might have turned out very differently.

How this whole Comedy Store saga has not yet been made into a film yet is beyond me. Here’s hoping someone will have the sense to option Knoedelseder’s book and get cracking on that right away.

Resource Article for Wannabe Comics – How to Write Your First Standup Comedy Routine

The first step to writing your first standup comedy routine is to make sure your expectations are realistic. Start with a goal of 5 killer minutes. Trying to come up with a two-hour HBO special right away will only lead to frustration.

No matter what books and paid websites tell you, there is no one right way to write a comedy routine. However, there are a lot of wrong ways that you will want to avoid. If you find a different method of creating material as your career progresses, go for it. In the meantime, here are some tips to get you started.

Hello, Captain Obvious – Keep a notebook and pen with you at all times. Basic advice, but you’d be amazed at far this will take you. Be sure to write down anything that strikes you as a potential joke. Don’t wait for a brilliant line to simply materialize out of nowhere. Write down anything out of the ordinary that you see in your daily travels and any odd thought or observation that may occur to you – funny or not. You may develop your best material this way. As Mitch Hedberg said “If the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny…”

Don’t Try Too Hard to be Funny – Great comedy bits do not spring forward from your head like Athena from her daddy’s noggin. You may write for an hour and only come up with one funny line. It’s worth it. Comics look like they are casually making this stuff up off the top of their head. I promise you. They’re not. It is often helpful to simply riff on a topic, either with a pen and paper or a tape recorder. Simply write down everything you can think of about the topic you’ve chosen. Sometimes the bit of comedy gold is mined on page 5 out of 10 pages of random thoughts.

Don’t Pick Funny Topics- You may think tampons, condoms, and bodily functions are funny enough on their own. They’re not. Sometimes the most memorable bits of comedy come from the most mundane of topics. Jerry Seinfeld is the crowned prince of comedy about “nothing” and has made a hugely successful career from jokes about things like taking a shower and buying groceries. If you simply choose a “funny” topic, chances are other people have thought of it first. Lots of other people. Take an unfunny topic and make it funny. Patton Oswalt has an absolutely hysterical bit about PAAs Easter Egg Dye. How many other comics have covered that one?

Develop a Persona, but Don’t Change Who You Are – As you write and perform your routines, you will develop a persona. This is not an alter-ego, but sort of a heightened, stage version of who you are. Don’t create a totally different character than your true self. Audience can smell insincerity – don’t joke about how hard it is to be married when you are, in fact, a swinging single. If you aren’t the loud, brash, life-of-the-party type, don’t try to fake it onstage. There are plenty of low-key comics, like Stephen Wright, Rita Rudner, Mike Birbiglia, and Dane Cook. Well, maybe not that last one.

Don’t Try to Invent a Catchphrase – Not all comics have them. Sometimes something will simply catch on and become a catchphrase (Hooot Pockets, of all things, for Jim Gaffigan). More often, it’s just your own unique style or persona that will resonate with your fans. Lewis Black does not really have a catchphrase, but he is known for the way he gestures and points with his hands when he is off on a political rant. Sam Kinison’s catchphrase was a scream – literally.

Enough About You – The audience does not care that you just broke up with your girlfriend. If your act is all about “I” and “Me”, people will tune out. Bring the audience with you on this comic journey. Start with “Relationships are tough, aren’t they?” and then tell us why your girlfriend is a bitch.

Don’t Tell Stories – A story that got huge laughs at your friend’s party will not amuse a paying audience. They don’t know you and they don’t know your friends. This is the classic “you had to be there” problem. Listen carefully to comics who you think are telling a story. They are…but they’re not. They may begin a tale – then make a joke. Then another part of the story – then spout witty commentary about it. Telling us WHAT happened is a story. Telling us how you FEEL about what happened; now that can be funny. In her must-read book The Comedy Bible, Judy Carter recommends using “attitude” words in your setups: hard, scary, weird, stupid.

Get on With It – Your setups – meaning the unfunny background of the joke – must be short and snappy. A joke with a long setup is rarely worth the wait and your audience will get restless. The setup is not supposed to be funny so don’t try to make it funny. Setup: Take my wife…Punchline: Please. Allegedly Funny Setup: Take my ugly heifer of a wife: Punchline: Just got ruined by a lousy setup. The pleasure of a joke is the surprise at the end. If you start with something funny, there’s nowhere else to go. The quick turn from “ordinary topic” to “funny observation” is the foundation of humor.

A Joke Should Be General and Specific – If you are confused by that statement, congratulations! That means you’re paying attention. The overall premise of your joke should be general, meaning relatable. “It’s hard when you spend a summer in Zimbabwe…” is not a relatable premise. “It’s weird living with a drug-addicted brother….” is relatable, even if the audience has not experienced it firsthand. After you’ve announced your general premise, get specific. “With him around, I’m always the good brother. When he’s passed out on the neighbor’s lawn wearing only tube socks, clutching my mom’s purse with a credit card receipt for $800 worth of paint thinner stuffed in his mouth, suddenly not taking out the trash ain’t so bad!” Now that’s specific.

Don’t be discouraged if you’re not funny right away. It can take a long time to develop truly funny material, so give it time. You will throw away far more material than you will ever use, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Sort through the garbage to find the gold. Someday you may even get paid for it.