How to write a funny tweet

Real talk. You want to be funny on Twitter. But how do you do it? Back when we first wrote about how to write a funny tweet, we had only 140 characters. Now that we have twice as many to play with (!), so we thought we’d double the number of articles on this topic, too!

Being funny on Twitter is very similar to being funny IRL. Twitter is a terrific place to: See what resonates with an audience, find YOUR audience, get practice writing jokes. You may find that if a joke lands well on Twitter, it will also land well in your standup set or in your script. And. That. Is. #UsefuLInformationForYouToKnow

In your phone, keep a notebook page dedicated to funny tweets. You can even title the page “FUNNY TWEETS.” My page is called TWEETS, IDEAS, SKETCHES because I abhor labels and I like to keep it open as to what my random musings will turn into.

On that page, you can digitally scribble every passing observation that strikes you. The note you take down doesn’t have to be funny. Just write what grabs you as truthful or piques your interest.

At this point, your thought is a lumpy piece of dough. Before you can share it with the world, you will get out your rolling pin, shape that baby up,  and then put it in the oven. (I haven’t baked bread since Girl Scouts, but probably that’s roughly the sequence of events?)

  1. The Dough: A thought that makes you laugh and feels truthful, even in its lumpy form.
  2. The Rolling Pin: Give it a set up and a punchline.
  3. The oven: Put some hashtags on it so it becomes part of a larger conversation.
  4. Feed bread to strangers on the internet: See how people respond. If people reply to you, that may be an opportunity to add tags to your initial joke! You know you’ve made a fun tweet when other members of the Twitterverse dive in and play with you.

Okay, so that’s how you get inspired. But what form will your tweet take? Here are a few genres of tweet that may slay:

  • Internal monologues, especially when written like a script:

  • Comparisons (again, this is really good show vs. tell):

  • Comparisons (again, this is really good show vs. tell):

  • Captions: Some photos just beg for elaboration.

  • Honest, sardonic, sad, socially responsive tweets, such as the constant gifts that Aparna Nancherla bestows upon the Twitterverse. I don’t know what to call the “genre” here, so I’m making Aparna her own genre. Read her tweets and you will see why.

Since I’ve got you here, let’s talk about how to structure a Twitter joke. The additional characters mean that you can express yourself more naturally, without resorting to letter-words (u c what i mean?) and awkward abbreviations. Say it out loud a couple of times before you tweet it to make sure the reader can hear your voice, as if you were performing the tweet live.

You don’t have italics, but you can convey timing and expression with all-caps, some-caps, and no-caps, as well as with too much or too little punctuation. Voilá, all-caps as a stand-in for yelling:

And lack of punctuation to indicate utter resignation:

Sometimes it’s funnier — I can’t explain why — to just dispense with punctuation altogether, or to just not really end a sentence because you ran out of craps

Hashtags are another modern-day form of punctuation you can play with. Feeling the urge to tweet, but not the inspiration? You don’t have to come to Twitter with a brilliant idea. You can roll up to it with a wide-open, blank brain. See what news events and hashtags are trending, and treat that as a brainstorm extravaganza!

For instance, as I write this, #NationalBowtieDay is trending, which reminds me of my friend’s dad, who always wears bowties. He is a classy gent. That, in turn, reminds me of how people have stopped having manners and being classy. Makes me think of…. Okay…. Here is the lumpy dough version of my future tweet:

Bowties are about class and a type of man* who is rare in this day and age.

That feels truthful to me, but it’s kind of a lumpy thought. I need to knead it. Here’s the rolling-pin version, as I attempt to give it a set-up and punchline.

I dedicate this #NationalBowtieDay to the men out there who know themselves well enough to say, Hey. I’m just gonna spill ketchup on a tie anyway, so why not upgrade to a bowtie? To thine own self be true, gentlemen.

So I took the idea of respecting a man in a bowtie and asked myself, why do I respect this person? Well, maybe it’s because he’s a dork, and he knows he’s a dork, and he keeps it real with himself.

But this tweet is not ready for the oven yet. It needs to be shorter. Trying again:

I dedicate this #NationalBowtieDay to the men out there who spilled ketchup on their ties so often that they just. stopped. wearing them. Knowledge is power, gentlemen. To thine own selves, be true.

Okay! I like that! It keeps my initial idea of “classiness” intact by including old timey sayings like “knowledge is power” and my amended Shakespeare quote: “To thine own self, be true.” It honors the initial germ of the thought that men who wear bowties are kind of going against the grain and being a little subversive by not wearing ties, yet still managing to be old-fashioned and more classy than the times require.

I put a couple of periods in there (“just. stopped. wearing”) because I want you to hear how I would read it aloud. Now that I’ve put my tweet in the oven and shared it with the strangers of the Twitterverse to see how they receive it! If I get some funny gifs back, I will definitely retweet them because I am obsessed with a well-placed gif.

Here’s the tweet I made just for you! See how it fares! Twitter is live theater, folks, so I make no promises:

Your turn! Tweet your funny-ified thoughts to the world and mention us, @goldcomedy, so we can share in the fun you are creating!

*Womyn and genderfluid folx also wear bowties. Sometimes they wear the BEST bowties. For the purposes of my tweet, I am focusing on the traveling-salesman image of an old-timey gent in a bowtie.


Read Emma’s bio.

How to collaborate in comedy with literally anyone ever

Sure, I do solo comedy. But I’ve been collaborating in one form or another for the majority of my life: sketch, improv, choreography, directing, producing, and working in writers’ rooms. I like both ways of working, and I think the best thing you can do for yourself is know how to do either one.

Finding a great writing partner, producing partner, or any other sort of comedy collaborator is a worthy goal. Working with someone else can make your creative life so much richer.

It can also make it a lot more complicated because now, instead of only navigating your own hang-ups, craziness, bad moods and assorted mishegas, you’ve also got someone else’s to contend with.

Add to that, there’s no playbook for a working relationship with your funny friends.

So I’ve written a little primer for you, replete with tips and tricks to remember as you bring collaborators into your (previously solo) process—and alphabetized for maximum adorableness.

Always encourage your collaborators and let them know when they’re doing a good job.

Between you and me” — Or maybe not. Gossip is toxic and will always come back to haunt you.

Constantly check in on deadlines to make sure that your partner knows what is due, when.

Deadlines are the only way. Create them for yourself. Little ones and big ones all along your path.

Everyone you meet is a potential collaborator. Treat people with respect (until they really blow it and then GTFO).

Forgive small mistakes. We are all learning. Learn and move forward and help your collaborators to do the same.

Give all of yourself to your projects or don’t bother doing them. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

Have fun working together with your friends. When it stops being fun, notice — and make changes.

It’s okay to put yourself first. Make sure that you are not giving too much and getting nothing back. This should be an equal exchange.

Just say no to people who make you feel like garbage. You don’t need a collaborator who belittles you. There are plenty of fish in the sea.

Kick butt. Celebrate. Relax. Repeat.

Lone writing is not a bad thing. It’s great to take a break from collaborators sometimes and do it all on your own. You’ll learn a lot. See which way you prefer.

Make friends with people whose energy and work ethic you admire. Talent is nice, but over time, work ethic and positive energy will take you further. Seek out people who are talented and have an indefatigable spirit.

Nobody knows you better than yourself. Speak up about your needs creatively, financially, and in terms of time management. Don’t let alpha personalities silence you, and don’t step on the voices of others either.

Open yourself up to your writing partner’s ideas. Accept notes. They will make your work better.

Put yourself in the shoes of your collaborator. How is s/he seeing this situation?

Quality over quantity when it comes to rehearsal and writing time. You can get a lot done in a short, focused period of time and surprisingly little done when you’re unfocused or your team is too chatty to do any writing.

Read. It makes you a better writer.

Stop comparing yourself to your collaborators. Their strengths complete your weaknesses and vice versa. You had the good sense to work with them, and that’s a skill unto itself.

Take care of your body. Don’t rehearse and write till all hours of the night. Sleep makes you more awake and therefore more talented and more FANCY.

Untangle complicated social problems as soon as you can. Don’t let bad energy fester in your group. Talk it out and get rid of it. Put the work first.

Vent your grievances to your journal or practice role-playing with another trusted friend before having a difficult conversation to your collaborator. Words matter.

Wait until the show is over to celebrate. It’s not over till it’s over. Stay focused. Eyes on the prize.

Xerox your scripts well before your rehearsal so that everyone has copies and you’re not scrambling for a Staples. By Xerox, I mean print. (Work with me here, people. X is a tough one.)

You are always learning, even though you’re already a superstar. Stay humble.

Zip Zap Zop is still a fantastic warm up for your sketch or improv group. Don’t knock it. You’ll never outgrow a game that’s all about focus.

And those are the ABC’s of Collaboration!

Tell us: Do any of these tips remind you of a good story? Let us know (keeping people anonymous, though. See the Gossip note above….) Failure and success stories welcomed!


Read Emma’s bio.


How to produce a comedy variety show at your school

 Most of the comedians I know happen to also be excellent producers. They weren’t born that way — babies are notoriously terrible producers (of everything but poop and drool). Comedians learn to get good at producing by necessity. They want stage time — a lot of stage time — and the best way to get it is to make it.

But though most comics are producers, not all comedy producers are comics. Some are comedy lovers who want to get comedians onstage so they can sit back and laugh at them and think, “I made this!” And maybe wear a top hat and have a cane like an old-timey producer. Because why be a modern producer when you can be an old-timey one?

Whichever type of producer you aspire to be, you might get a little overwhelmed at the idea of creating your first live event. Let’s start with some terms that sound fancy, but are actually just … English words.

Producer

Yeah. Like what even is a producer? Producer is just a catch-all term for a person who makes something happen. Have you ever planned a surprise party? You “produced” that party. Have you ever been the most hard-working person on a social studies project where you were teamed up with two other students? You were the “producer” on that social studies project. You already produce. You just weren’t using the name yet.

Venue

The place where a show or event happens. You will need to pick an appropriate venue in which to do your show or event. The auditorium or your school’s black-box theatre, if it has one, come to mind. The cafeteria is another option, or maybe there’s a local coffee shop in your neighborhood that would welcome performers from your school. Once you choose the physical location, you will need to find …

Your point person

Also known as the “contact”, this is the person to whom you are going to send a million polite emails asking questions about the space and sorting out details. Your point person for the venue should be someone who is professional and timely in their correspondence and who is in a position of power at the venue such that they know what they’re talking about. In other words, your point person should not be the part-time employee who started working there yesterday and will be quitting in a week. An owner or manager is ideal. Which brings us to …

Communication

Producers send more text messages and emails than anyone else living (or dead, certainly). I hate phone calls. I find them stressful. But sometimes a producer has got to put on the headphones for a good, old-fashioned telephone talk. Or she has to physically go to a venue to speak in real life to a human being in person. This is to avoid the miscommunications that can spin out of control with endless texting and emailing. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. And by “don’t be afraid,” I mean “be afraid and do it anyway.”

Acts

Once you’ve got your venue squared away, you will need to book the acts, otherwise known as the people who will be performing. The process gets more creative here, because you are now asking yourself, “What do I love about the best shows I’ve seen?” You can curate to your tastes.

Do you have a super-talented storyteller friend who must be seen? Ask her to perform! Do you know a weird, but friendly, ventriloquist you saw one time at your friend’s little brother’s birthday party? Ask her! Do you have a songwriter friend who can accompany herself on guitar? Ask her to join. Ten to twelve acts at 5 minutes apiece is a rough guide, and no one is ever mad about a quick intermission where they can eat some (free) snacks. Much less after seeing a ventriloquist.

Wait. I wanna see this “snacks and a ventriloquist” show I just made up. Please produce it and invite me?

Sound and lighting

Comedians must be lit. Not lit as in enlightened and turnt and fun and in touch with current trends (though that is ideal), but specifically with light on them. So that you can see them. When you speak to the venue’s point person, whether that’s the theatre teacher at your school or the owner of the local coffee shop, make sure that if lights go down on the audience, they can be up on the performers.

When it comes to sound, make sure that the space is intimate enough that your performers can be heard without mics or, preferably, you will have a standing mic for your performers to use.

WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!

Sound issues are the most likely ones to tank your show. If you do opt to use a mic, arrive at the venue a full hour ahead of curtain time to make sure the mic has been tested. Ask your point person multiple times to confirm that someone will be present the night of the event who can help you with the mic.

When you are an older and more seasoned producer, you will remember the above paragraph and chuckle and think, “Whoa. Was Emma giving good advice or what in that one paragraph about sound!” Future-me thanks future-you for taking this to heart.

Red flags

If you start to feel uncomfortable with people involved in the show — either acts you’re booking or the folks you meet in arranging a venue — involve a trusted adult right away and know that it’s okay to back out of a venue or a commitment. Follow your gut, and if something feels wrong, it is! Producing comes with huge responsibilities and you meet a lot of people. Some are the best and some are the worst. Keep an eye out and ask for help if you’re not sure.

Reasons to produce things

I know. I made it all sound kind of hard. But the rewards are tremendous. Here’s a short list of reasons why I think you should try at least once to produce comedy:

    • You will meet people who share your interests. These could become lifelong collaborators!
    • You will put yourself in a leadership position that will teach you more in one month than you’d learn doing some other thing for years.
    • You will have something really impressive on your résumé that you can talk up in admission and job interviews.
    • You will have FUN. (I always forget to mention this ‘cause I’m such a type A curmudgeon, but really, FUN should have been the first thing I said.)
    • You will find out what really makes you laugh and sharpen your skills and your voice in choosing the acts.
    • You will perhaps get yourself on stage, and that’s awesome!
  • Your friends will remember that you booked them and will book you when they produce. Producing, like the flu, is wildly contagious and takes all your energy! FUN!

Please reach out to me on Twitter @emmatattenbaum if you have specific producing questions. The future of comedy has a lot to do with who produces it, and I really want it to be you!

Read Emma’s bio.

5 ways to handle rejection (in comedy)

As you ponder the path that will help you become a successful comedian, you’re going to have to get used to a few things. One of these is being an unsuccessful comedian, at least for a little while — a subject I covered with a delightful article about how I inadvertently terrified a roomful of Youngs with a simple herpes mention at the mic. Another challenging reality will be rejections. Lots of rejections. So here’s my take on how to handle all those times when you don’t book the gig.

Get a life

I’m not trying to be shady! I mean this quite sincerely and with great love. Is comedy the only thing you think about, or do you have a community surrounding you that is rich enough and nurturing enough to help you sustain these rough ups and downs? If you find yourself obsessing about a recent rejection, reach out to a friend who will understand.

If you don’t have such a friend, get one. Get three. Everyone (your teacher, your aunt, your bank teller) understands rejection in one way or another, but you will find that your circle of artist buddies really gets, better than anyone, what it feels like to put your heart on the line and then not book something. Rejection in comedy can be particularly shaming because you make yourself really vulnerable when you’re trying to make people laugh. So when someone tells you they’re not feeling it, it feels somehow personal.

Make sure that your actor/artist/comedian/poet/musician friends know you have their back. Support your friend when she doesn’t get the role she wanted or when she is rejected for the second time from Jazz Choir. Be there for your squad and they will be there for you.

Comedy may look like a solo endeavor when you’re watching somebody’s Netflix standup special, but a quick Google search will reveal the enormous team and community behind every comedian.

Look for a pattern  

Are the yesses and nos you’re getting early in your early career starting to show a pattern?

I studied theater in college. After being roundly rejected from nearly all my auditions in my first two years of school, I unexpectedly booked a wonderful paid show that called for actors who could write, sing, dance, and act. I marveled at this opportunity, because so many of the things I’d auditioned for that year called for me to do only one of those things.

In the years to come, I’d consistently get rejected from shows and opportunities, but whenever writing was in the mix, I’d book the show, the sketch group, the workshop. Once I had the presence of mind to reflect, the pattern became pretty obvious: Writing comedy was the thing that separated me from other aspiring artists; performing the comedy I had written was a close second. Those were the skills that booked me the jobs.

Take a look at your recent yesses and nos. Does a pattern emerge? Can you look at that pattern with a little bit of detachment (I promise, you can be bitter as you want when you’re done reading this article, but just indulge me for a sec)? Let the rejections fall away and take a look at where you are getting those yesses.

Now, to contradict myself. If you are very new to the comedy game, don’t read into your rejections at all. Notice that I was reflecting on my first two years of college when I began to trace this pattern. It may be too soon for you to do that. If that’s the case, just keep on trucking. Your rejections, though they may sting, are basically irrelevant information for you, young squire;  right now your job is to build up your endurance and keep getting back in the saddle of the comedy horse that keeps throwing you off. Yes, you can!

Have a ritual

When you work out, you do a warm-up and a cooldown. (Or you should, anyway.) The warm-up is to get your muscles ready, and the cooldown is to return your muscles to normal. Your emotional muscles work in much the same way.

When you prepare for a big audition, for instance, you get your brain and heart working at full capacity. You warm up, prepare for that moment, and give it all you’ve got. One thing I learned recently from a quick interview (aka phone call) with Peak Performance Coach Rae Tattenbaum (aka my mom!) is that after a big show or audition, you need to have a come-down ritual to bring your brain and heart back to a neutral state.

I told my mom that I was having trouble focusing after I had done a big show. I told her that my mind and body still felt like I was performing. I was on edge and couldn’t relax and move on to my next projects, despite their looming deadlines. She told me that I needed to cultivate a cool-down process after shows/events/auditions so that I could bring myself back to a neutral state and start my next projects without what Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, calls “attention residue” — the feeling that you’re still kind of doing the last thing you did when you try to start the next thing.

Rejection works the same way. When you get the email or the phone call or you see the cast list posted, have a little ritual or quiet moment planned ahead of time. Honor the effort you put in with a cool-down ritual to thank yourself and just be sad for a little bit if you need to be. The day you’re expecting news, plan ahead for it, and you won’t be blindsided if it’s bad news that comes your way.

Reward the effort, if not the result

My friend had submitted a killer writing packet for a TV show and gone through multiple rounds of interviews. She was very close to booking a job that she had put many hours of work and daydreaming into. After a month of labor and back and forth emails, she called me, heartbroken, with bad news: She was not hired. She confided in me that she felt she might not get over this for a long time. What could she do to put all those lost hours in perspective? What should she do about this terrible feeling that she’d never book anything ever again?

This cuts to the heart of rejection pathos. It’s like cooking a whole meal, smelling it as it comes out of the oven, serving it to diners who get to eat it and then having nothing left for yourself. Rejection can leave you feeling cheated and dissatisfied.

Best way to solve this? Jewelry. Well, costume jewelry.

I told this sad friend what I tell you now: Go buy yourself a little present that will forever remind you of what a great job you did in pursuit of this opportunity. Celebrate what you know to be your success, even if you didn’t get the results you wanted.

My friend bought herself a little silver ring that depicts a hand making the OK signal. She wears it all the time. To her it means, “You done good, kid.” It helped her to close the chapter and, indeed, she did go on to write for a different TV show not long after — with me, no less! Lucky girl!

Follow up

Just because a gatekeeper rejects you in this moment doesn’t mean they always will. It took me three auditions to get into my college’s prestigious sketch-comedy group. Persistence pays off and, along with that, follow-ups pay off. Stay in the network of the people who reject you, if you like them and think you’ve got a future collaborating together. Sometimes you’re not quite ready, or they’re not quite ready for you. Wait it out and when the fates align, your persistence and your follow-ups will pay off.

Rejection is a temporary thing. A temporary thing you hafta go through for a long time. That’s the truth, but it’s no way to end an article! Here’s a picture of a llama with a very cool haircut. In my eyes, you are as brave and as fabulous as this llama. Go forth and make your comedy!


Read Emma’s bio.

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How comedians bounce back after bombing

Have you heard this quote from Ira Glass?

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”

Well, now you have. The first time I read it, I bawled, but these days I just get the kind of tears that sort of stick to your eyeballs. Age and experience have toughened me.

At some point, early in your comedy journey, you will experience your first big honkin’ failure. This will stand apart from just “not being good yet,” and will instead be a true failure. Just like with heartbreak, your first will sting hardest because you don’t yet have the tools to deal with it.

I’d like to tell you how an experienced failure-ista such as myself processes, recovers from, and grows better through failure so that, when you hit your first big comedy fail, you are prepared to rebound like a champ!

My Failure Story:

I did standup one night at a bar and I failed. I’m kind of a pro at failing (true humble brag), so I want you to pay attention not just to the failure itself, but to how I reflected upon it and used it to grow.

I was doing lots of small standup shows to prepare for one big show, a Comedy Central showcase that my manager had managed to book for me. It was kind of shocking because I don’t consider myself a standup comic… like, at all. I had done years of sketch comedy, comedic acting, and essay writing, but standup is it’s own animal and I had very little experience with it. However, I said YES!… and figured, I better become a standup comedian! Fast! My wonderful friend and collaborator, director Preston Martin, would schlep out to these little shows with me to watch my work and give me notes on the writing and performance after each one.

This one night, Preston couldn’t make it. I got a little giddy and wanted to take some risks, so I opted to wing it a little.

Onstage, I waded into some subject matter that was a little taboo. I guess I have to tell you. (Facepalm emoji.) For some reason, I thought that cold sores, as in mouth herpes, would make for interesting subject matter. I feel like, statistically, since so many humans get them, and since many people would be kissing that very Saturday night, that it wasn’t the most outrageous topic to bring up. However, I immediately saw my audience stiffen. Wrong crowd. It occurred to me that these folks were very young, terrified of herpes, and also that I wasn’t funny. So I was just an unfunny person on a stage talking about a virus that frightens people. (Multiple facepalm emojis.)

Then, since the trash fire had already begun, I made a joke about book clubs, which wound up with the line “I’m never gonna join your book club, so stop asking.” Of course, the one friend I had in the audience had just invited me to join her book club, something I only realized as the super-aggro non-joke slipped out of my mouth. In a neat thirty seconds, I had alienated my one remaining ally in the audience.

My whole set was bad, not just those two unsavory moments. My hands were sweating. The small of my back was sweating. My throat was tightening. I returned to some familiar material that had worked in the past, but it was too late. I stayed onstage until I saw the emcee mercifully wave her lit phone at me, the signal that I could stop shooting this dead horse and would be allowed to exit and lick my wounds away from the public eye.

To be clear, I’ve had other nights where I went off script and improvised some gems that I’m still using. This could have gone either way. But it went down, way down. Number a billion with a bullet.

I managed to get through the aftermath and return to the stage again — and did the Comedy Central showcase to boot. Having fallen so squarely on my face in preparation for the showcase was, indeed, one of the factors that made my performance that big night so solid. For the showcase itself, I stuck to my jokes that worked. I was emboldened by having experienced the worst and gotten it out of the way a week prior. I did a great job at the showcase and was happy with all the preparation I’d put in: The successful open mics and the failed ones, too.

Nowadays I do standup in the form of hosting HQ Trivia and hosting fundraiser events and whatever else I’m asked to do. I’m no longer afraid of standup and I can confidently put it on my resume, which opens up my job opportunities.

Since I had no guide in this particular out-of-my-comfort-zone journey, I want to provide one for yours. Here’s how I handle this kind of failure, and my advice to other temporary-failures like me.

Be gracious.

Sometimes, failure is obvious to the beholder. But other times, what feels fail-y to you looks great from the outside. Continue to be kind to those around you in the moments that follow your failure. Don’t let your self-loathing stink up the room. To my credit that night, I stuck around to socialize with the other comics and I thanked the women who had taken a risk to book me as a newbie. I thanked the friend who had come only to be made fun of for her (probably very impactful and empowering) book club. This takes wisdom and an eye toward the long game of networking and building relationships. This is just one night. It’s not a domino.

Find something you did well.

After a dumpster-fire experience, after your initial shock wears off, reflect on what did go well. One thing? Before the memory calcifies as a categorically “not good” one, see if you can salvage some tiny positive takeaway. In my case, I can say, looking back, that it was brave of me to get up and depart from my crafted jokes and try some looser, improvised stuff. It didn’t work that night, but some of it did the next time I tried it.

See how finding something good can place your failure in a larger context as part of a learning curve? No? You’re still mortified and angry about dropping your lines in the school play? Well. I’ve been there, too.

Consider how you might have misgauged your audience.

As I went home that night on the subway, replaying my failure, I saw that the audience had been younger than I’d anticipated and that some of my material on dating had freaked them out. I remembered squinting through the bar stage lights at the young couples and thinking, “Oh, this is only funny to me ’cause I’m like nine years older than they are.” This is what is meant by, “Know your audience.”

Choose one exciting point of improvement that you can’t wait to crush text time.

I felt terrible inertia after bombing that night. I didn’t want to get up and perform again, but I had the looming deadline of the Comedy Central showcase and I wanted very much to nail it.

I recommitted to my next small show being precise and tightly scripted, but bringing the feeling of improv to it. I took what felt safe in previous shows and married it with what had felt so dangerous when I failed. That next practice show was electrified by the specter of failure and my renewed commitment to clearer jokes and better writing.

This pendulum of safety and risk will be the most consistent aspect of our process. Risk will sometimes mean glory and will sometimes mean failure.

Final thoughts!

Ice cream. Can help with failure. Preferably ice cream with a friend, but ice cream alone is acceptable, under the circumstances. I like to have ice cream to celebrate both success and failure, because it reinforces this central tenet of comedy: Ice cream will still be there when you fail. Life goes on!

End of article. Now here’s some other stuff:

HERE IS THE ICE CREAM PHOTO.

I was gonna go home to sleep, but instead I decided to eat this sundae in a diner and tell you about someone special. Preston has been coming to my open mics these past two weeks in various basements to listen to some wonderful comics, but also massive quantities of homophobic and misogynistic sludge while he waited for me to go up. He has guided me with his wonderful directorial and dramaturgical insights and has helped me bridge the gap btwn skills I have and new ones I’m building. I’m so thrilled about the pathways stand up will open for me and these two weeks have left me with an enormously positive stockpile of good energy to take with me into more cruddy places where funny women are needed. Tonight’s show was awesome and I’m so happy that Preston extended this offer and his time to sit with me as I prepared. So this long post is to acknowledge him even tho all of Facebook already knows he’s the best. Duh.

(Main photo via Nikki Hampson)


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How to turn an anecdote into a story

A funny thing happened to you on the way to the dentist.

You told your friend. She laughed and agreed, “That’s funny!”

Now, there’s an open mic coming up, and you will get 5 minutes to entertain the masses.

What do you need to do to get your dentist-commute-story from its current state, as a brief anecdote, to a meaty 5-minute affair that will make an audience chuckle and learn a little something about the human condition?

Strap in, readers. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

WINTER OLYMPIC NEWS HOOK: Here’s my own anecdote-turned-story of mine about gold medal figure skater Tara Lipinski!

Find the arc

The main goal here is going to be: Find the emotional journey. Every good story has an arc. You begin one place, and you end up somewhere else.

How do you feel at the beginning of your story? What expectations do you have?

Where do you find yourself at the end in terms of emotional state? What expectations have been met or shattered? What choices did you make in the process?

That’s the beginning and end of your story. Here, I made a picture, because I just figured out Word Art.

Define your turning point

 

Your story, after its beginning, will have a moment when everything changes.

 

Perhaps it was the moment when your usual route to the dentist was blocked because of road construction. And that was the moment you knew that this would not be your average dentist commute!

 

Side note: Why have I chosen such seemingly boring subject matter for our jumping-off point? Because I want to illustrate that stories can pop up anywhere. The real question is: What makes this day different? Good stories focus on crossroads in people’s lives. Any good scene, story, or joke exists in the moment when the usual becomes the unusual. Otherwise, why would you pick that moment?

 

Maybe you just got a bad grade and are feeling especially down, and your friend has strep throat and canceled her birthday party that you were so excited about, and it’s hailing outside, and now you have to go to the dentist to deal with a cavity. You are at your wit’s end! One more bad thing and you’ll explode! So that’s how we know today is different. We find you at a breaking point.

 

A good story often begins with a character either on the brink of changing or learning, but not yet sure how she will, or a character completely oblivious to change, who is, therefore, gobsmacked by it.

 

Figure out what’s in your way

 

Stories thrive on conflict. What is conflict? I’ll explain it with math:

 

Desire + obstacle = conflict.

 

In shaping your anecdote into a story, consider what you, as a character, desire in this story. Is your desire to NOT be going to the dentist? Are you ruminating about a love interest as you walk the last few blocks there? What do you want, and what are the obstacles in your way?

 

These obstacles come in different shapes and sizes. They are both internal and external.

 

An external obstacle might be: You have to get to a 4 pm dentist appointment so that you can get to orchestra practice at 6 pm, but a blocked highway filled with clown cars foils your plans! (NB: Do not use clown cars in your story. Truth in comedy, folks.)

 

Or maybe your obstacle is internal. You’re on the way to the dentist obsessing about your love interest and feeling horrible self-loathing because your braces are orange and black for Halloween when you realize your love interest’s favorite color is blue. Your internal obstacle is your plummeting self-confidence in the face of your desire. (Wouldn’t it then be surprising if your love turns out to like orange and black because you like it? How might your character then feel by the story’s end? See how conflict creates story?)

 

Putting it all together

 

Okay, now is the moment of transformation for your little anecdote.

Set yourself up for success by conveying your state of mind and what you want at the beginning of the story. Identify your turning point, that moment when everything changes. By the middle of the story, we will expect to find you, our protagonist, facing one or numerous obstacles in pursuit of what you want. By the end, you’ve either gotten what you wanted or haven’t, but in the wanting of it, you are now changed in some way.

 

Articulate that change at the end of your story.

 

“The end is in the beginning.” You will hear this in improv classes when it comes time to end a scene on a laugh line, you might have heard it in algebra class, and you’ll hear it right now in this article about morphing anecdotes into stories. Compare your ending to the beginning of your story. How do you, as a character, now feel? Without the beginning, your ending packs no punch.

 

Plant the seeds of what might be your next story at the end of this one. Not because you are definitely going to write Commute to the Dentist 2: Electric Boogaloo, but because it ends us on a note of curiosity and intrigue. BUM-bum-bum.

BONUS STORY: Here’s another about how I had ghosts in my room as a kid and my mom helped to get rid of them.

Speaking of curiosity and intrigue: What’s YOUR story about? I wanna hear it! Tweet us at @GoldComedy


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5 ways to fight stage fright: comedians’ edition

I felt my first twinge of stage fright at eight years old. I’d been performing since I was four, but it hadn’t yet occurred to me to be scared. I just knew that if I played “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on my tiny violin, I’d get a chocolate bunny afterward. (My first “concert” was on Easter.)

But four short years later, something changed. I was playing my violin in the same local recitals, but my feelings were decidedly more intense. Now I had a visceral fear for my reputation and a burgeoning pre-pre-teen terror of looking idiotic, as well as a primal terror of being eaten for lunch by a roomful of strangers.

This was the beginning of real stage fright, and I feel the same way today, at 32.

It hasn’t stopped me from performing. I gave up the violin long ago (I was terrible, you’re welcome), but at times in my twenties I was doing five sketch comedy shows per week. I love performing, but it comes at a price. For some of us, stage fright is a lifelong scene partner.

I have not overcome it, but I’m learning to dance with it, “backwards and in heels,” like Ginger Rogers.

Here are my hard-won suggestions for performing with stage fright. I hope they help you feel more freedom onstage so you can perform with more joy!

Talk to one person

While performing, if I get too focused on the number of people in the room, I just pretend I’m talking to my best friend, Leah, because she is easy to please and will laugh heartily at even my stupidest joke. When you talk to one person in your mind, but in action you speak to a room of people, they will feel the intimacy of what you’re doing, and you will mitigate your terror of being eaten by marauding strangers. Imagine a hundred Leahs laughing at your jokes and cheering for you!

Make your goal bigger than your fear

What do you want from your audience? If you are running for class president (I hope you do!) and using your comedic chops throughout your campaign speech (I hope you do!), consider that you are persuading your audience to do something (to vote in their best interests!). Keep this goal at the front of your mind. Every time you get nervous and feel stage fright pull you under, return to the goal you set of persuading your audience. You can write the goal at the top of your notes to look back on when you’re scared. Your fear will pale in comparison to your commitment to the thing you most believe in.

Focus on…your feet

When I look back at my experiences of terror onstage, there’s one constant: My feet scrunch up and I forget that I am standing on a floor that is holding me. I feel instead like a floating head, cut off from air. Feel your feet planted and spread out in your shoes. Think about your feet before you get onstage, and return to your feet when fear starts to claim you.

Focus on…your tummy

When I experience stage fright, my lower belly stops moving altogether and my shoulders hunch. As you practice your stand-up or your song in the school play, make sure that you are thinking about your lower belly. As soon as it stops moving, you won’t be able to have any fun. Fun is very hard without breathing! As soon as your lower belly inflates, your shoulders will straighten. From that lifted, open posture, everything is possible again.

Practice makes…a little less stage fright

The best time to prepare for stage fright is while rehearsing. In your preparation, factor in stage fright. Create an environment similar to the one in which you’ll be performing. Make sure the above techniques are with you as you practice for the big day. The more you face your fear, the less powerful it will feel, like shining a light on the monster under your bed and finding out it’s actually that pile of mismatched socks you forgot about.

A final word

You are nervous because you care. How wonderful to be doing something, anything, that gives you butterflies! Here’s to your exciting life! For more about what stage fright is and why it happens to good people, check out this adorable animated TED talk.

Inspire us with your stage fright triumph stories by tweeting us @GOLDcmdy!


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How to nail a scripted comedy audition

You have an audition coming up. You’re given a script. It’s a short, funny scene.

Everybody (not just your mom) tells you you’re funny, so this should be easy. Just… make people laugh… but with lines someone else wrote.

Wait. How do you do that? Usually, when you make people laugh, it’s because there’s milk coming out of your nose or you’ve masterminded some kind of complex inside joke unwinding among your friends. How do you make someone else’s words funny? In an audition room filled with strangers, no less?

The answer is a mix of exactly who you are when your friends are giggling at your ridiculousness plus a secret sauce of technical skills that I’m gonna lay down right now. And HERE. WE. GO.

Start one place, end somewhere else

Read your scene a few times. Take note of your first impressions. Otherwise, you’ll work on it for awhile and you may forget what your very first impressions were. Don’t! They often hold the keys to your scene. What do you think of the scene upon first read, and how does it make you feel when you first read it?

Then, read it again, with this in mind: Where does the character start out, emotionally and physically, and where does she end? This is your arc. Like that curved line, it starts one place and ends another. Trace that arc and voila! You have a journey, like a little play.

Want something so badly, you could puke

What does your character want? Once you’ve answered this question, multiply the intensity by ten. Your character, in this scene, must want something so badly that it’s physically uncomfortable. EXAMPLE TIME! If you saw Lady Bird, think of that grocery store scene where she is talking to a boy she likes. (NO SPOILERS, I’M JUST SAYING SHE TALKS TO A BOY, OKAY?) She wants so badly to make a good impression and to get him to like her. If that was your audition scene, that would be the want. You can see in the scene how this want makes the actress nervous and how that’s expressed physically (in this case, shallow breathing, intense eye contact, facial tension).

This is not only true for scenes that have romance in them. Your character can desperately want to join Mathletes, or go zip-lining in Costa Rica, or acquire an ugly Christmas sweater. There is no end to what a character can want, but it must be a longing that you, as the actress, experience to be intense. The more intense it is, the more heightened the comedy.

Make the obstacle so big that you can’t stand it

This goes directly with the want. Something epic stands in the way of your want. Keep the want and the obstacle at the front of your mind are as you prepare your scene.

Romeo and Juliet really want to hang out with each other. The obstacle is that their families hate each other, and they are forbidden to do so.

In my silly zip-lining example, maybe the character wants to zip-line, but her uncle had a tragic zip-lining accident in the ’80s and therefore her family has an iron-clad no zip-lining policy due to their tragedy. The family trauma is, therefore, the obstacle that this character faces. She must go against her family’s wishes to do the thing she most wants in the world.

Raise the stakes

You may have heard directors yell at you to “raise the stakes!” I didn’t really get what this meant until I was around 30, so I’m gonna save you some time here so you can have fewer years of bad acting than I do. The stakes are what you will lose or gain if you can’t surpass the obstacle to get your want.

Lady Bird, in the grocery store scene, will either impress this lovely boy or lose him forever based on this conversation and the impression she makes. (That may not be true, but that’s what the actress must believe to create the stakes of the scene.)

In the Mathlete example, if the scene is the big Mathletes tournament, the stakes are that the actress will either bring her team to glory, or bring her team to shame and loss based on her performance in this one type of equation she has prepared to solve all year.

Get the idea? Stakes are high when the thing to be lost is equal but opposite of the thing to be gained. Life and death in every situation. That’s what makes you, as an actress, exciting to watch. Commit to the stakes of your scene so much that your palms sweat. Being a human is hard, so represent it accurately!

Make it about the other person

Your scene partner (for the audition) will most likely just be a reader doing the scene opposite you. This person may or may not be bringing much to the role, but your job is to listen and be affected and moved by every little thing the reader says. Your scene partner is very important. Everything they say has some effect on you. Don’t fall into the trap of focusing only on your lines. Equally important is everything you are hearing and the way you react in silence.

Remember that actions speak louder…

Each line you say to someone else has an associated action. Actions are verbs. You can use a line to impress your scene partner, to scold your scene partner, to warn your scene partner. You will be amazed how the lines come alive when you assign a particular action to them. Play around, reading each line with different actions, and see how your performance of the line changes.

Be sure to direct your actions toward your target. Your scene partner is that target, and every action must fall on them, because you are seeking to affect them just as they will affect you.

Find the funny

Oh right! It’s a comedy scene! Now that you’ve done the basic scene work, you get to be a comedy detective. I find this part the easiest and most fun, but for dramatic actors newly trying their hand at comedy, sometimes the emotional stuff (which often lives in wants/obstacles/stakes) will come more easily, and the comedy sleuthing can feel like foreign territory.

Be able to say in one clear statement why something is funny to you.

Example: I find the Lady Bird scene funny because the way she flirts with the boy is to use stock phrases she’s heard from magazines and TV. She doesn’t sound like an actual human.

What are some other scripted scenes from TV, movies, YouTube that made you laugh? Go back and watch them again. Can you articulate in one sentence what was consistently funny about that scene?

Heighten the funny

You’ve got to know why something is funny so you know how each funny moment heightens. You have uncovered the skeleton of the scene, and now you can flesh it out.

In Lady Bird, this funny detail heightens because she does it multiple times. It becomes more absurd as the conversation goes on because it’s weird to chat with someone for a length of time and still be speaking stock flirting phrases plucked from the pages of a magazine.

Find the operative words

Just like a dramatic scene, a comedic scene will have lines and words that are more important than the others. Find the most important word or two in each sentence as well as the lines in your scene that matter the most to you.

Observe how you speak in your life. Some stuff you just say to fill silence, but at important moments in your life, chances are you speak to be heard. See if you can pick out the difference. Writers choose important moments to write about, and in a good comedic scene, your character really cares about what she is saying.

And…your major takeaway

Comedic scenes have high stakes and require an actor to understand why the text is funny, so she can heighten the funny behavior pattern as the scene goes.

Questions? That’s like 20 years of actor-training distilled in one article. You must have questions! Hit me up @emmatattenbaum (cc: @goldcmdy) on Twitter and let’s get nerdy about comedy acting.  


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Five steps to ace your improv audition

So you wanna be on an improv team? Great! Being on a team is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Why? For one thing, the key tenets of improv—listening, being a supportive team member, building on what’s given — apply to pretty much everything else. “One of the sayings of my improv group was, ‘Take improv off the stage and into life,’” says Abigail Schneider, former director of the Yale Ex!t Players. Also, you’ll make lifelong friends, and “group mind”—that zone you get into with a good team on a good night—is its own magical nirvana for comedy nerds.

Improv classes at UCB helped me to find my voice as an actor, a writer, and a sketch comedian. Improv for many is their passion and chosen art form, but for me it was a jumping off point to a deeper understanding of other forms of comedy. The improv teams that I joined while I was training allowed me to latch on to funny patterns and spot material more easily out in the real world, which has helped with writing in all the forms I do: essay, standup, sketch, and script-writing. As an actor, improv taught me about responding truthfully and listening. More important than all those things: improv gave me a shared language that I use to this day when I collaborate with other comedy writers.

Before you get in that audition room, here’s what you need to do.

Take a class.

It doesn’t have to be expensive, and the teacher does not have to be famous. Read class reviews and look for important comments like, “I felt safe to make lots of mistakes,” “I had FUN,” “I met great people,” and “My confidence is higher after taking this class.” Conversely, avoid classes that prompt comments like, “I lost a finger in this class,” “I hate myself more than ever upon graduation,” or “Turns out I’m not funny.” Improv is, at its core, empowering when it’s taught correctly.

If you can’t take a class, read Truth in Comedy by Chana Halpern and Del Close and Impro by Keith Johnstone. Actually, read those in addition to the class. (Skim the Johnstone. It’s the definitive text, but it’s ponderous.) (Abigail also recommends Improvisation at the Speed of Life:TJ and Dave’s Book.)

See a lot of improv — especially by the team you want to join.

Remember that your special voice will make you an asset to the team, but it doesn’t hurt at all to know the existing style of the team before you join it. Every comedy group, sketch or improv, has its own voice, and it pays to be familiar with the one you want to join.

Introduce yourself to the team.

Networking can be scary, but that improv class taught you fearlessness (or began the journey toward it), and you are on a mission to bring laughter to the world—a journey that begins with a single step. March right up after a show and say, “Hello! Your team is awesome! I’m auditioning soon! See you there!” (But make that your own, maybe with fewer exclamation points, ya know?)

I just noticed that I basically told you to stalk the team. Don’t stalk the team. Just be familiar with them and become a familiar face to them. Without night-vision goggles or grappling hooks.

Get your head in the game.

Get lots of sleep the night before. Take care of your precious brain, because that’s what makes you a funny human. Then the best thing you can do is “stop thinking about improv,” says Carsen Smith, GOLD’s 2017 summer intern and director of Vanderbilt University’s Tongue ‘n’ Cheek.

What to do instead? Before you go into the room, sit in a quiet spot with your hand on your heart and BREATHE. Soften your sternum and say “Thank you, self, for showing up today! This is gonna be a special opportunity to share my superpowers with fun people!”

Okay, maybe you’re thinking, “Wowww, this listicle just took a turn for the truly woo-woo.Fair point. But remember that comedy is about finding the truth. If you want to make people laugh, you must be grounded, relaxed, and ready to listen and say what’s true for you. This starts with your heart.

A friend of mine took an improv workshop with the actor Alan Arkin, who was part of the Chicago community that created improvisational theater in the 1950s. He talked about “the zone,” and how addictive it can be, and how chasing that feeling can actually kill your comedy dead. For him, letting go of that chase, being self-aware and in touch with his truth; and physically taking his hand from his head to his heart to remind himself where the truth is—that’s his secret to great improv, as well as a good life. Sometimes woo-woo is good, folks. Don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it.

Side note: you can also get your head in the game by being like, “Head, this is a game.” GOLD workshop alum Tessa Abedon, who just got into Cheap Sox in her first year at Tufts, says: “What works for me is to think of it not as an audition, but as a game. I always remember how the games I used to play with my sisters included making up characters and really believing we were who we said, simply because it was fun. Embrace the chance to play, even as an adult.”

Listen to your scene partners.

Okay! Good, you’re still reading! We got through the witchy part together. The next step is to NOT PANIC. Whenever you are onstage, and even when you’re off, stay in the moment, and don’t try to make yourself shine by out-yukking everyone else. That’s standup. This is improv.

Improv has no script, props, stage design, or costumes. So, the only thing you have is your scene partner, which is terrifying, but also great. You guys are in it together and you have to work together, by listening, to create a great scene,” notes Abigail Schneider. “And listening doesn’t just mean aurally, but physically and emotionally as well.”

I get it: Auditions are nerve-racking. That’s what’s exciting and/or vomitous, or both, depending on how you frame it. But whether you’re a thrill-seeker or an introvert who likes to make people giggle, you’ll be best served by keeping your knees lightly bent, breathing, feeling your feet on the floor. Your body will help you listen. Remember these physical things, and you will be able to apply everything you learned in class: Yes-and-ing, listening, and building relationships with your scene partners.

BONUS STEP!

Right after your audition, write down one thing you did fantastically well. Your brain will naturally be more aware of ways that you screwed up, and that’s okay. Brains are dicks like that. But if you want to make yourself a better improviser, force yourself to consciously note what you did well. That way you’ll be sure to grow that skill and CRUSH IT again next time you audition. Because you’re going to have many auditions. This is only one, not the only one.

Congrats! You’ve begun the marathon! Here’s to many more scary and wonderful comedy experiences.

Got any improv-related audition stories? Successes and failures equally welcome — it’s all part of the journey. Share with us @GOLDcmdy!


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