Most storytellers I work with want their stories to be funnier. And actually, make your story funnier is easier than you think. If you are willing to put in the work, have some patience and take some tiny risks along the way, you can punch up your piece by following some tips I have used that have helped me get more laughs on stage.
- Story First. Comedy Second
For me, the beginning, middle and end of a story should be more left brain, more logical. Comedy is more right brain – it’s more about using your imagination. That’s why I start with the structure of the story first and then once that is in place, I can explore different moments in that story for the comedy. Starting this way frees me up, and helps takes the pressure off of trying to being funny. It gives me foundation for discovering comedic moments.
- Reveal A Truth About Yourself
Back in the ’80s, I studied with Del Close, who believed in truth in comedy. He felt that you could get up on stage and tell something real from your life, without embellishment, and get a laugh. The lesson I learned from Del is that stories always need to contain the truth. If you start adding in elements to your story that aren’t true just because you think they’re funny, you’ll lose some of your integrity with the audience. For me, the Holy Grail of storytelling is telling something that is honest about yourself that also is funny. I remember the first time I learned this was doing an improv show, where we told monologues about ourselves, and I came out and said, “I don’t like Christmas, because I don’t like to give.” In my current show, “World’s Greatest Dad(?)” I say that I am Catholic, but everyone thinks I’m Jewish, which always gets a laugh.
- Audience of One
Comedy doesn’t happen in vacuum. You need other people to find out what parts of your story are really funny. For me, I’ve found that it’s a lot easier and feels a bit safer to try material out with people I know. They will tell you if something works or doesn’t, and the friends I call can always give me great feedback that makes my piece funnier. Comedy also takes confidence, and I’ve found that trying stuff out on my friends makes me believe in the material more, which translates into a better performance.
If you don’t have someone to bounce your material off of, hire a coach, or take a storytelling class or workshop, where you can meet other storytellers whom you can start bouncing your ideas off of.
- It Not the Words, It’s the Delivery
Sometimes the words you have written are funny and you can’t understand why they don’t get a laugh. In some cases, it’s not the words, it’s how you are saying them. One of the most common reasons storytellers don’t get laughs is they aren’t heightening the emotional attitude of that particular section of the story. It’s not just what you have written down on paper that is funny in performance, but in some case it’s your whole being. Sometimes a hand gesture or body movement can increase the humor, and sometimes you need to adjust the speed of the section, either slowing it down or speeding it up to make it even funnier.
- Add an Inner Dialogue or an Aside
One of the easiest thing to do to make your piece funnier, especially if something weird happens to you or someone says something strange, is to add an aside or some inner dialogue. In “World’s Greatest Dad(?),” when my dad is dying and I ask him how I can help prepare for his death, he says, “I want you to speak at my funeral and I want you to make people laugh.” Then I go into an interior monologue: “I wanted to say, ‘Dad I have agent for that.’ But instead, I said, ‘I would be honored.’” By adding a little aside, I’m able to squeeze in a little laugh in a very dark section of the story, which breaks things up a bit. In fact, when done right, serious moments that are filled with tension can be a great place for a laugh.
- Know Where the Laughs Are
When you start getting laughs in your storytelling pieces, it’s important to know where they are coming from so you can improve your editing. For example, in my one-person show, when I find out my wife isn’t pregnant, I say, “I took it hard, and I hit the tub.” Originally, that line was longer. I would say, “When I found out Lauren wasn’t pregnant, I would hit the tub and go on a three-day bender until I dried out.” I realized that the laugh always came from the word “tub” and I was diluting it by adding stuff after it. So I cut them and ended on the word “tub,” which was stronger.