The Terrible Advice Of Comedy How-To Books
So you want to start doing funny. Do you know where to start? Maybe with some open-mics? Where are they? What time do they start? Will the group of comics there even accept you? How do you stand out from the crowd of other wannabe comedians?
You’re stuck, and that shelf of how-to comedy books that’ve been wedged between acting guides and Manga Shakespeare books are looking pretty good right now. Sure, their covers are worn, and most of their blurbs come from Richard Jeni, which, Jesus. But they’ve gotta have some valuable info inside, right?
Let me save you a little money on those how-to comedy books. I own them all, every awful last one of them. And what you learn from me today can save you money also today.
99% of comedy how-to books are a scam. The other 1% is Truth In Comedy, a book whose cover is specifically designed to make you think it’s not something you should exchange money for. Yet of all the how-to books out there, it’s the only one that doesn’t divide its advice between “be famous” and “don’t be not famous,” two bits of advice that you could figure out for your own by being on the Earth.
Its sweet wisdom? “Trust in others and you’ll be funny.” Amazing, real advice. Trust in others. Trust in the audience. Trust in your fellow performers. Trust in the world around you. Funny comes from believing in something outside of yourself.
No other comedy how-to book even approaches Truth In Comedy for that kind of philosophy. Even its semi-sequel/spin-off Art By Committee fails to come close.
Truth In Comedy was written by Del Close, a brilliant patron saint of long-form improvisational comedy, and Charna Halpern, with whom he founded the ImprovOlympic theater. After Del Close died, Charna decided to write another book that essentially summed up Truth In Comedy and then added filler detailing famous dead people she knew. It’s like a hurricane blew through a business card convention, because names be dropping everywhere.
Rather than give substantive advice, the book becomes a pamphlet on the history of Charna’s famous friends. It’s like an ATM dispensing handmade coupons for a “Free Night Spent Together.” It’s the same thing again and again with comedy how-to books: Be Famous.
Household name Gene Perret’s book, Successful Stand-Up Comedy: Advice From A Comedy Writer sort of reveals that abominable premise in the title: “how to be a stand-up comedian from someone who wrote for famous stand-up comedians but was not, in fact, a famous stand-up comedian himself.”
Gene Perret was comedy legend Bob Hope’s head writer. Yep: the key to being a successful comedian is to pay someone to write things for you. Celebrities do it. Businessmen do it. You think Stephen Hawking burns sweet-looking chicks off the top of his head? Man, he’s busy. You need a comedy writer.
What’s weird is, the real lesson you start to get from Successful Stand-Up Comedy is that, if you become a good enough performer, you get to abuse the living fuck out of your writer, whom you need to make you a good enough performer. Seriously.
Every chapter essentially starts with a story that consists of Bob Hope mocking Gene Perret in front of other people. Here are all of them in a nutshell:
“A few decades ago, Bob Hope was doing a show for the troops in Cuba. I asked him if he wanted to do a joke about Cuban cigars and he punched my daughter, Melissa. This chapter is why it was good to be Bob Hope.”
What do you do with anecdotes about Bob Hope humiliating Gene Perret? Where does a kid who wants to tell dick jokes take that? Tell me.
Which I guess sort of brings me to the grail-that-the-German-guy-thinks-is-the-Holy-Grail-but-turns-him-into-a-skeleton-that-scared-me-when-I-was-a-kid of comedy: Judy Carter. Judy Carter’s Comedy Bible is a lot like the actual Bible in that people read it in the 1980s and then tried to do comedy anyway.
On the plus side, Judy Carter’s Comedy Bible features more assignments, homework, and writing tips than any other comedy book. On the minus side, it’s all aimed at men who want to roast the boss at their shipping company’s Christmas party. Everything is broken up into “the wrong way” and “the right way.” The “wrong way” usually consists of a statement that couldn’t be construed as comedy (“My Mom was a victim of incest”) while “the right way” consists of a statement that seems to be specifically written to make everyone in the room avert their eyes (“I’ve never fucked Mom, but I see why her Dad would!”)
The other advice essentially comes in the form of a thousand-and-one celebrity talking heads that give such worth-$30-advice as “Do comedy” and “Get on stage and do comedy” and “If you do comedy, you’re currently doing comedy.”
Even worse is Judy Carter’s other book, Stand-Up Comedy: The Book, which is less funny than the title would indicate but just as funny as the cover would. The book actually features a test to tell if you’re funny and then follows it up with the greatest line in any book about anything ever:
“With this setup, the audience realizes that it’s not Camen being the racist, but his redneck character.”
Yeah! I’m not racist: a character that I am is racist! If you’re smart, you can really nest your bigotry!
“Women need to fuck and cook, and doing business ain’t either, motherfucker! Haha! That’s not me being sexist: that’s my colored character, ya’ll! Haha! I would never say ‘ya’ll,’ you are amused to learn! That’s my white trash character, by Allah!”
Okay. So if these books are so terrible, how do you start doing comedy? You just do it. You get up on stage and you do it. Or you write something and submit it. Or you go to college and major in English so you have enough time to form a sketch group. You don’t need to spend money to think about wanting to maybe someday do comedy. You just do comedy.
And if you try hard, and if you take your failures in stride, and you get up there as much as you can, someday you can write a book about it.
Mike Drucker is a lovely man with many positive characteristics. He has written for Saturday Night Live, The Onion, McSweeney’s, and Nintendo. He’s also a stand-up or something, I guess.