Sometimes things will happen at an event before your show that will give you an opening joke that is potential comedy gold. Take advantage of the time before you go on to quickly write (and rewrite) these bits in your mind.
Real Life Examples
Outside the situations these jokes may read flat, but I hope you’ll trust me when I tell you they played very well. I’m sharing them because I hope these examples will help drive the point home.
First one is from the late Pittsburgh-based comic, Keith Leslie. Keith was smart, a great writer, and passed away much too early. I saw Keith do this at the Funnybone over twenty-five years ago. It killed in the show and it’s still funny now.
Keith is introduced. He walks on stage left. Shakes the hand of the emcee. Grabs the mike from the stand and continues to walk toward stage right. Leans over and shakes the hand of a man on the right side of the small comedy club stage who’s wearing a kelly green sport coat. “Hello, sir. Congratulations on your win at Augusta.” Boom!
A few years ago I was entertaining at a business meeting of politicians. Before I spoke, a man from PennDot (the agency in Pennsylvania that does road construction and snow plowing, etc.) spoke for about 30 minutes. I followed him. Of course, at that point the audience was not exactly whipped into a frenzy of excitement. My first words, “Thank you, Bob. Hello everyone. This isn’t the first time I’ve begun my show saying this, but, ‘Sorry, I’m here later than I thought I’d be. Once again I was delayed by PennDot.’” The joke – admittedly an easy one given the situation – played well, especially with the PennDot official.
Here’s one that happened a few days ago. I’m headlining a comedy club and while I’m waiting to go on the feature act deals with a chatty patron and does the “Where’d you learn how to whisper? In a helicopter?” line. Ten minutes later I’m on the stage and the first words out of my mouth after thanking the emcee are “OK. Who’s my chatty friend out there? I heard the helicopter joke.” The audience cracks up and her friends out the chatterer. “I just want you to know, helicopter or no, I’m glad you’re here. Welcome to the show.” All of this was said with tongue in cheek, smiling, and with a tone of teasing silliness. It played well — especially with the chatterer.
Listen & Pay Attention
It’s obvious, but to make these kind of jokes you have to be listening and paying attention before the show. As much as one can quantify this, I think this first step is 90% of the task.
There may be situations where you can make fun of someone. Maybe someone dropped a drink tray before you went on. Don’t make a joke about it. There are few quicker ways to be pegged as a jerk and make getting audience volunteers a huge chore.
What if the joke falls flat?
George Wendt, the comic actor that played Norm on Cheers, said this about comedy
Never let the audience catch you trying to be funny.
Do the joke. Say the line. Keep moving.
If it scores, great.
If it doesn’t, don’t stand there like you were expecting a standing ovation or even a sitting laugh.
If you wait when there’s no reaction like you were waiting for one, the audience will assume you tried for a laugh and failed.
If you keep moving on when there’s no reaction, the audience will probably assume you’re making brief (hopefully charming) small talk.
In George Wendt’s terms, trying to be funny means unsuccessfully trying to be funny. In a nutshell If you don’t act like you were waiting for a laugh, if the joke isn’t too over the top, it is almost like the joke can not fall flat because the audience won’t realize you are attempting a joke.
Here’s another example, this one of a joke that didn’t get a big laugh. It was in the early show of the night that I did the helicopter reference. A man in the front row has a waxed mustache, as do I. I’m introduced. I thank the emcee. I look at the mustache guy in the front row. “Dude! My fellow mustache waxer! Nice ‘stache, buddy. (We bump fists.) Hope to see you next week at the monocle convention.”
The response? A nice laugh, but nothing that really popped. So I just went into the rest of my act. No blood, no foul.
As there are rewards for not going on autopilot during a show, there are rewards for not going on autopilot before the show. Beginning a show with a line that is obviously an ad-lib is powerful, even if it’s an adlib you’ve had a few minutes to rehearse in your head. When it works, the audience gives the performer much more credit and response than the joke would normally earn because they realize he just made it up and is taking a risk.
Additionally, an opening joke that scores well like this immediately makes the booker look like they made the right decision.
The Well-Placed Joke Can Ease Tension
The PennDot speaker, as professional as he was, created the tension of a less than entertaining 30 minutes.
The chatty audience member situation had the tension of someone being shut down (even if it was necessary) by the comic from stage.
Laughs don’t come from a place of tension.
Laughs are easier without tension
Big laughs can come from a moment of releasing tension.
You May Find A KEEPER.
Sometimes the situation you’re writing for is not a once in a lifetime situation. In fact, it may be a 10% of the time situation. You instantly have another tool in your comedy toolbox.
Keep your ears on, friends.