Saturday Night Live has been inspiring me my entire life, and Jan Hooks was one of the best. Here’s a beautiful and touching tribute written by Nora Dunn, her castmate on the show in the 80′s.
It was Jan Hooks who came up with the idea for the Sweeney Sisters. On the spot, while we were shooting a commercial parody for Saturday Night Live. It came like a minor explosion, as most of her ideas did, and she delivered the concept and our names in a matter of seconds. Then she started belting out medleys of classic swing songs. There was no way I could keep up with her. She was a seasoned improvisor who never credited herself as a writer, and at the heart of her matter, she was a genuine actress.
Saturday Night Live wasn’t summer camp. It wasn’t fun until and unless you were in front of the camera, doing a bit you loved. And I loved nothing as I loved being a Sweeney Sister. In character, Jan and I knew exactly who were without discussion. It happened on its own. As Liz and Candy, we shared an uncomplicated bond and an enduring sisterly love. The fact that they became a hit was secondary to the joy of being them. We opened the Emmys in 1987, and backstage we decided to chat with George Will and Sam Donaldson in character. They shunned us as if we were two backstage barflies trying to slut it up with a couple of genuine prime time newsmen. No one enjoyed something like that more than Jan Hooks.
She did have stage fright, but once in front of the camera, she carried the show. It was our costume designer, Pam Peterson, who found our lounge gowns, and it became part of the gag that we wore them in every single sketch. I don’t know where those dresses are now, but they should be in the Smithsonian. In our finest sketch, we performed with Mary Tyler Moore, who was the one and only third Sweeney Sister.
I’m not ready to accept that Jan died at 57. That’s not fair. But neither is life. It’s sorrowful, and there isn’t one comedian worth her weight in salt if she doesn’t understand that. No matter how long we are here, it’s not long enough. But I always thought I’d see Jan again. I knew she wasn’t well, but we always think things will get better. It takes a long time, a long history, to know that the best things, the best moments in life, are gone in what seems like a flash. She and I had our best moments together on television, and sometimes late at night in our offices, where we were talking and not writing, and sometimes out in a so-so tavern in midtown Manhattan while we were drinking too much.
She and I spent an evening with George Harrison in Lorne’s office one night, drinking wine and playing records and listening to one of the Beatles, who was engaging and prolific. I remember her saying afterwards, “Did that really happen?” And I hear myself saying that now, as I read this piece. Did it?
How did you get a college agent?
The most common way is to send a clean tape to an agent you want to work with and then follow up. Assuming the agent finds it funny, you’ll need to convince him or her that you’re a punctual person with a minimal amount of sociopathic tendencies. Don’t be too self-conscious about that last part, because most comics have serious issues. We’re talking weapons-grade personality flaws.
What’s it like working colleges compared to clubs and other gigs?
College gigs pay way better than club gigs. An entry-level comic usually makes $1,000 for each 45-minute show. But you’ll earn that money because the audience is sober and they’re obsessed with political correctness.
Clubs are a better place to develop material because your audience is a lot more diverse. You’ll have 20-year-olds, 50-year-olds and every socioeconomic demographic there is. Clubs also offer the chance to learn from big-name comics who drop into the shows. Jerry Seinfeld will stop by Gotham, but he’s not going to do a guest spot at Suffolk Community College. Although Dave Chappelle might, if that’s where his weed dealer goes.
Do you recommend pursuing becoming a college comic? What are the benefits and disadvantages?
The upside to doing college gigs is that they pay well and give you a ton of stage time. And of course, there’s the occasional wayward co-ed who invites you to her dorm.
The downside is that they’re completely off the grid in terms of showbiz relevance. Nobody who books anything meaningful pays attention to college gigs because they’re an isolated demographic. The other downside is that most of those wayward co-eds have HPV.
My recommendation would be to use colleges as a way to make money and develop yourself under the radar. But don’t let the money trick you into thinking you’re making commercial progress. Ultimately, you need a presence where the big decisions get made, which is here in the city.
Good luck finding parking.
For more information:
Posted in Andy Engel, Manhattan Comedy School, stand-up comedy, Tuesday Tips | Tagged comedy, Jimmy Failla, learning stand-up comedy, Manhattan Comedy School, performing at colleges, Rob O'Reilly, stand-up comedy, Tuesday Tips | Comments Off September 16, 2014
When the news “Joan Rivers Hospitalized” broke, I hoped it was a publicity stunt. I couldn’t imagine a world without her. I was so sure she’d be making jokes about the whole ordeal: “I was in a medically induced coma. You know how they put me under? They made me watch Jay Leno’s last monologue.”
When I was a kid, I saw Joan Rivers guest-host the Tonight Show, and suddenly it made sense. I will never be able to tell her how grateful I am for that.
The only thing that cheers me up is knowing that she worked the night before. She never wanted to retire and she never had to.
Why is Joan so relevant? She was supposed to marry a doctor and move to the suburbs. She didn’t. She was supposed to know her place and let the male comics take the spotlight. She didn’t. She was supposed to quietly go off and have her baby. She didn’t (she did stand-up pregnant on the Ed Sullivan show). She was supposed to wait in the wings to see what Johnny Carson had in mind for her. She didn’t. She was supposed to disappear after her husband’s suicide. She didn’t. She went bankrupt and was supposed to lose everything. She didn’t.
She was supposed to age gracefully. She did.
- Cory KahaneyPosted in Manhattan Comedy School, stand-up comedy, Tuesday Tips | Tagged comedy, Cory Kahaney, joan rivers, learning stand-up comedy, Manhattan Comedy School, stand-up comedy, standup, tribute, women comedians | Comments Off September 2, 2014
My friend Jimmy Failla is a New York City cab driver turned professional stand-up comedian. Named Best Male Comic at the 2014 New York City Nightlife Awards, he’s been seen on Gotham Comedy Live, BBC America, TMZ Live, the Today show, Good Day New York, America’s Got Talent, Fox Business, Arise TV, Kelly and Michael, and CNN. Jimmy is also the head writer for A-List Comedy, a national comedy service that delivers topical jokes and sketches to more than 200 radio stations a day.
Here’s what Jimmy has to say about making it in the industry:
I first started getting stage time by producing my own weekly show, which allowed me to trade spots for stage time on other people’s shows. This was a great way to meet like-minded comics to write with, produce with, and smoke weed with. Just kidding about the producing part.
Barking was extremely helpful because it allowed me to get onstage a lot more than I would have if I simply walked in the door with my hand out. As hard as it might be to imagine, there weren’t too many people lining up to book a community college graduate no one had ever heard of.
I started off by hosting an open mic at a youth hostel on 27th Street in Manhattan. It was mainly playing to comics and apologizing for the failure of new material, but it added a layer of spontaneity that I wouldn’t have found doing regular spots. Plus, I learned how to say “you suck” in 12 different languages.
The first thing hosting taught me is that MCs have a huge responsibility to the other comics to keep the mood light and the show moving. As much as you want to call the bachelorette the c-word, in most cases doing so will create a level of hostility that’s hard for the other comics to break through. And even if you’re destroying, you have to limit your time between acts, or the show will run long. If this happens, comics will miss their spots, the waitstaff will miss their drug dealers, and everyone will hate you.
The earliest paid jobs I got were road gigs that were way farther from the city than advertised. Bookers give you mileage estimates the way women give you their number of sex partners. Whatever the number is, a safe bet is to always double it. For this reason, owning a car is, and always will be, the number-one criteria for getting road work. When you get introduced to a road booker, an ’89 Ford Escort is far more impressive than a Letterman spot.
To me, the most important thing to remember in comedy is that you are only competing against yourself. A lot of comics get hung up on who gets what credit or which development deal. At the end of the day, though, all of your success will depend on your ability to discipline yourself to write everyday, record your every set, and edit yourself without a conscience. The one commonality amongst people getting the big credits is that they all work their asses off. And it would help to have a terrible childhood, but one for two should do it in most cases.
There’s a lot more of these pearls of wisdom in Jimmy’s book, Follow That Car: A Cabbie’s Guide to Conquering Fears, Achieving Dreams, and Finding a Public Restroom, available from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Indiebound.org.
Posted in Andy Engel, Manhattan Comedy School, stand-up comedy, Tuesday Tips | Tagged advice for comedians, Andy Engel, comedy, comedy clubs, Gotham Comedy Club, Jimmy Failla, learning stand-up comedy, Manhattan Comedy School, new talent, Tuesday Tips, young comics | Comments Off August 19, 2014
In place of Tuesday Tips, I wanted to do a tribute to Robin Williams.
When I first heard that Robin Williams had died, I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a hoax. I thought he would live forever.
Robin’s whole being was the antithesis of death. He was an unstoppable force of nature, the epitome of being alive. He was naturally funny, quick, and always making people laugh. His essence represented life. How could an entertainer who gave so much positive energy and helped so many people be gone? It’s just incomprehensible. It’s very hard to process.
When I was younger, the comics who inspired me were Steve Martin, Don Rickles, Eddie Murphy, Sam Kinison, and Robin Williams. I was fortunate, and grateful, to have met Robin through a mutual friend who was a producer. He was very kind, sweet, and easy to talk to. I was so relaxed, I forgot I was speaking to a celebrity.
I was also fortunate to have worked as an extra on several movies Robin was in. In Awakenings and Moscow on the Hudson, I actually stood in for him and Paul Guilfoyle for two weeks. On Cadillac Man, I remember him improvising a scene, and as soon as the director yelled cut, the entire cast and crew just burst out laughing. He did that all the time on the set. On Awakenings, when he was talking during a shot being set up, Penny Marshal, the director, yelled at him to be quiet, and you knew she had done it multiple times. He never lost the kid in him; he was still a little kid at heart.
A typical movie day is often 12 hours or more, so it’s not easy. Some sets are very tense. But if Robin was on the set, you knew it would be fun. He always made it easier. You would look forward to coming to work, because you knew he would be funny and give a non-stop private concert every day. The profound, deep sadness you’ve seen many celebrities express is because Robin was one of the good guys. He was easy to work with, showed up on time, and knew his lines.
His comedy was on another level. He did smart material, and he always aimed high, but he also included more accessible material so that everyone could enjoy him. He had an amazing ability to take someone down without being mean-spirited about it. Yet he was just as effective as someone who wasn’t as nice about it. He was like the comedy surgeon.
All the clichés about him are true: Irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind, in a class by himself, iconic legend.
To me it feels like a death in the family.
August 6, 2014
Whenever most people write jokes, they come up with a single punchline, then think all the work is done. There’s more to writing effectively than that.
Write several punch lines
A great idea is to try to come up with three or four additional punchlines. For starters, it forces you to push yourself to your limits. But more importantly, the later punchlines are not as obvious and will often be the smarter ones. Always try to come up with the least likely punchline.
Pick low-hanging fruit
Very often, news headlines are unintentionally funny. Those headlines can function as a set-up for a joke, and can get you a laugh even before you write a punchline. That’s a gift you don’t want to pass up. The punchline is like icing on the cake. It’s a double joke- -you get a laugh on the set-up and on the punchline. Good sources to find these “funny headlines” are DrudgeReport.com, CNN, and Huff Post. I think Drudge Report has a plethora of material.
You don’t want get lazy, however, and just rely on easy set-ups that you didn’t write.
Mix and match
Many of the late-night monologue jokes are simply two current hot news stories married together. I like to write down 10 hot story topics, then split them up into two columns and see which ones look easy to combine–or use just one column and pair them up.
Adopt an unpopular view
Another method to help stretch your comedic writing is to take the opposite view from the majority of the public, and write jokes from an angle most people don’t subscribe to. It’s easy to write a joke that will earn you a “Jay Leno” laugh from the majority of your audience. I think Leno sometimes stops writing jokes and just makes popular statements to get a classic, positive “we support you” cheer. Push yourself to think differently and more creatively.
Practice different writing exercises and techniques to find what you like the best and what helps you grow.
Posted in Andy Engel, Manhattan Comedy School, stand-up comedy, Tuesday Tips | Tagged Andy Engel, comedy, learning stand-up comedy, new talent, punchlines, stand-up comedy, standup, Tuesday Tips, writing comedy | Comments OffJuly 22, 2014
Open mics are necessary when you’re starting as a comic, which is why you need to utilize them smartly.
Start by trying to avoid bad ones. My definition of a bad mic is one with:
Some people argue that comics should be able to master the hardest open mics. Up to a point, your goal is to get honest, legitimate feedback on your material, and if you can’t get that, leave and find a different mic.
Don’t get too comfortable. The purpose of doing open mics is to quickly move beyond them. Improve your act, network, and get guest spots on other people’s bar shows.
Here’s a brief list and description of some of the better open mics in New York City:
Mondays at 7:00 p.m.
Free open mic. Each comic gets a four-minute set, and usually about 30 people get to go up. It can get a little long towards the end if people don’t stick around, but it’s a nice environment with supportive people. You must email me ([email protected]) to request a spot on the list.
Tuesdays at 6:00 p.m.
Free open mic. Each comic gets a two-minute set. The names are drawn from a bucket.
Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m.
Free open mic. Each comic gets a two-minute set. The names are drawn from a bucket. There’s very good energy in the room, and it’s usually pretty full.
Thursdays at 7:00 p.m.
Free open mic. Each comic gets a two-minute set. The names are drawn from a bucket. It’s usually a very energetic room, with a group of comics who stick around to watch each other.
• UCB East
Fridays at 7:00 p.m.
A very fair open mic, with the names drawn from a bucket. They don’t do any favors at the mic or give any preferential treatment. Sixteen names are drawn; the last name picked gets to go first the next week. The crowd is fun and supportive. People who are waiting to see an improv show usually stick around.
• Bar 2A
Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m.
Usually a packed house. The names are drawn from a bucket. The mic can go a little long, but there’s good energy in the beginning. Each comic gets a three-minute set.
Fridays at 6:00 p.m. AND 8:00 p.m.
Free open mic. The names are drawn from a bucket, and each comic gets a two-minute set. Usually there’s a packed house, and the room can get a little crowded.
Each of these mics has a character of its own. I would suggest trying several different open mics, even if you don’t necessarily fit in with the group of people there. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone, and test your material in front of people whom you don’t normally perform with.
Use open mics as a tool to move forward.Posted in Andy Engel, Manhattan Comedy School, stand-up comedy, Tuesday Tips | Tagged Andy Engel, comedy, comedy clubs, learning stand-up comedy, Manhattan Comedy School, new talent, open mics, Tuesday Tips | Comments Off July 8, 2014
Embrace the bomb, love the bomb, learn from the bomb. As a comic, you’re going to bomb numerous times.
Steve Martin said that if you’re doing something new and groundbreaking, people are not going to get you for three years or so. When Seinfeld started, he bombed 50 percent of the time. Sam Kinison cleared rooms–a classic example of what Steve Martin meant. Louis C.K. didn’t perform for two years after doing a set because he had such a bad experience.
The clear lesson is that everyone bombs. The point is not whether you are going to bomb, but how you’re going to deal with it.
The fact is, you learn a lot more about your set when you bomb. If everything goes well, you’re probably getting an inaccurate assessment of how your set really is, unless you’ve been working on it for ten years. If you do a set that has a lot of weak spots but some strong ones, you can conclude that the strong ones are probably “keepers,” if the crowd is tough. The bits that work are worth keeping.
Some comics who bomb often are brilliant. They simply have not found their audience yet. While bombing can be the sign of a bad comic, it can also point to a brilliant act that most audiences just don’t get. If you are doing something extraordinary and smart, your audience will find you.
You have to have a room where you can bomb comfortably on a regular basis. In other words, find a room where you can fail with no repercussions, so you can test out new material, ideas, characters, and rants. Don’t try a whole new set at a New Talent show. That should be where you bring your A-game to make a great DVD.
Learn to bomb gracefully. Recognize the fact that you are bombing. Poke fun at yourself. Go off from your written set if you have to. Try something different. Do some crowd work if you’re good enough.
Follow these two cardinal rules: Don’t blame the audience, and don’t blame the club. Nothing is worse than a comic who goes on a rant against the crowd or the venue. That can make a small thing a really big problem.
Never be afraid of bombing. Acknowledge it, and confront it.
Here’s a great video of Bill Burr dealing with bombing:Andy Engel, Manhattan Comedy School, stand-up comedy, Tuesday Tips | Tagged Andy Engel, Bill Burr, bombing, comedy, comedy clubs, learning stand-up comedy, Manhattan Comedy School, new talent, Tuesday Tips | Comments Off June 24, 2014
There are two types of barkers: street teams, and comics working for stage time. Street teams are made up of individuals selling tickets for their own profit. They are, essentially, scalping tickets. They sell the tickets to people in Times Square to make their living, which also helps fill the rooms at comedy clubs all over the city.
Comics who bark for stage time are generally in their first few years of doing comedy, and bark until they’re passed at the club. Some clubs will ask their barkers to pass out flyers, while others expect them to make ticket sales on the street. Other clubs expect their barkers to hit certain numbers to earn stage time, which they do by either selling a specific amount of tickets, or having a certain amount of people come to the club with their flyers. Still other clubs and rooms simply send people to the street right outside to try to bring in pedestrians.
Barking is a great way for a young comic to start getting up in front of crowds that aren’t full of other comics, like open mics. You have to work for your stage time, but it gives you an opportunity to get in front of real audiences, and perform with headliners and other great comics who have been passed at the club. It also allows you to be at a club around other comics every night, having your face seen and your voice heard, which can lead to bookings on other shows. As a barker, you might even be able to make a little bit of money, depending on the system at your club.
Barking is a difficult job, though, if only because of the sheer amount of rejection. Even the most successful barkers sell to less than one percent of the people who pass them on the street. Being ignored, yelled at, and told by tourists that you are “your own comedy show” can tax your spirit, too.
But the best barkers manage to keep smiling and talk about their shows with enthusiasm for as long as they’re out there, knowing that it’s all for the most precious commodity around: stage time.
If you can handle it, barking is a great way to get stage time before you’re ready to get guest/paid spots.
I believe a comic either has a natural gift for doing impersonations or doesn’t, so it’s an aptitude that can’t be taught. If you have the gift, it can be your ticket to break into clubs faster than comics who don’t do impersonations.
Good impersonators can make a lot of money. Danny Gans even had a theater named after him in Vegas. If you want to try to leverage your special ability, here are some tips to harness its powers from someone who’s done celebrity impersonations–and been paid for it.
• Find yourself an honest, tough coach, or fellow comic, for feedback.
You want blunt critiques of the accuracy of your voices. It’s a tougher road being being judged on an impersonation along with the joke or bit. If a comic does a bad joke in a routine set, it’s no big deal. You simply move on. But people will remember a weak or poor impersonation. Nothing screams “amateur” more.
• Identify your range.
Most impressionists already have a list of voices they can do. Don’t work on ones that have been beaten to death. Get the hack list of impersonations, and strike any of the ones on it from your act. Perfect the ones you can do that are unique and unexpected, but still recognizable.
• Develop your skill.
Start with a high-quality audio recording device. Get some short samples of the voices you are attempting to mimic. Every celebrity has a few famous lines, catch phrases, facial expressions, gestures, and quirks. Those are what you want to focus on reproducing. Do your research to find out which of their lines or sound bites are going to be the most familiar to an audience.
• Identify the trait, emotion, or character the celebrity is known for.
• Focus on the “vowels.”
Those are easier to imitate. Figure out what part of the body the voice is originating from.
• Choose a famous celebrity already doing the voice, and copy their impersonation.
Some purists will argue against my advising this, since you are borrowing from someone who has already done a lot of the heavy lifting. Remember, though, that this route is only acceptable if you are imitating a voice as is, not one putting an interpretation on it the way Gilbert Gottfried does. You can’t imitate Gilbert’s impersonations, because he is doing more than a basic impersonation. He is adding a unique and original interpretation to the impersonation that is his and his alone.
• Exaggerate and draw out the person’s most characteristic traits.
• Don’t confuse a great impersonation with original material.
It’s not a substitute. Many comics expect applause for an impersonation all on its own. That’s a mistake.
• Watch the masters at work.
Some of my favorites are Kevin Spacey, Gilbert Gottfried, Frank Caliendo, Darrell Hammond, Kate McKinnon, Bill Hader, and Kevin Pollak. See eclectic samples of their work here, and some celebrities doing impressions of their colleagues here.
• Compare and contrast.
Listen to your own version of the voice, and then play the actual person’s voice. Keep practicing and replaying the recordings until you can’t tell the difference.
Once you feel you’re ready to try out your impersonations, start with only your best, A-list ones. Stick to those until you’re getting countless compliments on what a great voice you have.
Impersonations can be a powerful way to separate yourself from other comics.Posted in Andy Engel, Manhattan Comedy School, stand-up comedy, Tuesday Tips | Tagged Andy Engel, comedy, Danny Gans, impersonations, impressions, learning stand-up comedy, Manhattan Comedy School, new talent, stand-up comedy, standup, Tuesday Tips, voices | Comments Off ← Older posts