S1: I killed at my father’s funeral. Really. And then the rabbi went on after me and tried to try to do some time. And I said Rabbi you never want to follow the headline. And that got another laugh. I mean I had I destroyed at my father’s funeral.
S2: Welcome to how to I’m Charles Dudek. Each week on this show we talk to listeners like you who are trying to figure out how to solve one of life’s problems like how to withstand pain or or how to fire about employees or how to find your soul. Then we tracked down an expert and we get their advice and we’ll see if it helps.
S3: And today’s episode we’re tackling a question that all of us at some point try to answer how to be funny. We got interested in this after hearing from this guy in Bartlesville Oklahoma named Aaron Kirkpatrick.
S4: From a 35 year old pastor at a church of Christ in Oklahoma. You know I get up in front of about 250 people every week to preach and humor is I think a central part of that or at least I want it to be.
S5: Aaron wants to know how to be funny because he thinks that humor and being entertaining it can help him reach more of his congregation.
S6: I want people when they show up to enjoy the experience and to engage every part of their emotions including humor.
S5: You know this feeling right. Humor gets people focused on you and it keeps them interested in what you’re saying. But being funny is really hard to do well. Are there rules for writing the perfect joke. What if all those comedians figured out that makes them so compelling to watch. And because Aaron is a pastor and he’s this nice optimistic sunny guy I turn to the most logical place for advice. A Jewish New York comedian who makes jokes about his clinical depression. Please welcome Gary Goldman.
S7: Gary Coleman has been performing in comedy clubs and on late night TV for 25 years. He’s revered by audiences in other comics.
S8: Thank you.
S9: Wow that was really nice.
S10: Patton Oswald in fact one said if he could only steal one joke in this entire world he would plagiarize from Gary. But Gary says his career didn’t really start so well. He still remembers the first time he got up on a stage to perform standup way back in the early 90s.
S11: Oh yeah. Yeah like it was yesterday. It’s so crazy. Okay so who were you at that point like. I was a by day. I was an auditor for what is now PricewaterhouseCoopers.
S12: OK. Like always known as fertile territory for comedians. So how old were you when you get up on that stage. You’re living in Boston.
S13: Yeah I was living in Boston with my mom and I was 23. I was open mike night. You had to bring either three or four friends to get onstage which I thought was reasonable.
S10: Gary says that most of his first show was terrible. It was just awful. The jokes didn’t land at all the audience wasn’t responding. It felt like the night was going to be a total disaster.
S13: Even even the crickets were tugging at their at their ties and they they didn’t even make noise. The crickets were silent. And if you had taken mine a poll of my my mind at that time I would say oh okay. Oh well this isn’t going to work out. And then I went into my next joke which was an impression of Robert DeNiro and they loved it. Really. They loved it and they laughed and applauded and it was. I was never the same after that. I was addicted. That’s amazing. Yeah yeah. Everything in my life. And I’m exaggerating of course but let’s say that most of the things in my life since that night have been geared to becoming a better comedian.
S12: Well and as you know today this guy’s gonna be calling in ask her for advice about how to be funny. Yeah. And so one of the things I wanted to ask you about if I had a tape of you side by side your first performance versus three years and when you finally have that confidence right. What would be different. What would a what did you learn to do.
S13: Well after you’ve learned how to swing a baseball bat and you swing it hundreds of times it’s smoother.
S14: There’s nothing from my first two years of comedy that made it to my first television appearance which was six years in. Everything else I I would say it’s useless it’s except for the fact that it was so useful because it got me on stage every night. To become a better comedian. It’s compared to music where you need to learn the scales before you you can play.
S5: So Gary spent years learning how to play his instrument. And eventually he started getting gigs on late night TV including on Conan O’Brien where one performance it in 2016 became an Internet sensation.
S9: Thanks very much. I just wanted to recommend a documentary to everyone and then I’m gonna go. It’s about the it’s about the men and one woman who abbreviated all 50 states down to two letters. Are. All you have to know for this is that we have 50 states in America and they each have a two capital letter abbreviation but that wasn’t always the case up until I want to say nineteen seventy three. And so I will. Up until 1973. Every state had its own length of abbreviation and it was chaos like Massachusetts was m assets period. Florida was AFL a Utah was Utah.
S11: They just dropped the H. Not much of an abbreviation. So take me step by step. How did you come up with that joke. I mean I first had the premise which is gee a lot of states start off with the same first two letters that just comes into your mind when yeah like sort of. Yes. And the first part of it was they were the guys trying to abbreviate the states and they immediately come into trouble after her the first state.
S9: They started off. They thought I was gonna be easy because Alabama led them into a false sense of security. They said in. Alabama Oh holy crap this is easy. We’re gonna finish before they stop serving breakfast in the hotel restaurant.
S14: And then in the basket. And then there was nothing there was nothing. And every once in a while I’d pull it out of the off the shelf and and rework it and add a line but I could never find an ending or structure to that joke. And then maybe 18 years later all of the sudden documentaries were about small things. These.
S11: They were only about Hitler forever and then all of a sudden I saw this documentary about Helvetica.
S14: And I wrote a joke about the documentary about Helvetica.
S15: Here’s Gary’s first rule for how to be funny. Focus on the small things. Novices like me we tend to look for these big exaggerated topics to joke about but the funniest stuff often comes from the most mundane parts of life.
S14: One night I said What if I did this thing that never works that never works. The abbreviation thing.
S16: What if I try this and tell the people it was it was a documentary in in-between the first time I got onstage and that night I had learned an important thing in comedy which is it’s OK to lie.
S17: It’s okay to lie. You can lie about anything as long as it helps the joke. There’s something called artistic license which I had never understood and had never heard of it applied to as jokes.
S14: And that changed everything. And so I said I’m going to lie and tell them this is a documentary. Thinking that part of the funny would be them figuring out that this isn’t real right. But I still get emails and tweets hey we’re in that documentary about the abbreviation.
S9: And then one guy said Oh I hope they have an omelet station just just for context the omelet station had just been invented. And then you go into this learning story about the omelet chef and this other guy said you know what I’m not. I’m not comfortable with the omelet station because I feel like the omelet chef resents you. Like you don’t want to be the omelet chef nobody he dreams of being omelet chef. You want to be the chef chef now instead of instead of giving the orders he’s taking the orders from your stupid wife and your ugly kids. I think one day he’s gonna snap and I don’t want to be there when it happens. And then the boss said Guys I hate to be a nudge but we get back to abbreviated the states. We still have forty nine left. And apologies were made and understanding was reached and they got back to abbreviated and they said what’s next they said Alaska everybody call where they are.
S8: But somebody caught it.
S11: You have to make people forget that Alabama was a l and then remind them that Alabama was a. But the interesting thing about the joke in between that is that it was from 20 notebooks prior to that I could never make a joke about the the disgruntled hostile omelet chef I had on vacation one time that I totally I totally identified with and totally got it why she is so miserable and to the point where I loved omelets and I wouldn’t go to the omelet chef because she was so surly.
S15: The next rule is once you have a mundane idea push it to an extreme and then get it in front of an audience as fast as you can to see if it’s actually funny.
S14: I always tell comedians at every level don’t spend two hours writing this joke that you’ve never tried out on on stage before. Write down two or three sentences that you have confidence that you think may get a laugh tonight.
S11: Oh that’s interest. And then if that premise works then then I’m off to the races.
S9: So what’s next. Arizona. There we go. We’re back on track next. Arkansas. We’ll come back to it’s not going to happen again. What’s next. California. There we go. Next Colorado CEO momentum. Connecticut.
S11: We are screwed because it’s so hard to get a new joke to work. It’s the hardest thing in standup comedy. It literally drove me mad for years. That’s interesting yeah I think it really contributed to my to my eventual hospitalization for. I’m not exact. I was in the hospital for depression or anxiety. And part of it was writer’s block. Absolutely yeah. I mean there are chemicals involved as well but I know that part of the part of the thing when I was going through that was just despair over not being able to. It was it was almost right after that abbreviations joke to which may have been coincidence but it was also like I’m never going to write another good joke. It took me 20 years to write that one. That’s fascinating that I went crazy because you felt like that joke was so good or because no because I also thought it was really really flawed. And I also felt that I had that I had blown it. And I cringe when I watch it. So that that that really bummed me out. It was the best joke I had. I kind of choked I felt and how am I going to come up with a with another one. People said How are you going to breathe you will not not use a single out. And he said Watch me.
S8: Are you saying I won’t be able to do it. I just did.
S10: Thank you very much. So Gary’s actually been kind of tough on himself here because people love this joke. In fact they adore it. It’s all over the Internet. But let’s say let’s say he did blow it. That actually leads us to another rule if you try a joke and it bombs. That’s totally ok. In fact that could be great.
S16: I’ll never forget from my bar mitzvah my mom took me to see Johnny Carson and he stumbled through a joke. He made fun of it in the moment and then at the commercial break he talked about it again and it humanized him. And just by acknowledging the fact that a joke bombed you can get a laugh and you can make everybody really really comfortable with you. Bye bye. Taking a moment to say Wow that that sounded much better in my head or whatever it is that you want to want to say and it’s a it’s an honest moment and it’s so endearing.
S15: OK here’s the next rule be self-deprecating and honest. And finally Gary says find an easy crowd like a wedding or some other kind of ceremony.
S1: I killed at my father’s funeral really. And then the rabbi went on after me and tried to tried to do some time and I said I said Rabbi you never want to follow the headline. And that got another laugh. I mean I I. I destroyed at my father’s funeral. And we had it.
S18: I mean it was it was a nice tribute and everything like that. But it was. I always say a funeral. I mean you can really there’s so much tension. So the number one rule I’m hearing you say is friends funerals to try and practice practice or stay above.
S19: So we don’t have a rabbi. But as I mentioned we do have a pastor. When we come back. We’ll find out what happens when Jesus Pastor Aaron and a Jewish comedian walk into a studio.
S20: Hello. Hey Aaron Charles do here. How are you. I’m doing well sir. How are you.
S12: I’m good. I’m good so I’m here with that with Gary Goldman. Gary and I called Pastor Aaron Kirkpatrick to see if we could help him figure out how to inject more humor into his weekly sermons. OK so so tell me about a time when when you tried to be funny and it just it did not work.
S6: You know I do my best to ban those jokes from my mind sometimes that’s because maybe it’s a cultural reference that my 50 60 70 year old members might not get.
S21: You know I’ve learned to try to reference the Beach Boys more and Justin Bieber less.
S6: I want to get a laugh from them but I will have those kind of jokes out off the cuff because they just come to me in the moment and those are the ones most likely to fall flat.
S20: And I will I want to work through with you like a particular joke. But before I do let me just ask one other thing. It’s interesting to me that you reached out to us right you’re a pastor. Why why do you feel like you need to be funny.
S21: So I think that there’s a there’s a couple of different reasons. I heard somebody say a couple of years ago that in a in a post religious culture that comedians are our profits and our preachers. And so I think people go to to listen to comedians now for a lot of the reasons that maybe they went to church before right to help us to look ugly things and scary things in the face and then give us hope. Give us a story that’s bigger than that. I also think that the comedy is a bit of a Trojan horse. And so if you can make people laugh it gives us all a moment just on a neurological level where we all kind of relax. It’s like our guard goes down a little bit. And to me that’s extremely powerful because if if we’re not changing what we do if we’re not open to considering a life change then to me or what’s the point.
S20: That’s interesting. Yeah. So let’s let’s workshop really quickly. I imagine you have a sermon coming up. I do. So tell me tell me the joke that you’re working on right now. Like like what. What’s in what’s in your head. Let’s let’s work through a joke with Gary and see if we can’t make it funnier.
S21: OK. So here’s what I’m working on right now. There’s a story in The New Testament about this guy named that kiss and Zach kiss is a tax collector who is someone who is absolutely hated at the time right and talking about this guy and he has this interaction with Jesus and that kiss is described as someone who’s very small. He’s very short. Everything about your life says we should judge you from the outside until he meets with Jesus and then everything changes in the way that he lives his life. And so he tell a story where people are supposed to laugh at this guy and then you go oh no this is the guy you’re supposed to learn from like that’s a wonderful comedic trick. At the same time I don’t want to tell this story in a way that causes people to laugh at all the things that would be inappropriate for us to laugh at. Does that make sense.
S22: Yes. Yes I think your instincts are right as I think about it. I’m thinking there probably children in your audience and the last thing you want them to think is that it’s OK to make fun of people with dwarfism. But the. As a comedian the things I kept thinking of were being tall and in I don’t know the timing that I want to say if Jesus referred to it as 31 in the year of me that I think that would get a laugh or just tall was probably 5 7. These are very short people so. So you could say something to the effect that Jesus was an extraordinarily tall man of that age. He was he was 5 9 or something like that. I think that might get a get a laugh.
S15: The thing Gary says about Jesus his height. That’s a total lie. Gary doesn’t know how tall Jesus is. Nobody knows. But the light is funny right.
S23: The rule works the biblical text is actually amazing at the way that they peppered these stories with these you know both interesting and funny little facts.
S6: Yes a model someone trying to communicate a timeless message you know millennia later.
S21: If I’m trying to create not not a story that’s funny but I can joke like you’re you know in the year of me kind of joke which is hilarious. Is is there a way of thinking that helps you get there.
S22: Is there a type of thinking that helps you get there. That’s a good question. One of the lenses I use to look at the world is through that of a six or seven or eight year old but with the words and the vocabulary and and the insight and an awareness of irony of of an adult I think you can find a lot of humor in that it works for me like gangbusters. That’s awesome. The other thing I was going to suggest was that there are things in your church that you walk by every day and nobody commented on. But if you were to comment on them they would get a laugh. Just some observational humor.
S24: Remember focus on the small things and then push them too extreme. I don’t know if you have a better parking spot than parishioners but even acknowledging that could be it could be very funny. And if that was secretly that was the only reason you wanted this position was to have the parking space because you were you were sick of walking and and yeah I mean I if you ever want to hire me as a as a writer and then the next rule get in front of an audience.
S22: When I gave a eulogy at my father’s funeral I told stories very specific family. My father would start every story with Stop me if you’ve heard this one before because he was he was 89 years old. We’ve heard every story but he would start every single one stop me. You’ve heard and we never will because we love the stories. And so I started my my eulogy with Stop me if you’ve heard this one before and my brothers who up until that day we had been estranged for years I didn’t add this part. We hadn’t talked in in years but I wanted to speak at my father’s funeral and I opened with that and they laughed and it I think it was Victor Borger who said the shortest distance between two people is laughter and and it thawed a an icy estrangement very very quickly.
S4: Well I was going to say here’s kind of where I think there’s a joke here. Kind of doing your your method of you know stepping out of your own shoes and finding the fun of the joke from someone else’s perspective. You know I have a couple of my kids in the audience and I think that the idea of explaining what a tax collector is to a child who has no idea of what taxes are right is potentially really funny.
S6: Yes I think there’s a joke there. How do I get to it. How would you do.
S25: The thing I think of is is the idea that it would be so painful if instead of them just taking it out of your check which is the case and in most people’s lives they take it out of your check.
S24: If somebody knocked at your door and asked for a third of your bags of money or however you’re keeping your your money or whatever your money is back then whatever the bartering terms I used to have this joke about how my old my father was the teacher asked me to go home and ask who was present when he was your age and what was the price of bread. I said the president was Julius Caesar. And the price of bread was a chicken. And so that I think that would would get a great laugh.
S22: And this is the next phase of learning how to write jokes certain words are funny. Chicken is funnier than had the price of bread was a hen isn’t as funny as the price of bread was a chicken. Chicken is a funny word because it has a close sound and I know this sounds crazy but there are words that start with bar pub or car and they are funnier and I nobody can explain why there is another rule. There’s a lot of rules it turns out that is like the secret that you should get the first day of comedy colleges that bar per car cupcake. Kit Kat is is funnier on here.
S20: So so the title of this episode is how to be funny. Yes. What’s the one piece of advice you would give Aaron or someone tuning in on how to be funny.
S25: I think the answer is if you’ve had to boil down all my years of comedy is what would I laugh at.
S22: What what. Somebody said it be the comedian that you would want to see so be the be the be the pastor you would you would want to see Aaron and the other thing is to is to to follow your obsessions. I you’re obsessed with the New Testament and you’re going to find a lot of interesting ironic funny things in there. And trust these things that you find ironic or or funny and and try them out so they don’t laugh. It’s not the end of the world. You’ll survive. Give yourself permission to fail next. Next to my bed I have this quote by Beckett which says I ever tried ever failed no matter try again fail again fail better so fail better you’re going to have a new on hand starts to weaken and you can try again. And actually this is probably the most important rule of how to be funny. You should try to entertain yourself to tell jokes that you would laugh at.
S26: And then to allow yourself to be terrible again and again and again until you finally get better. Because the thing is. Gary’s rules about being funny they are all the rules about how to be. There just what worked for him but they work because they’re about his obsessions and his memories and most of all because they guide him to jokes that he thinks are entertaining.
S27: Accomplishments super helpful to me Gary and I really really appreciate your time.
S28: It was a pleasure because you’re you’re a thoughtful nice man who who respects comedy and loves it so. So it’s it’s a pleasure to talk to you.
S27: If you ever come to the Oklahoma area. Yeah I mean I look at my show life I would never do that.
S29: So let me just ask one of the question. You know you contacted us to ask him how you can be funny. Did we tell you how to be funny.
S27: We’ll find out on Sunday. I guess so.
S30: No feedback. Good. Grab your Bible and open to the book of Luke Chapter 19. So kicks it says two things about him that we really need to know. Number one Zach he is was and we used to sing in the song was Zach he is was a. A wee little man which I always envision like all of the lucky charms guy. He was Irish. But that kiss was very very short. Right. And when the Bible says that kiss was very short you have to realize this is at a time when the average Jewish man was 5 5. So when says that he is a short like to me everybody was short. Right. If they offered me a time machine to go back to the Judah to the Jewish time and place here I wouldn’t do it because their store is in the old testament of what they do to people like me. Right involves a sling in Iraq. I’m not going because I’m too tall.
S26: Everybody there was short. You know. It’s it’s a start date.
S18: Remember ever tried ever failed no matter try again fail again fail better.
S19: Our thanks to Pastor Aaron Kirkpatrick and comedian Gary Coleman. And by the way Gary actually did perform in Oklahoma earlier this summer. If you go to his Web site Gary Goleman dot com you can see all of his tour dates and please look for his new HBO comedy special. The Great Depression coming in October. Finally do you have a question about how to do something. Anything. We’re here to help. Drop us a note at how to at Slate dot com and we might have you on the show and hopefully help you figure things out. And if you like what you heard today please tell a friend and give us a rating and a review and APA podcast. It helps other people find the show. Thanks. How tos executive producer is Derek John Merritt. Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannah’s Brown June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcast and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Special thanks to Asha soldier Katie Rayford T.J. Rafael Maggie Taylor and Julia Turner.
S31: I’m Charles du Haig. Thanks for listening.