Written by: Mark Talaga
Here are some movie parody ideas I came up with: Apocalypse Now That’s What I call Music, Ben Thur: Done That, Schindler’s List of 10 Ways to Impress Your Man, Shaun White and the Seven Dwarfs, and a reimagining of the movie Up where it’s just the first 20 minutes and it’s called Down.
With my career as a counselor for kids, I am presented with an interesting struggle. How do I balance my work, which at times can be somber and heavy, with my love for comedy? How can I be taken seriously as a counselor when I put up ridiculous videos, craft juvenile jokes, and share my predilection for the absurd? In the past, the balancing of these identities had me hiding parts of myself from the people I encountered.
For many comedians, it can feel like it’s all or nothing. There may be messaging that exists among friends, family and society that tell you, “There is a right and a wrong way to be a comedian”. You can’t be a pastor and a stand-up comic. You’re not allowed to run a company and be a complete goofball. How are you expected to be on the honor roll when you’re the class clown?
Even if you are a full-time comic, humor can be a double-edged sword. If you’re not able to flip your switch to the off position, you may find yourself having difficulty with family, relationships, or even pushing past plateaus in your career.
My hope is this article will speak to everyone.
I have the extreme fortune to be working with an expert in the field of identity and talent development, Andy Mahoney. In the spirit of transparency, I feel I should inform you that he is, in fact, my boss. Those of you leaving negative comments on this article risk having me fired. Know the toll, before you troll.
Andy is a very interesting guy. The best way I’ve found to describe him to people is to use the example of Michael Scott from The Office. Michael Scott is an acquired taste and it doesn’t take people long to start to picking out and labeling his flaws and shortcomings. But fans of the show know the flipside. The dude can sell.
Andy is similar in that when he is working with a client it can blow your hair back. I’ve caught myself watching him work with a severely dysfunctional family while my jaw was wide open because of how seamlessly he was able to contain their craziness all while having them tearfully work towards reconciliation. This all happened in the span of 50 minutes.
It took me quite a while to “get” Andy. Here is a man who grew up an artistic prodigy, suffered with learning disabilities, and tells everyone that underneath his surface, he’s really a rich, gay horse farmer. Who says that to people? Andy does.
Through nearly 35 years of work, he has mastered the process of transforming lives through identities that fit who people really are. He has even created a software version of his identity formation process (aptly named The Fit) which he utilizes in his work. His entire purpose in life is to slog through the resistance, defensiveness, abuse, and fear that his clients project in order to free people up to live as they truly are.
He did it for me and I’m here to pass the savings on to you!
Creating positive change and living through identities that express who you really are is a goal for everyone, however, I have asked Andy to concentrate his focus on comedy and his work with comedians. This is a comedy blog after all. I mean, how dare this blog pretend to be something that it’s not. I digress.
When asked about his relationship with comedy, Andy recalls something that relates to many of us: laughing with his family.
“I was in high school and came home one night and, for some reason, my siblings and my father, who is a very incredibly funny human being, got into telling these simple, low-level jokes. I couldn’t tell you a single joke that was told, but I remember that night. It was so crazy funny. My family was literally lying on the floor bawling and screaming with laughter.”
He goes on to explain how comedy provides ultimately what a family needs and what people need. Comedy for Andy’s family, and for many others, was a connective tissue that forged an incredibly tight bond among its members. When faced with hardships as a family or as an individual, comedy, more often than not, is a restorative space in which to regain your emotional footing.
While not a professional comedian himself, Andy’s work keeps him connected to those early moments in his life when laughter was so crucial.
“What’s fascinating is I live my life vicariously through helping other people develop their talent. So I’ve had the fortune of being able to help write comedy and help develop comedian’s lives and their work. In that sense I feel like I’ve satiated that part of me, ya know, by whoring out other people (laughs).”
For the careful reader, you may be able to see how important that statement is. There is no need to have to commit to a career as a comedian in order to have it integrated into your life. More on that in a bit.
He says, “Anybody can be a comedian; anybody can learn how to express themselves. Every human being needs to be somewhat of a comic or else why live?”
However, Andy’s work doesn’t focus solely on helping people find a way to keep comedy in their life. He works with actual comedians; people of note who have made full blown careers out of their ability to tap into their funniness. Andy has a message for them as well.
“One of the best things you can do as a comedian is to write everything down.”
Andy loves using the example of Phyllis Diller in his work with comedians.
If you’re unfamiliar with the wild-haired, grande dame of comedy, Phyllis Diller was a relentless joke teller who barely gave you time to breathe between acerbic witticisms before nailing you with another one-liner.
Andy recalled one key component to her success. “She had a 3×5 card system and any time she ever got an idea she would write it on that card.” He says even if you are on the toilet write it down. “So if she got an idea for a dental joke onto that card it would go. Then she would file it into the section marked “Dental Jokes”. That way if the Dental Association of America called her up, she’d go over to her files, pull out those cards, review them, and she was on her way ready to perform.”
In fact, Diller had over 50,000 cards filed away. All with original jokes.
That method may seem overkill to some, but it was Diller’s way of being able to activate her funniness at a moment’s notice. Her brain had organized her jokes is such a way that no matter what situation she found herself in, Diller could get you rolling.
Andy continues, “But [comedians] have to be willing to process info effectively in an organized manner. Now I’m giving away the gold here. Usually I charge for this information so maybe someone will send me a check (laughs). You have to be able to organize your experiences in life so you can tap into them later.
For the improvisers out there who don’t rely on canned jokes, but rather on creating characters, experiences, and premises, this info may seem like it doesn’t fit. Andy also has ways to help improvisers sharpen their craft.
“Experience your experiences. Re-experience them the minute you learn it. If something funny happens at the grocery store go over to the hair stylist that day and recreate it with them. Reinforce it in a way that it becomes immediately a part of your repertoire, so you can access that when you need it.”
How often do we notice something funny that happens in our life, light up inside because we are hit with the gravity of why that particular scenario was so funny, and then do nothing with it? Andy believes that developing your identity as a comedian takes intentionality. In the same way a stand-up comic will go through hundreds of open mics to prepare for their big break, you can process and reprocess your life in a way where you highlight what is funny and store it away for future use.
This concept is obviously not restricted to standups, improvisers, podcasters, sketch writers, or anyone else that works in the medium of comedy. You do not need permission to sharpen your wit or to bring focus to your funny side.
“Look at William Hung. He was shit, but people loved him and he did it. He was himself and he sang. He didn’t let someone else determine if he was a singer, he determined it.”
By the way, Hung has created a net worth of $1.5 million out of his ability to be terrible at something. Taking a huge risk without seeking prior permission or validation can truly pay off. Sometimes that risk is about exploring something on stage you’ve never tried before.
“A cartoonist takes signature aspects of your persona and they highlight them. A lot of comedians don’t see their own aspects or they are closed to only looking at certain parts of themselves. That’s part of my job.”
Andy recalls a time when he was working with a client (we’ll call him John) who was performing at Carolines in New York City. He told John to tap into his talent with his voice work. John was hesitant to utilize his ability to do voice impressions since that had never before been a part of his act.
However, before John took the stage, he noticed that night it was a small crowd and mostly Australian tourists. Remembering what Andy told him, he went on stage and performed his act using a perfect Australian accent. The Aussies believed John to be one of their own he then baited them into his act and then without warning he flipped out of the accent and they went wild.
“[John] was connecting to people using an aspect of himself that he previously didn’t own. He never validated that part of his talent for himself. That experience shifted everything for him. He was able to integrate more of who he was and make a bigger change in his career.”
With a greater understanding of what it takes on a personal level to integrate and improve in your identity as a comedian, one thing should not be forgotten. It is important to broaden your horizon as an audience member.
I told you before that it took me awhile to “get” Andy and his sense of humor (which I liken to telling dad jokes on vaudeville). One thing that helped was looking at the influences which drew him to comedy in the first place. When I really started to understand the sometimes campy, yet always lightning fast Phyllis Diller or the wholesome charm and self-deprecation of Minnie Pearl, I was able to piece something together. I understand better what Andy pulls from when he is having fun with you. I see the light of his humor and where it comes from.
Standup comedian Pete Holmes (from HBO’s Crashing) talks about the idea of hitting it back. When someone is clearly trying to have fun with you and wants to joke around, hit it back. Leave your judgment for useful events like your friend’s comedy blog.
Andy believes the same thing. We can become more interconnected through developing our tastes. Broaden your reach to untapped markets of funny and consume humor in an entirely new way. Don’t be the person who goes to an all-you-can-eat buffet and only fills their plate with cottage cheese. That’s criteria for being a sociopath. Reach for the wontons. Make yourself a suicide at the soda fountain. Go ahead and really push the boundaries and sit next to a complete stranger and ask if they’re going to finish that. Explore options and even if they’re not your favorites, try to appreciate what makes those dishes good.
When it comes to making this world a funnier place, there’s something for everyone.
If comedy is your career, perhaps you want to hone your craft and push yourself through the ceiling. If comedy is simply an interest, maybe you can learn how to integrate your specific brand of humor into all aspects of your life. If comedy is a faint spark that glimmers in the back of your brain, maybe start bringing it to the forefront. If you have no interest at all, why are you reading a comedy blog?