This is a guest post from Connected Comedian David Gavri, a Chicago comic and comedy writer who also publishes interviews with comedians on his Gonzo Fame website. If you’d like to contribute a guest post to Connected Comedy, please email me.
A founding member of the comedy troupe Kids In The Hall, Dave Foley has had a long and successful career as a standup comedian, actor, and writer. He recently appeared at a Q&A held at Second City in Chicago where he was interviewed by Katie Rich and shared the following advice for comedians about the challenges of writing and creating comedy.
1. Sometimes The Best Ideas Come When You’re NOT Writing
When it came to writing sketches with Kids In The Hall, Foley explained that typically the group’s most successful ideas came when they weren’t actually trying to write at all, but rather when they were just hanging out together.
“The best ideas come when you’re NOT writing,” he said. “We spent an awful lot of time watching MTV videos and saying stupid things at the TV. And that would end up giving us a great idea for an episode.”
Unfortunately, that process can be hard to quantify as work. “You’re sitting around a computer or you’re sitting around your writing meetings, yet NOTHING comes out of it,” he said. “And all of a sudden at 2 am you fart on a guy’s face and you’re like, ‘That’s hilarious!'”
2. You Have To Develop Instincts To Understand When Something’s Good
Regardless of whether you’re writing standup or sketches, Foley stressed the importance of putting in time and effort in order to get to a point where you develop instincts to understand whether something you’ve created is good or not.
“I know when something’s good…but I’ve honed the craft of it over the years to where I’m more consistent in how I develop things,” Foley said. “Just doing it so many years, it’s like there’s an audience in your head that’s an amalgam of every audience you’ve ever played in front of – and you can just feel it.”
That’s why Foley believes improv and performing is such an important tool for writers.
“Writers who have NEVER performed are missing that tool. And they’re missing that ear, that ability to hear an audience react to things in their head. And a lot of times with sitcoms, you’re dealing with writers who have never been performers so they’ll write a line that on the page seems wonderfully funny, but when you say it out loud you realize that it not only isn’t funny, but it doesn’t even make sense.”
3. Focus On “Tight Writing”
Despite the comedy world’s current love affair with improv, Foley says Kids In The Hall never improvised anything and instead focused writing as tightly as possible.
“We would get together and basically shout out ideas to each other very quickly,” he said. “We would write and hone the sketch from a writing standpoint – we never had an idea and just improvised it. Writing for a TV show, we focused on tight writing.”
This was also motivated by the demands of the medium.
“If you wrote something that was 3 minutes or under, it was MUCH easier to get in the show. If it was 5 minutes, you had to fight,” he said. “If it was over 5 minutes, you would almost never get it in. So the focus was always to be tight.”
4. Be Willing To Throw Jokes Away
One of the toughest things for all creators is to be willing to “kill your babies,” the process of throwing away material that you may like but may not be quite working for whatever reason. Here’s how Foley handles that:
“I’m not at all precious about anything,” he said. “You pitch a joke and if no one likes it, who cares? It’s something where I go, ‘Alright, I’ve written 1,000 jokes and I will write 1,000 more jokes.’ If you’re funny, it doesn’t matter.”
He continues, “Everything is disposable. And in a scene, you can have a joke that you absolutely LOVE, but if it’s hurting the flow of the scene you have to cut it. You just have to cut great jokes. You have to throw great jokes away if they don’t make the scene better. So you have to just…not love anything.”
5. Overcome Writer’s Block By Distracting Yourself
Despite his success, Foley admits that the act of writing can be more than a little frustrating for him.
“Writing is just the shittiest thing on Earth to spend your time doing, it’s just horrible,” he said. “I don’t understand people who ENJOY writing. I think you have to be some sort of egomaniac to enjoy writing…to just sit back and find your own thoughts interesting.”
But to combat the writing struggle, Foley suggests you find ways to distract yourself.
“Distraction is a great tool,” he said. ” Brain studies have shown that you get moments of insight when you are distracted from the problem you are trying to solve. And it’s good to give yourself that opportunity. For Kids In The Hall, when we had ideas that were going nowhere, we would often just leave and go go-karting for a few hours.
“And usually, while we were just hanging out go-karting, we would come with two or three ideas that were actually usable. It’s just that once you take your mind off it, it actually gives your subconscious a chance to come up with some decent ideas.”
6. Every Idea Is New (And Old)
When asked if he thought everything’s already been done before, Foley shared his perspective on the creation of comedy and the connection between what’s new and what’s been done before.
“The infinite variations in any art form is amazing,” he said. “You have the 12-tone scale which is the basis of all music, yet every day somebody writes a new melody with this limited tool of these same 12 tones.”
He went on to explain that everything can be varied, comparing creations to DNA.
“Nothing is entirely original and new, just as every life form has evolved from something earlier,” he said. “Every idea has evolved from something earlier and everything is seeded by things you’ve seen in the past.”
With that in mind, Foley recommends studying what you love to the point that you totally understand it, then throwing it away.
“For me, it was understanding EVERYTHING about what Monty Python does and with Kids In The Hall we just threw it out,” he said. “We literally went as far as we could structurally from Python, because we loved it so much. So just study the people you love and then just throw them away.”
7. Clarity Is Key To Comedy
As somebody who’s had success in standup, TV, and movies, Foley has a unique perspective on what makes comedy work and for him, it all comes down to a clarity of the material.
“It’s all about understanding HOW to deliver a joke,” he said. “A lot of people think that comedy doesn’t have to be sensible, but I think comedy has to be watchable. Comedy has to make sense. People have to understand the thought process behind the joke for it to be funny and they have to know where it goes off the rails and becomes a joke.
“The audience has to understand the logic of the joke and if you can’t convey that logic in a concise way, it’s not going to work. You must understand that the people hearing the joke are not in your head – they don’t know your back story to your joke. Their entire universe exists from what you write down and if you don’t have the information in the joke, no one is going to get it.”
In the end, he explains that comics have to tackle the same challenge no matter what they do. “You have to find a way to get the information out in a way that doesn’t interfere with the joke.”
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