Gary Gulman’s Comedy Tips

Gary Gulman is one of my favorite stand-up comedians.

Gulman kicked off 2019 by announcing he’d post daily comedy tips throughout January, and his tips did not disappoint. In fact, they also encouraged other comedians to weigh in, testify, and tag his advice. Gulman also urged: “If you’re brand new, save these tips and revisit them after your 50th show.”

Whether you’re just starting out in comedy, or have a case of joke writer’s block, this advice is for you. So let’s get to it!

  1. “Record every set. The hard part: Listen to it and transcribe everything you want to say again. It’s sometimes depressing but it gets you to do the hardest part which is to sit down and write. Usually you’ll think of something to add or change. This works for me. As good as you think your memory is you frequently forget key components of your jokes or strong ad-libs. This is especially helpful early on in your career when you’re trying to build time.”
  2. “Write out a favorite joke word for word 1 sentence at a time. After completing each sentence, analyze each word. Why does it work? How do the syllables of the words create rhythm? How do the sentences build to the punchline? What’s the grammar of comedy? You can do 2) at any stage but probably best early on in your career. If it sounds daunting to write out entire jokes you should know that the immortal Hunter S. Thompson transcribed The Great Gatsby word for w-o-r-d.”
  3. “Go through an old notebook/file. You will probably find a premise/sentence/phrase that you forgot. (I found a promising joke in a notebook from 2015 yesterday.) Rewrite your promising idea with the skill you’ve earned since you first wrote it down.”
  4. “Inertia is powerful. It’s hard to start doing something but once you start, inertia will help you keep going. Procrastinating? Open your notebook/laptop. Set a timer to your favorite number between 15 and 19 minutes. WRITE UNTIL THE TIMER GOES OFF. NO CHECKING YOUR PHONE! If you feel like it, and you usually will, keep writing.

5. “Mark Twain said, and I’m paraphrasing, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” You’ve been meaning to do this. Go through your jokes and add some lightning TODAY.”

5a) “Tweet a series of bombastic writing tips so that if you don’t write every single day you’ll feel like a hypocrite and a charlatan.”

5b) “What I’m trying to say is you don’t have to thank me (although if you didn’t I’d be devastated) because I’m getting more out of this than you.”

6. “Words with the sound “buh” “puh” and “kuh” esp. @ the beginning/end are funnier. No1 knows why. “Buick” is funnier than “Nissan”. I learned this early. I assumed everyone knew. They don’t. Take some soft punch-words and replace them with a b/p/k sound.”

7. “Find a comic friend to call/meet and go over jokes/premises/ideas. Play “Is This Funny?” Be honest but gentle & DON’T JUST WAIT UNTIL ITS YOUR TURN! Tell them if you’ve heard similar bits! 2 people is best more is ok. It’s one of the most fun and helpful exercises. Even if your partner just gives you more confidence in a new joke/idea, it is INVALUABLE. A lot of times they will suggest excellent tags (additions to the joke usually but not limited to the punchline) or different angles. It also gives you a safe place to say things out loud. Don’t be like the millionaire standup I heard about who used to run all his ideas and suddenly have to leave when it was his turn to listen and help.” P.S. “For yesterday’s 7) don’t feel like you have to be ALL BUSINESS and write the whole time. The best part of comedy is the friendships. Sometimes you just need someone to whine about club to. But, put a time limit on that too.”

8. “When trying out new jokes you have to be PREPARED. Start with a few proven jokes to make sure the crowd is receptive and so you can get a gauge on the volume of the laughter. Make sure you have a good one loaded to follow the new one in case it dies.” 8a) “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” – Saint John Wooden UCLA Basketball Coach Philosopher Humanitarian. “It’s ok to fail! Fail a lot!!! But don’t fail because you were being lazy.” – Me

8c) 99% of the comedians I love are going over notes before they get on stage. That’s not a coincidence. @iamcolinquinn

9. “Cannibalize your act. Go through your joke inventory and relocate some jokes or pieces of jokes. Add them to jokes that are working to add some density to your act. You just need to take some time to find a connection.”

10. “Get on stage! Writing a joke down is less than 50% of the process. You need to get on stage a ridiculous amount before you figure out how to write for Standup audiences. I chose 5/week (arbitrarily) as my MINIMUM when I began.” 10a) “I used to go when my friend @randyvera would take a break from singing. The audience did not listen to a single word I said. I would often tell a joke three times just to practice the rhythm and figure out how to use a microphone.”

11. “Had a bad set? Go home and write. Had a great set? Go home and write. Bumped by Bob Saget? Go home and write. Few things can offset the feelings of helplessness in show business like engaging in one of the few things over which you have total control.” 11a) “I’m not saying don’t hang out with your friends. You need to limit it though. There will be plenty of time to hang out when you’re full time.”

12. “Read Emerson’s “Self Reliance” NOW! Already read it? READ IT AGAIN. There is gold within. It will be the least popular tip so far but it’s actually the most valuable tip yet. Free copy: …#GulManTip#WriteNow#ReadNow#RIF Donate to Wikipedia to thank me!” P.S. “Some have called it pap. I have found it invaluable.”

14. “Best insight I ever got came two shows in: Nearly all of your work will come from other comedians. Be a good coworker. Don’t run the light. Be original. Be supportive. WRITE A LOT! BE KIND!”

15. “You know that joke you’re sick of telling? Write/type it w/ space in between each sentence. Add some details, change a word or unpack an idea. To me, unless it’s on a Special a joke isn’t done. When the audience is mouthing the words with you it’s done.”

16. “Be the comedian you wanted to see. Think about the things that you wished someone made jokes about when you sat in the audience. Make a list of topics and ideas that you’d be EXCITED to see someone discuss. Become that comedian. You’ve got 30 years.”

17. “You’ve been killing every night. You’re not sure this is still a challenge. For the next few months ask to go on first. It’s a great test of your act. The booker and host will love you for it.”

18. “Read books. Listen to Audio Books. You need a huge inventory of words to write interesting jokes. If you bombard your brain with words it will improve your writing. You’ll also learn new ideas and insights to write about. LOOK UP THE WORDS YOU DON’T KNOW.” 18a) “You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader.” – J.K. Rowling

19. “Use variety in your words. Don’t keep using the same word. If you use a word that is crucial to your punchline you should try not to use it before then because it will diminish the impact. This is where listening to your sets is so helpful.”

20. “Today, try to eliminate those verbal tics. The “and aaaahs” (I Call it Miller-ing) after the flat punchline, the “What else…” when you forget your next bit. The ahms, y’knows and stammers that muddy your rhythm. Again, record and LISTEN to your set! It’s very possible to sound natural without saying ahm y’know and like over and over again. It’s irritating when you’re just in brief conversation with someone. Over an hour long set it’s INFURIATING.”

21. “I could never prove it but I believe that young Jews started walking a bit taller in 1995. I did. That was the year Adam Sandler released The Chanukah Song. Comedy is influential. Comedians are powerful. Just jokes???”

22. “You can learn by watching the other comics on your show. The great ones will teach and inspire and the bad ones’ shortcomings are instructive. You can assess the crowd and note overused premises to avoid. Also you may be able to offer a peer a good idea.”

23. “Timing. Some say it’s “essential” others “useless”.You can get by with lousy timing but you can soar with great timing. It can take thousands of shows to figure it out. EXPERIMENT every show to see what works best. Some day you’ll just feel it.”

24. “There are things you’ve become expert in because of passion. List them and write jokes about them. Writing informed by a vast knowledge in unusual subjects will lead to original compelling jokes. @pattonoswalt is King of this. Today, mine your obsessions.”

25. “There is no shame in working a day job. Take notes. Caddyshack was inspired by writers’ memories of working at a snooty golf club. The insight your experience will bring to a joke/sitcom/screenplay is priceless. Today write about a job.”

26. “Today go through your joke inventory. Write/type it out. Identify or create logical connections between jokes and combine them. It can be easier to hold a crowd’s attention when you stay on topic longer. Have a good show tonight!”

“You will ask me for tips to get on a late night show. I’ve already given you 26. Other than write good jokes I have no insight into how to get your first.”

“27A) You will be designing your set with a Producer. Most of them are excellent and can provide valuable insight. JP at Conan and Jessica at Colbert have been TREMENDOUS. Be polite and professional. Make a case for your preferences but don’t be a pain in the ass. 27B) This seems obvious but practice the set in front of as many crowds as possible, good and bad, until you’re sick of it. Especially if it’s your first time, you want to know it cold. 27C)Video if possible so you can eliminate the physical habits that annoy you. See what you look like on tv so you can adjust to look like you want to. Make changes to tighten the set, squeezing in as many laughs as you can. Just clear changes with the Producer.”

28. “One thing to take the stress out of a TV set or any big show is to ignore the 8 Mile idea that you only get “one shot”. NONSENSE!!! If you’re nice and WRITE you’ll get 60+ shots. It’s an ultra-marathon. B Rabbit got a second shot later that month! PERSIST.”

29. “Feel like “I’m too old. I’ve been doing it so long. I can’t get any better.”? George Carlin said he really figured it out in 1988. He was 51 and at the time he was GEORGE CARLIN!!! Don’t stop pushing yourself. You owe it to your audience and yourself.”

30. “Today, Remove your ear buds for an hour +. Take time to ruminate in your head and toss around ideas. If you can think out jokes while listening to music, I envy you. For a lot of us near silence is best. If you need the distraction for anxiety I get it.”

31 “A) Day of Show: Bring a calming friend who hasn’t appeared on the show you’re doing so you can try to get them on in the future. If you’re a napper plan one that won’t make you groggy at show time. Run your set in your head or out loud many times. Exercise. 31B) It’s still very hard to get a TV Set. Don’t think about what it can lead to. This is a milestone. It doesn’t have to lead anywhere. The kid who watched standups on TV growing up would be blown away by you. Congratulations! 31C) Watch me on Conan @TeamCoco tonight! When I tug on my ear lobe it’s to say hi to Carol Burnett’s grandmother. 31D) If it’s your first time: Ask for your introduction cue cards signed by the host. They’re a fun memento. Frame them with some or all of your appearance fee. My routine @teamcoco is as Conan says my name I turn to the person in charge of the curtain and say “Can you get me out of this?” I listen to Scare Away the Dark by Passenger before I go on and Impossible Dream by Richard Kiley on the ride home.”

Get it? Got it? Good. Now get back to work on your comedy career. Gary has given you some invaluable comedy advice, for free!

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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