Book review: Teach Yourself Stand-up comedy by Logan Murray

Teach Yourself Stand-up Comedy

Yesterday I read Teach Yourself Stand-up comedy by Logan Murray. I took lots of notes which I have written-up as a book review in the style of Trent from The Simple Dollar. What follows is a brief summary of each chapter including my interpretation of the main points.

In a nutshell: Teach yourself stand-up comedy is a guide to going from complete beginner to writing and performing stand-up comedy.

“Stand-up is a very naked medium: it’s just you and the audience” – Logan Murray

1. Where do jokes come from

Murray begins by suggesting a series of games designed to boost your creativity. This is a theme throughout the book, solo and group exercises are suggested to reinforce the content of most chapters. The game “Timeless classics” involves rewriting the first paragraph of a classic book and giving the main character an obsession with something minor.

A basic joke structure is described: something is implied during the setup, then a surprise is revealed in the punchline. Murray states that “Any idiot can tell a joke” but it is the teller’s attitude towards the subject that makes it funny. An interesting world-view or emotion reaction leads to more potent humor. He cites Jack Dee’s misanthropic stage persona as an example of an effective attitude.

2. Building a joke

Murray lists some of the common themes that under-pin jokes. These included: extreme or inappropriate reactions, misunderstandings, delving into the bizarre logic of every-day situations.

Most modern jokes are structured as a statement followed by an “afterthought”. The afterthought is a punchline that alters the context of the statement. The delivery of an afterthought should give the impression that the comedian is improvising, that the thought occurred after making a serious statement.

3. Comedy Ground Rules

In this chapter we are presented with several rules to follow when writing and performing. Here are my favorite two:

Be specific. It’s hard to write a joke when staring at a blank sheet of A4. Drilling down into the subjects you want to write about, making them more specific, will make it easier to write jokes.

Be concise. If a word doesn’t add, it detracts.

4. What sort of comic are you

In this chapter we are introduced to the different kinds of persona comedians use. The Loser, who we laugh at not with. The perpetually bewildered Buffoon. The Smart Arse know it all. The Confrontationalist who attacks anything they think is stupid. The Genial nice person the most popular persona. The non-smiling Deadpan. The Messiah, who sets themselves up as judge and jury of everything that is wrong in the world. The Outsider, looking in at western society. Most comics fall into one or a combination of these classifications.

5. Unlocking your creativity

Our best ideas appear when we are relaxed and playful. This chapter includes thirteen more games to play individually or in a group that will help you reach a creative state.

6. A word about emotional exaggeration

Most peoples emotions have been normalised by the nine-’till-five daily grind, so most people find it difficult to exaggerate their responses. But exaggeration enhances the attitude of the comedian, and get bigger laughs.

7. Creating Material

Murray suggests several exercises for creating writing jokes. The first step is writing long lists of responses to specific questions, such as what are you thankful for, or what do you hate (amongst many more). The next step is to add a negative afterthought to each response. This will result in a collection of almost-formed-jokes, which must be expanded, pruned and edited.

A list of basic joke forms is included:

Rule of three – 1. Introduce 2. Reinforce 3. Subvert.

Reversal – Change the direction of the story with a surprising reveal.

Big, big, small – Comparing two big or profound things with a small or mundane thing.

Rant – A sustained emotional tirade.

Logical illogical conclusion – Extend the logic of an argument to an absurd conclusion e.g. an advertising slogan.

Misunderstanding – of a question or instruction.

8. Stagecraft

This chapter contains some good public speaking advice about how to conduct yourself on stage and how to deal with stage fright. It is made very clear that you shouldn’t rush through your set, instead speak slowly and clearly leaving plenty of time for the audience to laugh.

9. Microphone technique

Murray discusses how to use a microphone effectively.  The optimal position for the microphone is 5-6 inches away from your face, slightly below your mouth. Being too close or too far away from it will mean your voice isn’t picked up clearly. If you take it out of the stand you should return it at the end of your set.

10. Hecklers and crowd control

Heckling is rare. Most audience members would prefer not to draw attention to themselves. You can prepare yourself for heckles. Arriving on time and watching the other acts will give you a feel for the audience and let you know where the problem areas are. Having a few stock responses can be helpful. However, some of the best advice about dealing with hecklers appeared in the next chapter.

11. What other comics think

In this chapter is a series of interviews with other British comedians. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“If they [Hecklers] are funny, acknowledge it” – Milton Jones

“There’s no map. You have to find your own way. There’s very little control.” – Sarah Kendal

“Do what you think is funny and ignore any advice anyone gives you.” – Marek Larwood

“Try not to burst into tears – it may show weakness” – Robin Ince

12. Business

Here we are given a walk through of the kind of shows that are available to a stand-up comic including open spots all the way through to taking your show to the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. This was an interesting look at how to deal with promoters and club owners. The main piece of advice was “be polite”.

13. Your first gig

This chapter explains how to prepare and what to expect when delivering your fist ever set. The advice very common sense: rehearse, turn up in good time etc. This would provide a helpful structure to a nervous first time comic.

Is Teach Yourself Stand-up comedy worth reading?

If you are interested in performing stand-up comedy, or just adding more humor to your speeches I would recommend this book. Logan Murray is a voice of experience who can help you avoid rookie errors and give structure to the difficult process of writing jokes.

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  1. Freddie Daniells
    Posted August 25, 2009 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    excellent review – hadn’t come across this book before though was aware of the Amused Moose course that he runs. Will definitely add to my Amazon list. Cheers. (and good job last night!)

  2. leighton smith
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    thanks so much for the information, i am a comedian in jamaica. i want to go all the way with comedy, please continue to send info so i can grow in what i love best comedy.

    thanks a million
    l smith

  3. Andrew
    Posted February 20, 2010 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    @leighton smith,

    Glad you enjoyed this review. I got a lot out of this book and I often recommend it to others.

  4. Posted July 2, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Luckily, I had almost stopped stage apprehension some time ago. My favorite way to reduce the fear is this one: Ask others who care about you to join the audience, or get them to be an audience for one or more exercise sessions. Their support will help let go of the stress of stage fright. For more tips on stage fright check out my website

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