I’m a sucker when it comes to scouring the internet and bookstores for how-to books on humor tips.
One thing that I came across is a notebook compiled by the late John Cantu. He made a study of observing stand-up comics in San Francisco, and became part of the comic culture. He was both a practitioner and a coach. He is survived by his humor guide, and I’m going to dip into it, from time to time, to offer some suggestions straight from Cantu.
I’m midway through “Cantu’s Comedy Wit & Humor Wisdom,” and I have read enough to recommend the PDF book by the late John Cantu. You can sample portions of it and buy it through www.humormall.com. As of this review, it’s about $30.
The premise of this book is that humor is a skill that can be learned. Cantu talks about how he found his way into the world of stand-up comedy. Cantu says that he was able to watch great comedians, such as Robin Williams, develop and grow. Cantu himself started as a gag writer, coming up with one-liners for his own cartoons and then selling his ideas to others. He realized the potential for income, but struggled to generate material. Finally, he hit upon techniques that he discusses in his book and that will be summarized here.
The early portions of this book detail his background, offer encouragement, and discuss some basic suggestions on how best to handle a microphone. He notes that many audiences “write-off” performers as amateurs if they can’t correctly handle a mic. The basic tip is to remove it from the stand as you walk on, hold it a consistent distance from your mouth so as to avoid overdriving the mic or having the volume drop off at a crucial time, and then replacing it on the stand just prior to exiting the stage. This is standard advice. I got the same tips when I studied stand-up comedy under the late-and-legendary Mike Price of Reno.<The book is a collection of ezine articles, and as such meanders a bit and can be somewhat repetitive. Still, I think it has solid advice. What Cantu did is something I discovered a while back. He began to read the funny pages and look for the elements of comedy that made each one work. This technique can also be applied to other comedy forms, and it is the underlying goal-method-and philosophy of this blog.
I’ll be going over many of these techniques as I finish up the book, but for now some of the most obvious ones are, reversals, exaggeration and understatement. Like most people who write about comedy, Cantu offers a definition. His centers on surprise. I had a comedy writing class years ago at UCLA with John Vorhaus, and he defined comedy as truth plus pain…. plus distance. We laugh at the truth, especially when it has bite. But there must be enough distance to allow us to re-experience the moment without grief. The above three generalizations, reversal, exaggeration and understatement, are not particularly new or revealing ideas, but they are foundational and need to be set forth by anyone who really wants to talk about comedy. What Cantu does particularly well is to cover ideas I have NOT seen treated elsewhere. He notes that the age of an audience is a huge factor in picking the correct joke, and if the age is mixed, then the jokes must have topical punchlines for the 50-and-up set, the 30-40 somethings, and the 20-year olds. Audiences younger than 20 not only don’t typically wander into bars, Cantu notes, but they also change so fast that it’s hard to craft a stable routine based on them.
Cantu also notes that, when talking about wordplay, it’s important to remember the difference between speaking, writing, and reading vocabularies. We speak with a vocabulary of “everyday” words that don’t include words we might use when writing or even understand well when reading. Keep it simple. He also suggests making punchlines personal “I saw this guy…” and local-name nearby towns, sports teams and so on.
That’s all I’ll cover on Cantu at the moment. I’ll be pulling other volumes out of my library and reviewing them here. I do this partly to refresh my memory, and partly because I sometimes want a set of notes, but will donate a book out to my local library. So, I’m trying to live within a small space when I tend to be a book pack rat. I also have a collection of comedy material through the ages, and I will be celebrating obscure authors I have come across in my travels.
So, check in from time-to-time. Helpful comments, tips, or suggestions of items to review are all welcome.
Until we laugh again,