Being influenced vs. copying

Hey Dave – I’ve been working on material and continue to search for my comedy voice. Although I want to do some improvising, I want a good amount of material to work off of. Someone said I have a somewhat eccentric and iconoclastic persona and should take advantage of that. Therefore, I’ve thought about using Prof. Irwin Corey and Steven Wright as influences and been writing material similar to theirs, especially since I like it. However, I’m afraid I’m not using them as an influence but just copying them. Is there a thin line between the 2 or just between fishing and standing there doing nothing? – JK

Hey JK – I was lucky to have worked with the late great Prof. Irwin Corey at the NYC Improv and interviewed Steven Wright for a magazine article. I consider both extremely smart and extremely funny. I also know that if I even tried to write like either one, I would be lost and confused. In fact, my brain hurts just thinking about it. But as usual I have a few thoughts about the topic, so instead of standing here doing nothing let’s go fishing for an answer…

“How did you say that?”

Yes – there is a line between being influenced and copying. Ideally it should be a wide one.

As Prof. Corey would have said, “Let me explain…

I often compare comedy to music. I’ve done this frequently in my workshops, books, and in more than a few previous FAQ articles. Basically, you can’t reinvent the wheel. And when it comes to music, someone somewhere had to hum the first tune. In comedy, someone somewhere made someone laugh for the first time. Musicians and comedians have been building on those firsts ever since.

One of my favorite all-time bands is The Rolling Stones. They’ve influenced countless bands for over fifty years and are considered by many to be the greatest rock’n roll band in the world. There are many bands that have copied their formula for success, but there is still only one Rolling Stones and their place in music history is written in… well, stone.

But who influenced them? Rock historians can trace the roots of their sound back to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and many others.

Did they copy? Yeah!

They tried their best by performing a lot of cover songs when they first started out. But it’s not what made them superstars. Mick Jagger found his own voice as a singer and Keith Richards found his voice on the guitar. The duo ended up writing their own material and classic hits based on the type of music they liked and giving it their own spin based on their individual talent and personalities.

Like the Stones, comedians start by emulating what they like.

Keith Richards is not going to play Bach or Beethoven because he likes Chuck Berry. Based on the way you described your humor in today’s email, I doubt you would consider bringing props on stage like Carrot Top or going redneck like Larry The Cable Guy. You like Prof. Irwin Corey and Steven Wright so yes, they are both are going to influence you as a comedian just like Chuck Berry influenced the Stones as musicians.

But the big difference between being a comedian and being a musician, The Rolling Stones can (and often do) play Chuck Berry songs during their concerts. But comedians can’t go on stage and say, “Here’s one from Steven Wright” and do a few of his best jokes.

“How did you play that?”

That’s copying and comedians can’t do that – period. Its called stealing material. There are some that do – and most of us know who the big-name guilty parties are. There’s a total lack of respect for these thieves from other comics and industry people, and a lot of us wonder how they can sleep at night. Must be the drugs, but that’s another article…

Being influenced is not the same as stealing.

Creative artists, (comedians and musicians to only mention two) don’t reinvent the wheel. They can build on what’s already there. Just like in many original Rolling Stones songs you can hear a Chuck Berry riff or Bo Diddley beat in the background, comedians can’t help but be influenced by the type of humor they like.

For example, Carrot Top didn’t invent prop comedy. As little kids many of us can remember holding up two paper plates on the sides of our heads and pretending to be Mickey Mouse. Carrot Top probably did that too, thought it was extremely funny – and built on it.

You as a writer and performer need to do the same, but with your own influences.

I think you understand your style of comedy. It’s similar to Prof. Irwin and Steven Wright, but when it comes to writing and performing it’s important for you to realize you are also very different. There’s no way you would have the exact same experiences or live in the exact same environment (city, neighborhood, families, education, jobs, etc.). You have a different life, different personality, different relationships and different conversations.

You also have your own personal thoughts about all of these experiences.

That’s what you need to put into your writing and performances – your spin. Don’t think about what Prof. Irwin Corey or Steven Wright would say. But respect that you admire what they do, are influenced to perform comedy in the same style, and then say it in your own words. Basically, they are intelligent writers and your writing should also have some intelligence to it.

I remember two comedians I worked with in LA. Sorry, I won’t name-drop this time, but one is now an international movie star and the other is an all-time favorite television character. They both admitted to being HUGE fans of Jerry Lewis. They loved every movie and consider him to be the HUGE influence that got them both into the comedy biz.

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But never in a million years would you see either of them on stage yelling out Lewis’ famous line, “HEY LAAYYYDEEE!” That would be stealing. But I’ve seen both make wild faces and pretend to slip and fall during their stand-up comedy sets similar to what Lewis did in his classic films while talking about their own personal experiences and thoughts.

That’s being influenced. And to take it a step further, Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx were making faces and doing pratfalls long before Lewis.

The idea is to use your own mannerisms and personality to deliver your material to an audience. You are not going to hold two paper plates to your head and hope people laugh. You’ll want to dig deeper and put some thought into why something is funny from your personal point of view and then convey that to an audience.

Everyone is influenced by someone or something. It’s human nature. Again, none of us can invent the wheel because it’s been done – and car companies are still building on it. The same can be said about comedians when it comes to writing and performing comedy material.

But understand what makes you unique from everyone else (we all are) and explore topics that interest you based on your style of humor. Keep writing and performing. Eventually you’ll find your own comedy voice. Then in interviews you’ll be asked who influenced you – and you can tell them. I’ve interviewed comedians for my books, magazine articles and newspaper columns and believe me; every comedian has someone who inspired them. What made them successful was when they realized they couldn’t copy, but could use that influence to build on.

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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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