How long should you go until you hit with a bit?

Hi Dave – At what point do you drop a bit? Is there a magic number or amount of time that you spend refining before you shelf a joke or bit? Thanks! W.K.

Who’s counting?

Hey W.K. – I enjoy this type of question because it will always start a debate. In fact, it’s already started one – with myself. In other words, I have two answers…

The first falls back on my dedicated opinion that comedians and humorous speakers are creative artists. Writing and performing original material is an ongoing process. You create something and continue to develop it and make improvements.

Will it ever be perfect? Not really… at least for a creative artist.

Here’s what I mean. A lot of comics I’ve worked with have had killer sets. They come off stage knowing they’ve nailed it – the crowd laughed all the way through and both the performer and audience feel pretty good. But then the performer (artist) can usually find some fault. It could be delivering one line a different way or even using another facial expression that could’ve taken everything over the top.

Could it be called a perfect set? Maybe for the audience, but a creative artist will probably always feel there’s some room for improvement. It’s the curse of being creative.

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Here’s another example…

I’ve heard too many interviews with recording artists who’ve had No. 1 songs, but can pick out moments (that listeners wouldn’t notice) where – if they could record the song again – they would do something different (in their mind, something better). The song may have hit No. 1, but they can see room for improvement.

The artist doesn’t stop selling the music – because it’s still good. It’s just not perfect. They might continue to change and develop the songs in live performances, which is something that has driven fans of Bob Dylan crazy for decades. He never seems to play his songs the same as the recordings.

Okay – now back to your question about comedy bits.

Just because a bit doesn’t work, that’s no reason to think it will never work. If you think it has promise and you’re dedicated to working on it… well, there’s always the chance.

In that case you would keep working on a bit for as long as you believe it can be made funnier. It will never be perfect, because in the back of your creative mind you always think it can be better.

Okay – that was answer No. 1. Now I’ll share with you a different opinion that I’ve also heard from so many comedians that I can’t ignore it.

I also share this in my workshops as a method for putting together a comedy set that might someday get you hired. It doesn’t take away from your creativity, but it saves the audience – and also importantly the club booker – the agony of paying for performances where the comedian is continually working on improving the same not-yet-working bit.

By the way, that’s great for open-mics and what open-mics are for. But when customers are paying upwards of $20 for a ticket, a two-drink minimum and parking it makes good business sense to give them a show with proven material.

This different opinion also shares the name of another comedy writing theory:

We’re counting!

The Rule of Three

The best-known example of this in writing comedy concerns the actual structure of a joke or bit. For an explanation I saved you time and looked it up in Wikipedia. Here’s the scoop:

One of the best examples of the power of rule of three is in comedy, where it is also called a comic triple. Two is the smallest number of points needed to establish a pattern, and comedians exploit the way people’s minds perceive expected patterns to throw the audience off track (and make them laugh) with the third element. Example: “How do you get to my place? Go down to the corner, turn left, and get lost.”

Okay, okay… That sounds too much like textbook theory, which is something creative artists don’t worry about (at least too much). It also doesn’t pertain to your question, but it leads me to a different Rule of Three…

I remember conversations about this at the NYC Improv. As I like to say, I don’t make this stuff up and this idea seemed to be a general opinion with a lot of the comics hanging around the bar waiting to go on stage.

The idea is to try a bit or a joke three times in front of three different audiences.

Three things can happen:

  1. The audience will laugh
  2. Some of the audience will laugh, but not all
  3. The audience won’t laugh

After doing this three times, you add up the score:

  • If they laugh all three times, you keep the bit or joke in the act
  • If you get some laughs, but not a lot – rework it and repeat the process
  • If they don’t laugh, cut the bit from you act

Of course the first result is the goal, while the last one is pretty much a death sentence for the material.

The second should spark the creative mind to continue improving the bit or joke. But eventually you’ll need to make a decision. If it’s only going to be a mediocre piece of material no matter how many changes you make, file it for later or dump it for something new and funnier.

If you want to work in this business, you need material that works in front of an audience.

Yer outta here!

The creative artist will always continue to develop new material. The working comic or humorous speaker will have material that has already been proven to work in front of an audience – and that’s what they will be paid to deliver. So if the bit or the joke is not working, then follow a similar Rule of Three from the game of baseball theory:

Three strikes and you’re out.

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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!!