The Comic Toolbox: Excerpt

The Comic Toolbox: How to be Funny Even if you’re Not
by John Vorhaus

Chapter 2: The Will to Risk

comic toolbox

A newspaper reporter called me not long ago.  Since I’m now some sort of soi-disant expert on the subject of comedy, this reporter wanted to know if I thought there were people with absolutely no sense of humor.  Was it possible, the writer wondered, to be completely and irremediably unfunny?

The question put me in mind of my first boss out of college, a moon-faced woman with a Hitlerian haircut who cherished the notion that junior advertising copywriters should be seen and not heard.  One day, in a fit of nihilistic spunk, I put a live goldfish in her tea.  Soon I was collecting unemployment.  “No sense of humor,” I thought at the time, but I now see that all she lacked was my sense of humor.  The fact is, not everyone agrees on what’s funny.

But everyone can be funny, and that’s what I told the reporter.  If people aren’t funny, there’s usually two things lacking.  One is an understanding of what’s funny and why, and the other, far more important element is the will to risk.  To my mind, the will to risk is a tool, and like other tools, it can be learned and understood and mastered.

Yes, yes, yes, some people have more natural humor in them than other, just like some people have perfect pitch, or a knack for hitting the curve ball.  Most of us have more humor than we know.  What we don’t always have is the will to risk, and the will to risk is really the will to fail.  We’re taught from early youth to abhor failure, but odd as it may seem, a willingness to fail is one of the most valuable tools in your comic toolbox.  It makes all your other tools easier to use, and use well.

So the first big task of this toolbox is to raise our will to risk.  And the first step in that direction is to…


Of course there’s all sorts of bogus thinking in this world: aerosol cheese is a good idea; just one cigarette’s okay; the little red light on the dashboard doesn’t really mean any­thing’s wrong.  I now commend to your attention two particularly insidious types of bogus thinking: false assumptions and faulty associations.

When we think about telling a joke, or trying a new idea, or, really, engaging in any creative act, there lurks behind our conscious thinking the following false assumption: it won’t work; they won’t like it.  So in the moment between thinking a joke and telling a joke, the “unfunny” person throws this huge roadblock in his or her own way.  It won’t work.  They won’t like it.  Maybe I’ll just keep my big yap shut, play it safe; yeah that’s the thing to do.  And that’s just what they usually do.  And so we think of them as shy or repressed or boring.  A drag, and no fun at parties.

Okay, so why is it won’t work a false assumption?  After all, maybe it won’t work.  Maybe they won’t like it.  Well, true, that’s a possibility.  But we have a whole body of hard evidence to the contrary.  Sometimes jokes do work, so the assumption of failure is inherently at least partly wrong.  Every bit as wrong, that is, as the assumption of success.  You just won’t know until you try.

So why not try?  What have we got to lose?  In fact, deep in our secret hearts, we feel–or fear–that we have a great deal to lose.  That’s where the faulty association comes in.  Having first decided, most bogusly, that our joke won’t work, we leap to the amazing conclusion that when “they” don’t like our joke, “they” won’t like us either.  We create within our minds the grim certainty that we will look stupid or foolish or other­wise diminished in someone else’s eyes.  Why is this a faulty association?  For this simple reason:  People aren’t thinking about how you look to them.  They’re far too busy worrying how they look to you.

Each of us is the center of our own universe, and our universe is of surprisingly little interest to the universe next door.  Burdened by our fears, we jump through hoops to keep from looking bad in someone else’s eyes.  But as it says in the Koran, if you knew how little people thought about you, you wouldn’t worry what they thought.

And then, just to thicken the glue, we throw in one more faulty association:  “When they don’t like me, I can’t like myself.”  Man, this one’s scary.  We spend so much time validating our self-image in terms of other-image that by the time we get around to firing off a joke, our entire ego is on the line.  If the joke misfires, ego-death must result.  That’s why a stand-up comic says, “I died out there” when a show goes bad.  Behind all the bogus thinking is the biggest bogus thought of all: if I fail, I die.

Let’s look at the whole loop again, just to make sure we understand it.  You open your mouth to tell a joke, but a little voice says, “Hang on, that might not work.”  Then another little voice answers, “Of course it won’t work, and when it doesn’t work, you’ll look like a failure, a fool.”  And a third voice chimes in, “If you’re a fool to them, you’re a fool to you too.”  And finally, “Your ego will die; then you will die.”   That’s a lot of burden for one poor little joke to carry, is it not?

Look, I can’t straighten out all these self-image issues in one slim chapter in a book that’s not even about that anyhow.  If I could, the book would be called, The Ego Toolbox: How to be Totally Together and Really Well-Adjusted, even if You’re Not.  But what I can do is give you some strategies and tactics for silencing those bogus voices in your head.  Here’s the first, and most valuable:


Gather all your bogus voices, tie them together in a metaphorical knot and label the knot, “my ferocious editor.”  Recognize that it’s the job of your ferocious editor to keep you from making bad mistakes.  Sometimes your ferocious editor does a legitimate job, like when it keeps you from mouthing off to a cop or telling your loved one what you really think about that new haircut.  But your ferocious editor has its own false assumptions.  It assumes that it knows what a bad mistake is, and further believes that it’s always acting in your best interest.  Your ferocious editor simultaneously underestimates your chances for success and overestimates the penalty for failure.  Tell your ferocious editor to go to hell.

Easier said than done, right?  After all, your ferocious editor is a strong-willed sumbitch.  Plus, I have pre­sented this useful fiction that your ferocious editor is somehow a force of opposition, and not really part of you at all, but we know better, don’t we?  Your ferocious editor is you, and how do you fight you?

Later, when we’re talking about making good jokes better, or rewriting to comic effect, or polishing your gems, we will bring the ferocious editor back to life.  We’ll welcome him in and say, “Now.  Now is your chance to be demanding and unrelenting in pursuit of quality.  Go for it, ferocious editor, for you are my best friend.”  But here, in this early stage, we really need to silence that voice, neutralize that cranial bully who wants its fears to be your fears.  To kill your ferocious editor, you’ll need weapons.  The rule of nine is one of my favorites.


For every ten jokes you tell, nine will be trash.  For every ten ideas you have, nine won’t work.  For every ten times you risk, you fail.

Depressing?  Not really.  In fact, the rule of nine turns out to be highly liberating because once you embrace it, you instantly and permanently lose the toxic expectation of succeeding every time.  It’s that expectation, and the consequent fear of failure which give your ferocious editor such power over you.  Remove the expectation and you remove the power.  Simple, clean; a tool.

But wait, isn’t there a contradiction here?  Didn’t I just get done saying that you can’t assume success or failure?  Didn’t I say you won’t know until you try?  Then how the heck can I assume a dreadful and paltry 10% success rate for our comic endeavors?  I can’t, really.  Fact is, I don’t have a logical leg to stand on.  I invoke the rule of nine not as a truism but as another useful fiction to help me in my never-ending battle against fear.

Maybe you think I’m splitting hairs.  What, after all, is the difference between fearing failure and assuming failure?  The answer lies in expectation.  When you expect success, you fear failure.  You have something to lose.  However, with the rule of nine, your expectations start so low that you have very nearly nothing to lose.  But wait, there’s more.

If you only expect one joke out of ten to work, then it stands to certain reason that you’ll need hundreds and hundreds of failed jokes to build a decent body of work.  You’ll have to try and fail and try and fail and try and fail, ad infinitum, in order to reach the point of trying and not-failing.  By simple mathematical logic, you end up persuading yourself that the process of failure is vital to the product of success.  This  co-opts your ferocious editor; it’s not dead yet, but maybe a little less bossy at least.

The rule of nine, then, is a tool for lowering expectations.  Let’s try it out and see how it works.  Generate a list of ten funny names for sports teams.  Remember, it’s quantity not quality we’re after here.  In fact, to further diminish your expecta­tions, try to complete the exercise as quickly as possible.  This further works to convince your ferocious editor that nothing’s at risk, nothing’s on the line.

Later we’ll be able to attack this comic problem with a whole array of tools.  For now, though, just approach it instinctively.  What would a funny name for a sports team be?

The Memphis Mudskippers

The Slaves to Alliteration

The Hair Triggers

The London Fog

The L.A. Riot

The New York Happy Cabbies

The Fighting Dustmites

The Mgpxrhgmerersters

The Team with the Incredibly Long, Virtually Unpronouncable and Almost Impossible to Work Into a Cheer Name

Not a particularly funny list, is it?  But with the rule of nine, it doesn’t have to be.  All we’re trying to do here is get used to writing things down, without risk or burden, expectation or fear.  Now you try.











I’ll be suggesting quite a few exercises throughout this book, and while no one’s holding a gun to your head, remember that the first step to mastering tools is getting a feel for the darn things.  I recommend that you try all the exercises, and that you work them in a separate notebook, if only to keep high the yard sale resale value of this book.

Want to make your ferocious editor go away some more?  Do this:


This makes no sense, right?  After all, people are always telling us to raise our sights.  True, but then people are always telling us that the check is in the mail, and they’ll still respect us in the morning, and a six-jillion dollar deficit is nothing to worry about, so we can’t necessarily believe everything they say anyhow.

Whether you’re a stand-up comic or a screenwriter or a novel­ist or a humorous essayist or a cartoonist or artist or a greeting card writer or a public speaker or whatever, you’re probably burdened by the strong desire to be very successful right now.  No sooner do I start writing this book, for example, than I catch myself wondering whether it will sell a lot of copies, get me on the talk show circuit, make me famous, and lead to other books, movie deals, and invitations to all the best parties.  Sheesh, it’s not even published yet.

And yet, right down here on the level of this sentence, I’m hoping that this book will make me a made guy.  I really want to be a made guy, but as long as I dwell on what it’s like to be a made guy, I can’t concentrate on writing this book, the very thing I’m hoping will make me a made guy in the end.  To mix a metaphor most heinously, here at square one I’m looking for pie in the sky.  What in heaven’s name do I do now?

I lower my sights.  I concentrate on this chapter, this paragraph, this sentence, this phrase, this word.  Why?  Because hope of success can kill comedy just as surely as fear of failure.  With the rule of nine, we attack our fear of failure.  By lowering our sights, we attack our need for success.

I just can’t stress this point enough.  Right now the only thing that matters is the task at hand.  Concentrate on the task at hand and everything else will take care of itself.

Yeah, right Pollyanna.  Just do your homework and the book will get published, and the talk shows will call, and the money, the fame, the glory, the party invitations will magi­cally fly in the window.  Okay, maybe not.  But this much you know to be true: if you don’t concentrate on the task at hand, then the book (or play, or joke, or cartoon, or essay, or speech, or greeting card, or stand-up act) will never get finished and you’ll have no chance at the glory you so richly deserve.

The comic process takes place one step at a time.  Unless you’re Superman, you can’t leap tall buildings at a single bound, so it’s really kind of stupid to tell yourself you must.  Be aware of this stupidity.  Require of yourself only that you do what you can do now.  Do this one thing, and your ferocious editor will melt like Frosty the proverbial Snowman.

Okay, now we have two tools that attack and diminish our process-killing fears: the rule of nine, and lowering our sights.  What other weapons can we bring to bear?  This question, you may be pleased to learn, is not rhetorical.


Applaud every small victory loudly, because every time you applaud a small victory, you create an environment in which a slightly larger victory can take place.

Man, I like that thought.  I’m going to repeat it for those in the back of the class.  Applaud small victories.  They make big victories grow.

Let’s try another exercise, and see if we can augment our efforts with positive reinforcement.  First, using the rule of nine, generate a list of ten funny names.  Here, I’ll start you off.

Julianne Potatoes

Spenley Cruntchwhistle

Dan Quayle

Okay, now you go.  I’ll wait…




Dum de dum dum dum…




Nice day, huh?





A little smoggy, yeah, but that’s–  Done already?  Good work.

Now how do you feel?  If all went according to plan, you used the tool of lowering your sights to keep false expectations to a minimum.  You recognized this as a simple, trivial, and very possibly pointless exercise, designed to do nothing more than limber up your comic muscles.  You didn’t expect it to change your life, and, hey presto! it didn’t.

Now use the rule of nine to scan your list and discover that, yup, most of these joke names really aren’t all that funny.  And suddenly that’s okay, because according to the rule of nine, they don’t have to be.

But what you did do is this very important thing: you finished the exercise.  You got from point a to point b without wandering off into the never-never land of procrastination.  You did the job.  You did it no better nor worse than you expected to, and in fact, you didn’t expect to do it particularly well or badly at all.  Thus unburdened, you got it done, which may be more than what’s hap­pened in the past.

So pat yourself on the back.  Take the win.

Now look what happens: you congratulate yourself for doing this little job.  That gives you a stronger sense of yourself as someone who can do a job.  Which makes you slightly better equipped to do the job next time.  Which means better performance next time.  Which means improved self-image.  Which means enhanced performance.  Which means–well, you get the gist.

What we’re doing here is watching positive reinforcement turn into self-fulfilling proph­ecy.  The better you imagine yourself to be, the better you become.

Whoa, hey, there’s a powerful concept, huh?  The better you imagine yourself to be, the better you become.  And how did you get better?  By abandoning all interest in getting better in the first place.  It’s almost zen, isn’t it?  You get better by not trying to get better.  How is this possible?

You’ve changed your focus.  You’re concentrating on the process, not the product.  By attending to the ongoing performance instead of the applause at the curtain to come, you change the game from one you can never win to one you must always win.  In so doing, you ditch your ferocious editor once and for all, for how can it manipulate your expectations when suddenly your only goal is to experience the process?

If this sounds a little too new-agey for you, then let it slide for now.  But as the chapters roll by, and the exercises get tougher, please just concentrate on getting them done.  Insofar as possible, let questions of quality fall from your mind.  Your performance will improve, I promise.

Process, not product.  Focus on this.  In other words,


A few weeks ago, right in the middle of the work day, I got a call from a former student who’d just gotten a job writing for a television situation comedy.  Even as I congratulated her (you always feel good when one of your fledgelings flies), I couldn’t help wondering, why her, why not me?

Jealousy, envy, despair… all these weird, negative feelings swirled through my mind, corrupting my creative process.  How could I be funny with all that noise inside my head?

I couldn’t.  So I went back to work.  I went back to the one thing I could control: words on the page.  By concentrating on the task at hand, I squeezed the jealousy, the envy, the competitive rage out of my mind.  Then, having finished a couple of paragraphs, I used my positive-reinforcement tool, and said to myself, “Hey these paragraphs are not half bad.  Sure, my student swiped my job, but at least I have this to feel good about.”

And having found some darn thing to feel good about, I improved my self-image, reduced my anxiety, focused my concentration and raised the level of my confidence.  This made it altogether easier for me to attend to the next task at hand, which was writing the next darn paragraph.

I feel nervous about sharing these feelings with you.  I fear that it will diminish me in your eyes if you see me as someone swept by storms of envy and fear and other blue emotions.  But then I think, hey, you’re probably too busy worrying about how you look to me, so maybe it’s okay.  I have fears, you have fears; the sooner we confront them, the sooner we can make them go away.

This war is won in small battles.  And this task-at-hand tool relies heavily on the difficult delusion that the outside world somehow doesn’t exist.  Now you know and I know that that’s not true.  At the end of the day, when the jokes are all written, the cartoons all drawn, what-have-you, there are still bills to pay, and transmissions to fix, and crying babies in the neighborhood, and vanishing rain forests, and that nagging unresolved question of whether Leno is better than Carson or not.

But none of that matters when you’re in the zone.

When you’re concentrating on the task at hand, the outside world truly does not exist.  You get in a lick of good work, pat yourself on the back for that lick of good work, then, taking that win, press on to the next piece of work, better equipped than ever to win.  Thus do the tools complement one another.  Thus does the snake swallow his own tail.

Soon we’ll be moving on to the concrete tools of comedy, the nuts ‘n’ bolts structural stuff you probably bought this book for in the first place.  You may think that those tools are the only ones that matter.  You may think that I’ve wasted a lot of time and a lot of words to create an emotional environment in which those tools can be used without unhelpful expectations, posi­tive, negative or otherwise.  Would it make you feel better to know that I’m getting paid by the word, so that no words are wasted words?  That’s the joke answer.  The real answer is this:  Without the proper emotional grounding, the tools themselves are useless.

Unless you first make a commitment to fight the fears which inhibit creativity, you won’t be funny at all.  You will have wasted your money on this book, except for perhaps a buck you’ll recoup at that yard sale some day.

In sum, then, pitching forward on your face is not a bad thing, but a good thing.  At least in falling forward you’re moving forward, and moving forward is all that really matters.  Remember that stairs get climbed one at a time.  Why be so impatient?

Now that we’re all so giddily un-results-oriented, let’s look at how we can get some damn fine results out of our toolbox.  In other words, enough yakking, here comes the hardware…

Visit Amazon to order.

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4 Responses to “The Comic Toolbox: Excerpt”

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