Comedy Techniques, by Brian McKim and Traci Skene

Book review by Steve Bennett

Comedy Techniques make the bold promise: ‘From improv to stand-up, and from satire to slapstick, here’s an essential guide to get yourself a cult following or mainstream success.’

But amid the burgeoning catalogue of ‘how to’ handbooks, Brian McKim and Traci Skene’s beautifully presented offering is relatively short on hard-and-fast advice. It’s more of a Comedy 101, explaining the fundamentals of the art to an almost remedial level. An introduction might be a better description than the ‘resource’ it claims.

There’s no doubt the book aims to be wide ranging – there are pages covering everything from juggling to websites that will print your promotional T-shirts – but the combination of such a broad scope, and the assumption of no prior knowledge, necessarily means that the authors never delve too deep.

So while you’ll probably need to know this stuff if you’re ever to have a career in comedy, you might assume anyone with such ambitions might already have a grasp of these basics. It takes 33 pages into a 250-page book to get to the chapter ‘what is comedy?’, which contains such helpful definitions as ‘humour is anything that makes us laugh or smile, even if it’s a quiet, satisfied smile on the inside’. Thanks for the insight.

The book is nicely presented in scrapbook style, with a ring binding. In keeping with that, the articles are all very short, and displayed alongside such scraps as potted CVs of comedy stars, pertinent – and not-so pertinent – quotes from comedians, and even ‘fancy that!’ style news in brief, such as the study that says, on average, we lose our sense of humour at the age of 52. Such snippets keep the book entertaining, even though their relevance might be disputed.

At times the book sounds like a bewildered High Court judge. We’re told a blog is short for ‘weblog’… which given that no one ever uses the longer word is rather like being told phone is short for telephone; that YouTube is a website ‘that enables people to upload and view music, videos, TV and music clips’ and four pages explaining what the skill of impressionism is.

Such back-to-basics approach means Comedy Techniques might offer some pointers for the absolute novice starting stand-up, even if it’s short on practical ‘how tos’. For example, it’s not unheard-of for a rookie to believe all comics invent a new set every night, rather than honing routines over weeks or months. This book would put them straight on such essentials, with warnings against stealing material or being a hack as well as some introductory tips such as the rule of three (eg, why jokes have an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman).

Although basic, the advice offered by McKim and Skene – both American comedians –  is pertinent and reliable. possibly because they’ve merely consolidated information that’s already widely available, not least from online comedy resources where comics hang out, such as Chortle or their own long-running blog, Shecky.

The authors display a good knowledge of the UK scene, but their primary market is the States and so a few chapters, such as that on headshots, or the rigid distinction between middle acts and headliners we don’t have here, are a little irrelevant… unless the Brit novice already has hopes of cracking the States.

The section about sketch comedy inadvertently reveals a lot about the transatlantic differences. Compiled with the help of Ali Reza Farahnakian, an alumnus of Chicago’s Second City, it has quite rigid ideas of what a sketch is and how they are written – even though some of the advice could equally apply to stand-up.

And despite the simplicity of the information, sometimes the presentation is over-gilded. This, from the sketch section, is almost self-parody: ‘A premise, a theory – or, in legal terms, a case must be proven. Sketch comedy writers can be likened to lawyers in this respect; they have a case to prove and, using evidence, they are going to prove it to you. The comedian’s case is what they think is funny.’

The book’s most useful advice is surely to just get on and do it: start writing or performing without delay. For the aspiring comic, Comedy Techniques is probably another displacement activity delaying that vital day of action.

  • Comedy Techniques by Brian McKim and Traci Skene is published by Methuen Drama, priced £14.99. Click here to order from Amazon.

Published: 21 Sep 2011

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