Stand Up Comedy and Trailer Making

I often think about the similarities between making a stand up comedy set, and making trailers. They both have to entertain people in a short period of time, they have an arc to their structure, and they significantly benefit from a careful understanding of your audience.

I have a peppered history of performing stand up comedy. When I was 12 I imitated Dana Carvey's impressions of George H.W. Bush in a middle school talent show, later I performed in a college class called "New York Humor", then after college I took another class and occasionally went to open mics in New York and later in San Diego.

The first joke in a comedy set is the most important, especially if you're an unknown comic. Open mics are different in that the audience usually has no expectation of the comics being any good. A comic that appears on a late night show is playing to an audience much more ready to laugh and ready to give the benefit of a doubt, but a comic at an open mic has to work HARD to get those laughs.

A good first joke for an unknown comic especially, will typically do a number of things including:

  1. Make the audience laugh (duh)
  2. Address the elephant in the room (if there is one)
  3. Make the audience comfortable
  4. Get the audience on your side

In my post about three-act trailer structure I made this diagram of a trailer's version of the line of rising action.


Comedy sets are similar to this; the jokes in the middle don't necessarily build in strength, but a strong beginning and ending are essential.

Getting the audience on your side, making them comfortable and addressing the elephant in the room are essentially the same thing. At open mics, every new comic is a clean slate; it's their job to get the audience comfortable with them otherwise it will be INCREDIBLY difficult to get them to laugh with you.

Addressing the elephant in the room (if there is one) is one of the fastest ways to do it. My stand up comedy teacher gave the example of a student of hers who had a club foot. He initially performed sets where he made absolutely no mention of it even though it was there in plain sight; he did terribly. She kept pushing him to mention it, and when he finally did, his comedy sets did much better!

Carmen Lynch  was a comic I saw at some open mics. At the time she opened with a joke about how she looks like Mr. Bean

Carmen Lynch was a comic I saw at some open mics. At the time she opened with a joke about how she looks like Mr. Bean

In addressing his club foot he was cutting the tension, letting them in, and giving permission to laugh. He got inside their head, and essentially said: "I see what you see, I understand, and I'm cool with it." Then once the audience was comfortable and on his side, they were hooked (If you're wondering, when I performed comedy, I usually tried to riff on how people typically want to know what kind of Asian I am).

The Firewatch trailer I made for the Sony E3 Press Conference best exemplifies how I relate trailers to stand up comedy. I knew that it would be one trailer out of many, I needed make an impression as quickly as possible, and I had one minute. That unto itself made the conference like being a new comic trying to stand out at an open mic. When I think of the direction for a trailer, knowing the broader context a trailer gets released in has similarities to performing a stand up comedy set and a comic's ability to "read the room."

Years ago I went to an open mic MC-ed by my friend Mike Brown who is an African-American comedian in New York. A white comic had this HORRIBLE set where he said something to the effect of: "The N-word isn't such a big deal" and he even prompted the audience to say it along with him (very few, if any joined him). It was spectacularly awkward; you could feel the discomfort in the room. When the comic finished, Mike came back in to introduce the next comic and said: "Sorry I'm late, I just got in on the N-train." This was met with RAUCOUS LAUGHTER; Mike expertly read the room and cut the tension to great effect.

My comedian friend  Mike Brown , look him up if you're in New York!

My comedian friend Mike Brown, look him up if you're in New York!

Obviously, a trailer in an E3 press conference can't react to the other trailers, but for Firewatch's trailer I made an educated guess that the other trailers would be for bombastic, badass, hardcore, tens of million dollar budget games. 

I also knew Firewatch was going to be the only indie in the show, and while I was confident that Firewatch's strong art style would make it stand out, I knew what would hook people was its humor. That's why I chose the cave scene to open the trailer. I knew that at the very least, I personally would enjoy seeing something with a bit of humor in the press conference.

But while some indie games can appeal to a broad audience, a lot of them are niches within a niche, and in those cases it's all the more important to find a way in the trailer to say to that niche: "I see you, and I understand what you like."

This is what drove the direction for BattleBlock Theater's Steam trailer. I wanted to poke fun at the hardcore PC gamers on Steam, and I was honestly worried that they would be offended. It ended up being one of my most memorable trailers, and it received a ton of positive comments!

So, like stand up comedy, it helps to consider your audience, and what is unique about yourself or the game you're working on. There is no one size fits all approach to everything even if different approaches have some overlap. There's a broad spectrum of ways to acknowledge the audience that range from very subtle selection of shots all the way to saying "HEY YOU! DO YOU LIKE ADVENTURE GAMES???"

No one likes to feel like they're being given a hard sell, but they do like to feel understood. The saying: "if you try to appeal to everyone, then you appeal to no one" makes this exact point. In stand up comedy and trailers, it's important to remember that you're speaking to a person; if you can show them you understand that, and your material is good, then they'll be receptive to what you have to say.