Who is Clinton Pickens?
If you don’t know, Clinton Pickens has been doing standup comedy all over the world for the last 20 years.
He’s also an award-winning filmmaker. He’s frequently on our writing team, which means he’s also an award-winning advertiser. He’s ghost written in major publications for celebrities that everyone knows.
Is Comedy Something You’re Born With or can It be Learned?
The answer, like so many things is both.
I think there are people who are born natural storytellers. I think about my father a lot, when he is cutting it up with his friends, or when I was a kid and I would watch him talking to his friends, my dad’s a natural storyteller.
It was born into him. And then I went to a family reunion with my dad once with some of our family. And it was someone’s birthday and I met all these cousins of his I had never met. And all of them were storytellers. So I think it was a family bloodline thing.
We were laughing so hard and everyone kind of had their own unique style at the exact same time. I’ve had friends who, it felt like their timing was weird and off and things didn’t work, and some of them got into comedy classes or they would go take like improv classes at the Groundlings or Upright Citizens Brigade, places like that, and they would end up, some of those people, having far surpassed me in their ability to tell stories.
So I think it’s both. It takes a lot of work. You have to be focused on comedy because there are unspoken rules to comedy that I think some people naturally understand better.
What is an Example of “Unspoken Rules of Comedy”
People who take a standup comedy class say, or a storytelling class a lot of times they’ll touch on what they call “the rule of threes”, It sounds insane that repeating something three times or hitting a punchline three different ways or approaching a subject that you wait for your big punchline on the third one.
It sounds too mathematical, like comedy shouldn’t be, you know, set up, punched down, set up, punched down. But it is in a lot of ways. And so I think people can go and learn those rules. And then someone who’s kind of born with it, they, they probably just figured that out through an evolutionary process where they were talking to their family or friends and they realize, ah, if I hit it on this third one, that’s when I get the big laugh.
That’s the other thing I would say is of inborn. A lot of people you can develop timing. Think about stand up comics like Steven Wright, they have this very specific timing. But then there’s other people like (RIP) Norm McDonald.
He could read the phone book and I would just fall out laughing, just so funny. Even the way he just says a person’s name and then kinda looks at the audience. It’s like, you don’t even really know what he’s talking about, but you’re still laughing because his timing is just impeccable.
Who Are Your Story-Telling and Comedy Inspirations?
So, storytelling, I will say right off the top, Mike Birbiglia is a fantastic storytelling comic.
NPR has a program called The Moth that is a live in-person storytelling event. I don’t know right where it started, but I would probably guess New York or Boston or somewhere in the northeast. And now it’s everywhere.
And there’s these Moth nights where people go and they tell a story based on a topic they’re given. And sometimes there’s competitions. And then there’s guys like Mike Birbiglia, who’s a standup comic who is also just this incredible long form storyteller. He has a movie, I think called Sleepwalk With Me.
That was based on a story he told in his standup that was about how he was a sleepwalk and how that affected and changed his life. And so I would say Mike is a current modern day incredible storyteller. And then it’s always such a weird and dicey topic, but…
Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby was an epic storytelling comedian. It’s so hard for comics now with that topic. A lot of people don’t wanna say now like, “Gosh, I got into stand up because of watching Bill Cosby.”
I never met the guy. I don’t know anything about him personally other than what you’ve heard in the news, but, as a storyteller, I’ve seen him perform and as a kid watching him, he is captivating and his comedy sets were like two and three hours, like, like these long, long comedy sets.
And then this is a strange one, but sort of in the same vein, because they worked on TV together, but the comedian Sinbad, he’s pretty clean. And he tells these stories, especially for family oriented comedy. And Sinbad’s work in the late eighties and early nineties… he would do these long form stories that are just nuts. And if you saw him multiple times, they were different every time, but you would pick up a little piece of the story differently each time. Still working and still killing it.
What Advice Would You Give Businesses Who Want to Use Comedy in their Marketing?
I think that it’s about writing ultimately. And directing your talent when you’re creating a spot. That’s so important. When we think about advertising campaigns that have been successful, it’s normally brand recognition through comedy. So I say, “Where’s the beef?” And we know that old lady who wants the beef.
That’s the thing. And do you remember a commercial… It was a “got milk” commercial where the guy eats the peanut butter sandwich and then the radio call-in show asked a trivia question? So I remember I was sitting with a buddy of mine in an audition for a commercial in Los Angeles and then this guy walks in and sits down.
And this guy elbows me. He’s like, “Hey, that’s the peanut butter. Got milk guy”. And I was like, “Oh my God.”
And everyone flips. And so he ends up talking to us and telling us a story about the commercial because it was, even though it was an advertisement for milk, which that was a massive campaign for milk…
But that was like a culture changing comedic moment that every person in this room who is now pursuing this as a business was aware of and knows. And so I think that it’s about finding the right combination of writing and directing for your talent, and then the talent that can deliver that line.
The crux is finding a way to keep it entertaining throughout. Like, you don’t want lulls and you don’t want dips because we don’t live in a world where where people can’t pay attention anymore. Their attention span is shot. And also because there’s so much digital currency floating around.
There’s so much digital content floating around, people don’t wanna spend their time with something that’s not entertaining.
What Do You See Businesses Do That Makes You Cringe?
When I graduated from high school, I had to cut together a tape for an English project by smashing two VHS’s together. And hitting play. pause. play. pause. play pause. And now that’s not the thing anymore. With your iPhone or your Samsung or whatever, a lot of them have like built in editing.
That you can do a thousand percent better job than I ever dreamed when I was an 18 year old. And so you have these filmmakers that are coming up and so I cringe when I see a local market, commercial or advertisement or internet spot that someone has paid for advertising with, you know, so like it’s sponsored or whatever, and I click on it and it looks like a local TV commercial from 1992.
I don’t understand. like the. The knowledge is out there.
When I see a commercial that’s awful and meandering and makes no sense and someone’s got their kids standing in front of their place and they’re like, “Dad’s a plumber.”
We can do better than that.
What is Your Go-To Cocktail Party Joke?
The thing is, people always think they want me to tell jokes at a party. My wife and I went to a friend’s birthday party and these people asked me to do standup. And I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, I don’t do standup.”
And finally, they asked so many times, I was like, “Okay, yeah, sure, I’ll do it.” And I said, “It’s not gonna go well.” But, after years of developing thick skin, I can sit in the silence, I can handle it If you can.
I mean, this isn’t a comedy club, and they gathered everyone together. And I actually stood up and did stand up against my better judgment and it went great for about three minutes and everyone’s laughing and then they realized, “Oh, we didn’t sign on for this.” “We would’ve gone to a comedy club if we went to see standup.”
We were at this birthday party and their eyes glassed over and a few people fell asleep. But I will say the thing you have to have, your cocktail party joke has to be clean enough that you can tell it. And so I have a joke that I always say when, if I’m back in like my hometown or whatever, someone will say “I went to high school with this guy, he’s a comedian.” And then they’ll turn to their kids and say, “he tells jokes for a living” and kind of they say it like, “you know how daddy works hard? This guy tells jokes.” And so the joke that I tell that’s sort of family friendly, but also just tinges on like dangerous enough is…
I always ask kids, “what’s the difference between mashed potatoes and pea soup?” “Anyone can mash potatoes, but I mean, who can pee soup?”
And it’s It’s obviously not my joke. I have no clue who wrote it, and it’s like a laughy taffy joke. But it’s the ultimate catchall joke in my opinion.
Where Can We Find Out More About What You’re Doing?
I can be reached at clintonpickens.com. I’m like one of the three people left that still have their own website. I just directed a short film that’s actually not available on that website currently, but it will be after the festivals and stuff like that.
And there’s a way to contact me through there.
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