Terry Gross

The Funniest Joke Of The Year

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media 22 Comments
Tim Vine

Tim Vine

I love jokes.

Especially the ones that make me laugh.

Seriously!

Every year, the public at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival votes for the funniest joke of the year. Comedian Tim Vine was declared the 2014 winner with the one-liner:

“I decided to sell my Hoover…. well, it was just collecting dust.”

I don’t know about you, but when I read that joke, I had to chuckle a bit. That’s all. It wasn’t one of those tears in my eyes – I can’t stop laughing – rib-tickling moments. Why is that? If 2,000 people polled at the Festival thought this was the funniest joke, why am I barely laughing?

THE PROBLEM WITH SCRIPTS

The problem with that joke is the same a problem I encounter with many of the scripts I’m asked to voice. Well-written scripts aren’t meant to be read. They are meant to be spoken. Just like jokes.

I often compare the words in a script to musical notes. They’re dots on a piece of paper. Only when they’re played, you have the beginnings of music. And only when they’re played very well (and on a good instrument) do they have the potential to move you.

A great script can fall flat on its face due to a lackluster performance, but a great performer can still make magic out of a mediocre script. It has to do with that thing (voice) actors and comedians have in common with the Ob/Gyn’s and midwives of this world:

It’s all about the delivery.

Yeah, baby!

Now, those last two words might not make you smile, but when I hear them, I hear Mike Meyers say them as sixties-spy Austin Powers, and I have to laugh.

Delivery is the trademark of a pro. Done well, it sounds easy, but it’s not. And that’s what many hopefuls don’t yet get. 

Someone might have a resonant, pleasing voice, but as we all know, that’s not enough to have a career as a voice-over. Believing that having good pipes is all it takes, is the same thing as saying that you only need good looks to make it in Hollywood. As far as I can tell, only Tom Cruise pulled that one off.

Having the goods is one thing, but you have to know how to deliver. 

SHOW ME THE MONEY

So, the next question is: What makes a good delivery? What’s involved; can it be learned or does it come naturally?

I had to think about that when I listened back to a Terry Gross interview with Robin Williams for her show Fresh Air. At first, Williams manages to stay himself, but it doesn’t take him long to start doing all kinds of voices. The amazing thing is, Williams never sounds like someone pretending to be someone else. When he does an impression, he sounds like a completely different person. One thing was immediately clear: he’s a master of his instrument; a master of his voice.

Trained vocalists would immediately notice his use of voice placement. It’s a way for singers and actors to focus their sound into a particular area (head, mouth, chest or nose) with a specific resonance, coloring the sound. During the interview, I actually got the feeling that some of the characters Williams pulled out of his hat were sitting at different places at the table. I’m sure this also had to do with the way he worked the microphone.

If you listen to the entire interview, you’ll understand why he must have driven the sound engineer crazy…

Moving away from voice placement, what factors influence the way we come across, vocally?

If I were a college professor, I’d say: Human speech can be broken down into several basic elements, and each of these elements makes the way we sound unique, very much like a vocal fingerprint. Here they are:

  • Pitch: the degree of highness or lowness of our tone, as well as our vocal range and inflection
  • Tempo: the relative speed or slowness of the way we speak, and the way our speech flows
  • Volume: the relative loudness or softness of our voice
  • Timbre: the color and quality of a voice, e.g.  clear, nasal, raspy, breathy


COLORING OUR SOUND

These four elements can be affected consciously, and unconsciously. For instance, our health -or lack thereof- influences the way we sound. We all know that we don’t sound the same when we have a cold or suffer from a bad allergy. Our lifestyle may color our voice too. If you’re a heavy smoker or drinker, if you’re on a junk food diet, and if you’re not physically active, it will slowly change the sound of your voice. 

The way you are built and your posture have an impact too, as well as your facial expressions. Try saying something serious with a huge grin on your face… Then there’s your emotional state. A sad person sounds very different from an angry or a happy person. Environmental factors may influence your voice too. If you live in a very dry or polluted climate, the way you sound will tell the tale.  

And finally, we should consider age. After a lifetime of talking, the vocal folds and surrounding tissue lose strength and elasticity, and our mucous membranes become thinner and drier. Over time, men’s voices become higher, and women’s voices will drop. We lose volume, endurance, and control. All of this and more will influence our delivery. 

Now, here’s the good news: even though we cannot stop the aging process, you can protect and strengthen your voice. That means investing in your health. A few tips:

  • Be critical of what you put into your body.
  • Avoid a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Avoid screaming and whispering.
  • Breathe deeply, and from the diaphragm.
  • Use good posture.
  • Manage your stress level.
  • Take singing lessons.


When you do all that, you will start to notice a huge difference in your delivery because you gain more control over your instrument. That’s essential if you want to get to the next level: making music.

And that’s precisely what I’ll be talking about next week, so stay tuned!

Meanwhile, comedian Tim Vine told The Independent that his award-winning Hoover-joke wasn’t even his favorite joke of the show. Tim tells about two hundred one-liners in sixty minutes. 

Vine also won funniest joke in 2010. Here it is:

“I’ve just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday.

I’ll tell you what…

Never again.”

Rimshot!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

PS Be sweet Please retweet!

PPS This is part 1 in a series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 2 “The worst acting advice ever,” and part 3 “How to be believable,” in the weeks to come. 


Getting In Our Own Way

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Studio 11 Comments

young woman looking in the mirrorThere are two types of people who are very hard to teach.

Let me break it down for you.

The first group could care less about how the world sees them.

These people often have an exaggerated sense of self, or worse, a narcissistic personality disorder. They have a hard time registering social cues, and they’re not very open to feedback. Feedback makes them hostile and defensive because they always know better. And those who know better, don’t have an incentive to learn new things. Teaching them, is like trying to fill a cup that’s already full (of itself).

The second group is the opposite. These people care too much about how the world perceives them. They suffer from the “invisible audience phenomenon,” a sense that they’re always on stage, and that the world is watching them. Gentle feedback is often taken as harsh criticism. The fearful voice of low self-esteem tells them they might as well give up. Teaching these people is like trying to fill a bottomless cup.

Of course these are extremes, but I’m sure you know one or two people who fall into both categories. Perhaps even intimately. The origin of these behaviors has a lot to do with self-awareness. You know, that thing that is supposed to separate human beings from animals.

MIRROR, MIRROR

One way to detect the presence of self-awareness is to do the mirror test. When a dog sees his reflection in a mirror, he’ll think it’s another dog. When we see our reflection, we know we’re staring at ourselves.

If you’d let group one and two do the mirror test, here’s what you would find:

The first group looks into the mirror, and finds it irresistible. The second group can’t stand their own reflection. Group one is focused on self, and group two is (consciously or unconsciously) focused on what others might be thinking.

As a voice actor and coach, I sometimes deal with people who display various forms of narcissism and self-deprecation. Oddly enough, it’s not all bad. One thing I always keep in mind is that certain aspects of these behaviors are actually useful and necessary, if you wish to survive as a freelancer (and as a voice-over). Shall I explain?

GOOD AND BAD

Let’s start with being self-conscious. All of us have to have a sense of how we come across, and we need to be aware of how others respond to us to. How else will we learn socially acceptable behavior? It’s also good to realize that we’re far from perfect. It keeps the mind open, and our spirit humble.

Secondly, as voice-over professionals working from our home studios, we often direct our own sessions. That requires the ability to recognize when we’re missing the mark, and when we’re hitting the nail on the head. If we want to deliver our best work, we need to be good evaluators of our performance. The more self-conscious we are, the easier this is.

The narcissist has an inflated sense of self. Obviously, that’s not helpful. However, any solopreneur can benefit from a healthy dose of self-confidence. You have to believe in yourself, and in your ability to attract clients. You may have incredible talent, but if you doubt that you can deliver, you’re sabotaging yourself.

The narcissist is able to recognize the good in him or herself. People who are shy and insecure find that hard to do. If you wish to have a successful career, you have to accept that you have something special to offer. Something that is worth paying for. You don’t need to be arrogant, but it helps to be audacious!

From an acting perspective, I think it is also useful to have the ability to imagine what it’s like to be a self-absorbed jerk, as well as an insecure mouse, and anything in between. The wider your emotional range, the greater your chance to land more demanding and interesting roles.

PARALYZED

Now, being overly self-conscious can have a paralyzing effect in everyday life, and in the recording studio. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons why some people have such a hard time sounding natural. They’re constantly over-analyzing what they’re doing, and usually not in a positive way. They’re busy thinking about how they will be perceived by others, and whether or not they can live up to certain expectations.

In a way, that microphone in front of them is like a camera. You’ve seen it happen. People are perfectly spontaneous, and they’re having a great time, until someone points a camera at them. All of a sudden they become very aware of themselves, and start acting in strange, stilted ways.

What’s really happening is this:

Without a camera pointing at them, most people focus on each other. They’re in the moment. In the flow of things. They act like no one’s watching. Naturally. As soon as a photographer or a cameraman comes in the picture, that changes. People start wondering: How does my hair look? Did I iron my shirt? Do I look fat in these clothes?

The same thing can happen in a studio. People are having a nice conversation. They’re animated and relaxed. Until the recording starts. All of a sudden the enthusiasm and the quiet confidence is gone. The voice becomes flat, and the text is not spoken but read. The narrator has become self-conscious.

In that moment, the focus on the script is replaced by the focus on self. That’s a shame, because as voice-over professionals, we get paid to let the script speak. In order to do that, we need to get out of our own way.

CAR TALK

This week, we learned that Tom Magliozzi, one of the presenters of NPR’s Car Talk, had died at the age of 77. For more than 25 years, Tom and his younger brother Ray entertained millions of people every week with car repair advice and comedic banter. People who didn’t care about cars, tuned in to Car Talk, if only to hear the brothers laugh.

What made these guys such a pleasure to listen to, was the fact that they talked to one another and their guests as if there were no microphones. In fact, the Magliozzi’s would be the first ones to admit that they knew nothing about radio. All they did, was be themselves. Their long-time producer Doug Berman told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air

“What you heard on the show was absolutely them. And when you finish the show and went to get a cup of coffee it sounded the same, you know. I mean, the topics would change, but that’s what they did. They sat down and they enjoyed themselves and they found humor in whatever was around them. And they made each other laugh and they made us laugh. So it was not an effort to be funny about anything. That’s how they approached everything.”

FORGET THE MIC

Of course there’s a difference between doing a semi-live radio show and narrating a voice-over script, but I think many of us could benefit from forgetting that there’s a microphone in front of us. Just imagine there’s a dear friend or close relative to whom you’re telling a story. There is no audience. There are no critics. You have nothing to prove.

Imagine how freeing that would be!

Imagine what that would do to the way you sound!

From time to time you might slip into old behavior, and invite that inner voice to start critiquing you again. As soon as that happens, STOP, and bring your attention back to the text. Be script-conscious, instead of self-conscious. Let the focus be on the music, and not on the musician.

Instead of beating yourself up when you make a mistake, be soft on yourself. It’s no big deal. Correct it, and move on.

Eventually, you’ll notice a shift inside. A shift from that self-disparaging voice, to a self-accepting voice, to a self-respecting voice.

It’s something that’s almost impossible to teach.

It must be experienced.

Inside, and outside of your recording studio.

Are you ready for your lesson?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: gonzalo_ar via photopin cc