Carnac Deconstructed

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I had a fellow comedian accept my suggestion of writing material for my Carnac The Mediocre character.  When I started doing Carnac two years ago, I put out the invitation for anyone to give me material ideas for Carnac.

I appreciate the effort made by the comic to come up with material, but none of it works for the character.  It made me a bit mad, to be honest.  Not in a spiteful way, but in a way that drove me to action to write this post.

If you think as a comedian you can just write jokes without any forethought, you’re mistaken.  You need to have a point of view and know how to deliver it that gets the attention of the audience.  Have you heard of laugh triggers or the different comedy structures that are at play in most jokes a comedian tells?  You cannot get up on stage without a plan, even if you are a one-liner comedian like the Carnac character is.

I’ve done Carnac for two years.  Not only do I know what works for material, I know why it works.  So, in trying to get your creative juices flowing, I thought I’d talk about why Carnac works.  Hopefully this will give you a better appreciation for Carnac and maybe help you to write some Carnac material that you think I could use.

I will say before I get started, that it was suggested Wednesday night that I stole the idea of Carnac.  Um, excuse me?  Look up the definition of the word parody.  Do you call Weird Al a thief?  No, because he writes parodies of songs.  In that same tone, I do a parody of the original Carnac character.  In other words, it’s rebranded.  To suggest I stole is slander.  I follow the Canadian copyright laws, and am not breaking any laws, nor am I stealing anything.  I have written over 80 pieces of material for Carnac.  The only other person to write material for me was my comedy coach in Los Angeles, who used to write for the Tonight Show (he only wrote one joke but it crushes every time I use it).

Now, I challenge the comedians to write material for Carnac.  However, you need to keep some things in mind.  Such as…..

Educate yourself – Watch the Carnac videos online.  Before I started this character I swear that I’ve watched just about all of them.  Watch them over, and over, and over again.  Eventually you will begin to see patterns form in terms of the delivery, pace and type of material used.

It’s not about you – You cannot write for Carnac in your voice and think it’s going to work.  How is that possible?  When writers write for the Tonight Show or any other late night show, they write the material in the host’s voice so it sounds natural to the host.  Why would you write material for Jimmy Fallon if as a writer your comedic voice is like Louis CK?  It doesn’t work.

The K.I.S.S. method applies – The beauty of Carnac lies in its simplicity.  Watch the video below and pay attention to the first joke.

The joke goes like this:  With a gobble gobble here, and a gobble gobble there…….. (opens envelope)…… How do you raise a bid at a turkey auction?

This needs some explaining.  The jokes Carnac does essentially are performed in reverse.  Your standard comedy joke goes setup-punchline.  With Carnac, it’s punchline-setup.  It can be likened to comedy Jeopardy, for lack of a better term.  The envelope has the question (known as the punchline).  Now, because the joke is told in reverse, the audience has to pay close attention to the joke to get it.  It uses the configurational comedy structure, meaning the audience has to piece together a puzzle, then when they “solve” the puzzle (get the joke), that a-ha moment comes along, and you get a burst of laughter that is different from your usual laughs at a standard setup-punchline type of delivery.

When Carnac opens the envelope to read the question (punchline), you can see the audience putting the pieces of the puzzle together in their minds.  You can see some of them say the setup to themselves, in order to “get” the punchline (question).  They will say to themselves “with a gobble gobble here, and a gobble gobble there…..then they hear the question, then they piece it together.

It’s for this reason that you don’t try to “punch up” or funny up the setup (answer) with puns.  If you watch the videos you will notice that the setups are just everyday, normal words or things.  If the audience has to figure out the pun in the setup, then they have to figure out how the punchline (question) goes with the joke.  If they didn’t get the pun, now when the punchline (question) is read, the audience may not get the joke in time, and you’ve made them frustrated or mad, and you’ve lost them.

The biggest comedy structure at play with Carnac is that of incongruity, in other words two or more dissimilar items together.  If it’s a three-way buildup, meaning Carnac lists off three things in the setup, those three things don’t belong together, at first glance.  But that also helps to keep the audiences attention span because they want to be able to piece together the joke.  The other comedy structure at play is that of misdirection or surprise.  Notice on Carnac’s videos from the Tonight Show that the setups (answers) aren’t puns.  You can have a pun of sorts if it’s presented the right way.  More of a word play, for example I have a joke where my answer is “purple rain”…….the question……how do you steer a purple horse?”  Obviously, I wrote “rain” as reign but since it is pronounced the same way, it’s a bit of a pun in that sense, but it’s not a pun in the traditional pun sense either.  It’s not grouping words together to make it funny.  I just say “how do you steer a purple horse”.  They are just regular groupings of phrases, words or things.  If you add puns to the setup, the audience will have to connect too many of the dots in the setup, and you will surely lose them.  I know, because I did that just about every time I hit the stage before I received coaching.

Neutrality rules – If you notice on the Tonight Show videos, Carnac is rarely, if ever mentioned in the setup at all.  You can’t tell Carnac’s opinion on any one particular topic, because the material cuts such a wide swath of topics.  Carnac can’t be a cannibal, or a dick.  Carnac on the Tonight Show doesn’t even reference his family or ex-relationships.  To do that, I feel would create division because then the audience may take sides thinking they’ve been offended.  The material is Carnac’s interpretation of the world around him.  This keeps Carnac likeable, which is important.  If the audience likes Carnac, they will be more inclined to listen attentively to him.  Plus, there are a couple of hokey one liners that are inserted into the act once in a while to keep that likeability factor intact.  It might get laughs, it might get groans, makes things a bit awkward maybe, but it will keep Carnac honest and shows that he has stumbling blocks he encounters.  He has these prognostications that are divinely inspired and he obviously wrote them because he thought they were accurate (jokes that would work).  When they don’t hit the mark every time, that’s okay.  Keeps Carnac and the audience on their toes.

Switch it up – There are a few different types of jokes Carnac does.  There are the one liners, the pairings of words/things and the three way buildup.  A good Carnac set will jump back and forth between these three different types of jokes, to keep the audience honest and to keep things fresh.

So, one might ask how I get my inspiration for Carnac material?  Well, I sometimes search Google for phrases or slogans, then try to think of punchlines for them.  Other times, I just get a thought or phrase in my head and work out the punchline from there.

It basically starts with a thought.  A word.  A phrase.  No puns, no throwing relationships under the bus.

It’s a great writing exercise for comedians to partake in, because they have to think in reverse in terms of telling jokes.  Just remember that you cannot write Carnac material in your voice or have material that will give the audience the impression that Carnac takes sides on a particular issue, or is a dick, etc.  I have spent two years performing this character and writing original material for it.  Carnac has been performed in professional comedy clubs, and it was met with great results.  If you want to help write material for Carnac, I am open to ideas, but keep the above mentioned points in mind, and do your homework.

Again, this isn’t to make anybody look bad.  I just thought that this was a good opportunity for me to explain the type of material needed and the reasons why it works the way I’ve done it.  I have studied the Carnac videos of Johnny Carson and received pointers from my comedy coach on how to approach Carnac (and who better to give me tips than a former writer from The Tonight Show)?  The points I listed above, I’ve always been mindful of when I perform.  This contributes to the characters likeability and success on stage.

If you’ve learned anything by now from following this blog, it’s that doing stand-up comedy requires more than just going up on stage and saying whatever pops into your head.  There is preparation involved.  You need a plan, and a flowing, consistent and coherent point of view.  The same goes for Carnac, with a little more preparation involved.

As always, I would love to read your thoughts on this topic.  Leave a comment below, and thanks for following along.


  1. Me
    May 3, 2018

    I’m curious. Weird Al does a parody in that he uses the original form of the song (the melody, the beat) but adds in comedic lyrics and takes the song in a different direction. Sometimes relative to the band that wrote it, sometimes relative to the subject matter of the original song, sometimes in a totally different direction like food.

    In your example, how is your Carnac a parody of the original? How are you changing it (the subject matter, the delivery, the character, the intent) to make it a parody of the original?

    • Trevor Dean
      May 3, 2018

      Good question.

      The Merriam Webster dictionary defines parody as “a piece of writing, music, etc., that imitates the style of someone or something else in an amusing way”. Based on that definition, Carnac the Mediocre is a parody of the original Carnac the Magnificent. It imitates the style in an amusing way, and all the material that I do with Carnac is original.

      In looking up the Canadian copyright law, two things are needed if I was to perform Carnac. First, the audience would need to be told as much, that my character is a parody of the original Carnac character. The second point is that I could do everything the same of Carnac the Magnificent, copying the look and even repeating the jokes word for word. The only thing I’m required to do however, is change the name of the character. But, I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could actually create Carnac material instead of copying old jokes. So far, it’s been a success. A limited success with limited results due to limited opportunity, but a success nonetheless.

  2. Me
    May 3, 2018

    well it sounds like you’ve successfully walked the legal line. So while not “stolen” you do have to acknowledge it’s been done before.

  3. r.e.
    May 4, 2018

    Trevor, the Carnac bit is nothing new, it is a variation on an old theater game in which actors have to either get another actor to say a line that the first actor received secretly, and that in and of itself has many variations around hidden dialogue etc.

    The idea of playing it straight and not for puns, is something that Keith Johnstone, and many others, have talked about in reference to comedy and improvisation relying very much on the difference in perceived status between the actors. so unless you are actually copying the contents of the envelopes and the responses to them, I wouldn’t worry.

    The thing that I believe you nailed on the head is your comment about likability and connection on stage. It is my believe that the greatest comics are the ones who relate humour that the individual can see themselves as the lead actor/actress in.

    just my two cents.

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