tips Archives - GOLD Comedy

Are any jokes off-limits? How to know if you’re punching up vs. punching down

A student in one of our workshops once tried out a joke about wanting to hide a knife in her hijab to cut the boys who tried to take it off.

Can she do that? It’s edgy, but sure.

But could a white dude do a joke about trying to take off a girl’s hijab? NOT RECOMMENDED.

This is all a way of answering the very, very common question: Are any jokes off-limits? The answer is YUP! But the real questions are: Which ones, and how do you figure it out?

Put another way:

Is stabbing people funny? NOT REALLY.

Can you do a joke about stabbing people? MAYBE!

It all depends on your joke, on your intention, and on you.

This is why people talk about punching down versus punching up.

Simply put, punching down means making jokes about people with less power than you. Punching up means making jokes about people with more power than you. When you make fun of a mean principal, you are punching up. When you make fun of the dweeby kid, you are…bullying.

Comedy is better when you punch up.

Punching up is morally preferable, generally kinder, and most likely to make the world a better place, as awesome comic and beloved friend of GOLD Negin Farsad notes. “It’s vital to understand the job comedy can do in actively providing a counterbalance to bigotry and prejudice, as well as understanding the types of humour that reinforce negative stereotypes,” she says. “I want to make sure I’m punching up, not punching down.”

But let’s also look at it simply from the level of craft. A punch line is a surprise. A punch line takes some work. A punch line reveals something new, or says a familiar thing a new way. A punch line may even, at best, not just be a rando wisecrack, but a joke that only YOU can tell: a window into your unique point of view.

So for instance when you make fun of someone short, you’re revealing that they are SHORT—and showing us nothing about what makes YOUR POV unique. When you make fun of the mean principal, you’ve got much more to work with: you can reveal something about how you relate to the grownups who boss you around, and you’ll get people on your side without ganging up. And bonus: no one in the crowd will think, “Eeep, that comic’s kind of mean.”

At the level of craft, it’s lazy to write the easiest joke about the easiest target. Comedy is about being CREATIVE and getting people to LIKE you. Do the harder work on your end and you’ll make easier for them.

Where are your up and down?

Up and down are different for different people. It all depends on how up or down YOU are on the existing power structure (#fighthepower). Straight cis white dude, up. Young woman of color with a hijab, farther down. Let’s call them Norm and Nora. Nora could make jokes about Norm. Norm probably should not make jokes about Nora.

But wait. It’s not really that simple. If Norm makes a joke that puts Nora down for being female, of color, Muslim: that’s punching down. If Norm makes a joke ABOUT sexism, racism, Islamophobia with Nora as his main character: bruh, that’s punching up. Because then he’s making fun of the existing power structure itself. Go, Norm.

#elephantintheroom

Can you make rape jokes? YUP!

Quiz: Will the better jokes be about (a) rape victim(s) or (b) perps and the culture that excuses rape, etc. etc.?

If you answered (b), go write some jokes!

There it is: there is no TOPIC that is off-limits. Not even rape! It’s the joke—the target, the POV, the intention—that requires evaluation.   

When in doubt, answer these key questions.

  1. Who or what is my target? Starting point: make sure the target of your joke—the who or what you are making fun of—has more power than you. (Margin of error: one bratty kid sibling.)
  2. Who is my audience? Do they have roughly the same up/down as you? You should be good. If not, tread more carefully. (This interesting counterpoint to the up/down idea is relevant here.)
  3. How’s my tone? YOU KNOW (and so does the crowd) if a joke is coming from a place of snarky mean, or a place of legit anger. (Sometimes legit anger can justify snarky mean, but that’s an advanced move.)
  4. How’s the joke doing? If it’s crushing with the people you want it to crush with, then you’re probably doing fine. (If it’s crushing with a**holes, maybe let it go.) And if it’s just not working at all, even after some tinkering, it’s just not working. Let go of the idea (usually pushed by people on the higher end of the up/down) that COMEDY IS SUPPOSED TO MAKE PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE or whatever. Naw. It’s supposed to make people laugh.
  5. What does my gut say? How do you feel when you tell this joke? Delighted and energized, or a little tight and squinched up? Your gut knows what’s up. Your gut is a tough crowd, but a good one. If your gut feels off, maybe the joke is, too. If your gut feels good, punch on!

Read Lynn’s bio here.

Five steps to ace your improv audition

So you wanna be on an improv team? Great! Being on a team is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Why? For one thing, the key tenets of improv—listening, being a supportive team member, building on what’s given — apply to pretty much everything else. “One of the sayings of my improv group was, ‘Take improv off the stage and into life,’” says Abigail Schneider, former director of the Yale Ex!t Players. Also, you’ll make lifelong friends, and “group mind”—that zone you get into with a good team on a good night—is its own magical nirvana for comedy nerds.

Improv classes at UCB helped me to find my voice as an actor, a writer, and a sketch comedian. Improv for many is their passion and chosen art form, but for me it was a jumping off point to a deeper understanding of other forms of comedy. The improv teams that I joined while I was training allowed me to latch on to funny patterns and spot material more easily out in the real world, which has helped with writing in all the forms I do: essay, standup, sketch, and script-writing. As an actor, improv taught me about responding truthfully and listening. More important than all those things: improv gave me a shared language that I use to this day when I collaborate with other comedy writers.

Before you get in that audition room, here’s what you need to do.

Take a class.

It doesn’t have to be expensive, and the teacher does not have to be famous. Read class reviews and look for important comments like, “I felt safe to make lots of mistakes,” “I had FUN,” “I met great people,” and “My confidence is higher after taking this class.” Conversely, avoid classes that prompt comments like, “I lost a finger in this class,” “I hate myself more than ever upon graduation,” or “Turns out I’m not funny.” Improv is, at its core, empowering when it’s taught correctly.

If you can’t take a class, read Truth in Comedy by Chana Halpern and Del Close and Impro by Keith Johnstone. Actually, read those in addition to the class. (Skim the Johnstone. It’s the definitive text, but it’s ponderous.) (Abigail also recommends Improvisation at the Speed of Life:TJ and Dave’s Book.)

See a lot of improv — especially by the team you want to join.

Remember that your special voice will make you an asset to the team, but it doesn’t hurt at all to know the existing style of the team before you join it. Every comedy group, sketch or improv, has its own voice, and it pays to be familiar with the one you want to join.

Introduce yourself to the team.

Networking can be scary, but that improv class taught you fearlessness (or began the journey toward it), and you are on a mission to bring laughter to the world—a journey that begins with a single step. March right up after a show and say, “Hello! Your team is awesome! I’m auditioning soon! See you there!” (But make that your own, maybe with fewer exclamation points, ya know?)

I just noticed that I basically told you to stalk the team. Don’t stalk the team. Just be familiar with them and become a familiar face to them. Without night-vision goggles or grappling hooks.

Get your head in the game.

Get lots of sleep the night before. Take care of your precious brain, because that’s what makes you a funny human. Then the best thing you can do is “stop thinking about improv,” says Carsen Smith, GOLD’s 2017 summer intern and director of Vanderbilt University’s Tongue ‘n’ Cheek.

What to do instead? Before you go into the room, sit in a quiet spot with your hand on your heart and BREATHE. Soften your sternum and say “Thank you, self, for showing up today! This is gonna be a special opportunity to share my superpowers with fun people!”

Okay, maybe you’re thinking, “Wowww, this listicle just took a turn for the truly woo-woo.Fair point. But remember that comedy is about finding the truth. If you want to make people laugh, you must be grounded, relaxed, and ready to listen and say what’s true for you. This starts with your heart.

A friend of mine took an improv workshop with the actor Alan Arkin, who was part of the Chicago community that created improvisational theater in the 1950s. He talked about “the zone,” and how addictive it can be, and how chasing that feeling can actually kill your comedy dead. For him, letting go of that chase, being self-aware and in touch with his truth; and physically taking his hand from his head to his heart to remind himself where the truth is—that’s his secret to great improv, as well as a good life. Sometimes woo-woo is good, folks. Don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it.

Side note: you can also get your head in the game by being like, “Head, this is a game.” GOLD workshop alum Tessa Abedon, who just got into Cheap Sox in her first year at Tufts, says: “What works for me is to think of it not as an audition, but as a game. I always remember how the games I used to play with my sisters included making up characters and really believing we were who we said, simply because it was fun. Embrace the chance to play, even as an adult.”

Listen to your scene partners.

Okay! Good, you’re still reading! We got through the witchy part together. The next step is to NOT PANIC. Whenever you are onstage, and even when you’re off, stay in the moment, and don’t try to make yourself shine by out-yukking everyone else. That’s standup. This is improv.

Improv has no script, props, stage design, or costumes. So, the only thing you have is your scene partner, which is terrifying, but also great. You guys are in it together and you have to work together, by listening, to create a great scene,” notes Abigail Schneider. “And listening doesn’t just mean aurally, but physically and emotionally as well.”

I get it: Auditions are nerve-racking. That’s what’s exciting and/or vomitous, or both, depending on how you frame it. But whether you’re a thrill-seeker or an introvert who likes to make people giggle, you’ll be best served by keeping your knees lightly bent, breathing, feeling your feet on the floor. Your body will help you listen. Remember these physical things, and you will be able to apply everything you learned in class: Yes-and-ing, listening, and building relationships with your scene partners.

BONUS STEP!

Right after your audition, write down one thing you did fantastically well. Your brain will naturally be more aware of ways that you screwed up, and that’s okay. Brains are dicks like that. But if you want to make yourself a better improviser, force yourself to consciously note what you did well. That way you’ll be sure to grow that skill and CRUSH IT again next time you audition. Because you’re going to have many auditions. This is only one, not the only one.

Congrats! You’ve begun the marathon! Here’s to many more scary and wonderful comedy experiences.

Got any improv-related audition stories? Successes and failures equally welcome — it’s all part of the journey. Share with us @GOLDcmdy!


Read Emma’s bio here.

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How to make your PowerPoint funnier

When it comes to putting people to sleep, not even Ambien can rival the prowess of the PowerPoint. Invented in 1990 by technology and sleep wizard Bill Gates, the PowerPoint has been sedating students, coworkers, and even our loved ones for almost three decades. My grandmother went to a timeshare presentation in April and STILL hasn’t woken up.

An obvious solution: make it funny. A Harvard Business School study confirms that humor—when it works—makes people listen more closely and see you as confident and competent.

At work and in general—”men are more free to bomb,” says comedian Allison Goldberg, who works with Jen Jamula at GoldJam Creative to bring comedy and creativity into workplaces. “Men are just given a lot more leeway for everything. A guy bombs and people forget it, a woman does and people don’t.”

But DO NOT FEAR. The stakes may feel high, but remember: the bar is low. This is your sales meeting, not 2 Dope Queens. “The crowd is not expecting to laugh their asses off,” says Goldberg. Keep in mind that every workplace environment is different. It’s crucial to know your audience and to have a grasp on what they will find both appropriate and funny. 

Here are our tips for sprinkling your PowerPoint with comedy gold.

1. Unexpected animations

If you took an Intro to Computers class in middle school, you probably learned how to use Animations. They allow text, words, and pictures to have a little bit of motion. And alongside language and sound, motion is a crucial tenet of any comedy. Which is why pet rocks were never that funny.

This example below shows how an animation can spice up an otherwise boring presentation about Shia LaBeouf’s mug.

The Animations tool bar is located on the main toolbar between Transitions and Slideshow. You can give your animations a sudden entrance, an exaggerated emphasis, or even a sudden exit for a quick laugh.

2. Silly acronyms

This is one of my all-time favorite bits. There are a few ways to go about this joke. Some options include the nonsense acronym, the forced acronym, or the impossible to remember acronym. Check out these various examples about how to organize your computer’s desktop.

A nonsense acronym creates an acronym that is wholly unhelpful in completing the task.

The forced acronym uses a lot of roundabout letters to achieve its purpose.

And finally, there’s the impossible-to-remember acronym. This acronym actually contains the necessary information but assumes that the audience can remember many jumbled letters.

This particular joke is especially effective if you attempt to pronounce the acronym in your presentation. It might even be fun to get your audience to try and pronounce it too!

3. Non-sequitur statistics

Paul Rudd perfected this joke in the hit film Anchorman. When describing his cologne “Sex Panther” and its ability to pick up women, Rudd’s character repeatedly cites that “60% of the time, it works every time.” This joke can easily be inserted into any PowerPoint that involves quantifiable statistics.

Take this example joke slide that would be perfect for anyone in the kayaking business. (This slide is great because it uses the ‘Rule of Three:’ two real statistics and one silly one.)

This joke always reminds me of the time my ex-boyfriend said he only “50% cheated on me,” which was his way of saying that he had made out with another guy.

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4. Punchline-set up slides

What better way to be funny in a PowerPoint than setting yourself up for a killer punchline? These kinds of jokes are used all the time on Late Night TV shows and on famous segments like SNL’s Weekend Update. Personally, I find these kinds of jokes are most effective when the setup is said verbally (as opposed to on a slide) and the punchline is a simple image or statement on the next slide.

Here’s an example:

In your speech, create the set-up by saying something in the form of a question. If your presentation were about how to improve the quality of living in your Quebec neighborhood, you’d say something along the lines of, “So how do we reduce widespread noise pollution?”

After an appropriate “beat,” or comedic moment of silence, the punchline slide would be revealed:

Of course, this example takes a strong stance on Canadian rock band Nickelback and may not be appropriate for a pitch with . But hopefully it can inspire you to create the perfect punchline that works for your presentation!

5. Random ‘palate cleanser’ slide

Is your presentation droning on and on? Or perhaps you’re giving a presentation about a heavier, more serious topic. Maybe it’s time for a palate cleanser. These random slides can range from silly animals photos, to memes, or even an embarrassing photo from your childhood.

During a heavy presentation about sexism and violence against women in media, feminist author and friend of GOLD Comedy Jenn Pozner once employed a palate cleanser by including a slide with “some baby kittens hanging from a few pairs of underpants on a clothesline.” Mid-presentation, she exclaimed, “KITTENS! Deep breath. 1… 2… 3… OK, feel better? Good. Moving on.” This was a great way for Jenn to both make her audience feel more at ease and to add humor to a tense lecture.

Take this slide, as another example of a palate cleanser.

Needless to say, I went to my mom for my Halloween costume the next year.

6. End with a Q&A… for the audience

Most presentations conclude with a question and answer section where the audience asks the presenter about what they just heard. Before doing this, I recommend you flip the script and ask the audience questions about your presentation material.

This is a great time to call people out if you know them by name and/or have a relatively informal relationship with them. People loved being acknowledged during presentations and love being called out for not paying attention even more!

Offer candy or other small rewards to people that get questions right. This keeps people engaged and can be a great way to end your presentation!

Or your article about making funny PowerPoints!

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CARSEN SMITH (intern, branding and content) performs standup and improv in New York City. She co-created the improvised cooking show “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” which ran at Nashville’s Third Coast Comedy Club. @carsenasmith

How to survive your first open mic



My first open mic took place in a basement on a Saturday at 4:30 in the afternoon. My topics included being a grimy “cute” girl, Ariana Grande’s donut scandal vs. Bill Cosby’s rape accusations, Oedipus, and incest galore! To my utter disbelief, the comics in the room mustered mild chuckles, which to me, felt like George Carlin performing for an audience of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden. Before I knew it, my five minutes were up. The host took the stage after me announcing, “That was your first time? And you went straight into masturbation. Wow.” I was on cloud 9.

I’ve been performing standup for about 13 months now, averaging 12 open mics per week. I can confidently say that I’ve learned a thing or two about how to survive an open mic.

1.    Attend an open mic to watch.

“Auditing” a mic will help you get a feel for the expectations. You’ll see each comic going up one after the other, casually listing off their jokes from notebooks. If you’re like me, you’ll think, “I can do that! I’m much funnier than guy A, guy B, and ESPECIALLY guy C. I can do it!” It’ll give you the deranged self-confidence necessary to be just as unfunny as everyone else.

2.     Prepare your jokes.

Many people attend open mics thinking they’ll speak off the cuff, which is a mistake. Perhaps you’re quick witted, but wit runs out of gas real fast when there is no arc to what you’re saying. Additionally, if you’re new to public speaking, you don’t know how you’ll react speaking in front of a room of strangers, especially if your joke bombs. To avoid freezing up, it’s best to prepare material.

Don’t know where to start? Free write and pick a few ideas to hone in on. For my first time, I found it helpful to bounce my ideas off of other people. If your closest friends look at you like an extraterrestrial creature, it might not connect with a room full of strangers.

Remember, you can bring your notes on stage. Whenever I’m working out new material, I’ll bring up a set list of keywords. The words jog my memory so I don’t end up reading my jokes off the page and disengaging from the room.

3.     Find out how the mic runs.

Do you need to sign up in advance? If so, when does the sign up period begin? Does the mic cap the amount of performers? Do you need to pay to perform? How many minutes will you get? At what point will the host light you (letting you know how much time you have left) and from where in the room?

I once tried to get on an open mic in Australia, but when I got there 40 minutes early, they told me I had to sign up a week in advance. This is abnormal for New York, but it might be how it’s done in your city.

You can find open mics in your city via badslava or freemics.

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4.     Record yourself.

It won’t help you get through your first open mic, but it’ll serve as a memento and a reminder of how much you’ve grown (down the line). Moving forward, it’s important to record your sets in order to understand where your jokes went right or wrong and what you can improve upon. Like many comedians, I record every set on the voice memos app on my phone.  

5.     Move the mic stand.

If you choose to take the mic out of the stand, it’s best to move it to the side or behind you. To see a mic stand in front of a performer is a barrier and a distraction. Not only does it serve as a visual irritant to onlookers, but it makes you, the performer, seem cagey. The stand prevents you from physically engaging with the room.

If you’re a real silly billy, you’ll leave the mic in the stand and pick the whole damn thing up because you’re a rebel and no one can tell you what to do!

6.   Keep the mic at your chin.

When I first started, I had a bad habit of waving the mic around as I was speaking. If you’re waving the mic around, no one can hear your funnies, and more importantly, no one will laugh. Keep the mic at chin level and a few inches away from your face. If you’re yelling, pull that mic away so that everyone in the room doesn’t hate you from permanently damaging their eardrums…unless you’re a cool bad boy/girl who’s into that sort of thing, in which case, do you.

7.   Tell everyone it’s your first open mic.

Most open mic-ers tune out if they don’t recognize you. For the sake of your self-esteem, you’re going to want people to look up from their phones and listen. When you mention it’s your first time, people will be generally supportive, curious, and excited to hear what you have to say. Why? Because everybody remembers their own first time.

8.     Know it’s normal to be afraid.

It took me TWO years to find the courage to attend my first open mic. At 21, I drunkenly announced my big dreams of being the next Chelsea Peretti to a working stand-up comedian (I have no regrets), but it took some growing up for me to overcome my most paralyzing fear: public speaking. The fear never went away. In fact, I had nervous diarrhea leading up to my first open mic and spent the following twenty to forty mics dry-heaving and hiding in the bathroom until they called my name. What changed at 23, as opposed to 21, was that I decided I wasn’t going to let phobias dictate my life choices. Don’t let them dictate yours!

9. SURPRISE, none of my advice matters.

At the end of the day, no tips or tricks about how to perform will guarantee 100% success. What’s most important is getting on stage and speaking, over and over again, no matter what. That is how you become a comedian.

So go forth! Be funny!

BLAIR DAWSON (intern, workshops) is a standup comic and improvisor who produces and co-hosts a monthly storytelling and stand-up show sponsored by Babeland called  “U Up?” @UrGirlBlair

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The 5.5 essential types of jokes

How do you take an idea that sounds funny—dorky parents, stupid dress codes, the fall of Rome—and turn it into an actual joke? The first step is to learn, practice, and master the 6 essential types of jokes.

Maybe you’re thinking: “But when you deconstruct a joke, it’s not funny!” MAYBE NOT. But if you don’t CONSTRUCT a joke, it won’t be funny in the first place.

Of course, these six are not the only types of jokes in the world. But we think they’re the best place to start.

1. Setup…punch

If you had to boil all joke structures down to one, this would be it. You set people up to expect one thing, but then POW! Surprise! You went in a different and unexpected direction—yet one that, once you hear it, makes sense in a whole new way. That’s the punch.

Can you guess the classic, quintessential example? Hint: it’s perfect because it’s so short—only four words! We’ll give you a second.

Don’t know? Well, it’s an oldie. Hint: it’s sexist!

Here you go: “Take my wife. Please.”

See how Henny Youngman did that?

“Take my wife” = “Take, for example, my wife. I am about to tell an amusing story about how much I love and respect her.”

“…Please.” = OH SNAP! “Take her away from me, for she is an annoying unattractive nag!”

(We like the Cameron Esposito/Rhea Butcher version better)

Maysoon Zayid, who has cerebral palsy, uses a classic setup/punch to open her set and introduce her physical condition: “I’m not drunk. But the doctor who delivered me was.”

Here are two more little gems from GOLD’s own pilot workshop alums:

Emika: “I love to inspire people. I also love to see them fail.”

Thea: “I am not just a nerd. I am also a geek.”

2. Triple/Lists

Triple

Otherwise known as the “rule of three.” Basically, it’s setup, setup, PUNCH. The #3 doesn’t have to be a knock-your-socks-off M. Night Shyamalan shocker; it just has to be different from #s 1 and 2. This structure can follow many patterns, such as:

  1. Normal, normal, RANDOM. (Spot the example in the first sentence of this article!)
  2. Normal, normal, ALARMING. Here’s a seasonal offering from Jon Stewart: “I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
  3. General, general, SUPER SPECIFIC or short, short, REALLY LONG. Elicia Sanchez: “I was a super nerd when I was a kid. I liked video games, I liked comic books, I was the youngest mage in the D&D campaign I was part of with 30-year-olds at the Yardbirds in Centralia, Washington.”

List

Most famous, least safe for work/school: George Carlin’s “7 words you can’t say on TV,” which he refined and supersized over the years.

Lists:

  1. Have more than three elements (otherwise they’re triples!)
  2. Work best when the elements contrast all over the place. Here’s one from GOLD workshop alum Uma: “I have a bunch of really weird fears. Wax Vacs, heights, loneliness, darkness, Russia, transphobia, homophobia, white supremacists, nails, and push pins.”
  3. Can be funny by virtue of being extremely, even uncomfortably long. (Then it’s more about form than content, and also about delivery–the faster the better.)

3. Comparisons

Simile

You know this one! From English class! Here’s one from GOLD ComedyTM founder Lynn Harris, who used to play ice hockey. “You guys, we just won a tournament in Canada. We actually even beat a Canadian team. That’s like beating the Italians at opera!”

“It looks like a Bedazzler threw up on it.” – Tiffany Hadish in Girls Trip

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4. Character/Act-out

This is more about imitation than impersonation. You’re not showing off your DeNiro impression (please don’t); you’re following the age-old rule of “SHOW, don’t TELL.” Instead of just saying “My bio teacher has the most annoying voice,” DO THE VOICE. It doesn’t have to be accurate. It just has to be funny.

Advanced: Character can also be commentary. See how Sasheer Zamata slams the racist caricatures on radio ads targeted to black people. If she didn’t actually do the voices, she’d just be angry. Doing the voices makes her FUNNYangry.

5. Callback

A reference to an earlier joke or standout word. Callbacks themselves don’t even have to be funny. Audiences love them because they feel in on things. They’re also great to close with. YARDBIRDS!

5.5 Tag

A tag is just that…a bonus joke tagged onto the end of what is already a complete joke. The joke is complete without it. But the tag gets you a free extra laugh.

Here’s the great part. A tag actually doesn’t have to be a fully formed joke. You can actually just:

  1. Repeat a word or underscore an emotion from your joke. As in: “Yup. Weird.” or “YIKES”. Or even just: “Yeah, so THAT happened.”
  2. Add detail that builds the joke and stretches out the laugh. As in this bit from Brooke Van Poppelen: “Do you ever put on your workout clothes, and then you’re like, ‘Yeah, that feels like enough’-? And then you watch eight hours of House Hunters? International!” “International” is a tag. Not a separate joke, just a tiny add-on that gets a bonus laugh.

Read Lynn’s bio.