Writing Stand Up Comedy

By no means am I the funniest comedian or the best joke writer. But quite regularly, either through conversation or by being asked, I’ve found myself explaining my thoughts on comedy writing. This has happened frequently enough that I thought it might be useful to write my thoughts down for anyone who may be interested. For those who are interested my thoughts on the matter can pretty much be summarized as follows: If you’re a stand up comedian, and you aren’t sitting down to write jokes you are wasting your time.

I understand that some comedians will take offence to that. After all the ultimate goal of stand up comedy is to stand up in front of lots of people and speak in a way that makes them laugh. That’s very different from writing, where you sit silently, by yourself,  putting words on a page without any immediate feedback. So why would any comedian spend the time writing when it is so different from their actual goal? Because It’s a numbers game. Plain and simple.

It takes a long time to get good at something, and comedy is no exception. The more time you spend working at it the faster you’ll get better. If you’re  an open-mic comedian who only works at being funny while on stage,  you can do that for maybe 15 minutes a night. And that’s only if you’re running from show to show, hustling producers for stage time. If you were somehow able to do that 7 nights in a row you’d be racking up less than 2 hours a week where you were working on being funny. Someone writing jokes for 4 hours on a Sunday morning just spent twice that time getting better. Of course nothing is funny until it is funny on stage and if you never perform you’re not a comedian, but from this example it should be clear that there are vast amounts of time available where you are not performing. The comedian who uses that off-stage time writing will get better sooner.

Of course that whole number game only works if writing is actually producing something valuable, and that’s where some comedians have an issue with writing. Some people will say that they can’t write, or that when they tried to it wasn’t funny or sounded too formal and written. Some will say that when they sit down they can’t think of anything that is funny. To which I say: Of course. Of course you didn’t write wonderfully polished, perfectly formed jokes. Of course you weren’t struck with pure comedic inspiration the moment you sat down. Luckily that’s not the point. At least not at first. The goal is to learn how to mimic your stage voice on paper. By doing this you’re creating yourself a test environment, a place where you can try out a joke without an audience or a microphone.  Learning to write in your stage voice is like the Karate Kid learning “wax-on and wax-off”, it’s the basic skill you’re going to need to effectively test new jokes later on.

The first skill you’ll need to build your test environment may seem completely unrelated to writing, or performing, but is vitally important. You need to learn to listen.  Being a comedian you should be able to watch other comedians critically. You should be able to sit in the audience, actively listen to the jokes and say “that set-up is too long”; “they should have used a different word there” or even “I don’t know why but that doesn’t sound right.” If you’re not doing that, you should. Why? Because you need to learn to look for the same flaws in your own set.

We’ve all met a comedian who will get off stage and excitedly claim that they “killed” when they definitely did not. Everyone in the audience saw them babble aimlessly for 5 minutes and then get one small laugh right at the end. That happens because it’s incredibly difficult to be self-aware when you are on stage. There are dozens of things that you are trying to keep your mind on when performing: what joke is coming next, the wording of that new tag, whether you’re in the light, how you’re holding the microphone, how much time you’ve done, and so on. There is just no way you can juggle all that and critically analyse your performance in real time. That’s why you should record your sets so you can sit down later and listen to yourself as if you were an audience member. You’ll be surprised how long you go between laughter, how wordy things are or how poorly a joke went that you thought went well.

Thinking you don’t need to listen to other comedians, or review your own set because you are some sort of comedic genius who knows they “kill” is arrogant, delusional and counter-productive. Listen critically to others and listen critically to yourself.

Now that you’re recording your sets and learning to listen critically to other comics you’re ready to start learning to write in your own stage voice. Doing that is an iterative process and one that never really ends. You write something down how you think it should be said, then you perform it. When you sit down to write again listen to the recording and compare it to what you wrote.  At certain times you will say things exactly how you wrote them and it will sound awkward, forced and wordy. At other times you will say things differently than how you wrote them and it will sound fluid, natural and funny. In both these cases rewrite the joke to try and get closer to your natural stage voice. Then try it all over again. Keep what’s funny, get rid of what’s not.

Do this enough times and you’ll start having a good sense of how things you write translate to how they will sound on stage. The writing will become a performance for the critical audience you’ve developed in your brain.

Once you’re good at mimicking your stage voice you can spend those 4 hours on a Sunday morning telling the same joke to yourself over and over again. Each time you can evaluate how it sounds to that artificial critical audience in your head. You can switch up the order, you can change words, try different references. You’ll get a sense of what seems funny and what doesn’t and choose the things that are mostly likely to succeed. Inevitably you’ll come across choices that a real audience will have to decide, like whether it’s funnier to reference a pig or a dog in a joke. That’s an added benefit. You now know how to best use those precious minutes of stage time. You’ll know to try it once referencing a pig, once referencing a dog and see which one works better. What you won’t have to do is hum and haw trying to think of the name of that one movie, or get to the end of the joke and realize you don’t have an ending. All that finicky stuff can be sorted out when you have time to think about it, and you won’t have to waste stage time fumbling through it.

There will also be times you will get it 100% wrong. You will have written something you thought was funny and it will crash and burn when you take it on stage. Record it, listen to it, and learn from it. Writing doesn’t guarantee anything, it just increases your odds.
A note on what I mean by “writing”

In the above article I used the term “writing” fairly literally to mean sitting down and putting a pen to paper. This is what I do but by no means is it the only way to “write.” It’s a creative process and every artist is going to approach it differently. I would also consider standing in front of your bathroom mirror trying out bits a form of writing as long as you’re making some record of what you’re doing (notes in a book or computer about what you’ve tried and what you’re going to change, or even an audio or visual recording). The most important thing about any writing process is that its something that you do formally.

Many times I’ve tricked myself into believing that if I’m walking down the street thinking of a new joke I want to try out that I’ve been writing. Then when it comes time to perform that joke it becomes clear I haven’t thought it out at all. I have no idea how to get from one idea to another, there is no ending, I didn’t think about how I was going to phrase something and the one part I had thought about suffers. I didn’t write the joke.  Having a formal process where you go through and catch all the loose ends is what makes it “writing.” Making notes is how you guarantee that your brain isn’t skipping over something important like a punchline.