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Where to Start
So you want to write comedy about an idea you have but you don’t know how to get to the funny stuff.
Or you might even be asking where do I even start?
Has this ever happened to you?
Below you’ll find several ways to approach a single word or simple subject and be able to write comedy about it.
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Most people create jokes by coincidence; we all do this, but relying only on coincidence can leave a comedy writer stranded, waiting for the coincidence to occur.
This sometimes leaves us without writing new comedy material for days, sometimes weeks… eeek!
So now for those of us who have a just a thought, a word or a simple subject we can now apply a couple of relatively easy applications and really start to write comedy.
In this article I’m going to show you 5 Ways to Write Comedy from simple words and subjects.
All of these approaches are proven approaches I’ve used to come up with material for my act or shows I’ve written for. These techniques work for dialogue, sketches, jokes or just inspiration which has led to new ideas.
Most really good comedy has a clear association or crisp surprise. Other comedy contains irony, paradox, coincidence, retaliation, etc.
You can get all 13 comedy structures by grabbing my eBook “Breaking Comedy’s DNA.”
Let’s Write Comedy!
So, let’s get to it…
In the Comedy Clinic’s private Facebook group (set up for those who attend my 8-week stand-up classes), there was a comment from one of my students who’s brand new to comedy.
She’s a flight attendant and was trying to utilize the listing technique, a method used to flesh out concepts to develop comedy material.
One of the things I love about teaching is learning from students and what they need help with. When that happens, I figure if they are asking these questions, maybe others are too. So I put together some further instruction to share with other students of comedy.
The listing technique is one way to create jokes based on a single subject, (you can see it in action in this video).
The object is to start with that single subject and then find a secondary element by using a variety of methods.
The goal is to find the funny in the subject matter.
These are NOT the ONLY methods, but these are very effective and the most widely used by the most successful comedy writers.
It’s important to remember that this is a FIRST DRAFT exercise and the resulting ideas and or material may or may not be the finished product.
Sometimes the exercises lead to solid jokes, sometimes they are a gateway to inspiration to help the writer create sketches, or even show or movie concepts, but aren’t quite in the shape they need to be in for a stand-up performance… yet.
As most of you already know, when you write comedy the first draft is its infancy. Then you rewrite. When you get it on the stage the material is still in its adolescence.
When you perform it for an audience there are usually some additional adjustments that get made as new inspirations occur while you’re on the stage as the material begins to mature.
The purpose is to create a process for yourself so you can start with a subject and come up with material. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t happen for you right away. That’s not creative! 🙂
So let’s get to it!
Start with a Subject:
- Flight Attendant.
Now let’s look at the 5 different approaches to take the simple subject of ‘Flight Attendant’ and develop the comedy.
NOTE: Steps 1-5 Below are separate strategies. This is not a combined strategy. Although you could use them all to really drill down and flesh out a comedy bit.
Create an Analogy.
Being a flight attendant is like: find something (usually unrelated to being a flight attendant) with which to draw the analogy. Now you have two clearly different ideas converging, (Incongruity).
What if we chose “Waitress” Being a flight attendant is like being a waitress.
You might come up with something like this set up, punchline, act-out combination:
“I’m a flight attendant. I hate when passengers treat you like you’re a waitress. The difference is that a flight attendant is flying at 38-thousand feet and if the shit hits the fan, we’ve got to be there to assist the passengers… even at our own peril. First of all, flight attendants are NOT waitresses. I’ve been a waitress at a few different restaurants, and I’ve never had to explain to a customer where all the exits are located before they start on their meal.
- So that’s why I don’t like passengers who treat me like a waitress. “Treat me like a waitress, I’ll act like a waitress… like if the shit hits the fan and this flying germ tube catches on fire, if I was a waitress, I’m not gonna assist your ass at my own peril. I’ll be the first out that door! (ACT-OUT: Yelling back to them) “There are four emergency exits, but I’m not showing them to you, cuz I’m a waitress! Enjoy your peanuts, bitches!”
- IDEA: The flight attendant safety briefing is like a waitress telling her table what the specials are that evening. (You could develop a routine here using similar signals a flight attendant uses when giving her safety briefing, as you describe the chef’s specials).
Remember: We started with nothing at the beginning of this exercise. But by simply applying analogy, we have a bit:
Add a Descriptor to the Subject
of “flight attendant.”
Ask yourself what kind of flight attendant? What if you added a descriptor that also defines one of your personal weaknesses?
- Anger management issues?
- Hormonal? Anytime you ask the flight attendant a question, she responds with (ACT OUT: BIG SIGH) “WHATEVER!”
- Once you have that in place you can use the incongruity technique to run a Top 10 List. “Top 10 Reasons You Know Your Flight Attendant is Hormonal.”
(Remember, the Top 10 exercise is used to generate punchlines, not for you to read off a list. That was Letterman’s bag).
Facts about flight attendants.
You can come up with your own, then look up stuff on the internet. On quick glance, I came up with this:
- Flight attendants have strict luggage restrictions imposed on them by some airlines. One carry-on bag and a personal bag. It’s a safety issue. This way it’s impossible for any flight attendants to ever bring ALL their baggage. Think about it! On a typical flight for Southwest, there are 3 flight attendants. That’s a LOT of Daddy issues!
- Flight attendants don’t age-out. Pilots are federally mandated to retire at age 65. Flight attendants don’t have to. So at Southwest Airlines, Bags may fly free, but Old Bags fly forever.
Definition of a Flight Attendant.
Definitions give you a great chance to do a Compare and Contrast riff.
- What’s different about being a Southwest Flight attendant than being a flight attendant at one of the other airlines?
Cliché Reformation or Take-off: and Simple Truth.
- There are a lot of phrases used on an airline that create an opportunity to be reformed with an unexpected ending for a quick laugh.
- “In the case of a darkened or smoke-filled cabin, safety strips on the floor will be illuminated, leading you right to the cockpit door where you can get your hands on the captain who got us into this mess in the first place.”
- *Do not unfasten your seatbelt until the plane comes to a full and complete stop. Why do they say full AND complete? Wouldn’t “full” stop or “complete” stop make it clear enough?
- And what’s so special about the smoke detector in the lavatory? There’s a special law that protects it; “Federal Regulations prohibit the tampering with or destroying a lavatory smoke detector.” It’s like they’re doing a little ‘wink-wink.’ You can fuck with the flight attendants all you want, but if you even tamper with that smoke detector, the feds will drag you to prison!
Hope this helps! And…
Remember, I am here for YOUR comfort and safety.
Hope this pre-flight instruction was helpful in your endeavor to write comedy. If you need more assistance, you’ll find a Joke Doctor button illuminated on the console above your head. Feel free to press that button and a Joke Doctor will help you as soon as it is safely possible, but if I come to your seat only to find that you’re phone is NOT in airplane mode, I’m gonna tell the feds that you tampered with a smoke detector.
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I just got an email from a young comedian who was worried about doing the same jokes he did last time he was on stage; “… it’s a ‘bringer show‘ and I’m expected to have 5 people there. My friends are coming and if I do the same jokes it’s going to be boring.”
I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard this.
Let me share something with you about that:
There’s nothing wrong with doing the same material you did the last time…
… as long as it’s great material!
I’ve been doing stand-up for 27 years. I work a lot. I’m constantly writing new material. But I have a core set that I’ve developed that gets a great response and often when I’m doing my hour or 90-minute show, it gets a standing ovation.
I have people come to see me who have seen me before. Sometimes they ask me to do their favorite bits. If it works into what I’m doing that road trip, I’ll pop it in.
A while back, I was doing a week in Oklahoma City and this biker walks up to me before the show and says, “Hey Man! I saw you here a while back and I want you to do that ‘Cow’ routine that you did last time. Brought the entire chapter with me. Forty of us bikers rode over an hour just to see ya.”
I looked at the table he referred to and there they were; forty bikers.
You know what? You could be damn sure I did the request!
When some random person approaches you in a club and makes a request based on what they saw the last time it should speak to you as a performer.
It says that you left an impression and, to them, the material was memorable and had an impact on them and they want to hear it again.
So guess what? You’re proabably NOT “boring” them.
Sometimes, as I’m developing my new act, someone might come up to me after a show and say, “I wish you did that bit you do about Mormons. I love that bit.”
In another example, Brian Kiley, who’s the head monologue writer over at The Conan O’Brien Show, is a local favorite in L.A. clubs.
He is often doing the exact same 7-10 minutes and you’ll hear a lot of jokes you’ve heard him do at other times.
He’s usually honing and testing the set because he has a T.V. spot coming up that he’s rehearsing for.
But here’s the cool part: whenever he’s on stage, not only is the audience laughing, but the back of the comedy club will be lined with comedians who’ve heard him before. His jokes are so strong and well-written that the comedians want to hear them again.
It’s the same reason we watch certain movies again or listen to our favorite songs, because they resonate with us and they make us laugh, cry or reminisce.
When you song search on Spotify, are you usually looking for songs you don’t know, or songs you’ve heard before and want to hear again?
When I was younger they had these things called comedy albums. (LOL!) Then they had comedy cd’s, then comedy VHS videos; now it’s DVD’s, links, netflix and YouTube.
But back in the day I had George Carlin’s albums, Richard Pryor’s, Steven Martin’s. We didn’t just listen to those albums one time, we listen to them–I don’t know–hundreds of times?
I remember Eddie Murphy’s ‘Delirious’. I had the album and the video. I watched it over and over again. Same routine. Loved it each time. Who says we don’t want to hear the same jokes?
Just because they are the same jokes, doesn’t make them ‘lame’ jokes.
Remember, even if your friends are reluctant to laugh at they jokes they’ve heard, it doesn’t matter because the audience is always different and if the material is awesome, the people who haven’t heard it will be laughing. And I assure you, because laughter is a socially contagious experience, your friends will be laughing too.
When you’re starting out, I cannot emphasize the importance of building that core act. You should do it constantly, revise, refine and polish. Add act-outs, tags and toppers. Until it crushes.
Worrying about your friends hearing the same jokes is counter-productive to you really developing and polishing your act. Not to mention that it can have a cascading negative impact on your development.
It limits you because if you’re always doing new material you never get to ‘own’ it. Therefore you’re always somewhat in your head and never truly present and in the moment.
As a result you never come across as utterly confident and if you’re not utterly confident, nobody in television will want to book you and your friends will still experience discomfort and won’t want to come to your next show anyway.
So don’t worry so much about your friends. Throw in a new joke or two into your core set and develop an act that’s memorable.
Because when the 40 bikers ride over an hour to see your show and request their favorite bit, a bit they’ve heard before, you can be totally assured that you are NOT ‘BORING.’
Go get ’em!
I recently posted an ad on Facebook promoting my comedy writing workshops. If you haven’t attended, these workshops are intense. You get powerful tools to write comedy on just about anything. But that’s not the point of this post.
When those ads run there’s a place you can leave comments, click “like” or “share.” When people click the ad they are taken to a page and invited to watch four writing tutorial videos.
The first video is on how to write 15-20 jokes on a single headline during breakfast.
What fascinated me was how quickly this ad was shared and liked. It received some really heart-warming comments like, “Amazing work, man!” and “Wow! Loved this video! When can I see the next one?” But again, that’s not exactly what this post is about.
The real fascination came from the skeptics. I try to avoid using the word “haters,” (it seems overused and a bit cliche), but the vitriol coming from the skeptics really urges you to lean toward the word “haters.”
The stuff that spilled into the comment box! People calling me a “hack” and “idiot,” or my favorite “aging comic.” Lol! Like you would take comedy advice from someone who hasn’t put in the time?
My mentor was George Carlin and when he mentored me 25 years ago, he was 8 years older than I am right now!
Imagine if I would’ve said, “Like I’m gonna take this advice from some aging comic!”
But instead of just discarding the ridiculous and under-examined claims from these skeptics, I decided to use them to address some misconceptions about writing your comedy.
One guy wrote, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, comedy comes from the depths of your soul.” Like that’s it. My first thought was ‘really?’
Comedy comes from the depths of your soul? That’s it? I just gotta get up on stage and talk about the depth of my soul and people are gonna laugh with me? Problem solved? Comedy gold, right?
Who needs any experience? Let’s just get up on stage and talk from the depths of our souls!
In the vast horizon of possibilities of where comedy can come from, why would anyone who’s taken any time to study this art make such a definitive and limiting statement?
Not only that, just look around! Jerry Seinfeld, “What is it with bugs?!” or “I don’t know if horses really know they’re racing. I think horses are sitting at the starting gate going, ‘I know there’s a bag of oats at the end of this and I wanna get there first.'”
Does that sound like it comes from the depths of Seinfeld’s soul?
Or take Anthony Jeselnik: “The best way to break up with a girl is like I take off a band-aid, slowly and in the shower.”
Depths of his soul? Or just a incongruous association joke about breaking up with a girl?
When you buy into the misconception that comedy only comes from the depths of our souls, you discount the silly, the ridiculous and the wildly insane.
Of course there are pieces the “depths of the soul” comment that make sense. It’s cathartic to talk about things that are deep and you have an emotional connection to. But how limiting is that statement?
It’s missing something, like, where the laugh comes from! So basically sometimes the idea can come from the depths of your soul but the comedy comes from the multiple stimuli that create laughter.
Maybe the initial idea comes from some place deep in your soul, but somewhere in the depth of your soul, some kind of laugh should occur, or guess what? It’s not comedy, it’s just sad or scary, or worse, creepy.
The relationship with my Ex is an example. It was a dark time. So the initial thoughts that inspired the material may have come from the depths of my soul, but the laughs have to be achieved through structure. In this case I use analogy and incongruous associations.
“My Ex was like a funny car; alcohol-fueled. She had the worst mood swings.
I called her the ‘Ice Princess.’ When I used to come home from a gig–before I went in the house– I would put my tongue on the front door. If it stuck, I stayed at the neighbor’s.”
One of the worst things that ever happened in my life was when my Mom was dying. The topic comes from the depths of my soul, but the laughs come from wildly exaggerating.
“Before my Mom died she had bouts of dementia. Which was a boon for me on my birthdays. She would always get me a birthday card with a hundred-dollar-bill in it. She’d be like, ‘Jerry, did I give you your birthday card?’ I be like, ‘No…’ I swear, if she was having a really bad day, I could net about a grand.”
The jokes are good. They get consistent laughs with audiences. The subject matter starts with something that may have come from the depths of my soul, but they have to engage the stimuli that triggers laughter, otherwise it’s just drivel.
In other words, the claim that comedy comes from the depths of your soul, can help us understand ONE of the possible places from which our comedy can be inspired. But stating that it’s the only place, misses the main point and it hides a vast horizon of other opportunities from our view.
Ever since the beginnings of the first attempts at comedy and comedy writing, there hasn’t been a single way to write or present comedy. There are only choices among an infinite palette of possibilities.
Ever go on a road trip with friends or family. You leave at a certain time and you expect to arrive at a certain time. So in your head you plan what happens when you get there.
If you’re going skiing, you know you’ll have time to stop at your favorite restaurant before you head up to the slopes.
If you’re camping you know you’ll have time to pitch the tent, get the fire going, cook some grub and crack a beer. But then…
Traffic stops. It doesn’t even move. There’s no off ramp. Other people are shutting off their cars. Truckers are getting out of their cabs. That’s never a good sign.
It’s a momentum killer.
That’s what happens when you stop taking action in your career.
When I started in show business, I was an actor. I had the fortunate experience of watching my Dad go through his career as an actor. There were ups and downs. Sometimes the downs were really down.
There were slow periods followed by an actor’s strike then a writer’s strike. My parents had to sell their house during that one.
Eventually my Dad hit the big job. A series regular on a show called “Murphy Brown.” Which was a top 10 show for many years. He was on that show for 10 years. The struggle paid off and he and my mom were set for life.
But the downs were brutal.
I said, “That’s not gonna happen to me.” Now it’s one thing to say that in a matter of wishful thinking and it’s another to take action. So right after I said, “That’s not gonna happen to me,” I said, “How can I make sure that doesn’t happen to me?”
In my 20’s I had flaming red hair. I was booking commercials like crazy. Then at some point, my hair started to recede. I wasn’t booking as many as before.
One of my casting directors, Sheila Manning, said, “We love you Jerry, but with that baby face and receding hairline, we just don’t know where to cast you.”
I was suffering the Ron Howard effect.
Some if you will be too young to understand this, but Ron Howard was an actor before he was a director and producer. He had–and still has–a baby face and is completely bald on top. It was hard to cast him with that look. He knew it, so he did a lateral move into directing.
I thank my lucky stars for Sheila Manning, her support and her honesty made me understand that it wasn’t my acting and that I had to figure out a solution to be able to make money without giving up on my creativity.
I thought was else can I do and still be in show business?
I saw an ad for a comedy class and I enrolled. I learned some joke writing concepts.
I eventually left the class because the teacher yelled at me for helping a fellow student.
I know, weird right?
Immediately I started to go to open mics, then I studied all the comedians who made me laugh. I mean really broke it down. I applied 4-8 hours per day to writing jokes and studying comedians.
Then went to 7-10 open mics a week. I noticed that all the comedians I liked had a definite structure to their material. I counted the amount of laughs they got per minute and what triggered the laugh.
I noticed that out of the 20 comedians I was studying, there were definite patterns.
I studied The Tonight Show and the monologue. Recorded the shows. I wrote down the monologue jokes word for word and studied them.
I again noticed repeating patterns in the writing.
I started to write the first parts of the jokes and write my own punchlines. (I never used them, but it was great practice).
Soon I was writing jokes right from the news. At first I struggled with them.
Then I figured the structure and subsequently a process to writing everyday.
The process was paramount!
The process became a system of steps that I applied each day to writing current event jokes. I got this idea when I was learning more about computers.
I figured since I was going to be working a lot with computers, I should know something about how they work. One of the earliest explanations I read was that a computer executes a series of steps automatically to power up and that those steps occur each and every time.
And the computer did this no matter who turned it on or what mood that person was in.
So I realized that if I could apply this process to my joke writing.
Sort of a step1-step 2-step 3=Joke.
Eventually, I started to write jokes on automatic and I was writing a lot of them. Sometimes I’d get really edgy with the jokes and I knew they weren’t right for The Tonight Show, but I went to the Comedy Store and I gave it to a comedian, l (can’t mention his name contractually), whose voice I thought it fit. He did the joke, it got a laugh; a really big laugh!
He said he would buy the joke from me.
I learned I could write more jokes and sell them to other comedians and other places that bought jokes.
Sometimes I would just give jokes away to other comedians I knew couldn’t afford to buy them. That only helped to enhance and spread my reputation as a good joke writer.
Greeting card companies, radio syndicates, other comedians. The more I wrote, the more I sold. Then through reputation people started calling me to write material for them.
I was still performing in the clubs at night. One day I got a call from Jay Leno. He had just started doing The Tonight Show.
He tested me right on the phone! Told me a headline from the news that morning and asked me what I would do on that?
Little did he know, I was up that morning writing my jokes and I just happened to write a joke on that exact headline he gave me!
I told him the joke. He laughed. Then hired me on the spot as a contributing writer to The Tonight Show.
Some people say it was “luck.” But really? What is luck? Luck is opportunity meets preparedness!
And that comes from getting busy and staying busy. Setting goals and going for them. Creating a process and a routine so you don’t have to wait for inspiration, instead you can create inspiration. Then taking action so you can avoid killing the momentum in your career.
If you’re good you will work, but you gotta get to work. You’ve got to take action.
If the powers that be made a decision to do a reality show about Late Night television hosts they might go with the name: “10 and Counting,” (at least for now), because that is the number of hosts that are currently on the tube in both cable and network.
Checking the picture above, (from Vanity Fair’s David Kamp; Photography by Sam Jones), they are as follows: Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, Trevor Noah, James Corden, Jimmy Kimmel, John Oliver, Seth Meyers, Larry Wilmore, Jimmy Fallon, and Bill Maher.
Ten late night hosts. Who would’ve thought that day would come? I was going to make a lame joke about “10 Little Indians,” but these days, someone out there would read it as racist and I’d get put in front of the PC firing squad, or be labeled a racist, despite the fact that I’m Choctaw.
But that’s not the point of this post. The point is to provide you with the eye-opening realization that Late Night TV is not going anywhere. It’s here and it’s not just thriving; it’s EXPLODING.
The pay is $4000 a week, minimum for a staff writer on a network show. If you write a 2-min. sketch and it makes it to air, you get paid an additional $4K. So a good writer can make a great living in Late Night.
It’s seems like not a day goes by when another sketch or clip from one of the late night shows goes viral on the internet.
I can remember a day when Leno and Letterman were fighting over the hosting spot for The Tonight Show. If you don’t remember this, it was BIG. They even wrote a couple of books about it and did a movie.
At the time pundits thought that that battle was going to wind up fracturing the audience and other doomsday theories that teetered on the ultimate demise of Late Night T.V. as a viable entertainment format.
But it’s Hollywood. Those are the same end-of-the-world elite who said that the VCR was going to lead to the end of movie theaters, as the T.V. was going to lead to the end of radio and the radio was the end of live performances.
And, in case you didn’t know, the internet is leading to the end of it all. 🙂
But those who know the internet are keenly aware that it is just an additional way for everyone to get even more exposure.
The fact is Late Night T.V. is big and it’s continuing to grow. From the picture above you can see clearly that all the Late Night hosts are male. But that’s soon going to change as Chelsea Handler plans to launch her new Late Night show on Netflix sometime in 2016.
Not only that NBC is planning an all-comedy Video-on-Demand (VOD) portal called ‘Seeso,’ that is already developing original content. (Yeah, I know, what’s up with the name?).
But what does this mean for you? Opportunity!
The opportunity for writing in Late Night TV continues to explode. We’ve never had more movement in that industry. There are more shows. And more shows need more content. Who’s going to provide that content? Comedians and writers like you!
It’s time again to start thinking about putting your Late Night Writing packets together and start submitting.
Writing for the fickle and very specific format of Late Night television takes a unique skill set. Learning that skill set could set you up with one of the coveted jobs as a Late Night T.V. Comedy writer.
Why coveted? The pay is $4000 a week, minimum for a staff writer on a network show. If you write a 2-min. sketch and it makes it to air, you get paid an additional $4K. So a good writer can make a great living in Late Night.
And with 10 hosts and growing, there’s never been a better time than now to prepare.
Leave a comment below if Late Night TV Comedy Writing is something you’re coveting! And if it is, what is are the top 2 obstacles that are stopping you from going for it?