Being able to produce material on a consistent basis is one of the keys to succeeding in comedy. Whether you are a writer, or want to be a standup comic, you must be able to write material that has structure.
I’ve been asked time and time again to give a demo on how to write comedy. Since joke writing is the building block of comedy writing, as a whole, I am going to demonstrate it here.
The total video is around 47 minutes. It shows the recommended prep necessary to take on the task of writing and some background information to get you ready. Also be warned, this is NOT for kids. There is some NC-17 stuff here.
When you are writing comedy you never, and I mean NEVER edit yourself in the first draft. You always save that for the second or third pass on the the material. So if you are sensitive to language (most of it written) and you are limited on time… then DON’T WATCH THE VIDEO!
If you want to REALLY see the joke writing process and learn one of the fundamental steps in learning how to write comedy, then grab your notebook, a cup of coffee and enjoy!
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NOTE: THIS IS ONLY ONE METHOD ON HOW TO WRITE COMEDY…
I was at the Comedy Store last night. I was talking to a young comedian about crafting a joke and the importance of writing everyday and this other comedian butts in and says, “I don’t give a damn about any of that, I just want to know how to be a famous comedian!”
What this comedian didn’t realize was that I just saw him do about an 10-minute set and not only did he run the light, (went way over his time), disrespecting the audience, the booker and his fellow comics, he also did a whole 2-minute bit about not putting kids on “time-out” but putting them on “knock-out,” (a bit that’s more worn out than a Vegas hooker on New Year’s Eve). When he said “I just want to know how to be a famous comedian,” I remember thinking to myself, not with that act!
I’ve been doing comedy for 25 years. I’ve written for Jay Leno for 8 years. So I try my best not to be negative when I’m around other comedians. I’m honest, just not negative. The truth is there is no direct answer to the quest of “how to be a famous comedian,” but there are guidelines.
Write, write and write some more!
One of the crucial keys to making it in this industry is originality. That’s one thing bookers look for when scouting for talent. They also look for how well you craft a joke. Most stand up comedy on late night talk shows is about well-crafted jokes and routines, not about big act-outs. The only way to develop that is by writing and writing a lot. Most comedians, I’ve noticed don’t actually write a lot. They wait for something funny to happen to them and they write it down or record it somehow. That’s a good way to get material, mind you, but it’s only one way. When you learn the fundamentals of comedy including joke structure and technique, then you can make something funny, rather than wait for something to be funny.
A comedian should be spending several hours every day writing. Most don’t. One of the problems is that most comedians and wanna-be comedians equate comedy with frivolity and they treat their profession frivolously. That’s one way NOT to be a famous comedian.
Stage Time is King!
Once you have a well-crafted act (I have a lot of posts on techniques) of 5-7 minutes, then it’s time to hit the stage. Writing is great for the crafting of the material and really sharpening your sense of humor, but nothing beats getting on the stage. A comedian who is looking for notoriety, (whether they are trying to get famous or not), should be hitting the open-mics at least 3 times a week. If you can’t commit to that, you might want to consider a different line of work. You have to develop your act, your timing and your comfort level on stage so you can learn to be yourself while standing in front of complete strangers and the only way to do that is stage time. Sure, open-mics can be grueling. The audience is usually notoriously comedian-heavy and sometimes they can feel unrewarding. But the mere consistent appearance and mic-work will eventually payoff. If you’re doing good work, you’ll gain respect and reach at least some level of fame with the other comedians.
When I was doing the open mics, I was up at least 4 nights a week, at least and sometimes several times in one night. I gained a reputation as a good writer. There’s a nice feeling that accompanies walking into a room and having people talk about you—in a good way! I was always nice to everyone too and if I heard another comedian do a joke and thought of a tag for the joke I would always write it down and offer it to the comic as a suggestion.
Some of the best advice I got from Jay Leno. He said “write faster than everybody else and your reputation will precede you.” It was true. I was “famous” within certain circles for being a really good writer and comedian.
Develop your act and hit the road!
Once you’ve written and honed an act of between 15-30 minutes of solid material, (“solid” meaning a laugh point every 18-20 seconds), then it’s time to hit the road and develop it. When you start working night after night, you really start to develop as a comedian. The beauty of the road is that you’re out there working on comedy 24 hours a day. You write during the day and perform at night. By the end of 4 months on the road, you should have the makings for about an hour of material. When you feel completely secure in your material. It’s time to start submitting yourself to T.V. talent coordinators. Some bookers take DVD’s, some like to see links on the internet and YouTube.
You can contact the bookers by getting the “Hollywood Creative Directory.” It lists all the shows that are on the air and their staffs. Be sure to check out the style of comedian that gets booked on each show. Fallon is different from Kimmel and Ferguson is different from Leno. Once you feel you fit a certain show. Send a DVD right to the booker with a note that says “I’m a regular watcher of your show and I think my act fits with what you do. Please take a look.” Be sure that your name and contact info is on the DVD and the cover of the DVD as they often they get separated.
There is no certainty of success only the joy of the work!
Other than working hard on both parts of the word show-business there are no rules or guarantees to success. My Dad, who was a successful character actor, once said to me, “You have to get into this business for the right reasons. If you get into it to be famous, get out now, because odds are that’s not going to happen. If you get into because it’s who you are and you stay true to being the best you can be and doing the best work possible, you will reach such a great personal level of success and gratification that the idea of how to be a famous comedian won’t be as important as being the best comedian you can be.
A young comedian came up to me at the Comedy Store the other night and said, “Did you see my set? I think I’m doing good, but how could I be more funny?”
I did see his comedy set. He had some pretty good jokes. Some structure was off, like not saving the punch word for the end of the joke, etc.
I didn’t have a lot of time to talk—and if you know me, you know I could stay up all night in front of the Comedy Store talking about comedy structure—then, when the sun starts cracking the horizon, say, “Wanna grab a bite to eat?”
But since my time was limited, I gave him one bit of comedy advice that I thought would help. I figured it was probably better to give him just one comedy tip, because I have a tendency to overload people with information, which in all honesty, just creates confusion…and since this comedian was confused anyway (and I mean that in a nice way! ), I just gave him this suggestion. I hope it can help you in your comedy writing too!
Go back and analyze your comedy material and find the jokes where you can put in more visual imagery.
Using strong visual imagery receives a more crystallized response from a comedy audience than a joke where the imagery isn’t clear.
IE: “I’m losing my hair. There are some times when it really bothers me. Especially, in the mornings, when my wife is running her fingers through my hair…but I already left for work.”
There is a clear visual perception of hair on the pillow in the mind’s eye. That concise visual elicits greater immediate response from a comedy audience than a more vague joke might, like:
“They say that the state of your apartment represents the state of your mind. Right now my apartment is experiencing a frontal lobe issue.”
Despite both jokes being funny, (both jokes have been time-tested in front of comedy audiences all over the country and have gotten consistent laughs), the first one has a clearer visual. One of the reasons might be that most people have never seen a frontal lobe and can’t visualize it clearly. They get the idea of the joke, but it takes a second.
But let’s look at another version of the second joke:
“I need to get it together. They say that your apartment represents the state of your mind. Right now the inside of my apartment looks like the inside of my purse!”
Did you get a clear visual there? Did the joke seem more crisp? Was the visual more crystallized in your mind and as a result, the punch more effective?
We’ve seen the inside of a purse. Even if you’re a male comedian you could structure that joke to say, “Right now the inside of my apartment looks like the inside of my girlfriend’s purse.”
…and as a guy, this joke now has a double possibility for some added comedy…
“Right now the inside of my apartment looks like the inside of my girlfriend’s purse… The worst part is, my girlfriend’s purse was just found by my wife!”
Now there’s two comedic visuals. The inside of a purse and the memories we have of the faces of pissed off spouses.
So add visual imagery to your stand up comedy material and your writing and remember If you can see the picture clearly, odds are the audience will be able to see it too.
Strange title for a blog you say? Well, wait for my follow-up, “How I flushed 50-Bucks On The Way To Vegas, Just To Warm Up!”
I write this blog entry as a follow-up for my previous entry, which was “Shut Up and Write!” It was written to inspire and light a fire under the backsides of all of us—including myself—who get lazy and don’t write. I don’t know why we do it.
Some people say there’s no motivation to write when there’s no money. Well money shouldn’t be the only motivation. It’s nice to make a living in comedy; I’ve been doing it for over 20 years and I have to tell you that the feeling just can’t be fully quantified, to get paid what what you love doing.
I always write because I love it. Sometimes there’s money, but that’s not why I do it, but you never know. Hence, this story:
I was just sitting on the toilet the other day. I usually take my Droid in with me. I can check emails and respond to texts…My sister sends me a text:
“Two guys wearing ‘Children’s Musical Theatre Summer Camp’ shirts walk into a European Wax Center…(you finish the joke).”
I quickly texted these:
…One of them asks the clerk: “how much to remove the hair from my asshole?” The clerk looks at one of them then looks back at the one who spoke and says, “We would first need his permission.”
…One guy asks, “what makes this a European Wax Center?” The clerk says, “we wax you until you call America to bail you out again.”
…One guy says, “What makes this a European Wax Center?” The clerk says, “We wax everything; your arms, your legs, your back, your chest…everything. But we don’t touch your precious area…your armpits.”
…they each pay 300 dollars to get ‘the works.’ Upon leaving, one of them turns to the other and says, “So you think NOW we can pass as one of the children?”
…They both walk out of the wax center red and in pain. One says to the other, “That’s the last time I volunteer to do a rendition of “HAIR” on “Opposite” Day.
My sister then said, she was “wiped.” And I quickly texted, “What did one turd say to the other?” “Whew! I’m wiped!”
Viola! It was then that I realized that I had a client who loves to do adolescent shit humor. So I quickly texted that stupid turd joke to him. He loved it and deposited 50 bucks in my PayPal account. NO KIDDING!
So write for the fun, write for the passion. The money might just a happen as a result!
It would be wrong and inappropriate to button this with …and remember sometimes shit happens…okay, see? I told you it was wrong!
Comedy Tip of The Day: Write, write and write some more.
I’ve been a stand up comedian for 25 years. I’ve worked television, radio, the road, corporates, colleges, casinos, you name it. I’ve been teaching comedy now for 6 years. 4 years with my own comedy classes and 2 years with professional comedians at the Friars Club of Beverly Hills, when I help found the Comedy Writer’s Forum.
At the Writer’s Forum, several comedians would meet every Monday night and work on new material. It started out small but grew to be a nice group of professional comedians all trying to continuously develop material.
We then started to meet every Monday at 5pm. We would write all new material until 8pm. We would then open the doors to the public and put on shows where each comedian did 5 minutes of brand new material written that evening. At first it was hard for everyone, then it was just challenging and exhilarating. Meeting every week and forcing ourselves to generate new material every night gave us purpose. It gave us a reason to push and generate new material.
All of us who were in that group became better writers as a result. We learned methods to generate material. It was at the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills where I first started teaching my joke-writing system. I didn’t know it was a system. I thought everyone knew how to generate material.
When comedians and comedy writers ask me how they can get better, one of the first things I say to them is “write.” Write your ass off and keep writing. Work on being original, work on structured material, work on writing clean. Even if your persona is not clean, you should work on also writing clean so that even if you can’t use the material yourself, you can sell it.
That’s why in my classes, every session is started of with a writing drill. I give the students a set up (usually from the news) and they start writing and you know what? I am almost always amazed—yes, “amazed” at the level of joke that each of these students wind up producing. It all starts with writing…