I’m gonna call this blog post an open letter to comedy teachers.
This especially goes out to one comedy teacher in particular who refers to himself as “America’s Original Comedy Coach.” (Lol, right?)
Recently, I put a post on Facebook called “911 For Your Jokes.” It’s a step-by-step walkthrough of 5 different ways to take a single subject, and develop a comedy routine, a bit or stand-alone jokes.
In the case of this particular post, the subject was ‘Flight Attendant.’ (See it in action here).
I put out these ‘freebies’ so that comedians and comedy writers (both new and old), can get some ideas and inspiration on how to get the material going.
Because we’ve all run into writer’s block, right?
Listen to the Audio Version
So “America’s Original Comedy Coach” (sorry, can’t say that without giggling), posted a comment ridiculing the fact that I was demonstrating this.
I think his comment was, “Formula #1: Don’t use any of these formulas for comedy or you’ll wind up sounding exactly like everyone else.”
You guys who know me, know that I would never usually call someone out like this, but when you attempt to ridicule me in a public forum, It’s on, bitch! :-).
Here are 3 Big Reasons you should Develop Structure in your Comedy Writing…
#1: Writing Makes it Easier to Build Structure into your Material
So let’s examine that whole “sound like everyone else” statement for a moment.
If you watch Jim Gaffigan, Bill Burr, Daniel Tosh, Amy Schumer, Brian Kiley, Whitney Cummings, Kira Soltanovich, (or any number of comedians who are currently at the top of their game), and you deconstruct their acts, you will discover that they all utilize similar techniques in their comedy routines to get laughs.
Would you say that they all sound alike?
Didn’t think so… and you want to know the reason?
They are different people!
Those comedians each have different points of view, different experiences and different ways of expressing themselves.
But it is the structure within their sets that gets the laughs. Without that structure, guess what?
#2: Get More Laughs
Let’s take two distinctly different, but similar comedians. Anthony Jeselnik and Brian Kiley. Below is an example of a joke each of them do.
They are using a comedy structure called the “Paired Phrase.”
KILEY: My wife and I have been married for 20 years, but there’s still that tension between her Dad and I. He’s always giving me a look like, “I know you’re having sex with my daughter.” And I’m always giving him a look like… “Barely.”
JESELNIK: I went to my girlfriend’s parents’ house over the holidays. Her Dad didn’t let us sleep in the same room. He was giving me a look like, “I don’t trust you.” And I gave him a look like, “Trust me, man… I’m fucking your daughter.”
You hear the similarity?
It’s goal of the paired phrase (in this particular context) to create pattern disruption or an expected rhythm or ending and then shatter created expectation.
When that pattern is disrupted, (with Kiley, he used self-deprecation while Jeselnik uses ambivalence and a bit of shock value), you create surprise and if you’re familiar with the 9 psychological laughter triggers, you already know that surprise is one of the most effective.
But if you were to watch Jeselnik and Kiley back to back, you wouldn’t think they sounded alike because they have totally different personas.
Jeselnik is driven by ambivalence, (being discompassionate about things society believes you should be compassionate about), and Kiley is driven by a persona that is slightly put upon and confused about the way things are supposed to work.
Using the ‘Reverse’ to Create Surprise
Another way to create surprise with with a comedy structure called a ‘reverse.’ This construct also sets up an expectation, then shatters it. When a comedian or comedy writer knows this, writing comedy is much easier.
I mean think about it. All Jeselnik has to do is to come up with a situation that we call can relate to and solve them with something unexpected.
“I break up with the girls the way I take off a band-aid; slow and in the shower.”
Kiley does a similar thing with the reverse structure by shattering our expectation with situation we can all identify with:
“I’m surprised I got together with my wife at all because when I first met her she was soooo… pregnant.”
So to say that structure is wrong is denying your students the very tools that make people laugh.
#3: Comedy Writing Enables you to Make More Money
America’s Original Comedy Coach also ridiculed my effort to encourage comedians to develop their skills in writing comedy material.
This is where I was completely dumbfounded! WTF!? Why would you NOT encourage your students to develop all their skill sets?
That’s like telling a baseball player to work only on hitting the ball. You might do pretty well when you’re up at bat, but you’ll suck everywhere else.
And, while in baseball a hitter may be considered good when he gets a hit 1 out of 3 times, if you do that in the comedy world, a talent booker wouldn’t even want you as a pinch hitter!
If you neglect developing your skills at writing you’re doing yourself a serious disservice.
Also… and this is a BIG also… when you know how to write comedy material, you have just exponentially increased your potential to create revenue.
There are so many opportunities out there for people who can write funny.
Doing stand-up and getting good is great, but learning to develop your writing chops just adds another high-revenue-creating skill set.
So, America’s Original Comedy Coach, I would rethink what you’re teaching your students and while you’re at it, maybe rethink calling yourself “America’s Original Comedy Coach.”
Think about it, man; If you were America’s original airplane, America’s original automobile or America’s original computer, you’d be obsolete.
Are you one of those people who is afraid of mistakes? Are you afraid to put something out there—either on stage or in a meeting or even on social media—for fear that you made a mistake and someone will call you out on it, thus making you the laughing stock of the world and eternally miserable?
This happens to all of us at some level.
I remember, early in my studying, being in an acting class. I really wanted to be an actor. My father had some fame as an actor and I wanted to be an actor too. I went to the classes and when I did something “wrong,” the teacher would try to give me notes.
I would always try to interrupt with something like a “Yeah, yeah, I know I did that,” or something similar. Instead of really listening to the note based on what the teacher saw in my performance, I would jump ahead because I didn’t really want to hear that I was flawed, that I made a mistake.
Fortunately I had a father who used to coach me as well. He saw that I would try to jump in and not truly listen to the note. He would wait for me to finish my objection. Then say, “Next time I give you a critique, instead of instantly jumping in I want you to try something. I want you to think of a follow-up question, based on what I said.”
This approach served two purposes. It required me wait to actually hear the note. And…
It made me have to think of a follow-up question, so I was forced to listen deeply to the note, process what it meant to me and follow up, thus cementing the learning into my brain.
So therefore, it forced me to acknowledge my mistake, learn from it and figure out how to apply the mistake as a lesson, NOT as a mistake.
Does this make sense?
When we make mistakes and learn from them, we make huge leaps in our learning and through experience you learn that mistakes are actually positive things, not negative.
Instead of fearing mistakes, we should embrace them, ruminate in them and figure out possible solutions. I express that as a plural, because there’s normally never just one solution. There’s usually multiple.
It is key that you write down the mistake, what you learned from it and finally the possible solutions to correct the mistake in the future.
That’s why in the classes I teach, I encourage the students to provide their own suggestions and notes to their fellow students. It requires them to actively listen, process and trouble-shoot a possible solution. This helps them to become more knowledgeable as a comedy writer or comedian, in a faster time period.
When you teach you learn twice.
This type of fear of mistakes can paralyze us in so many ways. It creates a circle of repeated mistakes that cripple growth, stifle productivity and increase stress.
I have a friend. We get together once in awhile to write, go shopping or grab a bite.
She has this fear of mistakes and I see it constantly and repeatedly paralyze her productivity and infuse more stress into her life.
Now the following conversation may seem tedious, but I think it is essential so that you can really get the idea and maybe—just maybe—see similarities in your own behaviors.
About 6 months ago my friend called me and said, “Hey, let’s get together later and go shopping at the mall.”
I said, “What time?”
She said, “Oh late afternoon sometime. I have a lot to get done first.”
I said, “You should set some goals as to exactly what you need to get done and apply a time to it. When that timer is done get up and move on to the next–”
She interrupted, “—Yeah, yeah. I know. That’s a good idea.”
I said, “Okay. Just let me know when?”
At 5 o’clock we planned to get together to shop at the mall, eat and hang out. Since she’s always late, we wound up connecting at the mall at 5:30.
She was hungry, so we grabbed a bite to eat. Then it was time to shop!
As we started to hit the stores, we noticed that they were all starting to close.
She started stressing, “Why are they closing?!”
“Well, it’s Sunday. Most malls close early on Sundays.”
It was a mistake not to set your goals and not plan out the day… I’ve explained the acknowledge mistakes lesson to her that I learned from my father. I hoped that she would start to apply them… she struggles with that.
6 months later…
My friend texts me. Again, it was a Sunday morning.
“Hey, l’ve got to go back home for about a week. Wanna meet at the mall and go shopping?”
“Sure. What time?”
“I don’t know. Late afternoon. I’ve got a lot to get done first…”
Then 30 minutes later the text came in: “Hey, it’s Sunday. Let’s do early afternoon. In fact, I’ll meet you at three! The malls close early don’t they?”
Now I just hope she shows up on time!
If you fear mistakes now—no matter what the level of your fear—by doing the above approach of acknowledging, processing and solving, you will eventually lose that fear.
At some point, that fear of mistakes becomes just a shrug, and you look forward to processing it, learning from it and solving it. Because, now you will realize how much time or money you saved, how your business or relationship improved and how above all you transformed in some way and became a better person in life… or at least a better person to go shopping with.
You learn so much from acknowledging your mistakes, rather than being afraid of mistakes.
In my experience, I realized that when I made mistake and acknowledged it, I wasn’t a laughing stock of the world and it didn’t make me eternally miserable.
Instead, it enabled me to eternally grow.
Get the Printable PDF Version Sent to Your Email
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.
Listen to the Audio Version
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.
Want a PDF download sent to your email that you can print and use as a reference? Grab it here!
Get the Printable PDF Version Sent to Your Email
Pat Corley “Phil” on Murphy Brown
I grew up in an acting family. My mother and father were actors. My father was a successful character actor.
I studied at the Actor’s Studio in New York and Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute here in L.A.
But it all really came together when I started doing stand up. I just took a comedy class and developed an act. That is when I learned that stand up comedy is great for actors!
Stand up gave me an opportunity to be creative and develop content in between acting gigs. Stand up gave me the opportunity to play in front of 5 people to 15,000 people.
It gave me a chance to find my own voice, to be ‘real, present and in the moment’ on stage.
In acting, that is huge, for more reasons than just one. I put together fourteen.
If you’re having a dry spell in your acting, here are 14 reasons Stand Up Comedy is great for actors and a terrific addition to your skill set.
1. Casting Courage
You can learn to master playing in front of just a few people, which is very similar to a casting situation.
2. You learn to ad-lib:
Improv skills are one thing. Being able to ad-lib on the subject matter in a split-second is something you learn in stand-up.
You learn not only how to tell stories that are funny, you learn interpret the humor in scripts and how to play comedy successfully by playing against the comedy. Mediocre comedians play the comedy. Great comedians play the situation.
After performing stand up, Performing in an audition situation was a piece of cake. I mean what could these people ever say to hurt my feelings that some drunk in the city hasn’t already said?
Ray Romano, Star of "Everybody Loves Raymond"
4. It’s a brilliant way to showcase.
Casting directors and directors are coming to comedy showcases more than ever. Casting directors, agents and managers are always looking for new talent. The problem is their time is very limited. They would rather come out to watch your 6-10 minute showcase than come out an watch a 2-hour play. It’s simple time management.
5. It demonstrates courage.
Most of the people you are trying to impress in the industry are in awe of artists who have the courage to do stand up. My friend met Robert Redford recently. Redford said, “I’m in awe of comedians. Doing stand up scares the hell out of me.”
6. The one-man/one-woman show
– your ticket to notoriety.
7. Work When You’re Not Working
When you’re a working comic and also an actor, you can work when you’re not “working.” Meaning, you can get gigs as a comedian and pay the bills performing when you don’t have an acting gig.
8. Funny is “Smart”
When people think you’re funny, they also think you’re smart. Funny is memorable. People like to be around people who make them laugh. If two actors are up for a job and the CD or the Director just saw you perform at a comedy club and you made them laugh, who is that CD most likely to choose?
9. You learn to be you
In 99 percent of all casting situations the casting director asks the actor to “just be yourself.” You’d be amazed at how many actors freeze. Actors spend so much time in training learning to develop characters that they forget how to be themselves. Stand up comedy gives you that ability.
10. Learn to NAIL AUDITIONS
Nothing develops unbreakable confidence onstage than performing stand up on a regular basis. “You develop a thick skin, ” says actor Ray Romano. “After performing stand up, Performing in an audition situation was a piece of cake. I mean what could these people ever say to hurt my feelings that some drunk in the city hasn’t already said?” One of the best ways to develop unbreakable confidence on stage is by doing stand up on a regular basis.
– Whether it’s an audition or a comedy competition, one of the primary qualities that get you moving to the next level (the quarter or semi-final rounds in competitions, call-backs with producers, network or studio with acting), so if you go into an audition and you’re funny, you become memorable.
13. “It’s Impossible to Dislike Someone Who Makes You Laugh
This is one of my absolute favorites. I’ve used this in commercials, sitcoms & episodics. For someone to laugh with you they have to temporarily give themselves over to you. And when you make someone laugh, they like you. In the run of actors coming into the room to read, if you’re the one that leaves them in stitches… they will want to see you again!
14. 60-Percent of Breakdowns are for ‘Comedic Character’
– If you’re not studying comedy, you’re losing out on 60-percent of the acting opportunities currently being cast.
15. Stand-Up Comedy Shows Them a Different Side of You
– Every agent I’ve met looks at my resume and says, “Oh! You do stand-up?!” When it comes to ‘special skills’ stand-up can be one of your best assets!
Take Your Acting to the Next Level
So what are you waiting for? Take a class and in 8 weeks you’ll have a comedy routine you can perform, that will be video taped and you’ll be proud to showcase.
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.