911 For Your Jokes – 5 Killer Strategies to Write Comedy from a Single Subject

five-killer comedy writing strategies

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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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!”
  2. 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:

  1. 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?

    1. Lazy?
    2. Procrastinator?
    3. Selfish?
    4. Anger management issues?
    5. Passive-Aggressive?
    6. Amorous?
    7. Hormonal? Anytime you ask the flight attendant a question, she responds with (ACT OUT: BIG SIGH) “WHATEVER!”
      1. 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).

  1. 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:

    1. 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!
    2. 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.
  2. Definition of a Flight Attendant.

    Definitions give you a great chance to do a Compare and Contrast riff.

    1. What’s different about being a Southwest Flight attendant than being a flight attendant at one of the other airlines?
  3. Cliché Reformation or Take-off: and Simple Truth.

    1. 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.
      1. “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.”
      2. *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?
      3. 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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Performing the Same Jokes Doesn’t Make it Boring

byron-valino-flappers

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!