Comedy Writing Workbook
The lament I hear most from comics is, “I need to write more.” Yes, you do. So do I.
This is NOT a guide to stand-up comedy. The focus here is on the writing process--what to do to get ideas out of your head and onto the page.
Much of what follows sometimes references hack formulas and comedy clichés. It's your job to make it original and suited to your persona. I’m assuming you’re already funny, but too prone to writer's block, procrastination, and self-censorship--just like everyone else.
This workbook describes the comedy writing process in a linear fashion:
Prepare --> Freewrite --> Find topics --> Explore topics --> Find the Funny --> Write Jokes --> Revise
But real writing never works that way. Some material comes out perfectly formed. Sometimes you’ll have to backtrack into freewriting and brainstorming as part of your final draft. Use this workbook with that in mind, and jump around to the stuff you like best.
A pottery teacher told half his students that their grade would depend on one single piece that they’ll produce at the end of the term. He told the other half that their grade would be based on the volume of all the pieces they created. Which half do you think produced better work by the end? (From Art and Fear, by David Bayles)
Essentials: Notebook and pens. Your notebook can (and should) be as cheap as possible. A cheap spiral notebook makes the writing a lot less precious, and you're free to write more crap.
“I will not buy a Moleskine notebook ever again. I can’t handle the pressure.” (Marc Maron)
Other helpful stuff: highlighters, pocket-sized notebooks, index cards, tape recorder, video recorder, thesaurus, dictionary, computer, internet, newspapers, reference books, filing system, computer word processor, printer, calendar.
A great Mac program for keeping your material organized is Scrivener.
Plan to Write
A friend of mine recently said, "I wish I were a better writer." NO! It's better to accept the fact that most of the time you're an awful writer who has to write a lot of bad stuff to get to the good stuff. You will have to write dozens of terrible jokes to find one good one. Accept that fact and just write.
Make a writing schedule and stick to it. Set aside your time to write, every day. Choose any length of time, from 10 minutes to several hours, as long as it's consistent. One hour a day would be amazing. Get out your calendar now, make a schedule, and show up. Most professional writers write first thing in the morning, before checking the paper or email. There's some good advice from Jerry Seinfeld here.
You don't have to produce anything good, as long as all you do is sit in front of the blank notebook or computer screen and try to write, and that's ALL you do. Don't go do the dishes. Stay off your phone and Facebook. Vow to produce nothing but garbage for an hour.
Set reasonable goals: one 10-minute freewrite every morning, 10 bad jokes a day, 3 pages a day, a new 5-minute set every 2 weeks.
Don't throw anything away. Bad jokes can turn into good jokes, but only if you write them down.
“Sometimes in the middle of the night, I think of something that's funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen's too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain't funny.” (Mitch Hedberg)
During the day, keep a small notebook in your pocket (or use your phone). Write everything down: half baked ideas, shoddy premises, news items, observations, strange things people said or did. If you have an idea, no matter how stupid, write it down before you lose it.
Do This Now
1) Gather your supplies
2) List your long-term and short-term goals (A new 10-minute routine in 2 months?) Set deadlines and put them in your calendar.
3) Book a gig. Sign up for a bringer show, a “New Talent” showcase, or just an open mic. A deadline for getting onstage will terrify you into writing more.
3) Set daily goals for writing (10-minute freewrite. 10 bad jokes. 1 full page of material)
4) Decide when you are going to write each day. Add your writing time into your datebook or calendar. Highlight it. Stick to it.
Kill the Censor
All of us have an internal censor--a monster created by teachers, parents, and peers--who tells us that our writing sucks. The weapon to kill that censor and break through writer’s block is called “freewriting.” Julia Cameron calls the process “the morning pages,” but it’s the same thing. Freewriting helps you learn to write without censorship, self-consciousness, or self-criticism. To freewrite, just move your pen with whatever’s on your mind. Don’t stop, don’t edit. Just keep writing.
The point of freewriting is to get past that censor-monster, muffle it, and kill it.
Here’s how to freewrite: Set a timer. Or set yourself a goal of three pages. Write for one, five, or twenty minutes (ten is good). Write anything that comes to mind. Keep your hand moving. Don't re-read what you've written. Don't check your grammar or backtrack for any reason.
Most of what you write will be awful, petty, silly, boring, stupid, weird, negative, repetitive, self-indulgent, or just plan unreadable. THAT’S THE POINT! One or two things will happen: either you'll write your way into interesting material, or you'll clear your mind of all the clutter that stands between you and creativity.
- Keep your hand moving. Don’t stop. Don’t cross out.
- Be specific (Not car but Cadillac. Not fruit but apple)
- Lose control (Let it rip. Don’t worry about being polite or proper)
- Don’t think (go for “first thoughts.”)
- Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar.
- You are free to write the worst junk in America.
- Go for the jugular (If something scary comes up, go for it. That’s where the energy is.)
Say to yourself, “Keep going. You’re doing fine. Don’t cross out. Don’t think.”
From Peter Elbow’s essay “Freewriting”:
Sometimes you will produce good writing, but that’s not the goal. Sometimes you will produce garbage, but that’s not the goal, either. You may stay on one topic, you may flip repeatedly from one topic to another: it doesn’t matter.
If you can’t think of anything to write, write about how that feels or repeat over and over, ‘I have nothing to write’ or ‘Nonsense’ or ‘No.’ If you get stuck in the middle of a sentence or thought, just repeat the last word or phrase till something comes along. The only point is to keep writing.
The goal of freewriting is the process, not the product.
Freewriting helps you to think of topics to write about. Just keep writing, follow threads where they lead and you will get to ideas, experiences, feelings, or people that are just asking to be written about.
Be messy, be boring, be mean. Don’t try to be funny or witty. Don’t feel the need to put it into sentence form (or setup-punch form) at first. Don’t judge it. Don’t throw anything away. Don’t reread it right away if you don’t want to--or re-read it and highlight interesting stuff if you want.
Do This Now
1) Try it. Open your notebook to a blank page, set the clock for 10 minutes, and go. Don’t stop writing until the time is up.
FIND YOUR COMEDY TOPICS
All comedy will be about you and the things around you (duh). Start making lists of subjects to write about. USE YOUR PEN.
Start by answering some of these questions. List at least 10 answers for each question.
What do you love?
What do you hate?
What do you love about yourself (appearance, behavior)?
What do you hate about yourself (appearance, behavior)?
What fascinates you?
What annoys you?
What makes you worry?
What are you afraid of?
What are you proud of?
What do you suck at?
What are you good at?
What are you ashamed of?
What’s the first thing people notice about you?
What makes you unique?
What DON’T you want to write about?
What don’t you understand?
What are your wishes?
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Pick some that seem interesting to you and freewrite/list/brainstorm about them:
Physical appearance, Tragedies, Dreams, aspirations, Big life risks, Revenge fantasies, Stupid things, Us/them, Fights you had, Authority, Family, Money, Business, Politics, Fears, Passions, Fears and anxieties , What disturbs you, Angst, Politics, Politicians, Authority, Social Issues, Day-to-day errands, Hobbies, pastimes , Current events, News, Historical events, Celebrities, Films, News Media , TV shows, Music, Musicians, Advertisements, Consumer Products, People in your life (Family, friends, coworkers), Marriage, relationships, divorce, Adultery, cheating, Dating, petting, Taboos, Perversions, Fetishes, SEX, Sexuality, Gender roles, Sexism, Genitalia, Bodily functions, Biology, Stereotypes, Race, Cultural differences , Significant events, Addictions, Alcohol, Disease, Illness, Medicine, Bad habits, Beliefs, Credos, Ideas, Business, Skills, Pets, Nature, Animals, Crime, Significant life experiences, Milestones (Birthdays, retirement), Childhood, “What I did on my summer vacation”, School, classes, teachers, Sports, Fitness, Books, Religion, Superstitions, Technology, Art, Holidays, Shopping, Fashion, Science, Food, Diet, Location (Geography, hometown, travel), Embarrassing situations, Psychology, Psychiatry, Sleep, Hopes, Goals, Aspirations, Travel, Transportation, Words, Wordplay, Vocabulary, Home, House, Apartment, Birth, Aging, Death, Seasons, Weather, Magic or Super powers, Places, Architecture, Buildings, Slang, Neologisms, Clichés, Misunderstandings, Pet Peeves, Names, Opposing kinds of people
Do This Now
1) Using the above prompts and questions, make a list of 100 things. Pick something at random from the above list (For example: Food). Start listing examples (Poptarts, potatoes, hamburgers, quinoa, non-dairy creamer…). If you run out of steam, pick another prompt and keep listing. Don’t stop until you’ve reached 100.
2) Use the topic list, or write a series of nouns on your page or on a board, or pull them from a bag. Do 2-minute freewriting sprints on each subject.
EXPLORE A COMEDY TOPIC
Once you find a topic that seems as if it has potential, start expanding and exploring to find out what’s interesting or funny about it.
Select a Topic: Start by listing factual statements, headlines, and simple truths. For example: “I was born in ____.” “Today, the president said _____.” “I own a dog named _____.” “I love ____.” “I hate ____.”
If you’re writing about a celebrity or politician, go online and research facts about that person. Write them down.
Brainstorm: Free associate, list, cluster, mind-map, whatever. Write down everything you can think of related to that topic: examples, analogies, associated words, similarities, opposites, types, people, places, events, clichés, etc.
Ask questions: Who, what, where, when, why, and how? Who likes, dislikes it? Who is affected? Who is pleased? Who is upset? What’s the next logical step? What caused it? What does it cause? Where does it happen? When did it start? Why did it occur? So what?
What about this topic is paradoxical, ironic, unfair, or incongrous?
Judy Carter’s questions (from The Comedy Bible):
Why is it weird?
Why is it stupid?
Why is it hard?
Why is it scary?
Organize: Break your topic into groups and subgroups
- Classify / divide (What is it part of? What are its parts?)
- Causes / effects
- Similarities / opposites
- Problem / solution
- Comparisons/contrasts (old/young, M/F, gay/straight, dogs/cats)
- Underlying assumptions
- Logical flaws
- Contrary points of view and the reasoning behind them
Explore people: Who or what are they like? What do they say most often? What phrases? Stories they tell. Defining characteristics (fears, phobias, prejudices, accents, habits)? Clothes? Outer appearance? Behaviors? What’s on their shopping lists? What are their hopes and dreams? What do they want and what’s in their way?
Play “What if?” What if this happened in another context, to another person? What’s an extreme case? Go even more extreme.
Find Play On Word (POW) opportunities: What are common words and expressions people use to talk about this topic? Phrases used most often? Clichés? What do most people say?
List clichés, double entendres, synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, other definitions for the same word, rhymes, euphemisms, malapropisms, oxymorons, puns, reforming, simple truths (literal meaning), takeoffs (literal interpretations), mispronunciations, non-sequitors.
Find your POV: What’s your point of view? Angle? What do you want to prove about the topic? How do you see it? What do you predict or recommend? What’s your solution? How do you explain why this occurs? How would like to change people’s perceptions?
Do This Now
1) Pick a topic that has potential. Using the above ideas, fill 3-5 pages with lists, charts, mind-maps and random doodlings related to that topic.
FIND YOUR ATTITUDES
How do you feel about this topic? What attitudes, beliefs, and emotions does it engender in you and in others. WHY?
Affectionate • Amused • Aggressive • Fulfilled • Jaunty • Confident • Optimistic • Embarrassed • Pessimistic • Relieved • Egotistic • Seduced • Vivacious • Weird • Stupid • Abused • Angry • Downtrodden • Cold • Down • Grieving • Content • Flattered • Quiet • Shielded • Violent • Raging • Guarded • Yielding • Pitiful • Used • Challenged • Hard • Delighted • Scared • Love • Nervous • Jealous • Cowardly • Ironic • Superiority • Hatred • Fear • Disgust • Grossed out • Amusement • Nervous • Worry • Shame • Shocked • Belonging • Confusion • Lust • Pressure • Anxiety • Intoxication • Happy • Sad • Nostalgic • Delight • Vindication Accomplished • Victory • Pride • Excited • Depressed • Rage • Fury • Creepy • Tired • Irritable • Distracted • Tense • Hostile • Agony • Sore • Panicked • Bored • Intrigued • Thrilled
Do This Now
1) List a series of attitudes/emotions/feelings. List out all the things that cause those emotions in you or others. Explore why.
2) Go through your notebook, especially the 3-5 pages from the last section, and add an emotional tag to every word or sentence. How do you feel about it? What’s your attitude?
WHAT IS FUNNY? WHY DO WE LAUGH?
What makes YOU laugh? The best comedy writing makes the writer laugh first.
From Mel Helitzer’s Comedy Writing Secrets, we laugh for various reasons:
- Feel superior
- For release (when tension is released)
- When we solve a puzzle
- To regress
Mel Helitzer’s elements of a joke:
T – Target
H – Hostility
R – Realism
E – Exaggeration
E – Emotion
S – Surprise
Why we laugh, from Jim Mendrinos’s Complete Idiot’s Guide:
- Familiarity/recognition/belonging. We laugh at what we know.
- “I wish I would’ve said that!”
From Scott Adams (of Dilbert):
The core of humor is what I call the 2-of-6 rule. In order for something to be funny, you need at least two of the following elements: Cute (as in kids and animals), Naughty, Bizarre, Clever, Recognizable (you’ve been there), Cruel. I invented this rule, but you can check for yourself that whenever something is funny it follows the rule. And when something isn’t, it doesn’t.
Do This Now
1) Make a list of what makes you laugh. No one will see it, so be honest (If it’s stupid cat videos, so be it). Why do you think it’s funny?
2) Find a comedian you admire on video, DVD, YouTube, or vinyl. Pick a really good joke or bit and copy the joke out verbatim. What was it that made the audience laugh? What was the emotion behind it? Who was the target? Why was it surprising?
MAKE IT FUNNY
Time to write funny things! Most jokes have a setup or premise that builds tension and anticipation with an attitude and point of view, and then a punchline, twist, or payoff that surprises or releases that tension.
Setup (topic, attitude, anticipation, POV) --> Punch (surprise, exaggeration, recognition)
A good setup/premise is NOT funny. It's factually true, has a clear emotion, and is specific, visual, and clear. It shouldn’t be longer than two typewritten lines, preferably less than one. Bad premises are too long, unclear, or preposterous, with too many topics before the punch.
How you write the rest of the joke varies. It may come perfectly formed (setup/punch), or you may have to write backwards: Consider something extreme or nonsensical about your topic (punch), and then create a statement of fact (premise) that makes the extreme statement somehow logical.
(Many of these come from Judy Carter)
Information Radical understatement
Word Unexpected Definition
Question Offbeat Answer
Question Preposterous response
Theme Specific example
Adult view Child’s View
Ways to Punch
(Many of these come from Jim Mendrinos)
Things in threes
Using the familiar
(Many of these are from talk-show monologues and Comedy Central roasts)
______ is so _____ that ______
_______ is almost like _______. The only difference is ________
_______ is more ____ than a ________
_____ is like _______
______ looks like ______ with _____
How ______ was it? It was so ______ that _______
Translation (________: a _____ word meaning_____)
You know you’re _______ when_____
____ is the only _______that ________
______ is worse than_______.
Use standard references and expressions
Compare / contrast
Paired Elements (“Better a witty fool than a foolish wit”)
Wordplay: synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, numbers, aphorisms, opposites
Triples (Setup, Anticipation, Punch) (Normal, Normal, Wacky)
Transformations, Mixes (“What if . . .”)
Funny words (Names, places, food, ethnic expressions, animals, numbers)
Mimicking (acting out)
Reforming (Rewriting clichés)
Shift attitudes (mocking insincerity)? “I’m proud of __(something negative)_ because”
Reflect the truth
Involve the audience
Do This Now
1) Pick another joke from a famous comic. What was the setup? What was the punch? (Even so-called “alt” comics use a setup-punch formula, however disguised) How did it work and WHY did it work?
2) Using your notes from before, write 10 jokes. Use formulas if you have to. You can disguise the formulas later.
REVISE TO MAKE IT FUNNIER
Some jokes and bits are perfect as written. Most are not. Go perform your material at an open mic, or throw a joke into a conversation. If your jokes repeatedly don’t get laughs, revise! (Sometimes it’s funny and the audience sucks, so try it a few times.)
Consider your Premise
Is the premise original? Does it fit the audience’s emotional needs, humanity?
Did you go off on a tangent? Your setup should have only ONE subject (cut 2 or 3) that is single and clear.
Is it Clear, Concise, and Concrete?
Can you be more visual, more understandable?
Can you fix the grammar at all?
Is your premise ambigious? Can you be more specific?
Revise questions and passive voice (make it active, imperative)
too many beats? Words to cut? More words to cut?
How you feel should be clear, either said or acted. Is there a clear attitude or excitement to the premise?
Could your attitude be stronger?
Know what you want to say. Have a strong POV.
What’s your point? What are you trying to prove?
Did you give it away? Protect the surprise. Misdirect.
Did you offend or alienate the audience? (It may be best to avoid racism, sexism, homophobia, and disgusting bodily functions until you're REALLY good.)
Consider your Punchline:
Punch should have a brief surprise, with the funniest bit at the very end.
Again, there should be a clear attitude or shift in attitude.
Is your audience surprised and do they recognize the truth?
Show, Don’t tell!
Where’s the laugh/surprise? Is it the very last word?
Is the funny part the premise? Can I flip my setup and punch?
Could the last word be a funnier one (use your thesaurus)?
What other tangents can I go on?
Word play opportunities?
How many words can you cut? Cut more?
If it’s getting laughs, keep going. Is there more I can explore with this topic? Go back and play some more: freewrite, explore, brainstorm. Wring it for everything its worth.
When you get a big laugh, ask yourself: What was the subject? What was the attitude? Write more here!
No Laugh? What was the subject? What was the attitude? Maybe choose another subject or stronger attitude.
Do This Now
1) Revise 10 of your old jokes. Cut excess words, make the setup clearer, reword the punch, shift the attitude.
2) Find someone else’s joke (during an open-mic or while watching YouTube) that’s a real clunker. Rewrite it and make it better. This is purely an exercise. DO NOT steal the joke for yourself. DO NOT share your revision unless this person already likes you and trusts your input.
YOUR COMIC PERSONA
Persona comes with time and practice as you become more comfortable on stage (I’m still working on mine). But consider the interaction between you and the audience. Where are you meeting, and where are you missing each other?
Performer --> Material <-- Audience
My first comedy instructor, Steve Rosenfield, defined a comedian as “A person with a Problem.” Yet he called the act of stand-up comedy, “Joyous Communication.” Interesting. According to him, the most successful comedians are:
Likeable (Lovable? The key is your struggle.)
Genuine (Reflect and exaggerate off the truth. Laughable truth.)
Charismatic (infuse communication with emotions, feelings. In a way that makes them feel comfortable.)
Just Plain Funny
HUMOROUS ESSAYS and STORYTELLING
If you’re writing for print, or for “storytelling,” you have less of an obligation to be funny on every line. However, there are other points to consider for a longer essay:
Rule #1: Show, don’t tell
Topic – Write about anything you want, but be as specific as you can. Rather than writing about your job in general, write about one specific day. If you find yourself using “would” too much, or writing about general “people,” then you’re not being specific enough.
Audience – Who, specifically, are you trying to convince? I know you want your essay to be for a general audience, but focus on one group; it’ll be more universal that way. What does your audience already know? Leave it out. What do they need to know? Highlight it. Write for people with a specific mind-set that you want to change. In what magazine do you see this appearing?
Purpose - Have a goal, a strong reason for writing and a reason someone should read your essay. You may not know your goal when you start to write, but it should emerge as you put words to paper. Revise with this goal in mind.
Thesis – What’s your point? You should be able to state your point in one clear sentence (this is where audience and purpose meet). You don’t necessarily need to include that sentence in your essay, but your point (truth, insight, lesson) should be clear by the last line.
Style – Make it your voice. Formal or informal, florid or sparse, your style should be yours, but also consider your audience and purpose. Use all the techniques of fiction and poetry (plot, character, setting, dialog, description, metaphor, and rhythm) to make the language sing.
Organization – Make an outline sometime in the process (probably long after you begin writing). Your essay should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Think about structure, balance, and flow. Can you break up larger paragraphs, or divide the essay into coherent sections? Make sure the events of the essay follow clear chronological order.
Detail – Detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail detail.
Revise – “Kitchen sink” the first draft, and include every detail, idea, and tangent. Then, when you revise, be willing to cut ruthlessly. Get feedback. Cut everything that doesn’t serve your purpose. Read it out loud repeatedly, and rework anything that’s clumsy, cliché, or vague. Rather than adding descriptive adjectives, think about your verbs. For example, what are verbs you could use besides “walk?” (stride, slide, scurry, scamper, sashay, stumble, stagger, strut?
Bayles, David. Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
Cameron, Julia. The Artist's Way
Elbow, Peter. Writing With Power
Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
Goldberg, Natalie. Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life
King, Stephen. On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft
Strunk and White. The Elements of Style
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
Carter, Judy. Stand-Up Comedy: The Book
Carter, Judy. The Comedy Bible: From Stand-up to Sitcom
Helitzer, Mel. Comedy Writing Secrets
Mendrinos, James. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Comedy Writing
Perret, Gene. The New Comedy Writing Step by Step
Sankey, Jay. Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy
Vorhaus, John. The Comic Toolbox
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