Writing for stand up part 2: Having funny ideas

This is the second installment of a series about writing  stand up comedy material. Read Writing for stand up part 1: What is a joke?. The third and final part is coming soon.

A joke subverts an assumption. A comedian must identify or create assumptions and then surprise the audience by veering off in another direction. But that is easier said than done. Most people need some kind of process to harness their ideas. In this article I will outline some of the different methods that comedians use to write jokes.

Naturally Funny?

Many people believe that successful comedians are naturally funny. You probably know someone you think is naturally funny. Maybe you’ve even suggested they should try stand up. But their humor is probably based on shared experiences, friendly rapport, and fueled by alcohol . The kind of humor that works on stage is very different. You have to work a lot harder. You have to be more polished. You have to be more consistent.

In his autobiography Frank Skinner describes being able to make his friends laugh from an early age. He thought stand up comedy would be easy. It wasn’t. The audience at his first gig was unresponsive apart from a couple of small laughs and a groan. He had to work hard, exploring and experimenting, to get as good as he is.

Being considered “naturally funny” is nothing more than a small head start. The transition into stand up comedy will still involve blood, sweat and tears.

Funny Ideas

A joke needs a funny idea at its core.

Various authors and comedians have proposed processes for generating ideas. But one thing everybody agrees on is that you must carry a notepad with you at all times. The spur of the moment ideas that occur to you at inconvenient times and places are always the best… and they are the most transient. If you don’t jot those gems down they’ll be forgotten forever. My preference is a pocket sized moleskine. Most of the stuff you write down will be shit. But the rest will form the basis of your funniest and most original material.

If ideas aren’t forthcoming there are techniques you can use to stimulate ideas. I’ve roughly divided these techniques into two categories: Derived and Inspired. Both have pros and cons and most comedians will use a combination of these approaches to develop jokes.

The Derived Approach

The derived approach is systematic and methodical. It involves understanding the fundamental rules that jokes conform to, and constructing jokes based on those rules.

In his book, Step by Step to Stand-up Comedy, Greg Dean deconstructs the elements of a joke with surgical precision. Then he outlines an exercise called The Joke Prospector which can be used to squeeze humor out of practically any subject. The exercise involves choosing a subject, creating a list of things associated with that subject, and then writing a list of negative opinions about each of those associations. Greg Dean is very keen on negative opinions. He writes:

Whether your jokes go from good to bad or bad to worse, they’ll always be moving towards the more negative. If you’re uncomfortable with this concept, get used to it because it’s a consistently useful technique that will come in handy whenever you’re writing jokes.

These negative opinions are the premises for jokes. The setup suggests a story that is neutral or implies a more positive opinion, then the punchline reveals the reality. Here is one of his example jokes:

I call my mom all the time – But in polite company I can’t tell you what I call her.

This joke was the result of picking the subject family, the association my mother, and the negative opinion my relationship with my mother was very bad. In the setup he hints at a good relationship. In the punchline we learn otherwise. He could have put this joke together in an infinite number of ways. Furthermore the other associations and negative opinions generated as part of this process could form the basis for other related jokes that could be grouped together into a routine.

The process is very systematic so you can get started even if you lack inspiration. But you have to write a lot of jokes. Dean describes writing lots of jokes using this method and testing them on audiences to reveal the funny ones. He says “if you are able to write one hysterical joke a week, at the end of the year you will have 52 hilarious jokes” – but rather than being empowering, this statement hints at the amount of work required to generate just a few minutes of material.

This method runs the risk of producing jokes that are predictable, cliched and lack depth. And by beginning with the premise you may have a hard time telling if the joke is funny. Stewart Lee has made the following suggestion about Dean’s book:

“By doing the opposite of everything he suggests you may get a great act together” – Stewart Lee

The Inspired Approach

The inspired approach involves coaxing yourself into a creative mindset and collecting any funny ideas that arise.

It works in the opposite direction to the derived approach. Comedians begin by generating a huge amount of material using exercises like: group improvisation, free association writing, ranting into a voice recorder, keeping a diary, having conversations. The next step is to identify the parts they find funny.

This is an effective way of writing funny material as at least one person (the comedian) will have found the concept funny at one stage.

In his book, Teach yourself stand-up comedy (read my review), Logan Murray includes many individual and group exercises that can be used to search for ideas. In this article Jo Caulfield defines ten steps for writing a joke. Parts two and three neatly describe how she employs this inspired approach:

3. Write as much as you can about your chosen subject. Use similes, oxymorons, cliches, proverbs, double entendres, whatever you want. Make lists of people, places and things associated with the subject (eg Jordan, Kerry Katona, Big Brother, Paris Hilton, Heat magazine, BBC3, Lily Allen, Pete Doherty, her with the rats maze hairdo and tattoos, Heather Mills buying a shoe).

4. Cast your eye over what you’ve written and the funniest bits will stick out. Those are the bits you want.

But she also warns that you will have to work hard for these funny bits:

Your mildly amusing two-page story can become a fantastic one-line joke

Using this method you run the risk of working for several hours without yielding anything funny. Also, this exercise won’t work if you’re tired or distracted. But the jokes that you do produce are likely to be more funny and more original.

Next Step

Using the methods above you can produce jokes. They will probably be rough around the edges and need to be refined. This is what we will look at in the next installment of this series.

Update: Read Part 3

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