Before starting with the topic at hand, I want to address the elephant in the room. Comedy writers, to quote Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect. If you’re not trying to channel Jane Austin, H.P. Lovecraft, or Hemingway and aiming for Larry David, then it’s commonly assumed you are not a real writer.
Ginger Rogers was a famous dancer and movie star of the 30s and 40s. Ginger and Fred Astaire were a fantastic duo onscreen and danced up a storm.
A cartoonist named Bob Thaves made this observation about Rogers and Astaire:
Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, …backwards and in high heels
Ladies and gentlemen, comedy writers are the Ginger Rogers of literature. We have to do everything with laughs. Comedy writers need to understand story structure and character development, just like those not funny authors. for example, a good romantic-comedy script needs to have all story beats of a romance while making you laugh.
The obvious pushback to this point is that everyone is somewhat funny. A family barbecue shows this fact to be true. Uncle Joe tells that awesome joke he got from watching Two Broke Girls. Of course, it doesn’t make him professionally funny. Professionally funny people are the renewable energy of laughs. We’re like solar power and the wind for chuckles.
Professional comedy writers just don’t emerge out of some weird otherworldly pod ready to roll with punchlines. Sure, some of us have a natural gift, and maybe that’s enough for some to craft a successful career. Those people (if they exist at all) are unicorns. In fact, they are super unicorns. When normal unicorns hang out together, they talk about super unicorns.
For the rest of us mere mortals, we have to learn the craft of writing jokes.
… I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it. — Morpheus
The basic principle is to practice your craft. As some of you already know, writing is like a sport. The more you do it, the greater likelihood there is you will become good. Are there formulas to how to write a knock-knock joke and more complex belly busters?
Sure they are.
But it’s somewhat like a coach explaining to a little leaguer how to hit a fastball. I can tell you to keep your eyes on the ball and repeat that mantra until I’m blue in the face. What matters is getting up to the plate and swinging.
Here are some of the best places you can practice.
At this point, everyone knows what Twitter is, and a lot of people hate it. All nuance is lost when your message needs to be in 280 characters. As writers, we love subtlety. Twitter seems to be the anti-Medium. Where Medium is a forum where authors can show off their art, Twitter appears to be the refuge of trolls.
For comedy writers, Twitter is an awesome training camp for writing jokes. Setup and punchlines can all be done within 280 characters. And what civilians (that’s what comedians often call non-comedians) don’t know is creating a joke is more like penning a poem than it is to writing prose. Less is more.
The great thing about Twitter is the feedback. If your attempt at humor gets likes and retweets, then congratulations! You just crafted a joke that doesn’t stink.
The obvious counterpoint to going on Twitter and working your comedic muscles is that you can’t practice longer comedy routines. How can you work on a clever story on a microblogging site?
One of the first rules of joke-telling also seems to apply when it comes to anecdotes — the better the punch line, the longer the story it can support. This may be why a Henny Youngman gag is worth no more than one line. — Jack Hart, editor at large of The Oregonian, in A Writer’s Coach
Think of jokes on Twitter as building blocks for larger stories. If you discover something you tweeted is funny, you can use it in one of your articles, scripts, or books.
Everyone has at least one funny story. What is yours?
Is it that time you got held up and asked the robber if you could see his gun?
How about when you were at that kid’s birthday party, and the primary source of entertainment was watching 7-year-olds swing at a piñata?
There’s the gross story, too. The one you only tell after having a few drinks.
I’m happy to say those are just a few of my tales into the heart of comedic darkness.
Trust me, your funny story can be better. Over the years, I have explored my tales’ nooks and crannies. The way I discovered how to be funnier is by retelling the stories to friends, acquaintances, and, yes, even dates. It turns out people think it was funny when I asked the friendly neighborhood hoodlum if he wanted all the change in the cash register. That bit wasn’t included in the first time I told the story, but you can bet I mention it now.
Explore your jokes and experiences by talking about them. The process allows your brain to take a new look at old material just by saying it out loud.
My joke writing skills got better after getting on stage and trying out material. Twitter is good for feedback. Being in front of a live crowd is exponentially better.
Whenever I give one of my readers a short story, script, or book to look at, I will ask them if they thought it was funny. In the past, I heard nothing but boring and not so helpful“Yeses.” I then started asking questions like, “Is it laugh out loud good?” Because I want it to be that good. While there can be moments of chuckling to yourself, the parts that are supposed to land big laughs should be doing their job.
You don’t need to ask a live crowd if they think a joke is laugh out loud good. They will show you (and isn’t showing better than telling?) with their responses.
Writers are often introverts. The thought of going up to an open mic and performing is horrific. I understand. Whenever I’ve performed live or even interviewed someone on the Naked Diner Podcast (we’re up to 170 episodes) I get butterflies. As with anything else, practice helps.
I came across this quote from entrepreneur Gary Vanerchuck the other day:
When you’re trying to win, your opinion doesn’t matter.
Do you want to be great?
If you want to be a great joke writer, then put yourself out there.
Act brave even if you’re not.
And be great.