Writing for stand-up comedy: what I’ve learned so far

I’ve long wanted to try stand-up. Meaning longer than some of you have been alive. I finally took the plunge and have for the past month been going to a windowless room in the Garment District for three hours on Saturday, where I tell my carefully crafted “bits” (collections of jokes/commentary) into a microphone that isn’t plugged into anything. My teacher, a professional comedian, and my fellow classmates (whose numbers have dropped off from 11 to 4) listen to me for five minutes and then we spend the next 40 minutes mercilessly picking everything apart and figuring out why 95% of it doesn’t work.

While my failure to amuse often appears on the surface to be a big mystery, it’s not. One of my biggest problems is that I’m not a performer, although I’m trying to learn how to be. So I have trouble with the basics: standing, breathing, not shaking, enunciating, projecting, emoting. I’m taking a voice class to try to help remedy many of these issues. On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of comedians who have great performance skills, but their material sucks. So that’s the other half of the equation: writing funny material.

I have a lot of confidence in myself as a writer (and as a funny person), as well as a lot of experience. But in many ways I’m having to relearn how to write, for stand-up. Writing stand-up material is a constant and somewhat brutal lesson in economy, simplicity and clarity. It is teaching me a lot about how to pay better attention to my writing: how to think about concepts, structure and individual word choices. I suspect it is making me into a better writer.

Here then are the “rules” I keep in front of me when writing material. They are followed by reminders about how to be a better performer.

Stand-Up Comedy: Writing

  • Start a bit off with an explicit set up line; this is your bit’s thesis statement, where the rest of your bit presents your argument to support it.
  • Pick a comedic persona and stick with it; if the persona you want to project is in conflict with your natural persona it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to use that persona — it just means you’ll have to work a lot harder to establish it convincingly.
  • String together different bits with a common theme and, if possible, repeating elements.
  • Use repetition to tie together your entire routine, either in the form of foreshadowing or referencing something you said earlier.
  • A good joke has a kind of purity to it. Always ask, “What is this joke truly about?” and write to only support its essence.
  • Get there fast — to the premise, to the jokes, to the punchlines.
  • Connect the dots for the audience — there is little room for subtlety.
  • Think of the comedians you admire and ask yourself, “Would they tell this joke?”

Stand-Up Comedy: Performing

  • Remember that you have a right to be heard. Don’t go up on stage and try to be invisible. Embrace the experience and OWN IT.
  • If you’re not a vocally expressive person, try screaming your routine. This is very uncomfortable and hard, but it will reveal ideas about how to deliver it with more impact once you’re more comfortable speaking in front of people.
  • Try your routine with the mic in the stand and then try it holding the mic in your hand. See what feels more natural to you. Some bits may demand one method over the other.
  • Make eye contact with different people in the audience. Even if you can’t see past the first row because of the lights, look out into the room so people feel pulled in and connected to you.
  • Pull your shoulders back slightly, hold your head up, stand tall and align your pelvis over your feet — this will help you breathe and breathing will help you speak.
  • Enunciate. Go over your material and sound out all the words so they are clear. This will also help you spot things that are hard to say, so you can rewrite them.
  • Stay hydrated to avoid dry mouth, and bring a bottle of water up on stage with you. Bring mints for afterwards so you don’t knock people over with your Stagefright Breath.
  • Know that if you bomb on stage, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll actually die up there.

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