Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Technician’s Guide to Writing Stand up Comedy

The following is a process of writing that I have established over 14 years in stand up comedy. It takes advantage of current technologies, and has helped me write material more prolifically than any other process I have tried. It takes your routine (for lack of a better term) out of the beat up coil notebook and into the computer, where editing your material will be much easier.

The notebook method is satisfactory for short sets, but if you’re planning on progressing to shows of 45 minutes and longer, my process will be invaluable. You will find that writing long-form sets with a story arc will also get easier. You never lose or forget any tested jokes again, as they will all be documented on you computer.

My process is basically a filtering process utilizing multiple Word files. It ensures that you will always have ideas to work on at the writing desk, and fresh material to perform on stage; no more going months without any new jokes.

STEP (1A) Shave entire body.

STEP (1b) Recording New Ideas.
In this age of smart phones and large memory storage, there is no reason to ever bother a waitress for a pen, fumble with loose pieces of scribbled paper and cocktail napkins, or forget an idea you thought was funny. Think it’s too funny to forget? You’ll forget it. Be honest with yourself; you’re a drunk.

Almost every model of cell phone has a voice memo recorder, so why not keep your joke ideas all in one place, and on a device you literally always have with you. This also works with pacemakers. With the large memory size of new phones, they can also be used to record your set, so that you can examine what worked and, conversely, what should be sold to hypnotist acts.

Recording your voice instead of scribbling also allows you to remember a funny voice, inflection, or cadence that would otherwise not translate if read off of a note or old timey wood cut.

You can also use the text message or notes feature to record ideas in situations in which you may not be able to talk; such as movie theatres, in classrooms, or when making love to someone who is unaware you are making love to them.

STEP (2) Filling the First Filter
It’s been a busy week, and you have been diligently recording every idea in your phone. You have now have all kinds of ideas from, punchy, provocative, intelligent material to the jokes that you’d see on Last Comic Standing.

Now you can empty all of the contents from your memo device into the first catch-all file, which I have titled NEW-SHIT.doc (I named this document when I was 19, and a black hip- hop artist). The name can be what ever you want as long as it is identifiable as the first document in our process.

The document name new shit is apt, as a lot of the ideas are going to be terrible. If one out of ten ideas is good you’re doing great. If you only score one out of 15, do everyone a favor, and put a shotgun in your mouth.

No one, no matter how talented, is funny all the time. Okay, okay Flip Schultz. However, a lot of comedy writing is about getting through the crap, like that sewer scene from Shawshank Redemption. Actually, all of the comedy business is like the movie Shawshank Redemption; except without the interracial, homosexual over tones.

After you’ve transcribed the ideas into NEW-SHIT.doc you can start right away, or, if you’re feeling lazy, just let the ideas pile up in this file. You might not have time to write, after all, you have to iron your Orange Julius uniform. Let the ideas pile up! There are worse things in the world than having tons of funny ideas, like having Aids or neck nipples.

This process really begins to hum when the first documents begin to fill up, so get to adding the jokes. If you’re feeling saucy, go over the NEW-SHIT.doc and eliminate the ideas that aren’t funny, unoriginal, or just plain drunken nonsense. You can make extra money by selling the rejected jokes to Carlos Mencia, (the guy, not the salsa).

Move the jokes, that survive the first elimination process, to a new document called WORK-YARD.doc. This step is about collecting many different joke ideas in one place before writing to completion; that step comes later.

Give every idea a HEADING, (make these headings in uppercase and bold for easy reference later). It should describe the subject matter of the joke idea. This is handy, as later; you won’t have to read the whole joke to know what it’s about.

Headings make it easier to GROUP together jokes with a common subject matter. Trends in subject matter will develop in this step, and tell you a lot about yourself. I find I write a lot about my ethnic family and what they sound like, because I’m unfunny and Korean. Most jokes will fall under general headings, i.e., DRINKING, MASTURBATING, NUCLEAR PHYSICS.

GROUPING is joining jokes and stories, of a common subject, together. If you don’t feel like writing on a certain day, you can always go through your WORKYARD.doc file and do some GROUPING. Over time you will begin to have subject headings with several joke ideas in them.

When you want to develop these ideas it into a bits, simply cut and paste the chunk of like-ideas to a blank document. (A blank document will give you more real-estate to rearrange, expand, and edit the bit.) Thanks to the first 3 steps, you now already have a rough outline of a bit. This is all accomplished without doing much heavy lifting, unless you cell phone is pre 1978. In which case, get a new one; they aren’t just for the Navy anymore.

STEP (4) Putting a Bit Together
In the new document, write each small joke the way you would say it on stage. Reading the jokes out loud helps. If the joke is N-word heavy, make sure the coast is clear. Try to organize the jokes within the bit so that the strongest one is last. At every opportunity eliminate erroneous details and words that don’t add any funny or useful information to the joke. This is called TRIMMING. You don’t want your jokes to look like Oprah’s arms.

For an example, let’s take what the previous paragraph would look like after editing.

Write the bit like you’d say it with no extra words and the strongest joke coming last.

That’s a lean sentence, thanks to TRIMMING. Being to “wordy” is a big challenge facing new comics. In their defense it’s very to TRIM, GROUP, REORGANIZE and EDIT in a coil note book. Get a laptop (beat) a digital one.

Be ruthless with your bits; don’t tell me a long meandering story about your breakfast just to get to a weak joke about how eggs smell like chicken pussy. Besides, that’s my bit. You’ll find that a tough road crowd or a bad sound system will force you to cut fat or die; better to do it before you hop on stage to scream at career drunks.

When you have a bit written that is ready to be tested, it moves into a new file; the ONDECK.doc file. As you might have guessed, this file is full of bits that are in line to be tried on stage.

STEP (5) Creating a Queue
After a while this file will fill up with untested bits. On lazy days, open your ONDECK.doc file and do more GROUPING. This brings together groups of bits that link together or are alike. One bit will flow into another, and you are on your way to having a long-form act. Do you feel that tingling in you penis or vagina.

This process is for building longer sets, which should be the goal of anyone doing stand up; unless you’re a recent divorcee, who just wants to get some shit off of her chest.

Now you have an ONDECK.doc full of filtered bits, which are written exactly as you would say them on stage, with very little fat. Now you don’t have to flip back and forth in your notebook looking for that bit you were going to try. Just print off this ONDECK.doc and call a cab to your local Chuckle Pavilion.

STEP (6) Testing your “Funny” Jokes
The only major draw back to this process is that it takes the jokes out of your head and puts them into the computer; you have to take steps to memorize them. If you write more, you will develop more, but you will also have more to remember. You will have to be more diligent about testing material, so that is doesn’t pile up. But don’t worry; having too much material is a good problem, like having a cancerous mole that looks like Whoopi Goldberg.

Use your personal recording device to record your set. This will give you an accurate idea of how each new joke went. Some bits you will want to try before others, and some bits will stick around your ONDECK.doc file for months. This is almost always an indication that they aren’t very strong, and should be deleted. Man up and delete it, Nancy!

The hardest part of writing is deleting your weak ideas, but it has to be done. Do not keep trying material that is clearly not working, delete, delete, delete!! Your show will get tighter and tighter as you write more and more to fill the holes left by your deleting.

Tightening up doesn’t mean polishing your personality off of your jokes. It isn’t about talking faster or losing the quirks that make you, you. Tightening and editing are about knowing where you’re going with a joke, and not wasting people’s time.

STEP (7) Review
So the joke went great!! Aren’t you the treat of the week? I usually try the jokes a few times, as not all crowds are created equal, and a cakewalk room as well as a hell gig will not give you an accurate read on whether a joke is going to make the team. Give it a reasonable trial in a few rooms, making subtle changes depending on crowd reaction. Be conscious of where in your set you put the joke, as a crowd that is warm to you will let more slide, and tend to want to like your stuff. Try to open and close strongly, and slip the new stuff in the middle.

Do not open with new jokes! This is a rookie mistake, and it can sink your whole show. Even pros do this sometimes because it’s easy to get excited about a new bit; it’s never worth the risk. Also, don’t get drunk and do twenty minutes of straight new stuff, bomb horribly, and then strike out with the wait staff; that’s my thing!

After the joke has been adequately tested, and has gone over well on stage a few times, it’s time to add it to your arsenal. Place it in a new document; I call mine TESTED.doc for obvious reasons. I bet you can guess what the job is to do here? That’s right GROUPING. Joining bits together in this document is the most important because this will become your long-form set list.

GROUPING in this document can be difficult because the bits are beginning to get longer, so take the HEADINGS of these tested bits and add them to another file that will be your MASTER LIST.doc. Grouping and rearranging here is easy because you are only dealing with headings. (Break this document into columns to save page space.)

You now have a page of tested bits and jokes that you can reference at anytime. When you get all of these bits and jokes into an order that compliments them, and makes sense in terms of flow and or story progression, then you have your long show.
It may sound complicated, but if you get into the process it will make sure you never lose jokes, always have writing or grouping to do, and it will ramp up your writing production considerably.

Create the following documents:

Contains ideas transcribed from you phone or recording device

Is full of ideas and jokes that have past the first filter of scrutiny. Group together like subjects and move to-

Create and edit with plenty of room. If the bit is ready for testing move it to ONDECK.doc. If not, delete it or move it back to WORKYARD.doc

If the bit has made it here it should have a hope. Group it with other like bits, print, and memorize. Try to record when you test, and then put the bits that work in-

Now you have a document full of tested material, written the way it was tested, and always there for easy reference.

This is a list of every good joke and bit you have. Take this to shows and cherry pick the bits you want to do. Group them together for longer shows, record an album, and make hundreds of dollars.

Congratulations! You’ve wasted your life.


  1. " situations that you may not be able to talk in such as movie theatres...or when making love to someone who is unaware you are making love to them."

    Thanks for that image! I'd comment more, but I have to go get my Orange Julius uniform on now.

  2. Thanks for the great ideas. I laughed out loud enough that my husband asked me what I was reading.

  3. Brilliant. Thanks. Useful with dropbox now too.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. wow that was good ideas, very technical in organizing. but can you give details how to make joke itself? like how you get the original ideas, how to make punch lines...seems a bit classical..but it is always worth to hear someone's ideas...thanks a lot for the article....

  6. Good stuff! I was encouraged that I'm already using a similar process but not nearly as organized and systematic. I'm definitely going to adapt this to my own approach. Thanks for sharing your system with all us wannabes and hacks.

  7. Thanks for the info. I'm sure it will help a lot of new budding comics, or just us delusional wannabes.

  8. Thanks for this! Always good to get advice on how to start.
    Indeed, it would also be nice with a piece on how to construct a joke.