Comedy Writing Advice From a Hack Magician

comedy barstool stage

So… I recently got an email from someone who’s interested in getting into stand-up comedy.  He asked for advice (from a magician?! LOL), and I replied.  I was just about to delete this from my email’s “sent” folder, but thought I’d publish it out here on the interwebs (after removing the person’s personal info, of course), just in case it might happen to be of use to someone else out there.

It might not be useful.  It might be anti-useful.  All of my advice might be wrong.  I don’t know what I’m doing.

But here it is.

The person’s email:

Hi, I hope this isn’t too weird but I’d like to talk to someone who’s had experience do stand up. I’m 33 and live in (CITY NOT INCLUDED, FOR PRIVACY), it’s been my dream or more like fantasy to try this since I can remember. I’m thinking about trying open mic at (VENUE NOT INCLUDED, FOR PRIVACY). I was just hoping you would maybe give me some pointers on the writing process.

My reply:

Hey (NAME NOT INCLUDED, FOR PRIVACY) –

Shiiiiiiiit.

I don’t know if I would have any advice for writing stand-up, because I definitely am not the most qualified; My act is essentially “a magic show performed by a hyperactive smartass”… so most of the comedy is situational, derived from whatever I’m trying to do at the moment. Sometimes it’s an aside-comment about what’s happening, sometimes it’s me royally fucking up a trick, sometimes it’s how the onstage audience-volunteer reacts to a ridiculous situation, sometimes it’s substituting one (expected) prop for another (unexpected) prop (i.e. needing a “magic wand” and pulling out a big black 18-inch double-ended dildo.

Yeah. I know. Real intellectual material, right?

One way that I’ve found that works for me, when working on just straight stand-up stuff, though, (in my limited experience actually writing just straight stand-up), is to just write and make a concerted effort to NOT include ANY jokes at ALL. Just write about whatever you want to communicate. Don’t try to make up a funny story – those bits, more often that not, end in “well, I guess you had to be there” and crickets.

Just write whatever you feel the need to communicate. What’s pissing you off? What’s weird in your life or the world? What scares you about X, Y, or Z? Write about real shit, not “oh this was so funny when this happened” crap. Ya know?

Then, type it up. And separate everything you wrote into sentences – a new sentence on every line.

Read through it, and, after EACH sentence… heckle yourself. Write down your self-heckling next to each sentence from the story. If you’re a natural smartass, this’ll be easy. Just do what comes naturally. If someone else were telling you the story, how would you interrupt them to get a laugh at that exact spot?

Some jokes are gonna suck. That’s okay. You won’t really know until you try them out.

So now you’ve got an actual story, with (hopefully) a beginning, middle, and end. Hopefully an interesting story, or an interesting point of view, something that (and this is important) would interest people EVEN IF THERE WERE NO JOKES. But it’s heavily peppered with jokes. A bit of information. Joke. A bit more information. Joke. The person this story is about. Joke. Tangent about that person. Joke. Back to the story. Joke. Here’s what happened. Joke.

Hope that makes sense.

When delivering your story, don’t worry about getting every single word right. The way you write will invariably be different than the way you naturally speak. I don’t know about you, but I use fragmented sentences when speaking in everyday conversation. Most people do. Kinda like this. Ya dig?

Just remember the important parts of your story, which’ll be easy, since it’s YOUR story. And the jokes will be easy, because they’re tied to whatever is happening in the story at the time (as opposed to just a string of disjointed one-liners).

Record your set. Video is best, so you can analyze your body language, etc., but in a pinch, just an audio recorder is better than nothing.

Listen to the recording, and take notes. What jokes got laughs? Which jokes didn’t? Is there a tagline that you could have added on top of an already-existing joke, to milk 2 or 3 laughs out of one set-up (the set-up being, of course, the “factual” sentence part of your story – and the joke being your REACTION to what you just said; your self-HECKLE.). Are there more details that are needed to make the story clearer or more interesting or to make sense? Great. Put ’em in. And write a joke for each additional sentence.

Don’t be afraid to heavily use metaphors, similes, personifications, etc. 

Then, do it again and again. Get as much stage-time as possible. Seek out new open mics in different neighborhoods or towns. Don’t limit yourself to ONLY comedy open-mics. Go to regular open-mics, or maybe a karaoke bar, and ask if, instead of singing a song, you can do 3 minutes of stand-up instead.

Don’t get trapped in the “play to the back of the room” mindset, trying to impress their fellow open-mic circle-jerkers, and they never go anywhere beyond their local open mic. Play to the general lay public who is in attendance, not the regular wannabe-comics.

My co-star in “The Dirty Jokes & Magic Tricks Show,” (http://DirtyJokesAndMagicTricks.com) Jeremy “Jer-Dog” Danley, is sitting next to me, and his advice is to write EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.  He likes to habitually write 10-20 jokes per day.  PER DAY.  Sure, they’re not all winners, but the point is to keep on pluggin’ away.

And know that it’s gonna take some time.

Don’t throw out a joke because it tanked the first time you did it. It might not have been the idea that sucked. Maybe there’s just a clearer way to deliver it. A longer pause. A confused expression. I’d say try out a joke at LEAST 3-5 times before scrapping it. Maybe up to 10 or 12. Because on that 12th time, you might have a flash of inspiration on how to word it or deliver it, that takes it from shitty wanna-be-joke to big-laugh-getter.

So, yeah, I don’t know what I’m doing. Take any advice about writing comedy, from a hack magic act, with a grain of salt.

If you search for comedy writing books online, you’ll probably find quite a few that can help you get a better understanding of the technicalities, structures, and formulas of joke-writing. “Comedy Writing Secrets” by Melvin Helitzer is pretty good… “How To Be a Stand Up Comic” by Richard Belzer is not.

What I mean by “structures and formulas” are things like this:  Always end the line on the FUNNY word; don’t step on the laughs by continuing to deliver information BEYOND the punchline (even Belzer would agree with me on that). Find a way to get any important information into the structure of the joke before the funny part. It’ll take some creative butchering of the English language, but it’s pretty easy.

Imply stuff whenever you can, as opposed to outright SAYING it. Let the audience make the connection in their OWN heads – that’s what’s funny; when they suddenly realize the connection you were implying. Don’t underestimate your audience’s intelligence by spelling stuff out for them.

Fuck. I’m rambling.

And I gotta run.  Should have left for tonight’s gig like 20 minutes ago.

Hope this clusterfuck of random brain-droppings has helped. Stay in touch, and let me know how you’re progressing.

Peace,

~Nathan