One Question - #3 - How do I Write Funny Material?
Today's "One Question" series inquiry comes from Tom Farrell and his question is one I hear often:
"I really need help in writing funny material."
That's a tough one to answer as there are so many pieces to this, but let me give it a shot.
First, I think you really have to have some sort of a sense of humor, or a "funny bone" to be funny in your comedy. If you have a good sense of humor, chances are that you can develop that into good comedy writing technique and write the majority of your own material.
Or, you can purchase some pre-written comedy vent routines (there are several good selections on my website) and the key here is to alter the routines to fit your personality and THE CHARACTER of the puppet. Don't purchase a script book and just do it word for word. You must interject your own style into the routine.
There are also lots of comedy writers out there who you can hire to write custom routines for you. Be careful, though. Since these writers won't know you, your act, your personality, or the character of the puppets you are using, they may not write something that fits you and you'll end up with a routine that may be funny if the person who wrote it performed it, but not work for you. If you hire a writer to pen a custom routine for you, make sure they are asking you questions about you, your style and the kind of show you do. A good writer will ask you a lot of questions up front to make sure they are writing in a style that is "you."
When Jeff Dunham was ready to start writing his biography "All By My Selves" a couple of years ago, he tried working with some well respected ghost writers/co-authors. He found that what they wrote did not "sound" like Jeff, if you get what I mean. Jeff ended up writing the whole biography on his own and I think that's part of why it's such a good book. It's "Jeff."
If you are writing your own comedy and/or blending your own writings with jokes from other sources (joke books, the Internet, whatever) you want to have a "theme" in mind for the routine. Do not just hook a bunch of unrelated jokes together into a script. There has to be a common thread to the various parts of the routine. And find a re-occurring call back hook/comment/bit you can return to from time to time during the act.
Use only material that sounds funny to you. If you hear or read a joke that doesn't make you laugh, don't use it just because it fits the theme of your routine. If you don't really find the joke funny, you won't have your heart in it when you perform it and it probably won't get a good response.
Good jokes have a set up and a "punch." The trick is to take the audience down a certain path with the set up (where they think they know where you are going with the joke) and then POW! go a different direction and catch them off guard with the punch.
Setup: "My brother is so stupid. He stole a car. Really stupid..."
You think the joke is taking you down the road of then talking about how the brother got into trouble with the law, went to jail, or something to that effect. But taking the punch down a different alternate road that the audience doesn't expect will really make the joke funnier.
Setup: " My brother is so stupid. He stole a car...Really stupid..."
Punch: "...he kept making the payments on it."
Setup: " I walked into a bar last night and saw some poor guy on the floor getting the crap kicked out of him by a bunch of big dudes. I asked the bartender why he didn't call a cop."
You think this is going down a road where the bartender will say "they're busy writing parking tickets" or "they're down at the doughnut shop for free coffee night" or something like that. The typical stereotype of police. Let's take it a different way.
Setup: "I walked into a bar last night and saw some poor guy on the floor getting the crap kicked out of him by a bunch of big dudes. I asked the bartender why he didn't call a cop."
Punch: "He said, 'Are you crazy? After the beating they just gave that one?'"
See how we took the setup one way and then went in a completely different direction? Try this technique. It will really help you write funnier material.
Try to write from personal experiences. If you really think about it, there are all kinds of really funny things you've experienced in your day to day life that either have happened to you (that in hindsight seem funny to you now, even if it may not have appeared so at the time), or something you witnessed that happened to someone else.
People love personal experience comedy. It easy for an audience to laugh at things that probably may even have happened to them or someone they know.
Look at news stories and find topical subjects that you can put the setup/punch spin on as described above.
I personally recommend taking it easy on corny puns.
"So, you like girls, I gather."
"No, I like girls I gather."
"I see you're a chicken. Do you lead an egg-citing life?"
One in as show may be OK, but in my opinion, a routine full of puns just isn't funny. It's egg-scruciating to listen to.
Get my point?
Once you get a routine or bit put together, try it out on a few friends or other professional performers and see how it goes over. Be willing take criticism. Re-write parts if necessary and fine tune it a bit before performing it before an audience. Don't try out a brand new routine at a really important gig. Perform it at some smaller venues first and work the kinks out before doing the bit at a big deal show.
If you feel you really have a funny bit that doesn't go over the first time you do it, don't toss it out right away. Try re-wording it, changing it around in, etc. and see if it gets a better response.
Writing comedy is not easy. Wait. Let me rephrase that. Writing GOOD comedy is not easy. Anyone can string a bunch of corny jokes together and write a lame routine. Those performers either won't be working often (no one will re-book them) or not for long (because they'll get frustrated and quit).
Really push yourself to be unique in your comedy and work hard on crafting a truly funny routine.
Once you have a solid routine, you'll know it's going to be fun to perform because you'll know when and where folks will laugh.
But, like any other skill worth learning, writing good comedy takes practice.
Some of the best resources I've seen for comedy and writing comedy are books by Greg Dean ("Step by Step to Stand-Up Comedy") and anything put out by Tom Ladshaw (both pre-written material and "how to" comedy writing resources), Bill DeMar and Al Stevens. Greg's book is available from amazon.com and I carry the others books on my website.
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