How Doing Stand-Up Comedy Can Help Your Writing
I recently read an essay about how watching stand-up comics can improve one’s writing.
The author emphasizes style and wordplay — puns, non-sequiturs, double entendre — as the tools most transferable from comedy to prose. These are good points.
But what about joke writing? There is a process to this as well, and it’s more complex than you’d imagine. Joke writing hones many of the skills in demand by novelists and nonfictionists.
In other words, if you want to be a good writer, try being a good comic.
January 28, 2015. A hundred pairs of eyes were on me as I stood on stage at Goodnights Comedy Club, blinking into the miniature sun of a spotlight. Me, a 42-year-old librarian and English professor. Father of two. Owner of seven cats and a corn snake. Plus my wife had crabs — hermit crabs, in an aquarium.
Jerry Seinfeld. Ellen DeGeneres. Robin Williams. Lewis Black. Jay Leno. Chris Rock. These are people who had stood where I was standing.
How did this happen?
I have loved stand-up comedy since I was a teenager staying up late on weekends to watch A&E’s An Evening at the Improv. I often imagined myself up there, cool as iced tea, my eyes sweeping the crowd, my hands on the mic or spreading wide to welcome laughter.
In my youth, I might have made it happen. But now? Not with a wife and crabs to support.
Then I learned about Goodnights Comedy Academy, a course for beginning comics meeting one night a week for four weeks and culminating in a “graduation” performance in front of a real audience. I paid $300 and got a slot in the next class. There were three other students: a twentyish IT guy named Justin; a thirtysomething waitress named Brandy; and a mid-fifties folk singer named Jonathan.
And there was the instructor, Charlie Viracola. He was also in his fifties, maybe 5’6”, and wore the uniform of urban smartasses: long sweater, cargo pants, and a beanie. He lived in Los Angeles but grew up in Raleigh and had a history with Goodnights: he was the club’s first act when it opened in 1983.
He also had serious comedy cred, with appearances on Craig Ferguson, Dennis Miller, and Conan, plus half-hour specials on Comedy Central and Showtime. He has performed internationally, and he did the largest USO show in history at Fort Hood, Texas.
On the first night, Charlie had us stand at the microphone and talk about ourselves, including our favorite comedians. Mine were Bill Hicks, Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Wright, Dennis Miller, and Woody Allen.
Charlie nodded. He knew most of them personally.
We spent the rest of that night coming up with an opening joke. All night. On one joke. That may seem like over-preparation, but I quickly learned that, in stand-up, there’s no such thing. “The good comedians,” Charlie said, “recreate spontaneity. That’s what comedy is. You write everything down and prepare like hell so that, when you’re on stage, it sounds like you’re making it up right then.”
My classmates had no trouble coming up with their first joke. Then it was my turn. I got up, stood at the mic, and said . . . nothing. My brain had no information. Everyone looked at me, waiting for some sound to emerge.
Seeing that I was, in stand-up parlance, “eating shit,” Charlie stepped in. “So you’re a librarian,” he mused, walking around the room. “How about this? ‘My name is Anthony, I’m a librarian, and I’m probably the only comic you’ll ever see who would prefer you to keep quiet.’”
Perfect. And it just came to him, like the smell of rain on the morning breeze.
Man, I was going to suck at this.
Stand-up comedy got hot in the 1970s and 80s, took a break in the 90s, and is now more popular than ever. Fans have a deeper connection to it now. Thanks to on-demand TV, reruns of Home Improvement, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, and other comedian-based sitcoms are ubiquitous.
Factor in all those stand-up specials on Netflix, and you are witnessing the birth of a new breed of fan: the “comedy nerd.”
That’s what comedy is. You write everything down and prepare like hell so that, when you’re on stage, it sounds like you’re making it up right then.
Charlie echoes this view of audiences. “They’ve gotten smarter,” he told us. “So much comedy is out there, they can tell the difference between what’s hack and what’s not.”
When you’re teaching an art form, it can be tricky to walk the line between encouraging students and telling them like it is. Charlie didn’t bother with that line. From the first night, he treated us as if we were already Vegas headliners.
Our homework was to get a notebook and brainstorm some lines to build on our opening joke. We stood in front of the mic on our second night and read this material, opening ourselves to feedback from the others. We did it again on nights three and four, weaning ourselves from our notes until we had our sets memorized.
I had never thought of comedy as turning on precise wording, but Charlie made this a mantra. When Brandy tried out her monologue, she began with, “Yes, I have a stripper name.” She gestured at us, her makeshift audience. “Any other stripper names out there? Asia? Jade? Cinnamon? I’m probably the only black girl who used to lie in bed at night and wish she were named Shaniqua.”
That was a good line. Everyone laughed, including Charlie. Then, all-business, he told her to change the opening lines to “I’m probably the only black girl who used to lie in bed at night and wish her mother had named her Shaniqua.”
Why? It gave the joke someone to blame, a bit of discomfort key to the line’s humor.
The same thing happened with my story about a library patron who told me about cheating on his wife and asked for a book to help him win her back. My recommendations:
- Harry Potter and the Lying Bastard
- Fifty Shades of Oops!
- How to Tell the Difference Between Your Wife’s Cunt and Your Own . . . The Illustrated Guide
Number three got the biggest laugh. Why? I was this librarian, meek and studious. “Cunt” from me was unexpected, shocking.
In fact, too shocking. The group advised “pussy” over “cunt,” and they were right.
It’s a show business certainty that you can’t be thin-skinned. The same is true of comedy. I had to learn to take criticism of my jokes. Humor is so personal, so intimate, that it felt at first like my personality was being questioned. Soon enough I learned: when a joke fails, it’s not because it’s not funny. It’s because the premise is confusing. Or the pace is wrong. Or the wording isn’t quite right.
It’s a different kind of feedback from writing teachers, most of whom read your stuff, stroke their chins thoughtfully, and say, “Well, what I would do is . . .”
In comedy, the feedback is more Hobbesian: people laugh, or they don’t. Simple as that.
As it turned out, I didn’t suck.
Graduation night. Thirty minutes before showtime. Jonathan asked if I wanted to run through our sets one more time. We had done them so often I was sick of mine. And his. Yet I agreed, and we went to the Green Room.
When a joke fails, it’s not because it’s not funny. It’s because the premise is confusing. Or the pace is wrong. Or the wording isn’t quite right.
It was the size of a guest bathroom and had white, not green, cinder block walls, a wobbly mirror, a floor lamp, and a lumpy-looking love seat. A generation’s worth of comedians had signed, sketched on, or otherwise graffitied the walls. A few names I recognized: Drew Carey, Margaret Cho, Kevin Pollack, Mary Lynn Rajskub.
Charlie was the only one who had signed in multiple spots.
I was tight during the run-through. Distracted, diving into my notes. I hadn’t practiced enough, was the problem. Or I was too relaxed. Or not relaxed enough. Could I just turn it on during the performance, like my Baptist pastor father? He is a natural in front of a crowd, comfortable and confident, feeding off their energy.
A monologue, whether sermon or stand-up, is like an essay. As much as content, you need structure. Narrative. Transitions. This is the difference between humor and comedy. Humor is flour, sugar, apples, salt, a stick of butter. Comedy is Joy of Cooking.
Many people are funny. They can zip out wisecracks and one-liners all day. Once, when I was dating a woman, I had a little trouble in bed, performance-wise. I couldn’t get it up, in other words.
Wanting to de-stress the situation, the woman smiled and said, “We’re experiencing testicle difficulties. Please stand by.”
Problem is, jokes like this are situation-specific, the kind of thing you’d tell your friends later and, if they don’t laugh, follow with, “Well, you had to be there.” A comedy audience wasn’t there. They never are. You have to make them feel as if they were.
That’s exactly what writers do.
The reader can have a range of reactions — sadness, joy, amusement, fact-checking, debate, throwing the book across the room. All are valid. With comedy, there is one acceptable reaction: laughter. If the audience doesn’t laugh, you failed. It’s a great, and humbling, lesson in purpose, which all writers have to keep top-of-mind.
The crowd applauded as Charlie, the night’s emcee, introduced me. I sprinted out of the Green Room and up on stage, shook his hand, and took my place behind the mic. Suddenly, my stage fright was gone like a startled bird. I did my set eagerly — so this is why people become comics! — and walked off to cheers. Later, one or two people came up and told me they loved it.
Those three minutes on stage at Goodnights are a highlight of my life. I will never be a full-time comic, of course. That’s okay; it’s a combustible profession. The experience made me a better writer, and it was worth it for that reason.
Could I one day be a comedy writer?
Charlie seemed to think so. “I have friends like you,” he said. “They perform a little bit, but just to say they’ve done it. But you give them a typewriter or a computer, and the stuff they come up with is off the charts.”
Can guys like that find writing jobs?
“I wrote for a bunch of other comedians,” he said, listing Ron White, Pauly Shore, and Carrot Top as examples. “It’s rewarding writing stuff for other people. Writing is the most respected part of the comedy art form. Comics, unless you’re famous and can draw a crowd, they don’t give a shit about you. But if you’re a great writer, they all want to know who you are.”