What’s wrong with storytelling?
One of the biggest misconceptions beginner comics have is thinking that a funny story that happened in life is going to be funny on stage. After all, doesn’t the best comedy come from real life? Isn’t that how the masters like Bill Cosby perform most of their act? Shouldn’t I have a third rhetorical question just to follow the rule of three?
The first problem is that a short set of four to seven minutes isn’t the right context to tell a story. If you have a four minute set you need to get several laughs per minute. I don’t just mean little chuckles, you need to have several hard-hitting punchlines. If the first minute of your story doesn’t have a punchline here’s what the audience is thinking…“This comic sucks too. I need another beer. My sister was right, I should’ve just invited him over for a DVD instead of letting him take me to this open mic night that he swears was funnier last time. What is this guy in a dumb t-shirt babbling about? I haven’t heard a joke yet.” So by the time you get to the “funny” part of your story the audience already hates you. (Hate is a strong word, how about detests.) The key is making them legitimately laugh at least twice in the first minute. You have to use obvious punchlines rather than implied punchlines.
The other problem is that things that happen in life are funny-ish, but unless you really know the people involved (the crowd doesn’t know you or your pals) there’s a ceiling. Real life just doesn’t provide that many ridiculously funny moments. So when you tell a long story you may as well use the tagline, “You had to be there.“ If you insist on telling a story, as a comic you need to rewrite the story with different details. Remember that classmate in elementary school who always lied about stuff but you didn‘t realize it until years later? There’s no way he had nine pet snakes! Be like him. Embellish. Exaggerate. Twist things around to make them more absurd. Good stand-up only feels like the truth. Find those moments in your head where you wish you would’ve said something clever; now write the bit so that you did say something clever. Think of some what-if moments. Stephen King said he never tries to write scary things, he just takes situations and says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if–?” and that’s how most of his story ideas start.
Try not to mimic the style of comics on television. It’s like trying to learn guitar by watching footage of Jimi Hendrix. I realize that’s giving way too much credit to a lot of the comics on television, but realize they’re a lot more advanced and can pull tougher things off. (Should I use a golf metaphor instead?)
Thank you for all of the positive feedback on this blog, I’m glad it’s helping some of you. None of these blogs are just a cut-and-paste from my book. There are similar topics so I wanted to give you a taste of my writing style and the kinds of things the book covers. A lot of early parts are how to avoid common mistakes. As far as the joke-writing process, the above blog is about as far as I go into “how” to write your act. Other books claim to show you how to do that but I don’t think a book can teach funny. A few of you have told me that you’re hoping to make money from comedy someday. My book definitely outlines the methods of becoming an opener as well as explains how comedy contests work. Feel free to sign up here for the email alert for the moment it’s published (should be less than two weeks!).