I was giving some feedback to someone who had asked about a set he did at an open mic. His jokes were funny, setups were brief enough, but there was still something “open mic” or green about his material. I thought back to my jokes at that stage in my career and some of the subject matter was the same. We always hear “write about yourself” when starting out. That’s a good way to make your set unique. The thing is, just because you’re telling your jokes in first-person (I did this… I did that…), doesn’t mean they’re necessarily about you.
Most jokes aren’t true stories. Good writers can start with a true story or anecdote, and then add the lies that make it absurd and funny. What comics eventually learn to do as they progress in their joke-writing abilities is learn to find that area where the lie is realistic, but more absurd than something that could never happen. Here’s an example (and forgive me if anyone uses this bit, it’s just a common open mic topic many have been guilty of), comics will say they like older women, and then go into some punchline about sleeping with a one of the cast members of Golden Girls (until Betty White dies this will keep happening). No twenty-something male actually wants to sleep with someone that old. The lie is absurd, but not realistic. Cute, but not all that funny.
To find the real funny in your biographical topics, free-write about the subject as much as you can. To keep with our example, write three pages about why you like older women. Get specific. There’s probably some little secret thing about them that you like that you think no one else notices. Reveal that on stage and you’ll find almost everyone notices and that’s what makes your bit funny. You’ve shared a secret with the audience and laughter connects them. Don’t always aim to point out why you’re different, instead make connections with the audience that let’s them realize you’re the same. They’ll give you a much better response when they can relate to you. This is why relationship humor works so well. Most of the people at the show are with someone.
What if you’re not in a relationship? That’s fine, but an audience can only take so much of the lovable loser type. That angle gets just as tiring as if an overweight comic kept doing fat jokes or a minority comic kept going on about race. Find something else to write about that you have in common with others. Work on reminding them of your similarities, not just your differences.
For more tips on progressing to making money in comedy, check out my book, Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.