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September 22, 2019

How To Write Jokes and Stand Up Comedy

Stand up comedy continues to be on the rise, thanks to Netflix, YouTube, Instagram and pretty much all of social media. 

The appeal of not requiring vocal or musical talent, being the only star on stage and the draw of “anybody can do it” makes all of us wonder how to be a comedian. 

Sanjay Manaktala BBC
Jokes can cross borders, cross genders and more practically…great delivery delivers a great message. This was on BBC but there was nobody in the crowd.

However, as with anything in life, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.  

You can 100% become a stand-up comedian, but if you want to make a living, you’d probably have an easier time in medical school. 

The good news is that we’ll cover just one aspect in this post, which is how to write jokes and comedy writing rather than the much harder question of how to have a career in stand up comedy which I also covered a year back and continues to get a lot of nice messages, so thanks for that.

How to Write jokes? Joke writing is all about surprises, originality, and oftentimes relatability.  They’re various forms, techniques and types of comedy that jokes can take. Puns, act outs, impressions, sarcasm, one-liners, rule of three, storytelling, callbacks and more.

Ultimately if you remember to surprise your audience in a clever way and try to make it ABOUT THEM, you’ll probably be fine.

Let’s Set It Up

Before we just dump a million joke examples on you as many comedy blogs do, let’s understand why you want to write jokes in whatever stage of life you’re in. 

Richard is the leader on R/standupshots with 70K upvotes on this pic and I can vouch for him that this joke works live ALL THE TIME.

You can easily reverse engineer jokes and your favorite bits from all-star comedians, but that’s like learning how to drive in a Formula 1 race car when you first need to just get to your job in a Honda Civic.  

Also before you read on…there is no better experience than getting off your butt and going to the open mic to see how jokes are responded to live.  I’ve had things retweeted 1,000 times but trying that joke on stage got crickets.  

Remember, comedians create jokes but not all jokes are created by comedians.  That joke in your office or funny forward isn’t something a comic can or will do on stage, so yes, knowing how to write jokes isn’t exactly the same as how to write stand up comedy, and we’ll cover the differences also. 

Why You Want to Learn How to Write an Original Joke

It’s no secret that after sex, humor is the number one seller.  

Whether you want to spice up that boring office presentation, break the ice on a date or just blog/write about things in your industry (gaming, technology, finance, marketing, real estate) with a humorous tone, using comedy is a great way to do it.  

Comedy and humor is a skill that everybody should learn because even if you have no aspirations to spend half your life in dingy open mic bars, you can use that skill to improve your public speaking, kill it in sales or learn how to grab and hold people’s attention in a world where that’s the most important.  

And grabbing their attention is half the battle. 

I’ve seen million dollar Google engineers who were smarter than Bill Gates lose a room explaining billion-dollar technologies that were going to change the world. 

I’ve also seen party-crazy frat boys captivate 100 PHDs on an IDIOTIC piece of social media software because they simply know how to communicate in an effective way. 

Jokes are a great way to fix these problems because again…they grab attention but also grab confidence. 

Types of Comedy

The various types of comedy you see in 2019 include:

  • Stand Up Comedy
  • Improv
  • Sketch Comedy Live
  • Sketch Comedy (YouTube, Instagram, etc..)
  • TV Sitcom
  • Film
  • Late Night Talk Shows (monologue, current events, panel with guests)
  • Vlog

While all of these are formats of comedy, they all leverage basic joke structure.  Even a silly meme like “When just actually just wants to Netflix and Chill” of a dog not getting any attention or whatever is a joke about the bedroom, rejection, whatever.  

Do You Need to Be Inherently Funny to be a Comedian?

I know that sounds ironic or obvious but not necessarily.  

Is your baby or dog or fraternity friend puking in the corner funny? Of course.  

Is that going to be funny for a group of strangers on vacation on a cruise ship? Probably not.  

Some great comedians are duds off stage and joke writing for the public is actually a craft that takes dedication and patience.  So while yes, being funny naturally helps, translating that to the stage and performance takes time. 

Gary Gulman is one of my favorites and even has a new special out about depression. But look at any of his tweets and you’ll see he’s very hardworking and methodical about the words, the cadence, the craft and much more.

They’re probably 1/1000 people who are just naturally gifted and who are “just a natural.”  But it’s very rare. 

So How Do You Write Jokes?

Steve Jobs said simplicity is the most complex, so I thought long and hard on how to narrow down the key steps to getting you into making those writing exercises less exercise and more routine.

1. Pick a Topic for your Material

Yes, your joke has to be about something.  

Donald Trump, Your Childhood, Working in an office, Working in an Investment Bank, Working at Google, Dating, Your Date Last week, Tinder (yawn),  Being Chinese, whatever…you need a topic.  

In order to give your joke a good chance, try to pick a topic in an area you know (e.g. your family, your work, your career, whatever but that anybody could understand) 

A lot of comedians think they can go out there and riff, or just do crowd work, or dress well and talk about easy things. No-no-no.  

Just like every film needs a story and plot, you at least need topics.  Even short one-liner comics like the late Mitch Hedberg and others had entire topics in seemingly tiny sentences. 

If you talk about people who don’t really get talked about, you can find new comedic ground to cover.

Pro Tip: One of the best ways to stand out early in your comedy joke writing is to write about topics people don’t talk about, but is probably 100% known and relatable. 

I made a good chunk of my career talking about working in Information Technology.

I don’t expect 300 million Americans or 1 Billion Indians to enjoy hearing software humor, but I could grab a large chunk of 50 million software engineers and that’s just fine with me. 

Chances are if you simply need to learn how to write comedy for your office or presentation, picking a topic your audience knows but nobody else does is a great way to connect (e.g. that clunky payroll system, the company CEO’s hobbies, a recent news event in your Industry). 

2. Look for an angle on the topic that people haven’t thought of before. 

Jokes are all about the reader or audience not expecting the punchline. 

Whether it’s a tweet, a live performance, and heck even a meme or Instagram story, it has to be unique enough for someone to appreciate the uniqueness of it all. 

These days everybody knows the late-night punchlines of Donald Trump is sexist or George Bush was dumb or whatever.  But what else is there about him that could still surprise an audience? 

  • What if he’s actually super smart? 
  • What are his kids like? 
  • Maybe his wife is the real brains? 
  • What do world leaders think of him? 
  • Maybe you voted for him? Why? Why not? 

Try to reverse what pop culture says, because your goal is for your reader or audience to not see it coming. 

  • We get that on Tinder everybody is ghosting. 
  • Or that black people are like this and white people are like that.  
  • Or it’s tough to be single or all the men in Hollywood don’t like you. 

There was a time when those topics were fresh and new, but now you have to find new topics to spin a humorous angle on. 

Once you have a topic, like growing up poor or being bad with women…try to write everything you find amusing or ironic or strange about that.  

You’ll probably write down 100 things and one of them will work on stage. 

Welcome to comedy. 

But if you know that your first 100 jokes will have a 1% success rate, is sets the expectation and makes the future a lot easier, rather than spending a day and quitting after one open mic. 

For example… let’s write down anything without judgment until something at least makes us smirk. 

I’m so bad with women that…

  • Tinder gave me a refund. 
  • Tinder said “don’t bother.” 
  • The waiter asked my date if she was at the right table. 
  • The extremists made me one of the 72 virgins. 
  • I work in HR and I’m still single. 

Again, the point isn’t to judge these jokes but to start dumping all the first thoughts out of the way so you can make room and really warm up your creative muscles. 

Growing up poor is:

  • Fine with social media.  I just photoshop myself at the beach. 
  • Ironic when you have siblings.  That first kid was a $200,000 expense.  Great, let’s have another. 
  • A lot of pressure.  It’s like your parents had you thinking…let’s name him “Return on Investment.” 
  • making six figures in San Francisco.

Growing up rich is tough because…

  • You guys have to find your dreams.  I have to find my boat. 
  • Everybody expects you to pick up the tab.  I mean I can..but like…
  • Does she like me for me, or my money, or…? 
  • (I clearly didn’t grow up rich so I really have no clue about it)

3. Setup and Punchline

The beauty of working hard on a unique, ironic or surprising angle is that you may have already completed the joke.  

What’s the traditional definition of a joke?

A setup or premise and a punchline. 

Even if a comedian tells a long 5-minute story there are probably a bunch of mini setup/punchline combinations also building onto a bigger setup and punchline.

Don’t over-engineer it.  Setups are the topics or situations and punchlines are the delivery or payoff. 

Once you’ve made sure your joke has a payoff for the reader or audience, you can go ahead and test them out at the open mic, Toastmasters, a public speaking group in your area, or even on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram stories and social media. 

4. Memorize Your Jokes (for live comedy)

If you’re going to perform as a comedian or use jokes in your speech or presentation, you NEED to remember your joke so you nail down your delivery and timing.  

What nobody ever tells you is that some comedians are way better at delivery and performing than the actual joke itself when read on paper and often times audiences may not even know the difference.  

So if you want to make sure your joke has an adequate swing much like going for a home run with a fastball straight down the middle, make sure you deliver it well.  The simplest way to do that is too simply memorize the ten to fifteen jokes you want to try, and deliver with them conviction. 

Otherwise, reading them off an index card when nobody knows you ruins the confidence of your audience and jokes that had potential get wasted away. 

5. Deploy and Test

I feel bad for the creatives of years past because they had to wait for somebody to tell them if they were funny or a good writer or could sell well.  

In today’s world, gatekeepers still exist (and many, such as major comedy club booker or late night booker are still valuable in knowing what works for their format) but the public’s reaction is king. 

Look at how the Rotten Tomatoes scores of Dave Chappelle’s latest special differed between the people who “hold the keys to good reviews” and well, the ticket-buying public. 

If the critics are also way off, wouldn’t an ad executive, or a filmmaker, or a company CEO who slowly sees his company get disrupted by a new technology? 

The point I’m trying to make is, you need to get your jokes out there now and see what sticks.  But don’t give up too early. 

Stephen King had tons of GREAT books passed on before he found a publisher who wanted to get him in front of eyeballs, and then destiny took over. 

Just cause your joke got one like, it may not be so bad if Facebook didn’t show it to anybody or you have no followers on Twitter who saw it. 

There are no hard and fast rules, but if your joke gets a laugh consistently over 5-10 live tellings or gets a lot of love on social media (especially from strangers), it will likely get a laugh in your comedy future or presentation or movie or sketch.

As you continue writing about your life or topics of interest, you’ll start to clumb all those dating jokes together into a 4 minute bit on dating, and use the two lines about realizing you were gay as your introduction, or whatever.  

6. Cut the Fat

In comedy, less is definitely more.  A common mistake people make when writing jokes is to include unnecessary details. 

I grew up in Minnesota, we had a small blue house.  It’s so cold there in the winters. We were poor. The landlord came to evict us but the house was so bad nobody took it over.” 

Why do I care that the house is blue?  Is Minnesota really required? Either find a funny twist on why you mentioned Minnesota or just start the joke from “we were poor.” 

Once you test out your jokes (after memorizing) a good chunk of joke writing is actually joke editing and trust me, comedians are constantly removing and adding things to their material to make it tight and funny.

Belly laughs (or some comics like to go on jokes per minute) is a great way to keep the laughter rolling and that takes years of editing and timing to master.

Common Misconceptions

There’s a lot in this post that I’m sure comedians who are one to five years in want to say, but again…this is just the training wheels of joke writing.

There’s no point playing to the back of the room if you can’t confidently hold an audience’s attention no matter how meta or clever your bit is.

1. I just want to be a comedy writer for TV.  This stuff is hacky or lame. Kay and Peele don’t do that. 

Don’t they?  

Again, the point of this article isn’t to get you a Netflix special, it’s to teach you the ABC’ or how to dribble and make a free throw.  

Once you learn the basics you can build and build and build or start doing crossovers and nailing half-court shots.  

But whether it’s a sketch about “how guys can’t call their girl a b**ch” or Alec Baldwin doing a bit on Trump, the jokes are there once you dig under the hood. 

2. What are the comedy writing secrets?

There are no secrets to writing comedy just like there’s no secrets to getting rich.  However, they’re definitely shortcuts and more effective ways that a lot of comedians don’t do.  

Leveraging (rather than scoffing at) social media, keeping a schedule, putting down the beer, avoiding easy crowd work (I’m guilty) are all the tools you can do to polish your jokes sooner and sooner. 

3. Are comedy classes worth it?

I’ve never taken a comedy class, but I did take a sketch writing class with one of the Kay and Peele writers a few years ago and I’d do it again.  

Did I learn anything crazy new or turn my career around?  Not really.  

But for the price of 15 beers over my next 3 open mics I got to meet people, put discipline on my writing for 8 Sundays in a row and spend my money on things that pushed me towards my goals rather than pointless movies or drinks.  

My main beef with comedy classes (and blogs, which is why I tried to write this a bit differently) is that they use part of your fee have you all perform in a comedy club at the end.  

You walk out into the world with a tape of your 5 minutes and a great crowd, but when you join the real front lines of comedy you realize nobody cares and the crowds aren’t like all your peers in that class. 

So if you recognize that and have the time, I would 100% give it a shot probably just ONCE.

If nothing else, comedy classes are a great way to force you to write your first 100 jokes because we all know you’re not going to do that on your own. 

Conclusion

The hardest thing with writing comedy and creating jokes is the same as starting any new hobby or skill. 

Where do you begin? 

When I started making YouTube videos, I was so caught up with the type of Camera I wanted and reading 100 Amazon reviews, I didn’t realize lenses were more important than cameras, and content was more important than both.  

Then learning to be comfortable on screen, editing, understanding data, figuring out a routine, etc.. Ultimately, if your content is good, (or your joke funny), people will laugh.  

Joke writing is the boring and hard part, but it’s also the part that is over-engineered, over-analyzed and when many of us get success, the most overlooked.  

Your brain uses more energy thinking than you might do at the gym, which is why most comedians give up after writing for 20-40 minute a day/week.  

Are there other ways to write jokes? 

Of course. 

Is there only one way to write jokes? 

Of course not.  

I read Comedy Bible by Judy Carter when I first started and then, later on, I figured out what I wanted to pick and choose from the 100 other books out there.  

I hope this article does the same for you.  

If nothing else, write 10 jokes and keep them aside for a rainy day. 

Happy writing! 

Sanjay Manaktala is one of the top stand up comedians in India who started building the comedy community in the country back in 2010. Since then his stand up comedy videos and podcasts have helped millions laugh or get motivated. His latest effort is the Birdy Num Num podcast, helping you learn creativity in life after engineering. You can learn about Sanjay here or check out his YouTube channel here.

Let me know if this helped you or any comments?