All great comedians have an ability to make their material sound like it’s the very first time they have said it. It doesn’t sound rehearsed or mechanical. It sounds natural. Like the comedian is just thinking this stuff up off the top of his head. This is what gives material comedy a natural, conversational feel.
You’ll see a drastic contrast between open mic’ers and veteran comedians in this regard. Open mic’ers sound like they are repeating material ‘at’ you. They hit one joke then go on to the next. To the audience it is apparent that they are performing an ‘act’. But veteran comedians feel like the audience is in conversation and it just so happens to be the comedian’s turn to speak. There’s no 4th wall that the audience is listening through. They are a part of the experience.
Every time you finish some writing (not WHILE you are writing), go through and look at your material and ask yourself if it sounds conversational. Do the same thing every time you perform or while you are rehearsing. Making small changes to the way you speak a line or to the way the line is written can really help your material feel conversational.
WRITE HOW YOU TALK
No matter what style of comedy you’re using you’re going to want to write the same way you’ll speak on stage. Stand-up comedy is a spoken art form. The writing only SUPPORTS what you’re going to say.
Audiences don’t want you to perform ‘at’ them. If you’re speaking as if you are giving a presentation to co-workers, then you’ll lose this conversational feel. They want to feel like you are having a conversation with them.
Don’t worry about spelling. Nobody’s going to read it so nobody’s going to judge you. Trust me, at some point you’ll have an idea and type in a word that gets the dreaded red line of Microsoft Word, stop to fix it, and by the time you’re done you won’t remember what you were going to say. It’s very frustrating. Don’t worry about the spelling. Get your ideas down while they are flowing.
So how do you write like you talk? First off, throw everything you know about grammar out the window (feels good doesn’t it?). Grammar means nothing in stand-up comedy. We don’t naturally use good grammar when we’re talking with friends. Sometimes we don’t make full sentences or even use real words! But if we’re comfortable with it, the audience will be comfortable with it as well. In many ways, bad grammar is actually more natural than good grammar.
Secondly, use your lexicon. Think of lexicon as “Local talk.” Your lexicon changes dramatically based on your age, race, geography, education, or social class. If you’re from the South (USA) and use the word “Y’all” than write “Y’all.” If you’re 21 you’ll speak very differently than a 40 year old. Use what’s comfortable to you. Don’t edit out lexicon because you “don’t think it’d play well.” You’ll lose more from lack of authenticity than you’d ever gain from using different words.
Next, use contractions where you would speak them. For example, I use the word/phrase “Shouldn’t’ve.” Trust me, this will give you a spelling error in Microsoft Word every time and maybe even a small paperclip popping up in the corner saying “WTF?” But it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s reading it but me. It just doesn’t feel right for me to type “Shouldn’t have” because I know that’s not how I’m going to say it. Another common one I write is ‘em instead of “them.” I find it VERY helpful to turn the spellchecker OFF. You are being true to your lexicon.
Pay attention to the way you talk in daily life. This is your lexicon. If you get too far away from this natural speaking pattern when you are on stage, you will not sound authentic.
Eventually you’re going to learn how to write like you talk and you’ll come up with your own system for writing it down on paper. It just needs to make sense to you. I’ll share with you the system I use that helps me remember exactly the way I want to say a line no matter how much time has gone by since I read the joke.
For pauses I use a comma, period, or ellipsis depending on how long the pause is. I don’t have a set amount of time like “One period equals one second” For me, that’s too much to think about. I use these as rough estimates for a pause.
For emphasis on a single word or phrase I write them in CAPITAL LETTERS. You can even write a part of a word in capitals to place emphasis on one of the syllables.
To highlight the click-point of a punch line I make them bold. You’ll see this in many of the examples I will give you later.
If I’m speaking in a different voice than my own, I use italics. This way when I’m reading my set it’s very clear to me that I need to change voices or POV. If there are several people talking then I differentiate them using colors to keep them straight. Person 1 is blue, person 2 is red, etc. But this is AFTER I’m done writing down the idea. Don’t go searching for a color while you’re in the midst of creative genius. Your idea will be gone before you even realize there’s no periwinkle.
If I’m using a gesture, I write them in (parenthesis) such as “(staring at ground)” or “(high five).”
To make a note to myself beyond any of these I use [brackets]. I usually use the bracket to describe what tone I’m thinking of at the time of the writing. I’ll write things like “[confidently]” or “[obnoxiously].”
I also like to choose one specific color to write myself longer notes. I usually use green for that purpose. Whenever I see green in my writing I know that it’s not part of the actual performance. It’s just a note to myself.
This is just the system that works for me. There’s nothing really special about the way I do it. On the contrary, it’s a pretty intuitive system for writing how to speak a line. All that’s important is that YOU know what it means. The more you use a system the easier it will be to use until you’re not even thinking about it anymore.