How to Estimate Laughs – Writing Stand-Up Comedy

How does a comedian figure out if a joke is funny or not before they put it on stage? There are several ways to test jokes in the real world. This article focuses on what comedians can do individually before performing a joke in front of any type of audience. There are two ways to estimate laughs for a joke or bit before a comedian puts it on stage. There’s the analytic approach and the holistic approach.

Analytic Approach to Estimate Laughs

The analytical approach of estimating laughs on stage is to take a joke or bit and thoroughly compare it to past bits that you’ve performed or jokes/bits that you’ve seen another comedian perform. Here, the more you know about how to write stand-up comedy the better. Before you can identify meaningful variables in your material, you have to know what meaningful variables to actually look for. In fact, this is the basis of learning how to write funny material. What a comedian is doing here is looking at each individual variable within their material one at a time and attempting to optimize it for laughs.

For instance, new comedians that don’t know about keyword placement will likely completely miss it when analyzing material. This is why I’ve repeatedly said that one of the greatest obstacles in new and aspiring comedian’s careers is that they don’t know how much they don’t know. Once a comedian understands the principles of stand-up comedy they’ll have much greater accuracy when estimating laughs on stage. Before that, it’s simply taking shots in the dark and hoping that all the variables match up in your favor.

Holistic Approach to Estimate Laughs

The holistic approach is a second path to estimating the laughs your material will get on stage. In the holistic approach a comedian will basically “feel” how the material will be performed on stage. Unlike the analytical approach, the comedian doesn’t break everything down into individual pieces. They take the entire joke or bit and run through it in their head until they feel (“feel” is actually the best word here) how the material will be both performed and received.

Veteran comedians tend to get better results from the holistic approach while new comedians get better results from the analytic approach.

Here’s why…

When you concentrate on individual variables a comedian loses the big picture. For new comedians, the positive results far outweigh the negatives of “losing the big picture.” For veteran comedians, however, the analytical approach is far too slow and uncreative for them. Because they’ve worked with the same stand-up comedy principles many times in the past, they no longer need (or want) to address each principle one by one. Instead, these comedians look at the entire picture, whether that’s an individual joke, a bit, or even their set. Because they’re so familiar with the rules they no longer need to consciously apply them. They free up mental space to get a feeling for the overall performance. Learn more about using “big-picture thinking” in stand-up comedy.

The Takeaway:

  • New comedians do best using the analytical approach to estimating laughs on stage while veterans do better using the holistic approach.
  • If you’re a new comedian, the way to more accurately estimate a show is to understand the different principles of comedy. (We teach them in our comedy course)


Jared Volle