So many new comedians are faced with the same issue: how do you translate your natural sense of humor into a stand-up comedy act? What do you do if you’re really good at making quick jokes with friends but have writer’s block when you’re attempting to write comedy?
First, there’s a difference between writing comedy and being a quick-witted person. Being quick-witted is about reacting to the situation at hand. What’s interesting is that the “quick-witted humor” you use in a conversation is closest to your natural sense of humor. This is the type of humor you should be aspiring to get on stage. Capturing your natural sense of humor when you write comedy makes the process more natural and more fun… not to mention you’ll write funnier material.
The problem is that many new comedians approach learning how to write stand-up comedy completely differently than their natural sense of humor. Instead of reacting to the situation naturally, they’re caught up in thinking about setups and punch lines or attempting to give their “impersonation” of how a comedian “should” write comedy. They’re analyzing their material instead of writing it. Aligning with your own, natural sense of humor is all about “Finding Your Comedic Voice.” When you stick to your voice instead of “impersonating” what you believe a stand-up comedian “should” do, you’ll steer clear of “hacky” material that bores the audience and write comedy that is fun and different from other comedians.
When a comedian works from their natural sense of humor then they are able to write comedy more freely. The comedian will no longer have to “push themselves” to write… it’ll be a natural extension of themselves. However, when you take out the “playful” part of humor, writing comedy becomes work. The constantly analyzing makes it near impossible to get any good writing done, this is especially true for writing stand-up comedy, which requires some degree of playfulness. It’s the difference between working from inspiration and working from desperation. Desperation may help in the short-term, but it inevitably leads to frustration, stress, and writer’s block. In the long-term, writing stand-up comedy from inspiration is the only way to go.
So how do you regain your own natural humor while you are writing? While there are already several articles on how to write comedy on this site, this article will give four quick strategies specific to translating contextual humor to the stage.
First, when you write comedy you should try to capture the reaction that made the joke so funny. The “punch line” only makes sense in the context. As a comedian, one of your jobs is to capture both the context and the punch line, then reproduce them on stage. The end joke may look very different from the actual way the story played out. That’s because as you go through your setups (building the context) you’ll edit out some details while adding in new ones to make the story more effective. Not editing out enough “fluff” is one of the most common mistakes new comedians make (here’s a list of common mistakes) when they write comedy.
Second, try to turn the monologue of a stand-up comedy performance into a dialogue by adding characters. This will give you someone to “play off of” as if you’re still having a natural conversation. I refer to this as Point-of-View Humor (POV humor). The key to making POV humor work is that the other character must have their own identity. While this seems obvious, it can be difficult at first for new comedians to write comedy using POV humor. Typically, a new comedian will have two different characters in a bit, but they’ll both have the same personality. The humor comes from the conflict between the two points of view (as it does when you are naturally talking). When this is lost, the jokes become very mechanical, which is exactly why new comedians have difficulty with translating their humor on stage in the first place.
To use this strategy, a comedian doesn’t have to actually perform the dialogue on stage. Sometimes treating it is a dialogue helps the comedian to identify key components of the story (such as the context). The comedian can then take the context and translate it into an “observational” joke or even to a completely different story. There’s no rule in stand-up comedy that says the story you tell on stage has to be how it actually happened. In fact, this is rarely the case.
Third, stop concentrating on the setup and punch line format when you write comedy. What’s important is that you freely write what happened and identify the key components of the story (ask yourself “what really matters in this story and what’s just fluff the audience doesn’t care about?). Comedians that approach writing from this perspective are less likely to get writer’s block because they’re able to move freely in their writing. They aren’t constrained by worrying about the structure of the joke. Creating the setup/punch line format can always be done after the comedian is done writing. It should never be done while writing.
Comedians that have very limited performing experience will benefit from a fourth strategy: identify a story you already enjoy telling your friends. We all have stories we love telling. A topic that, if it comes up, we get excited and instantly think about “the time we did _____.” Instead of trying to turn the story into a “stand-up comedy act” by forcing it into setups and punch lines, tell the story as you would tell your friends. Comedians that do this draw on their past experience of telling the story. This makes the leap into stand-up comedy that much easier.