How to Write Comedy Using Questions
Why are questions so important to writing comedy? Questions are the most effective way of directing our focus. In fact, “thinking” is really just a series of asking yourself questions and answering them. Because questions direct our focus, they also direct our emotions, which has the power to build up or destroy our motivation. In this article we’re going to look at how using questions can help comedians learn how to write comedy better. When writing comedy, these questions can be used to unearth new ideas that weren’t apparent during previous drafts of material. They can also break you out of “status quo” thinking, which leads directly to becoming more creative and more original as a perform (which in turn leads to developing a larger fan base and a more successful career as a comedian).
Here’s how to write comedy using questions. There are two areas where technique comes in handy: writing fresh material (adding quantity to your set) and punching up current material (adding quality to your set. As I’ve spoken about in at length before, one technique should never be used in writing material. Questions are simply another tool to add to your repertoire of how to write comedy.
To get the most out of this technique, learn the principles that are behind it (the actual questions you ask will change, the principles of why you’re asking those questions don’t). Begin by using these questions (or substitute your own) and apply them in your comedy writing. As you get more proficient at it, eventually you won’t need to think about asking these questions… you’ll just naturally do it. That’s the mark of an expert. From there your mind is free to learn new techniques and add them to the mix using this same process.
This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list. It’s simply a few of my favorite questions. The Faster & Funnier Comedy Course goes much more in-depth on these questions, when to ask them, and how to answer them when writing comedy.
Writing Fresh Material Using Questions
Let’s start with the trickiest use of questions: how to write comedy on new subjects. I’ve never recommended that comedians begin a writing session by thinking “what should I write about.” It’s a horrible waste of time and the results you get from such a writing session usually don’t amount to much. The best way (one taught by every comedy coach I’ve ever met) is to observe the world around you and write about it. It’s only after you have a topic that you’re passionate about (or even a joke or two written in your head) that you really sit down and flesh it out. Before that it remains a scribble on a notepad.
But having those observations doesn’t help you unless you find a way to use them to write comedy. That’s where questions are helpful. The questions you ask yourself will guide your exploration of the topic you’ve chosen. Here are some questions that I find handy when writing comedy:
- What’s wrong with _____?
- Why can’t ______?
- When is/can _______?
- How come ____?
These questions have different outcomes, but they all help you explore the topic in more depth. “What’s wrong with ____?” is a great way of exploring a topic and finding comedic tension. It’s easier to write about what’s wrong with the world than what’s right about it. By asking yourself a question that presupposes that something is wrong you’re guiding your thinking towards finding faults. You’re like a political pundit, observing something that’s neutral, picking it apart, and showing it to the world. Only in this case your weapon is humor.
“Why can’t ____” is another great question because it guides your thinking towards something that’s wrong. This question often leads to more personal answers (“why can’t I ____?), which are a great way of building rapport with the audience. “What’s wrong with politics” leads to observational humor about something outside of yourself. “Why can’t ____” leads to observations about yourself… your flaws, your wishes, your unrealized dreams… whatever. The answer to this question builds rapport because it makes you more human to the audience. “Why can’t I pick up a girl at a bar?” is a great question to ask yourself. The answer is going to be a weakness that you have. The rapport comes because almost all the audience members are going to be able to relate to that weakness.
“How come ____?” is similar to the “why can’t ___?” question in than it often zeros in on problems. However, this question will generally give you less personal results (which is fine, we want to learn how to write comedy that’s balanced). When you ask this question what you’re really looking at is relationships. What “x” happens, why does “y” occur? This can be a powerful question because comedy often takes place in the in-between spaces… in the relationships between one idea and another.
Last, “When is/can ___?” is another fun question and leads to hypothetical answers. “When is it ok to break up with someone? When is it not ok?” both questions lead to writing different comedy. I particularly enjoy asking myself the question “When is it not ok to _____?” because it brings up lots of great ideas that are ripe with comedic tension.
Punching Up Material Using Questions
Questions are the most effective way of punching up your material. There are two great ways of using questions to rewrite your comedy. First, questions break through the “fixedness” of your current material. Second, they help you explore alternatives.
Ever met a comedian that does the same old bit again and again and never changes it because they think it’s “perfect?” No material is every 100% done. It’s always a work in progress (you’re not always going to be focusing on it, but it’s never done). When comedians are telling the same old half-thought out jokes it’s because, in their mind, the joke is complete. It got a laugh and they moved on to writing something else. In essence, they’re failing to ask themselves questions that would help them explore more ideas. You can’t improve something if you think it’s perfect (and there is no perfect joke). When you begin questioning the joke (or elements of the joke) you’ll find that you get different responses. Those responses are “shaking the foundation” of the joke. After enough questioning you’ll find the holes in the material. From there, you’re able to build a better joke. But you can only do that after you accept that the joke can get better.
The second way of using questions to punch up comedy writing is by exploring alternatives. You can use all of the questions above as well as a few more that work well in this situation. Questions like…
- What else?
- What would happen if…
- How would I react to?
- What is this similar to?
- Why is it different than it seems?
“What else____?” is used to find entirely new areas to explore. You’re branching off the story and finding a new route to take. If you consistently ask yourself this question and you’ve built up enough material, you’ll find that asking this question almost always leads to a great segue to another bit.
Similarly, “what would happen if ___?” is a question you can use to branch off a story. However, this question tends to lead to hypotheticals. I prefer using these questions to find those hypotheticals and then personalizing them in a story. So instead of telling the audience “what would happen if ___” you’d tell them a story about what happened to you. The audience doesn’t know (or care) that it was originally just a hypothetical as long as the story is plausible.
“What is this similar to?” is a great question for finding analogies. Those analogies make great punch ups because analogies are very easy for the audience to relate to. Perhaps it’s difficult to communicate exactly what you want to say. Analogies are easy ways of getting that idea across in a minimum amount of time. They also open the door for comedic conflict.
The takeaway: Try asking yourself a new set of questions while you’re writing comedy. Direct your focus towards discovering new ideas. Ask questions that lead to better revisions of material.