The world of serious writing, fiction or nonfiction, may seem a long way from the rough and tumble world of comedy clubs, especially if you don’t consider yourself a “humorist.” Yet looking back, I could never have written 7 non-fiction books and my first novel without the lessons I learned telling jokes to drunks in front of brick walls across North America.
This guest post is by Wayne Turmel. Turmel is a writer and speaker living in Chicago. His motto is, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Those who remember are still doomed, but can sit there smugly and say, ‘told you so’.” His first novel, The Count of the Sahara is now available.
I’m not alone. Many serious writers started cracking wise on the comedy club circuit. John Wing, the very funny comic best known for “America’s Got Talent,” and multiple Tonight Show appearances, is also an accomplished poet. Al Watt, whose premiere novel “Diamond Dogs,” garnered great acclaim, now teaches writing through the LA Writers Lab and his book “The 90 Day Novel,” is a gem. We started doing comedy in the same crummy bars in small towns in Canada in the 1980s.
Here are six lessons I could never have learned any other way:
1. You never know when inspiration will strike: Write it down when you think of it.
If you ever spend time with a good comic, their pockets are full of napkins, small notebooks or scraps of paper with lines written on them. They’ll drive you crazy during conversations, suddenly fumbling to jot something down. They know that good jokes often come out of everyday conversation, and they want to remember them for use later. It drives our significant others crazy, but to this day I travel with small notebooks where I scribble ideas for blog subjects, descriptions or dialogue that I’ll use some day.
2. Short is better.
Comedy writing is mostly taking a good idea, then stripping it of all unnecessary words and description to get to the joke. The longer it takes to get to the funny, the bigger the payoff needs to be. The same is true of your descriptions, your action and your plot twists.
3. Rewriting makes everything better.
Even though standup may seem improvisational, the best bits are tried, edited, rewritten and tried again until it’s pretty much perfect. That’s why Jay Leno still gets up in clubs to try out new material before doing it on TV. When I worked with Canadian comedy legend Kenny Robinson, he used to call me “The Mechanic” because I would come up with a joke then try it several different ways, always tinkering, and constantly nagged him to do the same. A great idea without perfect execution is not nearly as funny as it can be with some hard work and judicious editing.
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4. Never let them see it coming.
The best punch lines are the ones that seem to come out of nowhere. This is why, even though my business writing and even my novels are “serious,” there are flashes of humor. If people expect you to be funny, they are waiting for it, and highly judgmental. When the humor is unexpected, it adds spice to the writing and the audience enjoys the laughs for what they are. The best reviews I’ve gotten for Count of the Sahara mention that even though it’s an exciting story and a bit of a tragedy, it made them laugh out loud. As a writer, that feeling of “gotcha” never gets old.
5. The audience is the final judge. They’ll let you know what works and doesn’t.
Not every idea you have is brilliant, despite what you think. That’s why workshopping your material and listening to others is critical. It doesn’t mean your idea is bad, you just may need to keep working at it. One advantage writer’s groups have over comedy clubs is that the people offering feedback are usually sober and not trying to impress their girlfriend. You seldom need to call the bouncer.
6. Not everything is funny to everyone. Make peace with that.
The hardest part about being a working comic is that the same joke will work one night and die a horrible death the next, depending on the audience. Some people like dirty jokes, and others prefer clean material. Some people like Amy Schumer, some like Jerry Seinfeld. Really cool people appreciate both. Know your audience, and don’t take feedback personally. I mostly write historical fiction, but it’s not overly bloody so sometimes the macho military types don’t care for it. Nor is it romantic, so if bodice-rippers are your thing, I may not be your cup of tea. If I try to please everyone, I’ll fail. Take feedback seriously, but at the end of the day write for yourself under the assumption that you’ll find your audience.
I often look back at my mis-spent youth with nostalgia. Other times, I am glad I ran away from the circus. One thing I know for sure, those years spent in comedy clubs have made me the writer I am today.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.