Funny stories that comedians perform in clubs are called anecdotal stand-up. These stories can be based on real-life experiences or they can be made up. In either case, there are three keys to transforming a funny story that your friends enjoy into anecdotal stand-up that can entertain an audience.
- Build frequent laugh lines into the story by …
- Organizing the story not chronologically but by subject, followed by laugh lines that …
- Seem genuine coming from you.
When regular storytellers tell a story, there may or may not be laughs along the way. Their story can succeed on the merits of its drama and suspense, with or without laughter. But any form of stand-up that a club comedian employs—including anecdotal stand-up—comes with the challenge and necessity of serving up frequent laughs. Hey, that’s why people go to comedy clubs—to laugh.
Stephen Rosenfield is the Director of the American Comedy Institute. He coaches and directs performers ranging from beginners to Emmy and Tony Award-winning and Oscar-nominated star talent. His book, Mastering Stand-Up Comedy: The Complete Guide to Becoming a Successful Comedian, released in November 2017.
How do you build so many laughs into one story? Damn good question. Happily, there’s an answer: Organize the story by subjects, into a series of setup and punchline jokes.
I’ll show you how this is done by deconstructing an anecdotal stand-up piece performed by Lenny Bruce. This piece is called “Lima, Ohio.” You need to know that Lenny Bruce was a very hip, cool, jazzy New York Jewish guy. This excerpt is from a story he performed about what his life was like as a road comic in the early ’60s. Another thing you need to know is that it was common in Bruce’s day for parks to have Civil War and World War I cannons as monuments. Finally, when Bruce refers to the “Five and Ten,” he means the 5- and 10-cent stores, which sold inexpensive items. I’ve underlined where the audience laughed. In this excerpt, more than 50 percent of the lines in this story are laugh lines. That’s a good ratio for stand-up comedy material.
I worked at a place called Lima, Ohio. … And I don’t know if there are any people in sales here, but when you travel in these towns, there’s nothing to do during the day. They’re very boring. Like, all right, the first day you go through the Five and Ten, that’s one day shot, right? The next day you go to the park, you see the cannon and you’ve had it. That’s it! Forget it. … And I’m staying at the Show Business Hotel. The other show people: one guy runs the movie projector in town and the other guy sells Capezio shoes. … And you always hear that small towns are wild … it’s a dirty lie. Even the waitresses—they’re all elderly women with corrective stockings, you know, and Mother Goose shoes and those handkerchiefs, different ones every day, pinned on. I’m looking to swing and they’re bringing me jelly and chicken soup. Now, I’m there like the third week and I’m completely whacked. …
In order to see the writing structure that makes this 50 percent ratio of laugh lines to straight lines possible, we have to bore down deeper into Bruce’s writing. Most stories are structured chronologically. This happened first, this happened next, and so on. That’s not the way comedians organize a story. They do it by subject. This is my first subject, and here are the laugh lines tied to that subject, and here is my second subject and the laugh lines tied to that subject, and so on. Transforming a funny story into standup comedy material essentially involves formatting the story in this way. Let’s look at “Lima, Ohio” again. All of the laughs in the first part of the story key off a single subject: Small towns like Lima, Ohio, are boring.
Subject 1: “I worked at a place called Lima, Ohio. . . . And I don’t know if there are any people in sales here, but when you travel in these towns there’s nothing to do during the day. They’re very boring.”
Punchline 1: “Like, all right, the first day you go through the Five and Ten, that’s one day shot, right?”
Punchline 2: “The next day you go to the park, you see the cannon and you’ve had it.”
Punchline 3: “That’s it! Forget it. . . .”
Punchline 4: “And I’m staying at the Show Business Hotel. The other show people: one guy runs the movie projector in town and the other guy sells Capezio shoes. . . .” Debunking the idea that small towns are dens of iniquity is the subject that sets up all of the next laughs.
Subject 2: “And you always hear that small towns are wild . . . it’s a dirty lie.”
Punchline 1: “Even the waitresses—they’re all elderly women with corrective stockings,”
Punchline 2: “you know, and Mother Goose shoes”
Punchline 3: “and those handkerchiefs, different ones every day pinned on.”
Punchline 4: “I’m looking to swing and they’re bringing me jelly and chicken soup.”
Punchline 5: “Now, I’m there like the third week and I’m completely whacked. . . .”
Lenny’s audience laughed throughout the story because he organized it by subjects (setups) with multiple laugh lines (punchlines.) This story leaves us feeling that it actually happened. There may be some exaggeration, some comedic license taken with the facts, but clearly Lenny Bruce intended for us to believe that his story actually occurred.
It’s also possible to successfully create anecdotal stand-up about events that are made up. What makes these pieces work is our third key to creating funny anecdotal stand-up: The story feels genuine because it fits the comedian’s persona. An example of this comes from a fanciful and hilarious piece of anecdotal stand-up by Dino Wiand, a new comedian and a student of mine. The following excerpt is the beginning of his story about flying from one New York City airport to another New York City airport. What you need to know is that Dino lives near JFK Airport and has gotten a job near LaGuardia Airport, which is about a half-hour car ride away. The crazy, fanciful part of this story is that Dino is convinced it would be more convenient to fly to LaGuardia from JFK, even though both airports are in the same city, a short car ride away from each other.
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In the excerpt, you can see that Dino has successfully applied the first key: The material gets frequent laughs. Dino also employed the second key: He organized the material by subjects (setups) and punchlines (laugh lines). His first subject is deciding to fly from JFK to LaGuardia; his second subject is that the in-flight movie is boring.
You can fly anywhere in the world from New York’s JFK Airport. But you cannot fly to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Which is a shame, because I live by JFK and I just got a job at LaGuardia. I discovered that you can only fly from JFK to LaGuardia if you change planes. And according to Expedia.com it costs $735, one way, on United Airlines. It’s a four-hour flight from JFK to Denver, Colorado … then a five-hour layover in Denver, then it’s a four-hour-and-fifteen-minute flight from Denver to LaGuardia. I took the red-eye because I wanted to be at work nice and early.
So when I got on the flight from JFK to Denver, I couldn’t believe how horrible the entertainment was. On the in-flight system they were showing a movie called, I think, Map Details. It’s about a plane that flies actually from JFK to Denver. It’s terrible animation. I don’t know what Hollywood was doing with this thing. It’s like a waste of money. But anyway, I was watching it, bored out of my mind, for four hours. And then they turned it off just as we came into Denver and I missed the ending.
In good anecdotal stand-up, the characters in the story are recognizable and their behavior is believable, even if the premise of the story is fanciful. Audiences laugh when the story matches up with the personality of the comedian telling the story. Dino’s persona is clear: He is mind-bogglingly clueless. Before he tells this story, he opens with jokes that vividly establish his persona. For example:
I tried to divorce my wife last year, but she told me that we got divorced fifteen years ago. I said, “When were you going to tell me?!!!” She said, “I did, fifteen years ago when we got divorced.” And then she went on and on about, I don’t know, something about me not listening to her.
As loopy as the airport story is, it engages the audience, and they laugh because they recognize that, as unlikely as this story is, it could happen to Dino. A story with frequent laughs, organized as a series of setup and punchline jokes, that feels genuine because it fits the comedian’s persona—that, my friend, is anecdotal stand-up.
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