6 Tips for Successful Comedy Writing

The need for humor writers is on the rise; but how can you be sure you have the chops to make it? Author and professor Mark Shatz has the answer.
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Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.

—Gene Fowler

Any intelligent person can learn humor, work at it, and even produce it. The problem is that the commercial world won’t pay enough for second best to allow everyone to make a living. In humor, good enough is no longer good enough. Only a few of those who study humor go on to become professional humorists, but the same is true in many professions.

I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four years were spent in wild success. I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product. The course was more plodding than heroic.

—Steve Martin

(Thrilling Humor: 5 Tips for Incorporating Humor into Thriller Novels (and Other Serious Fiction))

Comedy is a lot like professional sports. Past successes are history. You get paid for today’s hits. One difference is that in baseball, a .300 hitter earns a million dollars and the fans are deliriously happy all season. But a .300 batting average in comedy would get professional performers to go from boos to booze in a week.

The only way to deal with bombing is by bombing a lot. You just learn to handle it. I guess you never really want to bomb, but if it’s not going your way, then you might as well enjoy the ride down.

—Dave Attell

With that kind of failure rate, you’d think any person who had reached the age of reason would take up plumbing. Yet, writing and performing humor is rising in popularity. There are simply not enough qualified writers today to fill the increasing need. Besides the standard venues, more and more markets are begging for humor material: speeches, blogs, newsletters, advertising, social media, and online education. Moreover, if you’re successful, the money in comedy is so plentiful that professional practitioners are like well-endowed actors in a porn movie—“You mean I get paid for doing that?”

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Comedy Writing Secrets 3rd Edition by Mark Shatz and Mel Helitzer

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Since you’re only as good as your last joke, there’s considerable insecurity in comedy writing—and a great deal of turnover. There are six ways that you can improve your chances of succeeding as a professional humor writer.

1. Work With Others

Write with a partner whenever possible. Despite the added difficulty of scheduling, teams of two or three writers spark each other’s wit and test and refine each other’s ideas. “I love working with other writers,” wrote humorist Phillip Lasker. “I have learned to appreciate surrounding myself with talent. Others may have better lines than you or better story points. You have to listen to those you respect, and it’s also fun to notice that the great writers are listening to you.”

As Eric Idle of the six-member Monty Python group observed:

Getting six guys to agree on what’s funny is easy. We read it aloud. If we laugh, it’s in; if we don’t, it’s out. If four guys think something’s funny and two guys think it’s not, we solve that very simply: We take the two guys out and kill ’em.

Often a student will point out that a single person, like Charlie Chaplin or Neil Simon, wrote the most famous comedies. Well, if you’re as good as Chaplin or Simon, you can do it alone, too!

2. Hire An Agent

Agents are a great example of a catch-22 situation. The big agents won’t touch unknowns, but beginners can’t become known without an agent. There are many exceptions, however, and your job is to find them. Playwright Abe Burrows said he thought of his agent as family. When Burrows paid his agent 10 percent, he didn’t think of it as a commission, but as sending money home to mother.

Little by little the agents have taken over the world. They don't do anything, they don't make anything, and they just stand there and take their cut.

—Jean Giraud

Stephen King believes that successful writing calls for talent, a self-critical eye, and the willingness to mercy kill bad material. He also recommends that writers follow his First Rule of Writers and Agents: “You don't need [an agent] until you're making enough for someone to steal, and if you're making that much, you'll be able to take your pick of good agents.”

6 Tips for Successful Comedy Writing

When you reach the point of needing professional help, names and addresses of agents can be obtained by searching the Internet. Just never give a new agent your wallet to hold when you go onstage.

3. Test, Test, Test

Humor can’t be tested in a vacuum. You need an audience, and it must be an audience that’s receptive to humor. If you can’t find an audience, try your jokes out on another humor professional—writer or performer. Don’t walk up to a stranger and ask, “What d’ya think of this?” The only thing worse than that is trying your humor out on your friends, spouse, parents, or children. They are too subjective, too critical, and—instead of just relaxing and enjoying it—they turn into pseudo-analysts.

There are a hell of a lot of jobs that are scarier than live comedy. Like standing in the operating room when a guy’s heart stops, and you’re the one who has to fix it.

—Jon Stewart

Only one out of every ten jokes will probably work the first time out. Moreover, no joke will ever please every person in the audience. It’s impossible. Getting laughs from 50 percent of the audience is doing very well.

If you’re writing material for public speaking, put thirty seconds of new material at the very beginning of a tested speech. The first thirty seconds are the toughest because that’s when the audience is most skeptical, so if the new material goes over then, you know it has merit.

If I get big laughs, I’m a comedian. If I get little laughs, I’m a humorist. If I get no laughs, I’m a singer.

—George Burns

Jokes are like machine-gun bullets. They don’t all hit the target, but if you shoot enough of them accurately at the audience, you’ll kill ’em. Count one point for a twitter of laughter, two points for a solid laugh, and three points for applause. If a joke doesn’t score any points after at least three attempts, throw it out. If it gets only one point, try rewriting it so your score is constantly going up.

4. Write, Write, Write

Writing humor is an all-day assignment, because new ideas can pop into your head anytime, anywhere. Some writers feel humor can be conceived even when they dream, so be sure to keep a notebook by your bed.

Once you’ve learned the basic techniques, don’t let anybody talk you out of writing your own way. Humor styles change with each generation, and while formulas rarely vary, standard subject matter, formats, fads, and characterizations are constantly being challenged. New ideas are the lifeblood of comedy, as they are of most businesses. And most new ideas take at least several years to germinate.

5. See, Hear, Speak Funny

In addition to luck and perseverance, your success as a humor writer depends on four things:

  • Watching. Look for the absurdities of life. Notice the physical actions that bring a smile to people’s lips.
  • Reading. If you read something funny, make a note of it. Notice the construction. Keep adding to your joke file.
  • Listening. Try to remember how people phrase things; what Mel Brooks calls “the rhythm of human speech.” Things that look good on paper don’t always perform well. We don’t speak in full sentences, we often skip words, and we usually use contractions.
  • Speaking. Do your own stand-up. Don’t hesitate to deliver your own material in a meeting, at private parties, or to dinner guests. You’ll notice how audiences differ, how your performance differs, and how important it is to have the right material for the right audience.

6. Have Fun

Urban legend claims that actor Edmund Kean uttered the following on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

It doesn’t matter whether the tale is fact or fiction—the quote is accurate. Comedy is hard, and it takes years of practice, dedication, and rejection to be a successful humor writer.

Yet, life is brief, and you might as well enjoy the journey. Think funny, write funny, and have fun.

In the end, everything is a gag.

—Charlie Chaplin

Build Your Novel Scene by Scene

If you want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down and write 10,000 words or so a week, this is the course for you. Build Your Novel Scene by Scene will offer you the impetus, the guidance, the support, and the deadline you need to finally stop talking, start writing, and, ultimately, complete that novel you always said you wanted to write.

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