Former WD staffer Jess Zafarris crossed paths with Jerry Seinfeld, who shared a five-step rundown of his comedy writing process. His tips are not only useful for aspiring standup comedians, but also have broader applications for writers looking to add comedic elements to their own work.
I just moved to the greater New York City area about a month ago, and I’ve already have my first super memorable “New York Moment.” And serendipitously enough, it turned out to be a wonderful teachable moment for me as a writer.
I went to the Gotham Comedy Club to watch a friend, the extremely talented amateur standup comedian (and WD Advertising Director) Tony Carrini, perform amid a lineup of about 10 other performers. Tony performed like an absolute pro, easily getting more laughs and showing better pacing and character than the vast majority of the other comics.
But one of them understandably stole the show when he made a surprise appearance—totally unannounced and unadvertised—at the venue.
When the host announced that Jerry Seinfeld was about to take the stage, I didn’t fully register what was happening. But there he was a moment later, rattling off jokes with the ease and rhythm of, well, one of the most famous comedians of all time.
Apparently Jerry makes a habit of spontaneously showing up at the club to test out jokes for future paid gigs. He had a couple of notecards with him, I assume with notes on the new material, but left them on the stool behind him and only glanced at them once, instead pacing the stage and engaging the crowd of about 30 attendees.
The routine was easily one of the funniest I’ve ever seen—in fact, one of the funniest I’ve seen him perform, so I’m hoping to see the set in one of his larger-scale shows soon.
But the real ace in the hole for me was the short Q&A he provided at the end of the set.
One clever audience member, themselves an aspiring comic, asked him how he comes up with his material.
In response, Jerry Seinfeld himself shared a five-step rundown of his comedy writing process, which is not only useful for aspiring standup comedians, but also has broader applications for writers looking to add comedic elements to their own work.
Here’s (roughly) what he said:
Comedy Writing Tips from Jerry Seinfeld
Step 1: Start with a funny topic.
The funniest part of Jerry’s routine began when he started talking about how ridiculous it is when people console you over a death by saying, “At least he died doing something he loved.” Instead, Jerry insisted he’d rather die doing something he hated so he wouldn’t have to keep doing it—something like cleaning a row of portable toilets.
He managed to get about five jokes out of the portable toilet topic, and the whole house was howling by the end of it.
He said he came up with that particular (sub)set of jokes when he was discussing the death-consolation topic with another comic and mentioned the portable toilets in conjunction with it. His comic friend told him, “Hey, that’s a funny area. You should do more on that.” And so he did.
In other forms of writing, you can generate whole books, stories and chapters this way. Brainstorm ideas and topics that you find interesting or funny and see where they take you—you might find a whole novel hiding in a portable toilet.
Step 2: Think of emotions and images around the funny topic to come up with more jokes.
“Think: How many jokes can you get out of a subject?” Jerry said. “Two to three is good; four to five is great; more and you’re a master.”
In the series of jokes about the horrors of portable toilets, Jerry miraculously managed to get big laughs without directly mentioning human waste. Instead, he focused on specific images and emotions around the experience of interacting with a portable toilet—the dread inspired by the hinges on the door, the way you feel inside of one, the mental scarring and lack of sleep you experience when the sight of its contents is permanently branded into your memory.
Jerry’s jokes—and really, most standup jokes—often rely on relatability (cue his iconic “What’s the deal with that?”) and surprise (as in the unexpected way he describes an ordinary experience). Thinking about the way the topic makes you feel and the visuals around it makes it more relatable and provides you with more surprising elements to work with.
You can also apply these tactics in other forms of writing: Relatability will to draw the audience in and make them more sympathetic to your characters, while surprising circumstances and creative language keep them turning pages.
Step 3: Assemble the jokes logically and connect them.
As I mentioned before, he transitioned into the topic of portable toilets from the death-consolation topic, from which he had already drawn four or five jokes. From there, he stayed on portable toilets for about five more, each joke flowing easily into the next.
Not only that, but if one of your jokes is too similar to another, you can still use both if you arrange them right. “You can put separate similar jokes into two if you put space between them, he advised.
The first joke and the last one were fairly similar, referencing the experience of dread and mental scarring you experience inside. The second one was punchier and funnier, so he placed it at the end of the set after two less similar jokes.
You can bookend a chapter or scene with humorous elements in the same way—introduce the joke at the beginning, and hark back to it at the end to get a laugh out of your readers.
Step 4: Compress the jokes and adjust the pacing.
The most interesting part of his discussion was around pacing.
“I’m not that funny,” Jerry said, stunning the room. “So I became obsessed with the technique of standup comedy. The closer you can get the jokes together, the bigger the laughs will be. Compression is a very important aspect.”
The goal is to trigger “the roll”—that is, deliver one joke quickly after another so that the laughter builds on itself, people don’t have time to fully stop laughing, and each joke makes everyone laugh harder. This technique also keeps the audience loose and more ready to laugh at the next joke, regardless of whether it’s actually funnier than the previous one.
For those of us who write books, screenplays and stories, this advice helps you think about your narrative pacing. The closer together your jokes, the funnier your scene has the potential to be.
Step 5: Test out the jokes in smaller groups.
Basically, do what Jerry did at the Gotham Comedy Club—try out jokes among a low-stakes crowd to see how they do before trying them at a larger venue. For amateur comics, that means testing out jokes with your friends and family, seeing how they react, and then trying open mic nights and amateur comedy shows.
If you write comedic stories or books, that might mean having an editor or critique group read it to offer feedback before pitching and/or publishing it.
So there you have it—comedy writing advice from one of the greatest comedians of the current (and previous century). Whether you write comedic stories or you plan on delivering standup, Jerry’s tips can help you perfect your technique, timing, and structure. Break a leg!