Stand-up comedy is a niche field. It takes a performer guts to get onstage. But it takes brains to assemble the perfect act.
Standup is said to have started in New York in the late 19th century. African American vaudeville performer Charley Case is credited with doing the first standup act in the 1880s.
Since then, jokes and comedy have certainly changed. But the standard structure of setup and punchline has remained true to comedy’s core.
So how do you write stand-up comedy? And how do you decide what’s funny and what’s not?
Below are some tips from famous stand-up comedians on how to write stand-up comedy. But first, let’s break down the structure of a stand-up comedy set.
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The structure of a stand-up set
A full comedy set is structured with a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t matter if you have enough material for only one minute or five.
All sets should have this structure. Below are the standard elements that you should be sure to include in your set:
The opening of a set is crucial. It may only consist of one joke. But that joke will set the tone for the rest of the routine.
Try to get a laugh out of the audience as soon as you step on the stage. This will convince them that you are funny. And they’ll be more willing to back you up on later jokes.
Bits or Jokes
This is the bulk of your standup set. Joke writing is all about setting the stage and introducing a point of view.
Then comes the punchline. This is the funniest part of the bit that gets the most laughs as it goes against audience expectations.
Segways can be difficult. But transitioning between jokes well will make for a successful set.
Transitions should be natural and conversational. This will also ensure that all of your jokes flow well into one another.
The closer of your set is the final joke. And it should also get you the biggest laugh.
You can refer back to an earlier joke or story. Or, you can catch the audience by surprise with a new idea entirely.
Make sure you leave them laughing one way or another. They’re likely to remember your closer more than the rest of your set anyway.
How to start writing stand-up comedy
Now you know the structure of a stand-up comedy set. But how do you write the perfect jokes for a stellar set?
Comedy writing looks different to everyone. But below are some writing tips to help you get started as you enter into the brave world of stand-up comedy.
#1. Watch other comedians
To write stand-up, you first need to watch other comedians at work. Try focusing on one stand-up comedian you admire.
Look through their original material. Focus on the words they use and how they deliver them. Then track how they progressed as a comedian throughout the years.
Pay attention to how they perform as well. And try asking yourself the following questions:
- Do they use a lot of hand gestures?
- Or do they keep hand gestures to a minimum?
- Do they spend the whole time talking about their life?
- How do they make use of silence?
- Do they continue to build upon laughs?
- Or do they give enough space in between?
- How do they carry themselves on stage?
Try answering these questions as you observe your favorite comedian. But also be sure to observe your contemporary comics in comedy clubs as well.
Attend an open mic and sit near the back, far from the stage. Notice how the audience reacts to the material.
Ask yourself how often the audience laughs. And what does the audience seem to respond to the most?
#2. Use personal experience for material
Every writer has to develop their own material and style. And what better way to distinguish yourself from others than drawing from your personal experiences?
Look at your life and see where you can pull some laughs. Let your family stories inform your ideas.
Maybe even take on the persona of your weird aunt. Your personal life should inform your set and give you material to write out good jokes.
This is not to say that every life story needs to be incorporated into your writing process. But allow yourself to explore the possibilities anyway.
Comedian and film director Judd Apatow has often remarked how personal stand-up comedy is the funniest. He urges stand-up comedians to go for relatable material.
That way, the audience wants to root for you. They will identify with your words and stories. And your jokes will come away both funny and both of substance.
#3. Write everyday
To get into the world of stand-up comedy, you will want to write every single day. This doesn’t mean that every joke you write has to be a winner.
In fact, the majority of your writing might be material you never share. But the more you practice, the more you’ll discover your style.
When you write stand-up comedy, try to approach it like a story. Establish who the characters are and where they are.
Describe the precarious situation they have found themselves in. This will ultimately give you a solid narrative arc.
And the goal of that arc is to hit the punchline. Construct the lines to lead up to a moment of surprise.
Or, you could try working backward. If you know the punchline already, figure out how you want it to be set up.
Determine all of the elements that you want to include. Then ask yourself what order will make the punchline funniest?
Above all, remember that writing is a process. So schedule out some free time each day to write.
#4. Pick a topic that’s funny to you
Sometimes, writing every day is easier said than done. So if you’re struggling to find an idea, try focusing on a funny topic that makes you laugh first.
Stand-up comedy can fool you into thinking that it’s all about making the audience laugh. And that’s a large part of it.
But be sure that what you are writing makes you laugh too. Comedy is subjective. But that doesn’t mean you should be telling jokes that you don’t enjoy yourself.
Jerry Seinfeld uses this same strategy. In fact, he has found that the more interested he is in his own material, the better his performance turns out to be.
If you’re bored, the audience will be too. So make sure your time spent talking on stage is exciting and invigorating.
#5. Paint the picture
If you have a funny bit, make sure you set the full scene for the audience. A stand-up comic doesn’t have a set behind them on stage.
So the words you use must also paint the scene itself. Think about the emotions and images that come to mind in your bit.
Take a minute to explore the comedic space. And observe any small details that you might be able to heighten in your set.
This will not only help you think more creatively. But it will also remind you that your words are the performance itself.
Comedy should immerse us into these comedic situations. Just as the old adage goes, “Show them, don’t tell them.”
#6. Assemble your act logically
Your act might be a one-minute set or a five-minute set to start. But ordering your jokes logically will be the key to creating a strong routine.
Your set should have a natural flow to it. And there shouldn’t be too many jokes trying to battle one another for space.
Instead, leave enough room for laughter. Have some backup jokes on hand in case you need to shift directions. But make sure that your set isn’t filled with only you talking.
Additionally, your overall set should feel more like a united whole. Comedy is above all about storytelling.
You may have written your jokes at different times. But when putting your set together, make sure they flow effortlessly into one another.
Tips for performing stand-up comedy
Comedy writing is only half the battle. The next half is performing your set for others.
Below are some guidelines to help you hone your act. These will help you develop into the best stand-up comedian you can be.
#1. Test out your material
If you’re a first-time comedian, test out your material on friends and family to start. Offer to be the master of ceremonies at your next virtual dinner party or friends-giving. Some find it easier to perform in a personal setting before they hit an open mic.
But once you’ve gathered enough strength to enter the comedy club, be sure to soak in all the free feedback you can. You can still invite your friends to the open mic.
But comedy clubs are a great place to connect and network with other comedians. Exchange ideas with other comics to help inform your set.
All of this will additionally help to boost your confidence. After all, the more you perform, the more comfortable you’ll feel on stage.
#2. Adjust your pacing
Pacing is an overlooked element of comedy. But thoughtless pacing could make or break a set.
Compressing the jokes together often triggers what is called “the roll.” This is where one joke is quickly delivered after another.
The audience won’t have time to fully stop laughing altogether. So instead, their laughter will then start to build on itself.
After a while, each joke makes everyone laugh harder from the fact that they’re already laughing. And this keeps the audience entertained, loose and more open to the next joke to come.
#3. Be open to editing
You may think that every joke in your set is funny. But sometimes, the set itself just needs to be pared down.
The audience will actually be your biggest editor. Halfway through telling a bit, you might change your mind and feel like it just won’t land with this specific audience.
If this is the case, don’t be afraid to cut it right there on the stage. Switch directions and bring out some backup material you’ve set aside.
Every good comedian knows how to shift from point to point in a second. So make sure you’ve written down enough ideas to back up your edits when needed.
Additionally, keep in mind that less is more. If you have to edit, keep anything that hits the audience right in their funny bone.
But if a bit just isn’t working, don’t be afraid to cut it completely. Finding your best material will come from practicing your routine in front of others.
Just remember that editing is all a part of the writing process. Just because you’ve written the set doesn’t mean that it is set in stone.
#4. Focus on yourself
Some stand-up comedians like to banter with audience members. But if you’re just starting out, focus on your act and your material alone.
Stand-up comedy benefits from repetition. So the more you perform and practice your routine, the better you’ll nail it.
Improvisation is not something bad entirely. In fact, improving during your set might help you find your comedic persona.
But spending too much time talking with the audience can distract you from your work. Slowly build your way up, but start by focusing on what you have control over first.
Stand-up comedy is a unique beast that can take years to perfect. But the rewards of developing such a skill are beyond imagination.
Writing comedy requires both observation and patience. Stand-up can have you fooled into thinking that the process itself is just as fast-paced as a solid routine.
But sets that pack a punch have gone through a series of edits and refinement. Above all, remember that writing stand-up comedy is a process.
And it’s a much more careful craft that most will give it credit for. So stick to your guns and keep writing.
Who knows. Maybe one day, you’ll have the perfect routine just waiting to be discovered.
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Adam Christing is a professional comedy magician, virtual MC, and the founder of CleanComedians.com. He is a member of the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood and a popular virtual comedian, magician, and virtual speakers for hire.