It might go without saying, but stand-up comedy requires copious amounts of joke writing before a stand-up comedian can get up and speak in front of a live or virtual audience and do their thing. Though many comedians make it look easy, they’ll be the first to tell you it takes a bit of work to get to that point.
For some comics, it comes easier, while others must learn the craft of joke-writing over a longer period. But whatever the path may be, everyone who has any success with a stand-up career spends tons of time observing, reflecting, and writing.
You may want to start writing those jokes right away, but if you’re a beginner at comedy writing, it’s worth taking five minutes to read through some tips, watch some examples of stand up comedy greats like Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen Degeneres, and Brian Regan, and then…get back to writing!
So, what does it take to do comedy writing? And more specifically, how do you write jokes? Well, it’s important to look at how most jokes are structured.
The basic ingredients for a typical two-liner are a set up and a punch line. The setup is what sets the scene or states some fact, and the punch line usually points out some element of irony or provides a surprise twist that makes people laugh.
Sometimes there’s a “tag” as well, which is an additional statement after the punch line that adds another layer of humor to the joke. Even without being explicitly stated, there is also a premise, which is the comedian’s feeling about the subject or an acknowledgment of a general underlying truth.
Let’s use an example from comedy legend Steve Martin. It’s not even necessarily one of his best jokes, but it will certainly suffice to show the structure we just laid out.
“I decided to give my cat a bath. He sat there, he enjoyed it, and it was fun for me too. The fur would stick to my tongue, but other than that, you know, it was great.”
The set-up: “I decided to give my cat a bath. He sat there, he enjoyed it, and it was fun for me too.”
The punchline: “The fur would stick to my tongue, but other than that, you know, it was great.”
The unspoken premise: Cats bathe themselves by licking their fur (so when he says he gave his cat a bath, the audience first assumes he means with water in a bathtub, but the joke suggests he bathed him just like a cat would…with his tongue).
The tag: I didn’t include it above, but on his comedy album after he tells this joke he asks for some club soda, and the audience laughs again. Perhaps he’s insinuating there might be a hairball making its way up, or something of the sort.
Learning About Joke Styles
You may already have a sense of the jokes you tend to like, or those you always tell. But if you’re newer to joke writing, or want to work on some new material, you should pay attention to the various joke styles out there, and see if you can work a few into your routine. Let’s go through a few of the common joke styles and why they work.
A lot of jokes are written with this style, where the punchline is a surprise twist. The premise or set-up puts forth some statement, and the punchline plays upon the assumptions you have made. We can use Steve Martin’s cat-bathing joke above as one example.
An audience knows something funny is coming, but perhaps they are expecting to hear about what a mess was made by his cat in the tub, or another way a regular bath could have gone awry. Instead, he talks about getting fur on his tongue, making people laugh with surprise, and also with that visual image of him licking his cat clean.
The Bait & Switch
Similar to the twist, the bait and switch plays upon the audience’s assumptions, but takes it a little further. This style leads the listener along in a way where they think they know how a sentence or idea is going to be resolved, only to have the metaphorical rug pulled out from underneath them. Again the punchline comes as a complete surprise, because not only was there misdirection, but audience members may have even had the words ready in their mouth when the comic flipped the switch.
For example, there’s this joke from Wendy Liebman:
“My mother always said don’t marry for money, divorce for money.”
The audience may be collectively finishing the familiar saying in their heads, “…marry for love,” but she flips the script and brings up divorce out of nowhere. The element of surprise is always good for a laugh.
The Rule of Three
Whether it’s three strikes you’re out, the three little pigs, or Larry, Moe, and Curly, our minds must really have a thing for the number three. According to Wikipedia, the rule of three is a “writing principle that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers.” It’s one of the most common tips you’ll come across for writing stand-up jokes.
Live stand-up (and virtual) comics will often list things in three, making sure that the third thing said packs a punch. Actor and standup comedian Harland Williams has a joke that follows this rule of three.
“When you die there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. When my father dies, he’ll see the light, make his way toward it, and then flip it off to save electricity.”
First, he has the setup of the familiar end-of-life scenario, and then lists the three things his dad will do when his time comes. He delivers the last line – the third thing in the list – and gets a lot of laughs. And just as a refresher, this is funny and relatable because the premise is that a lot of dads (or parents in general) go around turning off lights that kids leave on.
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Impressions & Act Outs
Seeing as how standup comedy is a lot about performing, a comedy set will often include material where the comedian acts out a particular scene, imitates a voice, or does a full-on impression. These comedic devices can be very funny and are often crowd favorites. The term “act out” describes the part when comics use physicality to enhance a joke.
They may try a different voice or exaggerate the movements of a person in their story to really drive it home. However, it doesn’t have to be over-the-top to work.
In one comedy routine, Jerry Seinfeld talks about the interesting configuration of characters working at airport security. Of course, being the master of observation, he has more than one joke on the matter, and is able to show – and not just tell – with an act out.
He first sets the scene, saying, “This Einstein has chosen to stand in front of X-rays 14 hours a day, that’s his profession.” He then uses the opportunity to deliver a few of his lines as the TSA worker, crinkling his nose as he imitates inspecting luggage. “What is that, some sort of bowling ball candle?
Yeah, I got no problem with that. I don’t want to hold up the line, keep it moving.” Telling this from the perspective of the character makes it work.
Here’s a video of Jerry Seinfeld doing his airport security bit:
See if there’s an opportunity somewhere in your five minute set to incorporate an impression or act out and give it a try at your next comedy show.
Playing With Words
If you like to write, and love words, using wordplay can result in some really funny jokes. Even if it makes you feel a little silly at times and people start laughing at the sheer cheesiness of these jokes, they’re still laughing. If you’re up there on stage and you’re making people laugh, then you’re definitely doing something right.
Here’s one example of wordplay from comic Stefanie Wilder Taylor. “I’m in therapy but I’m not sure I’m seeing results…its aromatherapy.” Writing jokes like this requires that you identify assumptions an audience will make and also think about the double meaning of words.
If you want to start writing some wordplay jokes, brainstorm ideas as you would normally, noting any opportunities that are ripe for misunderstanding. Some jokes will only work when you say them (as opposed to read or write them), because they have a different spelling.
Here’s a second example from Demitri Martin. “I saw a sign that said, watch for children. I thought to myself…that’s a fair trade.” Of course, no one is going to trade a watch for their children, and the ridiculousness of the topic is what actually keeps it light and humorous. Demitri Martin has a particular point of view that informs his onstage persona, which is a sort of mellow intellectual who’s also down-to-earth.
Taking Your Material to the Stage
To actually get started in comedy, you’ll need to say some of those jokes out loud. Whether you’re doing an act out or a bait and switch, the point of writing all those jokes is ultimately to perform them for an audience.
It may seem like a long journey from when you write your first real joke to your 5-minute debut at a comedy club, but there are steps to prepare you along the way. Luckily, you have options when it comes to working out your material and improving your delivery.
If you live in a city, you should be able to find an open mic somewhere near you. There are open mics that let musicians, poets, and comics perform, and some that are specifically for stand-up comedy. If you don’t live in an area that has these opportunities, there are now plenty of virtual open mics to practice your entertainer skills that you can attend from the comfort of your couch.
I know it can be scary to go up on stage for the first time, but once you do it, you won’t have to worry about that first time anymore. You can move right along and worry about the second time. Fun!
But in all seriousness, you’ll soon see that you can survive it, whether it goes well or not. If you think about it, we often learn more from our mistakes, so either way, you’re a winner.
There are so many other people just like you, trying out their hand and testing out their own comedic skills. In fact, most performers will be more preoccupied with their own set and wrapped up in their own story that they’ll only be giving half of their attention to you anyhow.
Still, it’s a great chance to practice your material or riff on a topic for a minute and see if you say anything amusing. You do want to write out your jokes and practice saying them to yourself first, but there’s always room for a little ad-lib, as long as you don’t try a brand new joke at an actual show.
These days you can always test out your ideas online. If you’re someone just starting out and it’s a low-stakes situation, you can even come right out and ask, “which one is funnier?” and then share two versions of your joke.
There are a lot of comedy groups on social media that you can seek out. Of course, it’s still a great idea to go to shows and be around other comedians whenever possible.
Keep Writing, Rinse, Repeat
The key to writing stand-up comedy is writing, and then writing some more, and doing it all over again as often as you can. Carry a notepad around with you, or record your ideas in your phone. Just be sure to write, revisit and edit.
Now it’s time to get started jotting down ideas and writing jokes. Here’s one more tip before we send you on your way. When you’re working on a joke, write down the set up and then write out several options for a punchline.
That way you’ll have your pick of the best. Sometimes it takes ten or more times to get the wording just right. Less is often more, so remember to keep it short and sweet…and funny!
Adam Christing is a professional comedy magician, virtual MC for hire, 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 speaker for hire.