This post is part of a free, 6-week humor writing course. Today’s focus is editing standup comedy routines – or anything you plan to read aloud or perform. The editing you do for work you plan to read aloud is different from the editing you do for other writing. Mechanics like spelling don’t matter as much. Other things, however, become more important. You’ve got to get to the point as quickly as possible. You also have to avoid confusing your audience. Here are some tips.
Note: We’re revising a piece you should have already written based on tricks from standup comedy. If you missed that lesson, check it out here.
Step one: Read your piece out loud.
Your best way to assess whether your writing is funny is to read it aloud to someone else. Note where the audience laughs. You definitely want to keep those parts.
Step two: Look for opportunities to increase the humor with the tips below.
If there’s a part of the piece that you thought was funny and it didn’t get the laugh you expected, try using the tips below to figure out why. Don’t worry about making all the changes. Look for just one or two comments that might apply to your piece.
All examples below are based on this Mindy Kaling quote from her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
“I wish I could be one of those French women you read about who stays thin by eating only the most gourmet food in tiny, ascetic portions, but I could never do that. First of all, I largely don’t like gourmet food. I like frozen yogurt.”
I chose this example because it has a very clean, standard joke structure.
Premise: “I wish I could be one of those French women…but I could never do that.”
Setup: “First of all, I largely don’t like gourmet food.”
Punch: “I like frozen yogurt.”
The truth is, I have no idea what the rough draft version of this paragraph of the book looked like. It’s certainly possible that Mindy Kaling, who has many years of comedy writing under her belt, wrote it almost perfectly the first time. For most of us, it would take quite a bit of revision before the joke got its final, clean structure. With that in mind, here are some imaginary first-draft versions of this joke with suggested changes that might lead to the final product above:
Imaginary first draft: “I wish I could be more like French women. Unfortunately, I don’t like gourmet food…”
Suggested change: Increase the contrast between tone and subject matter, beginning and end, situation and personality, or sentence structure.
Imaginary first draft: “…First of all, I largely don’t like gourmet food. Frozen yogurt is much better.”
Suggested change: If you’re giving away the surprising part of the joke too early, enhance the surprise by moving the “punch line” to the end.
Imaginary first draft: “I wish I could be more like French women, but I like frozen yogurt too much.”
Suggested change: Give readers enough context to understand the punch line.
Imaginary first draft: “…First of all, I largely don’t like gourmet food, such as brie cheese and escargot and other such things that one might consider gourmet. I like frozen yogurt.”
Suggested change: Make the section leading up to the punch as short as possible.
Imaginary first draft: “I wish I could be more like French women. They’re so beautiful and thin. Good for them!”
Suggested change: Remember Peter McGraw’s Benign Violation Theory? If it’s too benign, make it more of a violation. Or, in stand-up comedy language, add a punchline.
Imaginary first draft: “What’s wrong with all these anorexic French women…? I hate them. I hope something terrible happens to them.”
Suggested change: Remember Benign Violation Theory? If it’s too much of a violation (too mean… too gross… etc.), make it more benign. In this case, the writer is talking about eating disorders rather than someone who just stays thin. The writer is also wishing something terrible would happen to someone and “hating” a whole category of people. All of these have potential to offend, and there isn’t much in here to soften that impression.
Imaginary first draft: “…First of all, I don’t gor-made food. I like fozen yogurt.”
Prescription: If you’re writing for readers, it’s important to proofread. Readers don’t laugh if they have to go back and reread. On a similar note, if you’re performing out loud you have to make sure you know how to pronounce all the words. Anything that is unclear and makes the audience say, “huh?” will disrupt the momentum of the joke.
Want to know more about how to write jokes for standup comedy – or even just how to be funnier when you speak? Check out these books:
Zen and the Art of Standup Comedy, Jay Sankey – A book that talks about all the delicate balances a speaker has to strike when trying to make an audience laugh. I’ve also found this one helpful as a teacher.
Step-by-Step to Standup, Greg Dean – A book that breaks down joke structure to help with joke writing.
If you’re a teacher who would like to teach humor writing to your students, you can find my classroom-friendly humor writing unit on TeachersPayTeachers here.