In my How to Write Stand-Up Comedy series, I will explore writing exercises, idea-generating techniques, and other practices for writing stand-up comedy. The series is a companion to the Have You Heard This podcast in which I have conversations with comedians that explore a new and developing joke from their act.
“How do you come up with ideas for jokes?”
It’s a question comedians get all the time. Naturally, we want to know how the people who make us laugh come up with the thoughts we find so funny. And sometimes, the curiosity is from people who want to know how they can start doing stand-up comedy themselves – maybe that’s what brought you here.
The answer might be different for every single comedian you’d ask. But I’d like to share what has worked for me in learning how to write stand-up comedy (in part to help those looking for tips and in part to remind myself!)
The first step to finding an idea for a joke is recognizing where joke ideas come from in the first place. How many times have you found yourself laughing at a comedian and realized they’re doing a bit about something you’ve definitely thought of before? It probably happens all the time! The jokes that make the most people laugh are relatable thoughts, experiences, and observations that many people have made themselves internally, but the comedian has decided to voice out loud.
Capturing these thoughts in the moment instead of letting them pass you by is the next step in generating ideas and topics to turn into stand-up comedy material. No matter how great the idea may seem when it pops into your head, there’s no guarantee you’ll remember it later. Writing it down as soon as you can is key. Carry a notebook and pen to capture your thoughts or use a note-taking app, or some combination of both. I find that a combination of both free-hand writing and keeping notes saved in programs that I can synch to various devices works the best for me.
What Should You Write Down?
Now that you’re taking up valuable pocket space with a notebook, when should you pull it out to write down some of your thoughts? I find that a good place to start is by recognizing and recording anything that evokes a strong feeling or emotion. This way, the material you end up creating from these thoughts is personal and comes from your own unique point of view and experience. Starting from a strong emotional response will give you plenty to draw from when developing the joke. In addition to this, it will ring true when you’re performing it, and you’ll come off as authentic to an audience. Of course, there are ways to fake this, but if you’re just starting out then coming from a place of truth will do you much better. You’ll learn how to fake it once you’ve learned how to pull ideas from real feelings.
Here are 10 lists of strong feelings and emotions I keep in my notebook to help me develop new ideas:
This is what I call the “positive emotion block” list. Keeping track of things that you love or make you happy or get you excited or leave you feeling inspired or in awe will help lead you down the path of finding out who you are, both as a person and as a comedian. You can also explore how the things you love or obsess about end up affecting your life, your relationship with people, or how those things have evolved over time. Think about what makes you geek out, things you can talk about for hours on end, or topics of conversation that you can jump in and take over. Comedy doesn’t have to come from negativity. There’s a lot to explore while looking at the sunny side of life.
Of course, comedy can come from negativity. And some great bits come out of anger, hate, and frustration. These feelings can be used in tandem with something that you love to round out both sides of a topic, come in handy for a good, old-fashioned rant or “roast” of something that gets on your nerves, and really get an audience on your side when they agree with you. It’s also possible to get people laughing about something they love that you hate, with the right approach.
You know the old saying: comedy equals tragedy plus time. Comedians can certainly get a lot of mileage out of sad and depressing events in their life. It’s best to make sure you’re actually writing jokes and not just venting or using the stage as therapy. But right now, we’re just talking about finding topics to write about, not how to actually get into the nitty-gritty of writing them. That’ll come in a later post.
I love writing jokes about things that I don’t understand or that make me feel dumb. People love laughing at a bozo and I’m here to volunteer to be the clown, baby! Typically, I like to do a little bit of research on these topics to make sure I have some level of understanding when I try to actually write about these topics. But when I’m in a situation that makes me feel like a real idiot or somebody out there says some smart stuff that goes right over my head, I like to take note of that topic and idea and jot it down on this page of my notebook for later exploration.
Everybody gets embarrassed. Everybody feels awkward. Recognizing what brings this out of you can lead to some great comedic premises. You’ll find that people will be able to laugh whether they share the same feelings, or just find it funny that you do.
These are another set of powerful emotions that when explored correctly can lead to fantastic comedic results. Exploring your fears, whether they are rational or irrational, where they come from, and how you can possibly get over them (or what you’ll do if you can’t) will really open yourself up to the audience, help you be relatable, and loosen the crowd up for a lot of laughs.
Tony Soprano said that “remember when” is the lowest form of communication. Nostalgia has been used to great effect in all kinds of entertainment, not just comedy, and is a great way to get an audience to relate with you as a peer – or set yourself up as a blast from the past. Recognizing what makes you feel safe or comfortable can also help you talk about the type of person you are (and whether you like that or not) which is a great way to make fun of yourself, the world around you, or both.
These feelings show what you aren’t, but what you wish you could be. These feelings are a great way to explore your own personal psychology, share far-out ideas, plans, or schemes to get what you want or talk about your failings or shortcomings in life. You can talk about your fantasies and how they relate to your reality and the gap or juxtaposition between the two. These are all great starts to strong comedic premises.
If you find yourself interested in a subject and want to know more about something, write it down on this list. If you start reading articles about a certain topic, going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, or discovering new channels on YouTube based on strange (or normal) curiosities, jot it down on this page of your notebook. This list will serve the double duty of helping you remember things that you want to research and learn more about, and give you things to explore and mine for comedy. You could write jokes about the topics themselves, your relation and obsession with them, or both!
This might be the easiest and most obvious list of all. Write down things that you think are funny and make you laugh. Things from your life, things from the news, things people say to you, whatever makes you laugh, write it down. This is probably the list you’ll want to explore and develop first since you’ve already found something worth laughing at.
Now you’ve got a notebook, and you’re starting to write down ideas, but you still don’t have jokes. Each entry in this How to Write Stand-Up Comedy series will explore a new technique, writing exercise, or tool for taking the ideas, feelings, and emotions you’ve recognized, mining them further, and turning them into actual jokes to tell on stage. Keep your eye out for more posts here or sign up for my email list to be the first to know about new articles, podcasts, and more.
Aaron Hertzog is a Los Angeles-based comedian and writer. He started his career in Philadelphia where he was named “Best Stand-Up Comedian” at the WitOut Awards for Philadelphia Comedy. He hosts the Have You Heard This podcast, in which he has conversations with comedians that explore a new and developing joke from their act. His debut stand-up comedy album “Delicious Mistake” along with weekly bonus podcast episodes are available for subscribers on Patreon.