Want to Be a Better Writer? Think Like a Comedian
5 truths about the creative process I’ve learned from comedians like Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld
Writers and comedians have a lot in common.
At first glance, comedians are merely performers — funny people who have the confidence to stand up in front of live audiences and make them laugh. Us writers, on the other hand, are such solitary creatures. Our words take the spotlight.
Comedians are writers, too. Some of the best comedians in the biz spent years writing jokes and honing their personal creative style to entertain their audiences.
I made a friend recently who’s in stand-up. He’s self-taught, and he told me what his life was like when he performed 3–4 sets each night in New York comedy clubs to fast-track his learning curve. His story really resonated with me as a fellow creator.
There’s a lot to learn from one another’s creative processes:
“You’re a thought machine.” Everything is source material.
In his MasterClass on comedy, Steve Martin says, “You are a thought machine. Everything you see, hear, and experience is usable.”
I was talking to my friend about his creative process, and he said he comes up with jokes by observing the world around him and asking himself how he could twist things or view them in a new light. It’s often about looking at commonplace ideas, truths, and relationships from new angles to give us fresh perspectives.
Comedians train themselves to use anything and everything as inspiration for their comedic bits. It’s a valuable exercise. The “trick” they perform is in presenting something as funny that we may not originally have thought so.
As writers, our job is the same. We can’t wait around for inspiration to strike. We have to train ourselves to look at the world around us with sharp eyes. Everything is source material. Conversations, family reunions, Sunday sermons, books, articles, YouTube clips, you get the idea.
You’ve got to “practice in public” before you’re any good.
“There’s no way to rehearse comedy except in front of a live audience.” ~ Steve Martin
Comedians learn by performing in front of people. This is how they develop confidence, stage presence, and personal style. Laughter is the metric by which they measure their success, or determine how well they’ve connected with an audience.
Writing, on the other hand, often feels like a solo act. You hole up somewhere to bang out a couple of hundred words, and if it’s not “good enough,” you abandon it or attempt a second draft.
But we have the option to “practice in public,” too. Every time you share your writing or publish a piece of your work, you are “practicing in public” because you’re inviting feedback.
Most of the time, we’re not writing for ourselves, anyway. We’re writing for an audience — usually a very specific niche group — and we have something to share, to communicate. We, too, want to connect with our audience, to make them feel something, or prompt them to take action. Whatever your purpose, the only way to know if your writing has accomplished that thing is to put it out there and see how readers respond.
This idea of “practicing in public” is widely accepted in comedy. Duh, it’s what comedians do. They’re performers. But we need to recognize it’s the same for us writers, too. “Practicing in public” by sharing and publishing our work develops discipline, confidence, and a thick skin. And it’s going to take a long time before we see significant improvement or “success.”
It’s all in your delivery.
For comedians, the performance is largely physical. When a comedian performs stand-up, they are quite literally “standing up” in front of an audience to share their jokes out loud. It would be a really different experience if they only read their jokes off the page.
Why? Well, because a huge piece of the performance is their “delivery,” or presentation. Their facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, etc. Two comedians might perform the same set completely differently, according to their personal styles.
Similarly, our writing isn’t static. We can manipulate the words on the page to elicit different reactions from our readers. We use punctuation to convey a tone of voice. We use sentence structure — short, punchy sentences versus long, winding phrases — to convey rhythm and fluidity. We use formatting to break up the page and draw the reader’s eye to important ideas or information. Think bold headings and subheadings, italics, quotations, etc.
If you’re in a writing rut, play around with your delivery. Try something different. This is not “new” advice, but it hits differently, right? Think about how a comedian might mix up his or her delivery — he might try something new with the intro, maybe launching straight into a set rather than “warming up” the audience, or he might pull back on gestures and take a more minimalist approach.
When I realized I was writing mostly listicles (“3 ways to…”) I challenged myself to write a piece exploring one idea in more depth. I read one of Tim Denning’s articles and liked the way he used full sentences as subheadings, so I wrote a piece without conscious breaks and then went back later to format strong sentences as my subheadings.
If you write long pieces, write something short and punchy. Likewise, if you always write short pieces, try your hand at a longer, well-researched piece.
Look to your audience for feedback.
The reason comedians practice in public? It’s because they need the audience’s reaction to understand what works and what doesn’t.
For comedians, the feedback is immediate: the audience either laughs, or they don’t. If they don’t, it’s a pretty strong indication that the joke didn’t resonate. But it could mean any number of things. Maybe it’s not a bad joke, but it needs to be trimmed or reworked. Maybe the comedian should tweak his delivery.
My friend says his sweet spot is 3 sets; his first set is a gamble, it’s only the beginning. The audience’s reaction will inform his choices for the next set. He might rework a joke and reintroduce it in the second set, to see if it lands differently. And by the third set, he feels more confident because he’s culled the best jokes from the previous two sets.
This is the best way to test the waters. As writers, we do the same the more we publish — the more we put out into the world, the more feedback we receive in the form of readers engaging with and sharing our work.
“The more you write, the more data you will accumulate, the better your skills will get, the faster you will learn.” ~ Nicolas Cole
We can’t assume what audiences will respond to. Before a performance, a comedian will do his best to assume what works for a particular audience. But without a doubt, the audience’s response will spotlight something different about their work than they’d expected. The audience might not react to a joke the comedian thought was really funny or interesting. On the flip side, the audience might go crazy over a joke the comedian thought was a gamble.
Take an ax to your own work.
“Every year get rid of the bottom 10–20% of your work.” Jerry Seinfeld
Writers are familiar with the phrase “kill your darlings.” It’s about being willing to cut the “pretty prose” that doesn’t serve a purpose or move the story forward. Comedians, too, are ruthless with their work. If a joke isn’t working, cut it.
As my friend moves through his sets, he is continually refining the bit until he’s only performing the best jokes. He records each of his sets and listens to them afterward to take note of the audience’s reaction.
Keep in mind that “cutting” something doesn’t mean it dies a permanent death. Comedians resurrect material all the time; what doesn’t work in one scenario might work in another. Sometimes it takes a little while to figure out why something isn’t working.
Writing is editing. Revision allows the good stuff to shine through. You chisel away all the other bits that distract from the masterpiece.
Comedians know this, and they embrace it. feedback and consequent revision shape their overall performance. It’s this ebb and flow of moving away from what isn’t resonating and closer to what is.
Writers, artists, performers — we are all creators. Our work is about creating content for audiences to consume and enjoy. And there are principles that apply to all of us, like finding our inspiration in the world around us, “practicing” in public and paying close attention to the feedback loop.
In the words of Steve Martin, there are no shortcuts to success, because the only true way to achieve it is by being “so good they can’t ignore you.” (You forgot that quote was his, didn’t you?)
We’ve got a road map, and it’s about committing to our craft and “practicing in public” until we know enough about our audience (and our personal style!) to make strategic choices.