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Delanceyplace: Writing Jokes

Stand-up comedian Jay Sankey offers his advice on writing and editing jokes to aspiring stand-up comedians. His advice has application to all forms of communication:

"'Never use a long word where a short one will do.'
-George Orwell

Unlike you, the audience hasn't heard your jokes a thou­sand times. Every single word is new to them, and there's a good chance they've been drinking. Also, when writing material it's always a good idea to keep in mind the fact that the people who make up the audiences in a comedy club come from many different cultural, intellectual, and educa­tional backgrounds.

Consequently, effective and trustworthy stand-up mate­rial is often simple and direct. ... Writing materi­al that has broad appeal and is expressed in clear and sim­ple terms is very different from writing material that is dumb or uninspired. In fact, if you feel that you have to 'talk down to the crowd,' you are probably selling both yourself (and your audience!) short.

Almost every comic I've ever talked with has at some time felt disheartened by the apparent limitations of stand-up audiences. But despite my own difficult experiences, I still firmly believe this: Comedy club audiences consist of people with a wide range of life experiences, as well as dreams and disappointments and fears. And I too am a person with a wide range of life experiences, dreams, disappointments, and fears. As different as we may all be, we still have a great deal in common, and it is to the stuff we all have in common, our experiences as well as our imaginings, that the most success­ful stand-up material refers. Any limitations you perceive in your audience are more often an expression of your own limi­tations as a thinker and a communicator than anything else.

To me, the real challenge of writing stand-up is not to make my stuff as 'dumb' as possible (anyone can do that!) but to express the abstract, imaginative, and unusual thoughts I have in terms that are as simple and clear as possible. Keep in mind, the act of simplification can be a sign of real intelli­gence and dedication. It's far easier to express strange and wonderful things in strange and wonderful terms. The inspired, imaginative, and even eloquent use of common, everyday language is a true challenge, worthy of any word-smith. The eloquent use of simple words rather than the simple use of eloquent words. Speak your truth and speak it plainly. ... As some­one once said, 'If you have an idea and you can't write it down on a matchbook, it's probably not an important idea.' ...

" 'If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.'
-George Orwell

Aggressive editing is very important in joke writing in general, but particularly so when it comes to punchlines. If you take a few moments longer to blow up a balloon, no big deal. But every beat that passes between the moment you begin to pull the pin out of your pocket and the moment you actually burst the balloon is a beat that takes that tiny bit more of the edge off of the surprise.

Though an audience will be more forgiving of unneces­sary words in a set-up than in a punchline, you still must be very strict on yourself when writing a set-up, especially given audiences expectations. ... Remember, the longer the set-up, the stronger the punchline must be. In reference to a joke with an overly long set-up, Will Rogers once said, 'That porch is too big for that house.

Author: Jay Sankey
Title: Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy
Publisher: Routledge
Date: Copyright 1998 by Routledge
Pages: 19-21


Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy
by Jay Sankey by Routledge/Theatre Arts Books
Paperback
If you wish to read further: Buy Now http://www.delanceyplace.com/view_archives.php?1829

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