What I learned about writing from a stand-up comedian.

Stand-up comics have it hard.

They could be the hardest working performers in the world.

They not only have to perform at the top of their game, they have to write all their own material.  Whereas an actor gets a script, and a playwright gets actors, comics compose, and perform.

It’s a high-pressure profession.  (Side note: for some great insight on the life of a stand-up comedian, Netflix or buy the documentary, Comedian, starring Jerry Seinfeld.  A great movie about how even someone like Jerry struggles for success.)

Since comedians have to be some of the most prolific writers around, I thought a stand-up was the perfect person to talk to about how they develop “material” of any sort.

When I asked a good stand-up comic buddy o’ mine how he came up with so much great material, he pointed me to a book that he read when he was starting out, called The New Comedy Writing Step by Step by three time Emmy-award winner Gene Perret.

I read it last weekend and found a section that I thought you’d all enjoy.

In a passage entitled “Shortcuts to Humor,” Mr. Perret identifies six bullet point reminders on how to generate good material:

  • Reflect the truth
  • Relax tension
  • Shock
  • Attack authority
  • Involve the audience
  • Just be funny

What’s interesting to me about this list is that, except for the last one, it seems like a recipe for great playwrighting, not just great joke-writing.

Comics are mini-playwrights . . . which is why so many of them go on to create television shows around their lives (Roseanne, Ray Romano, etc.), and we can learn from them.

So next time you’re passing through Times Square and someone asks if you if you “like stand-up comedy” and tries to sell you a packet of 3 shows for $5 . . . maybe you should actually go.

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.