The first step to writing your first standup comedy routine is to make sure your expectations are realistic. Start with a goal of 5 killer minutes. Trying to come up with a two-hour HBO special right away will only lead to frustration.
No matter what books and paid websites tell you, there is no one right way to write a comedy routine. However, there are a lot of wrong ways that you will want to avoid. If you find a different method of creating material as your career progresses, go for it. In the meantime, here are some tips to get you started.
Hello, Captain Obvious – Keep a notebook and pen with you at all times. Basic advice, but you’d be amazed at far this will take you. Be sure to write down anything that strikes you as a potential joke. Don’t wait for a brilliant line to simply materialize out of nowhere. Write down anything out of the ordinary that you see in your daily travels and any odd thought or observation that may occur to you – funny or not. You may develop your best material this way. As Mitch Hedberg said “If the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny…”
Don’t Try Too Hard to be Funny – Great comedy bits do not spring forward from your head like Athena from her daddy’s noggin. You may write for an hour and only come up with one funny line. It’s worth it. Comics look like they are casually making this stuff up off the top of their head. I promise you. They’re not. It is often helpful to simply riff on a topic, either with a pen and paper or a tape recorder. Simply write down everything you can think of about the topic you’ve chosen. Sometimes the bit of comedy gold is mined on page 5 out of 10 pages of random thoughts.
Don’t Pick Funny Topics- You may think tampons, condoms, and bodily functions are funny enough on their own. They’re not. Sometimes the most memorable bits of comedy come from the most mundane of topics. Jerry Seinfeld is the crowned prince of comedy about “nothing” and has made a hugely successful career from jokes about things like taking a shower and buying groceries. If you simply choose a “funny” topic, chances are other people have thought of it first. Lots of other people. Take an unfunny topic and make it funny. Patton Oswalt has an absolutely hysterical bit about PAAs Easter Egg Dye. How many other comics have covered that one?
Develop a Persona, but Don’t Change Who You Are – As you write and perform your routines, you will develop a persona. This is not an alter-ego, but sort of a heightened, stage version of who you are. Don’t create a totally different character than your true self. Audience can smell insincerity – don’t joke about how hard it is to be married when you are, in fact, a swinging single. If you aren’t the loud, brash, life-of-the-party type, don’t try to fake it onstage. There are plenty of low-key comics, like Stephen Wright, Rita Rudner, Mike Birbiglia, and Dane Cook. Well, maybe not that last one.
Don’t Try to Invent a Catchphrase – Not all comics have them. Sometimes something will simply catch on and become a catchphrase (Hooot Pockets, of all things, for Jim Gaffigan). More often, it’s just your own unique style or persona that will resonate with your fans. Lewis Black does not really have a catchphrase, but he is known for the way he gestures and points with his hands when he is off on a political rant. Sam Kinison’s catchphrase was a scream – literally.
Enough About You – The audience does not care that you just broke up with your girlfriend. If your act is all about “I” and “Me”, people will tune out. Bring the audience with you on this comic journey. Start with “Relationships are tough, aren’t they?” and then tell us why your girlfriend is a bitch.
Don’t Tell Stories – A story that got huge laughs at your friend’s party will not amuse a paying audience. They don’t know you and they don’t know your friends. This is the classic “you had to be there” problem. Listen carefully to comics who you think are telling a story. They are…but they’re not. They may begin a tale – then make a joke. Then another part of the story – then spout witty commentary about it. Telling us WHAT happened is a story. Telling us how you FEEL about what happened; now that can be funny. In her must-read book The Comedy Bible, Judy Carter recommends using “attitude” words in your setups: hard, scary, weird, stupid.
Get on With It – Your setups – meaning the unfunny background of the joke – must be short and snappy. A joke with a long setup is rarely worth the wait and your audience will get restless. The setup is not supposed to be funny so don’t try to make it funny. Setup: Take my wife…Punchline: Please. Allegedly Funny Setup: Take my ugly heifer of a wife: Punchline: Just got ruined by a lousy setup. The pleasure of a joke is the surprise at the end. If you start with something funny, there’s nowhere else to go. The quick turn from “ordinary topic” to “funny observation” is the foundation of humor.
A Joke Should Be General and Specific – If you are confused by that statement, congratulations! That means you’re paying attention. The overall premise of your joke should be general, meaning relatable. “It’s hard when you spend a summer in Zimbabwe…” is not a relatable premise. “It’s weird living with a drug-addicted brother….” is relatable, even if the audience has not experienced it firsthand. After you’ve announced your general premise, get specific. “With him around, I’m always the good brother. When he’s passed out on the neighbor’s lawn wearing only tube socks, clutching my mom’s purse with a credit card receipt for $800 worth of paint thinner stuffed in his mouth, suddenly not taking out the trash ain’t so bad!” Now that’s specific.
Don’t be discouraged if you’re not funny right away. It can take a long time to develop truly funny material, so give it time. You will throw away far more material than you will ever use, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Sort through the garbage to find the gold. Someday you may even get paid for it.