September 04, 2002
WRITING JOKES FOR STAND-UP COMICS By Peter J. Fogel | printable version
If you're self-motivated and have a "funny bone" you can explore a career writing jokes, or "gags" for stand-up comics. Like fuel that runs a car, new and fresh jokes are the sustenance that keeps comics and their careers flourishing. They can never get enough of them. But they have to be great jokes. No filler or "bombs" allowed here.
Not only do Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, and David Brenner write their own jokes - but they also purchase material from freelancers. They don't want the public to know this-but they do.
Other comics do as well, especially the ones that work on television. Television eats up material quicker than sharks near chum. Do you know in the early years of their careers Jay Leno and David Letterman actually wrote material for Jimmy "JJ" Walker?
That's why there is always a need for a terrific "gag" writer. Bruce Vilanch is a producer on Hollywood Squares and also writes most of the "witty answers" that come out the other stars' mouths. He also writes comedy material for Whoopi Goldberg as well as for the Emmys and Oscars. (Gosh, he's busy. I think I hate him.)
And once you get proficient at gag writing - and word gets out, there's a strong chance other comedians might want to work with you. But be forewarned: Comedians can be a desperate, competitive breed of entertainer. (Not me of course. Other comedians. Okay, me... but just a little.)
If you write sure-fire "killer" jokes for one comedian, he might want to keep you all to himself. Comedians in general want their brethren and public to think that they're geniuses that came up with their great jokes all by their "itsy-bitsy" selves.
We'll discuss writing for "stars," later. But first you have to get your feet wet. And it's a lot easier than you might think.
Just as in writing sitcoms, jokes have their own structure too. It's a craft and you have to learn it. An excellent book on the nuts and bolts of writing jokes is GENE PERRET'S HOW TO WRITE AND SELL YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR. Another one he's written is titled COMEDY WRITING WORKBOOK. These can easily be found at your library, or on Amazon.com. Gene is an Emmy award-winning comedy veteran who has written for Bob Hope and the Carol Burnett Show.
In writing jokes you want to get to the punch line using the least amount of words as possible. This is a rule of thumb. Exceptions of course are the jokes with the long set-up, like "This topless nun walks into a biker bar... etc..."
Remember when writing a story type of joke you're using a long premise with the hopes of painting a picture in the audience's mind. They're going along for the ride-so don't disappoint them. Audiences as a rule don't like to think too much and usually demand instant gratification (at least a drunken audience does.)
Rule #1: Get to the punch line as quickly as possible.
Rule #2: If you don't think it's funny, then the audience won't. Perret always says, " Writing comedy is a seat of the pants thing." And he's right. After a while --- you "gots to go with your gut."
You should write on a variety of topics that are of interest to you. But most importantly they have to be of interest to the audience. And of course, there are many different styles of gags. (Read Gene's book for more details) But what's important to know is that you should never let the audience know where you're going with a joke. Never let them get a head of you. Comedy is built on surprise. Here is an example of a joke from my act that uses misdirection.
"Man, if anyone is thinking of going to their high-school re-union... don't. Big disappointment. People change. I saw this one former schoolmate. The gray in the beard, the beer belly, the thinning hair... and that was the Prom Queen."
You can stop laughing now. (Beat) Okay. Moving on. Don't over analyze your jokes too much. Just write, edit, write, edit. Show your work to your friends and family (except jokes about them.) Get their overall consensus of which ones are funny.
If a joke gets a decent response, see if you can tweak it and make it funnier. Shorten the premise, change the punch line. Play around with it.
Never get married to a joke you like. If it doesn't work, and it's a dog... lose it.
And above all don't defend the one's you've discarded. Don't get defensive and admonish your buddy. "Hey, man... you don't get it... see the dwarf was..." No, he gets it. It just-wasn't-funny.
Just move on. In fact, after you've alienated your loved ones with asking their opinion on your material, it's now time to go after another audience. A paying one. And the best way to see if you've "mined some gold" is to actually perform your material yourself --- in front of an open mike audience at a local comedy club... Baptism under fire is what I call it.
Rule #3: Don't hit on any hot cocktail waitress at the comedy club. More than likely she's the owner's girlfriend. That's my advice - not Gene Perret's. (Yes, I've learned the hard way.)
What is so gratifying is that you'll know immediately if a particular joke is working. (A little later I'll tell you how this local comedy club can help you in your new career.) But for now --- you have some homework to do. If you see a particular established comic on Leno or Letterman and you think he's funny... study him. Each comic has a unique "voice", certain hook, or some intangible that makes him stand out, whether it's his outlook on life (perhaps he does topical material) or maybe it's the "character" or persona he's created.
Either way the public relates to them for a reason and laughs at what they say (i.e. Jake Johansson, Paula Poundstone, the late Sam Kinison).
From Rodney's, "I Don't Get No Respect" to Joan Rivers' "Can we talk?" their persona, style, or delivery makes them unique. A joke for Joan will not work for Rodney and vice a versa. Also, a joke Rich Jeni uses will most likely be useless to Jake Johannson. If you watch them work you'll know immediately why. (Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.)
Now, the good part. How you can make money at it. That's why they call it "show ...business." It seems every town in America today has either a Star-bucks or a comedy club. No logical reason, probably a Federal law.
If you see a particular comedian on television that you really like, focus on his material and style. Figure out what you think he thinks is funny, and what the audiences laughs at.
Does he lash out at the society's injustices? (Lewis Black) Is he self-deprecating? (Richard Lewis) Perhaps he does observational material (Jerry Seinfeld)
Next, try to find out when he's going to appear at your local club. Watch his performance and try to meet him after the show. Explain that you're not only an admirer of his work, but also a comedy writer. Ask him if he's interested in buying some jokes from you.
Most comics are usually very approachable and won't mind looking at your material. (It never hurts to ask.) And better yet, if you worked on specific jokes for his (or her) particular persona - he'll be even more flattered and more apt to look at "what you got."
Hint. If the comedian has some notoriety and is doing television on a regular basis-there's a strong chance he is getting paid decent bucks. You don't want to approach the opening, or middle act. They can't afford to buy material yet. But the headliner that's a draw at the club can. If the entertainer likes your material he might commission you to write some jokes for him on "spec." If he can use them--- he'll buy them.
Simple as that. And don't be afraid to ask him what arena to concentrate on. The usual favorites are: kids, family, sex, dating, politics. (The last three work hand in hand.) Believe me, comedians collectively mourned when Clinton left office.
And realize that this performer will try to get you cheap. It's the nature of the beast. You're hungry - and he knows it. A comedian is running a business... himself. He has an overhead and possibly an ex wife somewhere who is probably draining him big time.
As a beginner you can expect $25.00 to $50.00 a joke. When you get more clients and get more established and comics start to use your material on TV, you can charge more (especially if the joke you sold him killed on Letterman.)
Please be advised you might end up writing fifteen to thirty jokes and he may buy only three. If you do-you're lucky. Comedians are a picky bunch.
And realize once the comic buys a joke from you, it's his. You lose all exclusivity to it. And you CAN'T sell it to another comic. Big "no-no." If you do-and the performers find out--- it can get real ugly. Your reputation will be ruined; you'll be forced to leave show business, possibly end up homeless, or worse yet... end up going into your father's business.
Just write consistent, brilliant jokes.
Okay. You've written for some established comics, you're confident, and now you feel you're ready for the big time. Want to write for Rodney, or Joan? Then you have to contact "their people" and see if the star accepts freelance submissions of jokes. Stars guard their privacy so you have to be a little inventive. (Please... no stalking here.)
Contact their union (request membership) and ask for the star's agent or publicist's name and phone number. If you end up calling the agent first, be prepared. They usually don't want to be bothered and will most likely give you to the publicist, or their client's manager to bother.
Once you contact the publicist, briefly explain your intentions. Remember: you can't come off as a fan. You're a professional comedy writer, so act accordingly. Hopefully they will lead you to the correct path on how to sell comedy material to their client (if indeed they are buying).
You might get a sort of "cheat sheet" telling you the type of material the star is looking for. But before you submit any jokes, they will ask you to sign a release form. It states that if the star buys the material, they own it.
You probably won't get a chance to meet your client in the beginning. If things go well and you prove yourself, there's a chance you might get a call from him down the road. All submissions are usually done via e-mail and/or faxing.
You're here to fulfill the star's needs, make money, and to build a long and successful career. Then you can brag to your family that you've finally amounted to something and that you didn't have to give up on your dream... and work for daddy.
As far as sending in jokes to late night television shows (Letterman, Leno) I don't recommend it. It's very difficult to break in --- and they have paid staff writers or use freelancers that they've had relationships with for years.
Freelance gag writing for comedians is your best bet for success. Good luck and keep at it.
PETER FOGEL is a NY based comedian/writer/copywriter who performs around the country and as well in exotic locations such as New Jersey. He's appeared on Comedy Central, HBO, and Evening at the Improv. He's also worked on such shows at MARRIED WITH CHILDREN and UNHAPPILY EVER AFTER to name just a few. He was a member of the elite WARNER-BROS COMEDY WRITER'S WORKSHOP (class of 1999). His material has been quoted in books such as THE COMEDY QUOTE DICTIONARY. He presently writes for Germany's #1 award winning sitcom RITA'S WORLD. (Yes. They have comedy in Germany.) He can be contacted at CompellingCopy@aol.com.