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When I first started pursuing comedy, I was a complete newb. I had very little experience on stage, and even less experience in writing. And by less I mean zero. Until that point, the funniest thing I had written started with “yo mamma” and ended with a pun about Walmart. However, through MUCH trial and error (bombing over and over and OVER), I eventually learned that writing solid material isn’t just about stringing silly phrases together for the sake of a laugh. It’s a musical flow; a comedic symphony of relatable experiences and observations bonded together through transitional phrases. And fortunately, it’s a lot easier than you might think.
Step 1: Establish a funny concept
To start, come up with a funny concept based around your own personal experiences or observations. This could be something as simple as your insecurities at the gym, or getting licked by a passenger on the subway, or how your boyfriend’s obsession with fidget spinners is causing you to rethink… everything. If the thought genuinely makes you laugh, then it’s worth trying out.
VERY IMPORTANT: Don’t overthink in this stage! If something makes you laugh, run with it. Don’t convince yourself that something “is stupid” or “isn’t funny enough.” Some of the best comedic bits of all time come from seemingly insignificant thoughts—and develop into genius only with time, practice, and out-of-nowhere inspiration.
Step 2: Make a list
Once you’ve got your concept in place, make a list of the important characteristics or funny elements that you could potentially turn into a joke. For example, one of my most popular sets is focused around the contrast between my sister—a drop-dead-gorgeous beauty queen—and me: her shadow on a bad hair day.
Here’s the list I made when initially coming up with the material:
- I was a sweaty, chubby kid with a big nose / sister looked like jessica simpson
- Treated as involuntary wingman for 10yr old boys
- Mom told me that she used to get nervous about taking us out together due to strangers always complimenting my sister + ignoring me
- Sister started making bad choices as she got older, which made me feel better
- Enjoyed reveling in her misfortunes
- Got pregnant at 16 (16 and pregnant TV show)
- Underdog wins
What’s also important here is that I’m not just sitting here making fun of my sister. I’m riffing about MY experience with, point of view about, and emotional response to my sister. If you think about it, I’m actually the main character here. Anyone can have a gorgeous sister, though I don’t recommend it. But only I have my own take on my gorgeous sister, which is what will make this comedy mine.
Step 3: Write your first draft
So choose your topic (gorgeous sister), and your point of view (sweaty underdog), and start writing.
It’s important to keep in mind that no matter how good your material seems at first, it will likely be very different from the final product, as you won’t know what works/doesn’t work until you try it out on stage. So—just as you shouldn’t overthink your raw idea— don’t overthink your first draft. To give you an idea, here’s a breakdown of the material I wrote about my sister after going through 5-6 rounds of changes:
Establishing the concept: I grew up with a really beautiful sister.
Emphasizing concept + creating a build-up: And I’m not just talking conventional beauty; I’m talking like if I were to bring her into this room right now, you would all just miraculously become single…
Punch: Including the ladies.
This intro works well for making an audience connection—when I say “including the ladies”, I generally try to make eye contact with one specific female who looks to be on a date or married, as it creates an air of light tension and mild discomfort, leading to lots of laughs.
Build-up: When we were kids, people used to say that she looked like a young Jessica Simpson.
Punch: I, on the other hand, kinda looked more like a Jewish Honey Boo Boo.
Emphasis: I’m just sorta sweating in all of my childhood photos.
This is probably the only joke of mine that gets a roar every single time I’ve told it. The “Jewish Honey Boo Boo” creates a funny visual and is also a funny-sounding word, so even if audiences aren’t familiar with Honey Boo Boo (the reality TV star), they still feel inclined to laugh.
Build-up: I was talking to my mom about it recently—this contrast between my sister and me. And she actually wound up telling me that she used to get nervous about bringing my sister and me out in public together
Punch: …because she didn’t want people to think we had different fathers. (Pause.)
Emphasis: Thanks, Mom! Did you really need to tell me that?
This is actually not true at all, but is believable enough to work, and it gets laughs due to the shock factor. It’s almost always followed by an “ooooohhhhhh” from the audience.
Bonus tip: Create opportunities to pivot
All right, so I’ve established the premise, sprinkled in a few sillys, and then added the shock factor—so now I have to decide; do I switch to a new concept or keep going with it? It’s 100% dependent on the audience response. If they seem bored or antsy, I shift to a new concept. If they really seem to be digging the “ugly duckling, underdog” thing, I add this bit to round it out and ensure that it ends on a positive note:
Fortunately, I did develop some good coping mechanisms as I got older, such as celebrating my sister’s misfortunes. It’s like when a coworker gets a promotion you want, and then the next day they get in a car accident, and on the outside you’re like ‘Ohh nooo…’ but on the inside you’re like ‘Ohhh yeahhhh’… same thing.
My sister got pregnant at the age of 16. Which, we’re from Texas and teen pregnancy is actually pretty normal down there—in fact, it’s kind of a rite of passage. But my family wasn’t having it. They were so upset and thought she was ruining her life…, even wanted her to get an abortion. I, on the other hand was like brinnnng onnnn the stretch marks… the babyyyy weight.. in fact, let’s just throw this sh*t up on “16 and Pregnant.” I’ll even fill out the submission packet. (pause) Which I did. I submitted my sister to “16 and Pregnant.” But apparently there’s a certain level of trashy you have to be to get on the show, and my sister fell just below the cusp.
Now start writing!
When it comes down to it, the only way to get really good at writing material is to consistently work at it every single day. I personally use the Werdsmith app for writing down silly concepts and organizing each of my sets, and I know a lot of comics who carry around a notebook. Whichever writing method you prefer, the most important thing is to get started and stick with it. So go write some jokes!
BRANDY THOMAS is a standup comic and co-host of the podcast Comedians For Hire. @brandyyythomas