Film & TV

The 10 Secrets to Writing Stand-Up Comedy From Judd Apatow

Written by MasterClass

Nov 22, 2018 • 6 min read

MasterClass Video Lessons

Judd Apatow Teaches Comedy

Judd Apatow is considered one of the most sought-after comedy minds in the business. He has been closely associated with many of the biggest comedy films and hit television shows over the last decade and a half, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, Trainwreck, Superbad, Bridesmaids, Pineapple Express, Freaks and Geeks, and both Anchorman films.

But Judd is also a stand-up comedian, returning to the stage in 2017 after a 25-year hiatus for a Netflix stand-up special titled Judd Apatow: The Return. Between his experience as a television, movie, and stand up comedy writer, Judd has amassed a wealth of experience.

Here, Judd shares his secrets to writing stand-up comedy, so whether you want to perform at a local open mic or have your funny bone set on writing comedy for tv shows like Saturday Night Live, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better teacher to guide you through your stand-up career.


1. Develop a Habit

Your job as a stand-up comedian is as much about comedy writing as it is performing. You need to be disciplined in your writing, dedicating a few hours each day to sitting at a desk and writing jokes.

To kickstart your joke-writing process, come up with a topic and write down as many jokes or one-liners as you can think of. You’ll likely use only one or two of them, but you need to write a lot in order to find the true comedic gold.

2. Get Personal

Judd believes that stand-up gets better as it becomes more personal—that comics who make themselves the main character and lay themselves bare to the audience are often the strongest performers. The same is true of comedic writers. He sees Knocked Up (2007) as the first time he became comfortable with drawing upon his own life and personal experiences for material.

To kick off your writing process, sit down and make the following lists:

  • Everything that makes you mad
  • Everything you think is wrong with yourself
  • Everything you think is wrong with the world
  • Things you wish you could change about your personality
  • Things you wish you could change about your body.

Add this to your daily comedy writing habit; spend time each day making a new list in your journal, then develop a few items on your list into jokes.

3. Watch Other Comedians

When you’re learning how to write stand-up, it helps to watch or listen to some of your favorite comedians’ stand-up and pay attention to the anatomy of their jokes. How do they set up ideas, and how are those ideas transformed into punch lines?

Go to local open mics, improv shows, or nearby comedy clubs. New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are known for their comedy scenes, but there are plenty of comedy sets available online as well. You can also watch Judd’s stand-up comedy special Judd Apatow: The Return on Netflix. Pay special attention to how he opens his act, how he transitions from joke to joke, and how he closes his Netflix special. Take note of delivery, performance, and punch lines.

4. Start With the Punch Line

You can turn one joke into many by building a story around a basic punch line. Once you know the core of the story, you can illuminate different parts of it.

For example, in his Netflix special, Judd tells a story about throwing the first pitch at a Mets game. He identifies his punch line: he threw the baseball very badly. To build a story around that punch line, Judd describes every moment leading up to the pitch, relating to the audience his nervousness and confusion prior to the throw. Judd also brings in a visual—an utterly ridiculous photo of himself throwing the ball— which he analyzes in depth. All of these different components added up to a 10-minute story.

Think about the funniest thing that has ever happened to you, then describe the situation and your feelings in detail. What were all of the events that led to that moment? Begin to build a story around that punch line.

Now think of five more ways to approach the story. Examine everything about the situation. Read all of your jokes (each of which should illuminate a different part of the story and support the basic punch line) aloud. Time yourself. How long is this story? Keep writing new jokes from different angles to stretch out the length of your story-form joke.

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5. Hone Your Observational Skills

Judd contends that when you are being personal as a comedian, you are actually expressing your opinion about something or highlighting an absurdity in your own life. He gives the following example: One of his two children has gone to college. His remaining daughter is unhappy that she is the only one left in the house with Judd and his wife, because four people is a family, but three people is a child observing a weird couple.

Judd calls this a short observational joke. Judd has learned that the audience will cue a comedian as to which part of a joke is relatable, understandable, and meaningful. You get the most laughs when the audience recognizes themselves in your story or joke.

Analyze one of the primary relationships in your life—with a partner, child, boss, employee, or friend—searching for humor in a basic observation about it. Make sure your observation is not dependent on context or knowledge the audience won’t have—for example, it shouldn’t be an inside joke that only people in your line of work will understand.

6. Develop a Persona

Develop a character that you can perform on stage in your act. Who is this person? How can you give him or her a strong introduction on stage? What aspects of their personality will people relate to? Write down ideas for your character. You might find that inhabiting a character in your stand-up act doesn’t work for your brand of comedy, and that’s okay. But don’t limit yourself in the beginning. Try out different perspectives and see if the character is a fit.

7. Write a 30-Second Set

Now that you have your material, subject matter, and point of view, practice writing a 30-second bit for your stand-up act.

Analyze one of your odd behaviors or habits, or one of your most embarrassing moments. Then try performing it, imagining you are the emcee at a comedy night and this 30-second spot is meant to be a segue and introduction to the next comedian. Record your performance and then get a group of friends together to critique it.

8. Write a Two-Minute Set

Working from the punch line of your 30-second act, work backwards and begin crafting your two-minute set. You should also look through your past work to pull jokes that will bring your act to the two minute mark.

After you’ve collected material, begin stringing it together. Think about how you can transition from joke to joke, and practice religiously. You might use an overarching theme to provide cohesiveness to your individual jokes.

9. Write a Five-Minute Set

Restructure your two-minute act into five minutes. Judd likes to start his scripts simply and let the audience know who his protagonist is within about 10 minutes of the opening. Use that same concept for your stand-up act.

How can you start in a way that lets your audience know who you are and what they’re in for for the next five minutes? How long will that take you? 20 seconds? 45 seconds? A minute? Play around with that timing.

Workshop your five-minute act with audience members (friends, family, strangers) to test out your material. Also feel free to pitch them jokes you’ve been mulling over for a while but haven’t quite perfected. Listen to their ideas and feedback—but remember, you are the ultimate decider about what goes in your act.

10. Work on the End

Consider all the ways you can end your act and write them down. Rehearse your act using each ending. Settle on the funniest way that complements the contents of your act and your persona. Figure out where in your five-minute act to place your set piece, the moment in which you’ll get your big laughs.

Making people laugh might seem like an impossible challenge, but Judd’s 9 secrets to comedy writing are a good way to get started on your comedic career.