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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 every day to sitting at a desk and writing jokes. Good comedy takes practice.
To kickstart your joke-writing process, come up with a topic and write down as many jokes, funny lines 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. Don’t be scared if your first draft doesn’t want to make you laugh out loud or if you don’t find your own writing funny. Learn how to be patient with yourself, and keep at it.
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 punchlines?
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 punchlines.
4. Start With the Punchline
You can turn one joke into many by building a story around a basic punchline. 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 punchline: he threw the baseball very badly. To build a story around that punchline, 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 punchline.
- 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 punchline) aloud. Time yourself. How long is this story? Is there enough of a buildup?
- Keep writing new jokes from different angles to stretch out the length of your story-form joke.
Judd talks about the importance of building a story around every punchline.
5. Hone Your Observational Skills
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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 2-Minute Set
Working from the punchline 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 5-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.
Want to Become a Better Comedian?
Whether you’re a budding filmmaker or have dreams of changing the world with your stand-up, navigating the world of film and television can be daunting. No one knows this better than Judd Apatow, who, at age 15, took a dishwashing job at a comedy club to watch the acts. Today, he is the comedic genius behind hits including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Bridesmaids, and Freaks and Geeks. In Judd Apatow’s MasterClass on comedy, the Emmy Award winner relates all he knows about crafting comedic storylines, channeling real life into stand-up, and editing and testing your film to ensure the jokes will land with your audience.
Want to become a better comedian? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master comedians, including Judd Apatow, Steve Martin, and more.