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What Is Stand-Up Comedy?
Stand-up comedy is a show or performance in which a comedian performs original jokes on stage in front of a live audience to make them laugh. The jokes are scripted and have setups and punchlines. The average stand-up comedy show gets four to six laughs a minute from the audience.
When Did Stand-Up Comedy Originate?
People have staged comedic performances since ancient times, but modern stand-up has its roots in vaudeville acts from the late nineteenth century. Vaudeville acts were live and included a lot of slapstick. As comedy grew in popularity, jokes started to change. They developed a defined setup and punchline.
Charley Case, an African American vaudeville performer, is credited with doing the first real stand-up act sometime during the 1880s. He performed comedic monologues in front of an audience, leaving out the props and antics of vaudeville. Like comedians today, Case told anecdotal jokes—funny stories from his life. Stand-up comedy as we know it today was born.
Stand-up comedy is still a popular form of entertainment. Comedy writing is considered an art form. Late night television show hosts start with a stand-up set every night. If you’re a new comic, you might choose to move to a stand-up mecca where other famous comedians live, like Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York, to be closer to the action.
What Is a Stand-Up Comedy Set?
A set is a complete stand-up routine, from start to finish. It is structured with a beginning, middle, and end. The length of a set depends on whether a comic is the opening act or the headliner. When you’re the featured act, prepare to be on stage for an hour or more.
Here are the elements that make up a stand-up comedy routine:
- Opening. The opening of a stand-up set often dictates how the show will go. Start with a great joke to get the audience laughing from the first line.
- Bits. This is what comedians call jokes. Every bit has a setup detailing the characters and situation they’re in, and a punchline—the conclusion—which is the funniest part of the joke and almost always goes against what the audience expects is going to happen.
- Transitions. Transitions are short conversational bridges that connect one joke to the next.
- Closer. The final joke in the show. It might be a callback—a reference to an earlier joke. Wrap up your set with a solid close that leaves the audience laughing.
How to Write Stand-Up Comedy in Six Steps
1. Watch and learn.
Study other comics. Start with the big names, like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld. Watch their early stand up followed by more recent shows. How have their comedic voices developed over the years? Go to a comedy club for a live show to see how comedians structure their set. How do they open and close? How many bits are in a each set? Sit in the back and observe the audience. How often do they laugh? What do they respond to most?
2. Gather material.
Not sure where to start? Use your personal experience and write what you know. What culture defines you? What kind of household did you grow up in? What values were instilled in you? What lifestyle and customs do you embrace now? Do some thinking about your background and write a bit with that perspective at its heart. 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. Even if you just see a glimmer of an idea, jot it down. You never know if it might work down the road.
Film director and comedian Judd Apatow believes that stand-up gets better as it becomes more personal—that comics who open themselves up to the audience are often the strongest performers. When your material is relatable people respond to it. Watch Apatow’s Netflix stand-up special Judd Apatow: The Return. How does he turn personal material into a joke?
3. Start writing jokes.
Write every single day. Pick an idea and approach it like a story — find the narrative arc and flesh out your setup.
- Who are the characters?
- Where’s the setting?
- What’s the situation or conflict?
Write a punchline, or two. The punchline is always a plot twist that goes against the logical conclusion. In some cases, the punchline might be the first part of the joke you uncover. In that case, work backward to the setup. If it’s a longer bit, include jab lines—funny moments in the body of the joke—so the audience doesn’t wait too long to laugh. Remember that comedy is about pushing limits. If you leave your comfort zone you’re headed in the right direction.
4. Assemble your act.
Once you have enough jokes written for an hour-long show, select the ones you want to include in a five-minute and ten-minute set. Arrange them in order to see what order feels natural. Don’t cram in too many jokes—leave room for laughter. Always have backup jokes ready in case you need to switch directions.
Don’t think of your act in terms of progressing from bit to bit, but rather as a unified whole. Write transitions between jokes to create a flow. Your act is a composite. Every element matters when you’re performing, from the words you speak to the motions that accompany them.
5. Write the open and close.
Your opening is valuable real estate. It’s one of the most important components of your show, so don’t squander it. The beginning is your chance to show the audience who you are, and the ending presents an opportunity to tie your act together and give it meaning. If you’re not sure how to end, look in the beginning or middle for material you can reintroduce in order to provide cohesion. Thinking of your routine as a story will also help you conclude in a way that is satisfying for your audience. Keep in mind that the ending is what they remember, so place your biggest and most successful bits at the end.
6. Rehearse in front of people.
The only way to know if your stand up works is to try it out in front of an audience. Gather friends, family, or other aspiring comics, and see if you’ve got a shot at a comedy career. This will help you in the following ways:
- Memorization. The more you perform your routine the faster you’ll memorize it.
- Pacing. Dry runs will help you with timing and rhythm, and how to deliver bits in a conversational manner.
- Physical gestures. Work on your physical presence. Try to relax and feel natural when you perform.
- Developing confidence. Every time you perform, whether it’s on stage or in front of a casual group, you’ll gain confidence and chip away at any stage fight.
- Editing. Don’t get too attached to a bit you think is hilarious. The audience is your editor. Pay attention to their reactions and edit accordingly. If you get a positive response, keep the joke. If you hear crickets take it out of circulation.
8 Tips and Tricks for Writing Stand-Up Comedy
- Learn to edit on the fly. As you perform more, you’ll learn to sense when a joke isn’t going to work halfway through its delivery. In these moments, your confidence will allow you to edit the line in real time, cutting and altering depending on the mood of your audience.
- Always go with your best material and don’t be afraid to cut. Less is more, so remove bits that aren’t hitting their marks.
- Remember to keep it conversational. Even though you’ve written your stand-up act out, perform each bit as if it’s the first time you’re telling a story.
- Always have new jokes waiting in the wings. After you’ve performed your first, second, and third-rate jokes, you’ll be out of material. Start building your catalog to prevent this shortage.
- Get stage time any chance you get, especially when you have new material you want to test out. Hit open mic nights frequently. Any public speaking will boost your confidence.
- Avoid crowd work. When you’re on stage, focus on your act and don’t improv with audience members.
- Always work towards shaping your comedic persona. This will help you focus your joke writing with a point of view that’s unique.
- Don’t go on stage with all new jokes. Grow your set bit by bit. Squeeze a new one-liner in between other jokes and see how the audience reacts.