Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Technician’s Guide to Writing Stand up Comedy

By John Beuhler

The following is a system of writing that I have established after 13 years of writing and performing standup comedy. This system takes advantage of current technology and has helped me write material more prolifically than any other process I have tried. It takes your routine (for lack of a better term) out of the beat up coil note book into the computer where you will find that editing and grouping your material will happen much more easily.
The note book process may seem satisfactory for people performing shorter sets, but if you’re planning on progressing to 45 minutes to an hour and beyond then this system will be invaluable. It will also make sure that you never lose or forget any jokes again as they will all be documented in a single Word file.
What is basically a filtering process of multiple Word files, my process makes sure that once saturated you will always have material and bits to develop and writing to do as well as material to perform; no more going months without any new jokes.
STEP (1) Recording New Ideas.
In this age of smart phones and large memory storage there is no reason to ever bother a waitress for a pen, fumble with several loose pieces of scribbled paper and cocktail napkins or fate worse than death, forget an idea you thought was great. Think it’s too funny to forget? It’s not.
Almost every model of present cell phone has a voice/ memo recorder. Why not use the device that is never more than arms reach away as the center for your new jokes ideas. With the memory size of some phones they can also be used to record your set so that you can examine what parts of the joke worked and which didn’t. Recording your voice instead of scribbling also allows you to hear a funny voice, inflection or cadence that would otherwise not translate if read off of note. 
You can also use the text message or notes feature to record ideas in situations that you may not be able to talk in such as movie theatres in classrooms or when making love to someone who is unaware you are making love to them.
STEP (2) Filling the First Filter
So it’s been a busy week and you have been diligent about putting every idea in your phone; from punchy provocative never fail gold material all the way to the jokes that Dane Cook might like. These ideas are ready to be transcribed into the first catch-all filter which I have titled NEWSHIT (I named this document when I was 19 and a black hip- hop artist) The name however is moot as long as it is identifiable as the first document in our process where we can empty all of the contents from our memo device.
The document name is apt as a lot of these ideas are going to be terrible. If one out of ten ideas has potential you’re doing great. If you only get one out of 15 do everyone a favor and put a shotgun in your mouth – that was harsh; put a hand gun in your mouth.
No one, no matter how talented is funny all the time. We all have crappy ideas; we just have to get through them. Your comedy writing career should resemble the sewer scene from Shawshank Redemption, actually comedy is like the whole movie without the interracial homosexual over tones.
After you’ve transcribed the ideas into NEWSHIT you can continue on or if you are feeling lazy just let the ideas pile up. No one is going to judge you; you don’t have time; you have to put your uniform on and get to Orange Julius. Besides there are worse things than having tons to ideas all in one file; half baked or not. Remember this process works best when it’s saturated so record everything that strikes you funny.
If you’re feeling saucy go over the long list of short joke ideas eliminating the ones that aren’t funny, unoriginal or just plain drunken nonsense. Sell the rejects to Carlos Mencia.
Move the jokes that stand up to the first elimination process to a new document called WORKYARD
Now to reiterate this process is about collecting many different jokes in one place before writing them all the way through to where you would be able to test them; that step comes later.
Give every idea a couple of word description, so later you won’t have to read the whole joke to know what it’s about. You will find that when singles jokes gather in one WORKYARD document that you start to see common subject matters develop.
As you collect ideas that in this file, begin to group similar ideas under general headings. I.E. DRINKING, MASTURBATING, NUCLEAR PHYSICS. Make these headings in uppercase and bold for easy reference later.
This gives you a job that will come about through out the entire process; GROUPING. Grouping is joining jokes and stories of a common subject together. If you don’t feel funny or like writing on a certain day you can always go through your WORKYARD files and do some grouping. Over time you will begin have subject heading with several funny jokes that you can then turn into a bit; a bit being a group of jokes or stories.
When you are confident that you have several jokes on the same subject and you want to develop it into a bit simply cut and paste to a blank document. This will give you more room to move, write and edit.
STEP (4) Putting a Bit Together
After creating the new document, write the joke the way you will mostly likely say it on stage and try to organize the jokes so that the strongest one is last if at all possible. At  every opportunity try to eliminate details and words that don’t add funny or any useful information to the joke. Cut the fat!!
For example let’s take what the previous paragraph would look like after editing.
Write the bit like you’d say it with the strongest joke last and no extraneous words.
That’s a lean sentence. That’s editing and it’s the biggest challenge I’ve seen facing new comics. To their defense it’s very hard to do in written form. Don’t tell me a long winded story about your breakfast routine just to get to a weak joke about eggs or bacon. Give them product, people laugh at funny not story.
However, this process will allow you to form jokes in succession into something that sounds like a story, but is much funnier and has much more fire power.
When you have a bit that is ready to be tested it moves into the ONDECK file. As you might have guessed, this file is full of bits that are in line to be tried on stage.
STEP (5) Creating a Queue
After a few months of writing you should find more and more bits collecting in this file. You can use lazy days to open your ONDECK file and do more grouping. This brings together larger groups of jokes and will making testing them easier because your topics aren’t jumping all over the place; this can lose the crowd and make your show seem disjointed.
Again this is for building longer sets which should be the goal of anyone doing stand up; unless you’re a recent divorcee who just wants to get some shit off of her chest.
Now you have a document full of filtered bits that are written exactly as you are to say them on stage with very little fat. You don’t have to flip back and forth in your notebook looking for that bit you were going to try; just print off this document and call a cab to your local Chuckle Pavilion.
STEP (6) Testing your “Funny” Jokes
The only major draw back to this system is that it takes the jokes out of your head and puts them more into the computer. You have to take steps to memorize more so than if you were adding a new joke every month or so. If you write more you will develop more and better material, but you will also have more to remember more and will have to be more diligent about testing. It’s a good problem to have however like that mole I have on my back. Sure it’s cancerous, but it looks like Whoopi Goldberg, the beautiful actress.
This is the point where you can write on paper if you want. If you are in the habit writing out your jokes on a crib sheet you can do the same here and because of the previous steps you have a subject heading for all of the jokes you are to try.
Use your personal recording device to record your set to get an accurate idea of how each new joke went. Some ideas will shoot up the ranks to the front of the queue and get tested before others and some will stick around your ONDECK file for months. This is almost always an indication that they aren’t very strong and should be deleted.
The hardest part of writing is deleting your weak ideas, but it has to be done. Do not keep trying material that is clearly not working, delete, delete, delete!! Your show will get tighter and tighter as you write more and more to fill the holes left by your slashing and burning. If you want to be a pro you have to tighten up.
Tightening up doesn’t mean polishing your personality off of your jokes. It isn’t about talking faster or losing the quirks that make you, you. Tightening and editing are about knowing where you’re going with a joke and not wasting people’s time.
STEP (7) Review
So the joke went great!! Aren’t you the treat of the week? I usually try the jokes a few times as not all crowds are created equal and a cakewalk room as well as a hell gig will not give you an accurate read on whether a joke is going to make the team. Give it a reasonable trial in a few rooms making subtle changes depending on crowd reaction. Be conscious of where in your set you put the joke as a crowd that is warm to you will let more slide and tend to want to like your stuff. Because of this fact try to always open strong and slip the new stuff in here and there.
Do not open with new jokes! This is a rookie mistake and it can sink your whole show. Veterans do this sometimes too because we get excited about a new bit, but it’s never worth the risk. Also don’t get drunk and do ten minutes of straight new stuff, bomb horribly and then strike out with the wait staff; that’s my shit!
After the joke has been adequately tested and has gone over well on stage a few times then it’s time to add it to your arsenal. Make a new document; I call mine TESTED for obvious reasons and I bet you can guess what the one job there is to do in hear? That’s right GROUPING. Joining bits together in this document is the most important because this will become your long set.
Grouping in this document can be difficult when it gets more and more full and it will get full because the jokes are written in long form so take the headings of these tested jokes and bits and add them to another file that will be your MASTER LIST. Break into columns to save space.
Nuclear Physics

You now have a page of tested jokes that you can reference at anytime and within the document you can drag and drop into any order you want. When you get all of these bits and jokes into an order that compliments them and makes sense in terms of a conversational progression then you have your long show; along with all the documents to check if you forget wording or references. It may sound complicated, but if you get into the process it will make sure you never lose jokes, always have stand up writing or grouping to do and it will ramp up your writing production considerably.
Create the following documents:
Ideas transcribed from recording device
Ideas and jokes that have past the first filter of scrutiny. Group together like subjects and move to-
Create and edit with plenty of room. If the bit is ready for testing move it to ONDECK. If not delete it or move it back to WORKYARD.
If the bit made it here it should have a hope. Group it with other like bits, print and memorize. Try to record when you test and the put the bits that work in-
Now you have a document full of tested material written the way it was tested and always there for easy reference.
This is a list of every good joke you have. Take this to shows and cherry pick the bits you want to do. Group them together for longer shows, record an album and make hundreds of dollars.  
Get writing and let me know if you have any questions.


  1. " situations that you may not be able to talk in such as movie theatres...or when making love to someone who is unaware you are making love to them."

    Thanks for that image! I'd comment more, but I have to go get my Orange Julius uniform on now.

  2. This is really helpful, THanks!

  3. Thanks for the great ideas. I laughed out loud enough that my husband asked me what I was reading.

  4. Brilliant. Thanks. Useful with dropbox now too.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. wow that was good ideas, very technical in organizing. but can you give details how to make joke itself? like how you get the original ideas, how to make punch lines...seems a bit classical..but it is always worth to hear someone's ideas...thanks a lot for the article....

  7. Good stuff! I was encouraged that I'm already using a similar process but not nearly as organized and systematic. I'm definitely going to adapt this to my own approach. Thanks for sharing your system with all us wannabes and hacks.

  8. Thanks for the info. I'm sure it will help a lot of new budding comics, or just us delusional wannabes.

  9. Thanks for this! Always good to get advice on how to start.
    Indeed, it would also be nice with a piece on how to construct a joke.

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