Lesson 1: Writing Does Not Mean Writing
I’ll begin by suggesting that stand-up writing need not be writing—by which I mean, there is no need to sit down and write a complete script, let alone learn it word-for-word. You could do that of course, but the danger is you’ll find yourself on stage like a rabbit caught in headlights, desperately trying to remember every single word exactly as you wrote it. Remember, it’s not a monologue by Harold Pinter that you have to deliver faithfully. Hold it loosely as a framework in your head, and then find the exact wording as you deliver it.
You may well not write a script at all, but if you do then, instead of learning it all, a good approach is to boil it down to a series of bullet points and then practice using those as prompts. That way you phrase it freshly each time without being locked into memorising an exact wording. This makes a huge difference when you are on stage faced with an audience, since you can be loose, chatty and connected with them. This is all much more important than exactly reproducing the words you wrote. It’s alive in the moment.
Students on my stand-up course learn all this early on. I put them in small groups—this allows people to brainstorm and bounce off each other—and give them a topic and an angle and then they have five minutes to come up with something. Stand-up writing, even though delivered by a single voice, definitely doesn’t need to be a solitary activity in the writing of it. Each student will then come up to the microphone with a scrap of paper with bullet points at most and will then perform it.
As long as you understand the journey through the piece, the beats of it, why it’s funny, what your angle is and are keeping in mind the set-up/payoff rhythm (mindful of the need to surprise) then you don’t need a script at all. Indeed, some comics do it all in their head without ever writing anything down.
The approach certainly works for chatty and conversational comics. And even, at times, it can be used by one-liner comics like Milton Jones, as Oliver Double discusses in his superb book Getting the Joke. Even though Jones’ kind of one-liners are very carefully worded and constructed—where a word out of place can screw everything up— he will nevertheless let go of the precise wording of a new gag to allow the phrasing to come to him in front of the audience.
All of this then engenders writing on stage. You’ll come up with an effective wording, a topper, some extra jokes, or find a whole new tangent on stage and this goes back into the material. But try to never allow it to become fixed. Over time, as it settles down into something pretty similar for each performance, always work with the liveness of the situation. How are you going to say it this time? Don’t try and say it how you said it last time.
To conclude this first lesson, I’ll suggest that another way in which stand-up writing is not writing is that you are not writing something to be read you are writing something to be said. If you’re someone who really feels that they do need to write it all down, then ensure your script is like a transcript of speech, thereby ensuring it will sound natural and chatty when you deliver it.
I’m writing this in a coffee shop, so what if I were to take a break from the book and write some stand-up about the situation …?
I found myself on this grey, overcast morning in a west end outlet of an international coffee chain that shall remain nameless (clue: its name is a combination of a bright astronomical feature and a slang term for dollars.) I settled in for a few hours work safe in the knowledge that although I had only purchased one cup of green tea—and would make no further purchases—it was an evil, multinational chain that I was abusing and not a delightful artisan emporium.
I can almost hear you ask, “That’s stand-up?” Correct, I’d be shafted if I got up on stage and delivered that. You may think this is a slightly contrived example, but I’ve known new acts try and deliver a script that is very much in that writerly style. It may well read nicely but it doesn’t sound like speech (I doubt even Oscar Wilde talked like that). You’d be a strange, detached spectacle reciting text like this when you need to be talking to the audience.
So instead, I would actually write it more like this:
So, I was in the west end this morning. When are we going to get some sunshine? I'm worried I'm going to die of vitamin D deficiency. Anyway, I went into a coffee shop to work. I won’t say which, but I’ll give you a clue… its name is a combination of a bright astronomical feature and a slang term for dollars. Okay, yes it was Supernova Greenbacks. Anyway, I bought my one cup of green tea—small size—that’ll last me about nine hours. Screw ‘em. They’re an evil, multinational chain, not some quaint little oldee-worldee tea shop run by Miss Marple’s sister.
I’m sure you see the difference. Incidentally, I really am sitting in said coffee shop chain writing this and feel bad about saying they’re evil. I think I’ll go and buy another small green tea to make up for it.
Homework: As suggested, if you want to write a script (and I probably would) then try writing in this style of a conversational speech. Then there’s no need to learn it. As we have discussed, the next step is to break it down into bullet points. When you rehearse just try saying it, using the bullet points as a guide. Ultimately they just become prompts in your head and you go on stage and speak around them, finding the wording and maybe some extra jokes as well in the process. If you find you’re at the stage of wondering what on earth you’re going to write in the first place, try jumping to Lesson 7.
My book on stand-up