Updated: Dec 3, 2021
The lessons are about to shift into the writing of material. Before we go there, I wanted to say that the most important stage in stand-up comedy writing is the rewriting stage. Do a few drafts before you perform it. Work on it for a bit, leave it and come back. When it's ready to go, try it in front of an audience and see the reaction. Then rework it. It really is a process of tinkering, editing, trying different words, rhythms—there are many ways of expressing the same basic idea. If it's not working, then it may be that the idea wasn't funny, but it might also be that you haven't found the best way of getting it across.
Nothing is intrinsically funny. It all comes down to who is saying it, how, when and who to. So, to get a fair picture of a piece of material you need to work it over a number of gigs, ideally with a range of audiences. Even long-standing material can suddenly develop. So, don't consider anything as fixed. Keep finding the new angles even in stuff you've been doing for a long time. As Jack Dee says:
“What is really exciting is when you get an idea just before the show begins. Then you go on stage and the new material immediately gets a big laugh… I keep putting in new stuff, so the act remains very fresh, otherwise it becomes sealed. It’s not very attractive when it becomes glib. I never want it to become like a play.”[i]
But what about material that isn't working as it should? If new material has fallen flat with an audience, Samantha Baines, who I directed in her 2017 Edinburgh show 1 Woman, A High Flyer and a Flat Bottom, told me: ‘If I really like it, I'll reword it and try again. Or I might do it with a different delivery.’ Yes, sometimes how you say it can make a big difference. As well as rewriting material that hasn’t worked well, there are other adjustments that can be made in light of how a gig goes (and your recording of the gig will aid you with this). Samantha, for instance, talked with me about an audience who took offence:
“I don't really do offensive comedy but sometimes people get offended by the strangest things. Like I have Irish heritage. My family is half Irish (whose isn't?) I was doing a bit about the Irish but hadn't yet said, “I'm half Irish.” And everyone knew there was an Irish woman in the crowd as she’d already spoken to the MC, so, everyone was getting offended on her behalf.”
In that case she spoke to the woman, bringing up the fact that she was herself half-Irish. She now makes sure she sets up the fact that she is half-Irish before she goes into the material:. “And I have a joke about being Roman Catholic. And if I forget to say, “I'm Roman Catholic”, people don't laugh as much. So, then I wrote it into the joke, so I never forgot to say it.”
These are relatively small fixes. Sometimes the rewrite required is more substantial. A comic I've been directing recently came to me with an odd conundrum. He had a story that took five minutes to tell and worked really well in five minute open-spots. The five minute story was a true story about his granddad being a bit of a klutz and the comic being the normal, reasonable person. It rang true and audiences laughed at how the grandson was affected by the granddad’s behaviour. It works fine standing alone. But as soon as he inserted it into his twenty minute set it no longer worked. What on earth was going on?
The reason was that in his established twenty-minute set he is a cartoonish clueless loser always messing things up. In his five minute spot he was trying something new - speaking more truthfully. Essentially, the five minute set was an affectionate, quite warm portrayal of a daft old granddad and his long suffering, normal and reasonable grandson. It had real world charm and funniness. It then had to slot into a set that was much more cartoonish where the comic himself was the idiot. It simply didn't fit. It'd be like taking a routine from Peter Kay and inserting it into a Steven Wright set.
He didn't want to change his entire style and approach - he was after all getting paid for his existing act. So this is where re-writing comes in. To make the new story fit the existing set, I suggested: "How about you become the idiot instead of the granddad? That way it would be consistent with his existing material that is centered on your own idiocy." He said, "No, I want to keep it as it was in real life with the granddad being an idiot."
So I tried another tack: "Okay, shall we say that idiocy runs in the family and the granddad is as big an idiot as you are? Then we have the two of you being idiotic together." This would make it fit his existing material and he liked that solution. But we couldn’t dispense with the reacting character (which had been 'normal him') because when you have someone being an idiot a big part of the comedy is in others reacting to them. John Cleese once said: at first we thought comedy was someone behaving absurdly. We came to realise that comedy is about someone watching someone behaving absurdly.
So I suggested: "Let’s have an exasperated normal third party to provide the reactions instead of the you being in that role." He said: "Like my mum…. This is so true to life."
This resulted in a rewrite of the true story that was now adapted, punched up and made to fit his stand-up persona. For more on punching up true stories for stand-up see the homework...
[i] Jack Dee quote from Northamptonshire Telegraph
Start with a story from your existing set or simply a true story from life. As I explain in my book, you can increase the funniness of any story by:
1. Increasing the time pressure. Give the situation a deadline or exaggerate its imminence. If in real life this piece of work you messed up didn’t have to be in for two weeks, instead make out it had to be in the next day.
2. Introducing a witness. Your awkwardness or embarrassment or struggle will always be worse (and so funnier) if it’s happening in front of someone. Their reactions will be a key part of the comedy.
3. Making the context more significant. For example, if the story was about you saying something stupid down at the pub with your mates, how about changing it to being in a posh restaurant on a date? Decrease your own skills or efficacy in the situation; play it dumb. As Logan Murray said to me: ‘“Stand-up is not so much about the story. It'’s more about the idiot in the story.’.“
There is much more on rewriting material, including fine-tuning one-liners as well as punching up stories and routines (including more from the Samantha Baines interview), in chapters 6 and 9 of my book "A Director's Guide to the Art of Stand-up."