Lesson 13: Questions to Spark Ideas
Comedy, and all creativity, begins with questions. What takes you into comic territory, rather than literary or dramatic territory, is that your answers are absurd. In stand-up writing we are asking questions and coming up with playful answers. This is effectively playing dumb. Ask any question you like, but instead of giving the reasonable, sensible or factual answer, instead you play around with surprising, ridiculous and inappropriate ones.
Play is the starting point of funny ideas. The key to play is to be non-judgemental. Don’t censor or be critical about what you are producing. Judgement inhibits play, so just enjoy posing questions and answering them in surprising ways, not worrying in the first instance about how funny or promising your answers are.
For example, Demetri Martin had often bought plants for his home that didn't survive, so he noted down “my plants often die.”i He had no sense of where the funniness was initially, he just sensed the potential. He then went through a process of asking himself questions, and one was: “what's the easiest plant to keep alive?” Then he thought of a cactus and this led to the set-up:
“I bought a cactus. A week later it died”.
He then asked himself: “How can you kill a cactus?” and thought “By giving it too much water”. But he couldn’t really find a joke there so he explored other angles. He wrote “After a bit of thought, I arrived at a joke I liked”:
“I bought a cactus. A week later it died. And I got depressed, because I thought, Damn. I’m less nurturing than a desert.”
Now he has a payoff for the set-up and it all emerged through seeing the potential in something and then embarking on a process of questioning. Note, too, that this joke works for Demetri Martin as it's playing into his on-stage character's insecurities with relationships, which the audience already recognise. This is part of his persona.
In the above description of his creative process, there is a sudden leap from turning the idea over in his mind to the joke being formed. This leap would have been as a result of preparing the ground for a burst of inspiration to emerge from the unconscious. Allow time in your writing process for the unconscious to do its work. Questions are central to stand-up comedy writing, and here are five that you can usefully ask of any topic you have chosen to talk about:
• What’s it like? • What’s next? • What’s before? • What would I love to do? • What would solve it?
What’s it like? Any playful analogy you can think of? 'This' is like 'that'. What’s next? Given that this is happening now, what will be happening in the future? (A more extreme version of this situation) What before? How did this come about? What led up to this situation? What would I love to do? If you could do anything you like in this situation what would you do? What would solve it? Self-explanatory—what would resolve the situation?
Let’s go through these one-by-one. Firstly, asking the question 'what's it like?' can lead to an 'is like' joke:
“If you can’t go into an Irish bar and get into a conversation that’s like being a special needs kid going to summer holiday camp and not getting a hug.” (Phil Nichol)
“Would it be fair to say that Britain would be a tidier place if blind people were given pointed sticks?” (Adam Bloom)
These 'is like' jokes are creating a pleasing analogy (Phil Nichol's Irish bar line) or finding a surprising connection between two things—the white stick and litter picking stick. The Adam Bloom gag would probably have come out of noticing that a blind person walking along and tapping the pavement is like a litter collector spiking rubbish with their pointed stick.
If the answer to 'what's it like?' leads to more than a one-liner then you have discovered a particularly fertile juxtaposition that could be the basis of a routine. Incidentally you can equally ask 'what's it not like,’ or 'what should it be like’ as we shall see.
When I travel home to Stroud on the last train out of London, a depressingly common feature of these journeys is the rail replacement bus. It could be cathartic to get some material out of this, but remember, stand-up is not therapy. So let's ask some questions and come up with playful answers:
What next? We get rail replacement buses, maybe next we will get rail replacement snails.
What would solve it? Rail replacement helicopters? Or even better rail replacement space hoppers.
What's it like? Getting off a high-speed train onto a rail replacement bus is like Lewis Hamilton switching mid-race into a coach.
I was once on a train that was hugely delayed due to someone jumping in front of a train in a station up the line. This wasn't the first time this kind of tragedy had happened. OK, this is very black comedy, but in stand-up mode I asked the question 'what would solve it?' I came to the conclusion that the station needs to have a Dignitas franchise on the platform.
As an aside, sadly an American reading an early draft of the original e-book didn’t understand this comment, which shows the importance of shared references. He advised that for non-European readers I should explain that this is a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland (nothing kills a joke like explaining it). The fun for the audience is, of course, working out the implication—on this same topic there have been many 'implication' jokes along the lines of sending elderly relatives “on holiday” with a one-way ticket to Switzerland.
Questions like these are often at the genesis of comic ideas. What must they be thinking? What if things were this way? What is this like? The stand-up brain is always questioning. Why are things that way? Why is that so absurd? What if things were different?
Whenever I set a writing exercise for people to do in groups in a lesson, the first thing that happens is that the group ask themselves a load of questions on the topic and try and come up with playful answers. The answers that make them laugh are the ones they run with and try and structure into material. Let's say your topic is: Supermarket self-service checkouts. I've heard this topic done a lot by new comics, but it's not necessarily about coming up with a brand new topic; it's more about doing subjects in your own way and in your own voice. And one thing that is the case with a lot of these routines on this subject by new comics is that, yes, they'll rant about it, or identify the absurdity or even do an act-out, but one thing they pretty much never do is speculate in this way and go into the past and future or find analogies...
What next? They'll have self-grow food and just sell seeds.
What before? (How did it come about?) They must have seen a particularly patient member of the public showing a new, dim member of staff how to do his job and thought “the customers are better at working check-outs than our staff. Why don't we get them to do it?”
What’s it like? Having to scan your own shopping is like having to drill your own teeth at the dentist. Notice this question and answer approach naturally drops into a set-up/ payoff rhythm—the question being the set-up and the answer being the payoff. It's in answering the questions in playful ways and speculating absurdly around the topic that you might start to form material. As well as these kinds of general questions, you will also want to ask specific questions based on your topic, such as:
Who recorded the voice? Who designed the system?
This could then extend into:
What if someone else recorded the voices/ designed the system? For example Arnie recording the voices. And how about if a stoner designed the system?
Here are some more of these kinds of questions that you might work with along with some snippets of script to give you a feel for how they might be explored:
What isn’t it like? “It's not like in the movies... we didn't turn to each other and go...”
What should it be like? “Ending a relationship should be as uncomplicated as...”
What would you love them to do? “Wouldn't it be great if one day one of them suddenly...”
What’s it like for them/ it? “They must be so confused...”
What are they thinking? “I can only imagine he's thinking please get me out of here.”
What if it were reversed? “But if it were the kids in charge...”
What's the worst thing that could happen? “The only way this could be worse would be if...”
What if it were planned? “There must have been a meeting where it was decided that...”
What if it were in another context? “What are they like when they're at home?”
This last one is key and is often a common route to funniness. For example changing the context of the self-service idea from supermarkets to hospitals:
What if they had self-service operating theatres?
Questioning the world and yourself is at the heart of stand-up writing. Questions can work for both finding the funny angle in the first place and also for getting more out of an idea you have been working on. And, coming up with questions is easier than coming up with funny ideas! It’s then a case of answering the questions in a playful, open-minded way. When you’re looking for a topic to question you're sniffing out things you find ridiculous in some way, or that don't make sense to you, or you don't understand.
To these questions you are, of course, looking for funny answers, but remember most of what you write initially won't be good enough so you can relax and let most of your answers not be funny. You're keeping an eye out for the odd gem that goes somewhere.
Note: This lesson ended up forming the basis of Chapter 2 of my book (see below) where the ideas are developed and there are some brilliant contributions from Logan Murray, Tony Allen and Samantha Baines too.
If you have a subject in mind to talk about, start by writing a list of questions that you would want to ask someone else about the topic, and make the questions personal. Play it fairly straight, but if a playful or cheeky question comes in then go with that too.
Leave it for a time–an hour, a day, a week–then come back and write (or speak) in reply to your questions
Make your answers stupid, flippant, rude, silly, blunt, overly revealing, tasteless, impatient.
Go over your answers and ask further questions on the back of them, then leave these new questions for a while
Return to them later and answer the new questions in the same way This can spiral out and develop lots of raw materials for a routine. Note ‘raw materials’. The next step is to pick out bits that seem to be working and to edit and rewrite.