Lesson 13: Questions to Spark Ideas

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

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.