Digging deep to write comedy

11 01 2011

As someone who teaches joke-writing formulae, I am often asked whether I think stand-ups need them. Surely they should write about what they know/be naturally funny/mine their own psyches for humour? And I agree. When I was an act I always used my own life as the basis of my comedy, but I always topped it up with topical jokes, which is where formalised joke writing came in.

‘Writing about what you know’ (as it’s often called) served me well, but after two years I realised that I’d exhausted everything that was natural for me to talk about. I’d done my height, my hair, my bafflement about how relationships work, my inability to commit and my beloved cat. Every other comic I knew felt the same.

If you keep writing about what you know, then you get jokes about writing jokes. I’ve seen a number of comics hold up a bits of cloth whilst shouting, ‘This is my new material!’ Lovely. A lot of us took to doing stories and gags about other gigs, we had done which is fine and often funny. In America ‘write what you know’ led to a phenomenon in the Nineties where most comics seemed to do material about airlines, because they all spent a lot of time on planes going between gigs.

This is when some comics dig a bit deeper. Especially when they take an hour to the Edinburgh Festival. Memorable examples of British comics who did this are Mike Gunn who did an hour on being an ex-heroin addict and was asked to tour the show around schools as part of an anti-drugs campaign, Tim Clarke confessed all about living a double life of two families, two Christmas dinners and two lots of kids and Shelley Cooper who finally came out with a show about how she used to be a man.

I can only imagine the liberation they felt. I know just admitting in on stage that I was nearly 6ft tall was very good for me. Before being a comic I was just embarrassed about it. If anyone mentioned my lanky beanpole nature, even though I was well into my twenties, I would actually blush. I know being tall is not something that you can cover up, but talking about it on stage made me feel that I’d come out about it.

Similarly sometimes men used to heckle nice things about fancying me (strangely harder to deal with than harsher lines that were yelled at me) and I would reply that that was good because I was ‘single and desperate’. As a punchline, I would turn back to the man and say, ‘but the answer’s still no!’ At the time I couldn’t have admitted the slightest desperation, even to myself, about being single. But looking back, of course I was, and perhaps saying it helped a bit.

Now that I teach stand-up and joke writing I know some students find it really hard to find things to write jokes about. But yet we’ve all got deep dark psyches just waiting to be mined for comedy. I try to help by getting my classes to play the impro warm up game ‘Follow Me’.

The class stand in one corner of the room and they take it in turns to walk across and say ‘Follow me if…you’ve wet your pants as an adult.’ Or ‘…you shoplifted as a teenager?’ Or ‘…you’ve ever two-timed anyone.’ Then members of the class follow them if they have. Others stay behind in their corner and the two groups look at each other and laugh, even though a joke has yet to be told about it. Some people don’t want to admit to something straight away but run across the room at the last minute – that’s even funnier.

This game turfs up fantastic subjects for comedy because people are interested in the subject before you even do the joke. It’s the stuff that people normally gossip about rather than ever admit to – and, what’s more, it doesn’t even have to be true.

That’s the double bluff of comedy as life. I’m sure Jack Dee isn’t actually depressed all the time. Larry David says he would never do or say things he does on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but the success of it all means he’s now at liberty to be more like his TV character. Writing comedy can give you a chance to explore sides of yourself and pretend that it’s all an act. I know that sometimes I would shock myself at how easy I found it to camp it up at lesbian gigs. I remember shouting ‘I’m straight, but you could all turn me’ on more than one occasion. I’m sure that the wonderful response Eddie Izzard got to his early ‘I’m a transvestite,’ routines helped him get his lipstick out for the lads.

Imagine if Tony Hancock had talked about his depression in his act. His character was miserable anyway, so it wouldn’t have been a radical departure for his comedy, but it might have been liberating for his soul. But unlike most modern comedians, Tony Hancock didn’t write his own material.

Today’s stand-ups do have the luxury of being able to choose which direction to go in with their work. Other comedy writers don’t. If you have to go on a panel show and talk about the Chinese economy or Wikileaks, you’ll need a method and stamina. But for some others, if you look inside the humour that you produce, it might be liberating for both you and the audience.
This article was first published on Chortle: The UK Comedy Guide. http://www.chortle.co.uk/correspondents/2010/12/23/12449/comics:_your_insecurities_are_a_joke