Doing some research before starting to create new comedy can pay many dividends. It was common practice on the writing staffs that I served on. We’ll discuss how to do it and what benefits you gain shortly. First, though, let’s clarify what “research” entails. To research you would watch, listen to, or read good solid comedy material that is related to the type of work that you want to do. In other words, if you want to write an episode of “Big Bang Theory,” watch a few of their shows. If you’d like to perform like a certain comedy star, study his or her style and the material they use. If you want to work on comedy material on a specific subject, read what some of the great comedy minds have said about that subject.
This gives you several advantages in writing your own material:
First, you get an appreciation for good comedy. If you watch well-written sitcoms, you’ll learn how good situation comedies are written. You will automatically begin to think and feel in that style. You’ll be inspired to write with the same finesse.
Before going to a pitch session for a sitcom I was asked to write for, I would try to watch several of those shows. Then at the meeting, I would feel more confident discussing the show’s themes and the characters in the show.
Second, it generates the proper mood for writing similar comedy. Several of the writers on Bob Hope’s staff, when faced with an assignment, would watch a tape of one of the star’s past monologs. That would put that writer into the “Bob Hope mode.” Just listening to his rhythm and style would put the writer in the mood to write new jokes with that same flair.
When I had to do a two person routine between Bob Hope and a guest star, I would picture myself doing the routine with the guest star. I would play the role of Bob Hope and it would often help to provide the straight lines and the punch lines that I was looking for.
Strong comedy performers have developed powerful stage personas. People would ask me who deserved more credit, the writer or the person performing the material. With powerful comedians, it’s almost impossible to separate them. The performer can deliver the character. The writer uses that character to develop the lines. Often when writing for strong comedy performers, the character almost (and I emphasize “almost”) dictates the comedy lines to the writer. The character they’ve created over the years are strong enough to inspire good, strong gags. Use that to your benefit.
Third, it gives you a slant on the topic or an approach to the material. With any topic, you require some sort of an angle to hang your joke ideas on. If a writer was having trouble getting a handle on a certain topic, that writer would call some of the others on the writing staff and ask, “How are you handling this?” The others might quote an original joke or two and those would give the first writer the slant or approach that he or she needed to get started.
Reading what other great comic minds have said or written about a specific topic can awaken nuances in your own writing. For example, if you’re writing about “growing older,” you might read lines like these:
“You know you’re getting older when your walker has an airbag.” – Phyllis Diller
“You know you’re old when at your birthday, the candles cost more than the cake.” -- Bob Hope
“When I get up in the morning, I read the obituaries. If my name’s not in there, I shave.” -- George Burns
Those are three terrific lines and also provide you with three different angles that you probably hadn’t thought of. You can now build on those angles or be inspired to create new and different approaches of your own. These lines were based on using a walker to denote age, the candles on the cake show how old a person can be, and reading the obits to make sure they’re not listed. You can now probably think of other references that can indicate getting up in years.
Fourth, it allows you to do variations on the comedy themes. You can take certain lines and do them slightly differently. For example, two of the lines above use the format, “You know you’re getting older when…” You can use that same format and plug in different punch lines. You’re creating entirely new jokes, but you’re basing them on a specific formula.
Jeff Foxworthy had a formula that began, “You know you’re a redneck if…” Hundreds, maybe thousands of variations have been done on that one setup since Foxworthy introduced it.
There are limitless variations on any formula if you’re inspired enough to search them out and think them through.
Many of us in comedy are deceived into thinking that humor is easy…it’s spontaneous. It’s not. It should appear that way when you perform it, but it takes effort, research, and application to get to the solid comedy. Much of the spontaneity of humor is really the end result of hard work.
I know from experience that a staff of writers often spends hours of debate in the writers’ room trying to decide on the perfect line in a monologue, sketch, or sitcom. When the team finds the ideal line, they know it. They type it in, rush it to the rehearsal stage, and the performers put it into the act. Then, of course, when it’s seen and heard by the audience, it feels like the consummate ad-lib.
Preparation is an important part of writing comedy. Part of that preparation is research. Use it and make your writing not only easier, but better.
Have fun with it.
Learn more from Gene Perret with his books, classes, and newsletter. Information available at www.comedywritersroom.com/store. Gene also has a free joke service,Perrets’ Humor Files, featuring original lines. Take a look at www.jokecrafters.com. You can email Gene at RTComedy@cwo.com.
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