The Serious Guide to Joke Writing

In The Serious Guide to Joke Writing, Sally Holloway shares exercises for comedy writing. I read it earlier this year. Here’s the directive I took away from it when I was Taking inventory of the books I read in the first half of the year:

Consider other perspectives.

I enjoyed the book and wanted to share some highlights. Sally talks about deliberately starting work on a joke and then leaving it to take a walk so that your brain can process it in the background:

If you’re not sure how wonderful this idea is then imagine if garden tools did background processing and, as long as you got hold of your spade and did some serious digging for half an hour, it would carry on digging after you had gone off shopping until it finished the job. Your brain is that powerful. Use it.

This is also a good way to tackle any problem1. Programmers can hammer away at a problem for hours. Then when they walk away for a few minutes and that’s when the solution hits them.

I’ve written before about whether comedy writing can be learned or not. Everyone’s funniest friends aren’t sitting in their rooms at night practicing. But that’s different from learning to write jokes and working on them. Professional comedians still get their reps in:

I admit my brain is attuned to joke writing, but I’m still putting time in. I run the subject through as many of my joke writing methods as appropriate. I like to do at least an hour a day (and more if I’m on a tight deadline). I break it up, do a bit here and a bit there.

Professionals are better at using the tools, but they still use tools and put time in. It’s the same as what Joe Toplyn says. It’s the same as what Simon Rich says. Rich also talks about the importance of my takeaway directive of considering other perspectives. He says Rugrats was a huge influence. Adults seem to be doing weird things, from the perspective of toddlers.

Here’s Holloway describing the exercise:

Think about it from the point of view of any objects or things or people that are directly or indirectly involved…

It’s part of a larger exercise of considering other perspectives. She says to describe things to an alien, describe them to a child, describe them to a foreigner. It’s another tool to use.

Even knowing how to use the tools, a professional doesn’t sit down, write ten jokes, then get ten great jokes out of it:

I say rubbish things, I say obscure things, I say puns a child of five could have written, and I say great things, but I needed to say all the other things to get there. So when students look at me that way I say: this is the process.

I believe in processes and systems. Like many other creatives, comedians create a lot of things and then whittle them down and refine. I’m not great at writing jokes yet. Or even good or okay at it. Still, I’ll work on it because I want to write things that are fun to read.

  1. Some people worry about meditation taking this kind of background processing away. With meditation, you learn to reign in the monkey mind. The gibbon might be manning the back burners. I’ll keep an eye on this as I learn to meditate.