Vital comedy writing exercises to get you started

Heard the one about how sitting still will kill you? The same is true of comedy. In comedy as in life, exercise is vital. Repetition, frequent workouts, even a little sweat: they will all keep your comedy healthy and your head in the game. Whether you want to do standup, become a comedy writer, or just be 30% funnier in general, comedy exercises are key for generating original ideas and finding the funny in them. They’re not just for noobs; pros do them too. (Jerry Seinfeld, famously, wrote something every single day.) But they are essential to getting started. Here, friends of GOLD and other skilled comedy coaches share their favorite exercises for getting yourself into comedy shape. Just please make sure to get up and walk around every 20 minutes, k?

Prompts

This one is a classic. (We use it as homework before our workshops). It’s the perfect starting place because it helps you not just churn out random detached jokey-jokes that anyone could write, but jokes that could come only from you.

Fill in answers to the following:

I hate…

I love…

I’m annoyed by…

The best is when…

I’m proud that…

I’m terrified of…

I’m embarrassed by…

I’m obsessed with…

You should totally be my friend because…

  1. Round 1: Don’t try to be funny. Don’t overthink. Be truthful. One-word answers are fine, to start. You can list as many responses as you want for each prompt, and you can skip any that don’t inspire. (Bonus: If you happen to gravitate more toward one “mood” of prompt—negative vs. positive, mainly—you may start to get a sense of your natural comedy voice or persona.)
  2. Round 2: If you haven’t already, go back and add “because…”.
  3. Extra credit: Switch them up. Move the things you love to things you hate, and so on. Be sure to add the “because.” See how sarcasm serves you.
  4. Extra-extra credit: Pick one prompt. Write as many short answers as you can. The results could become a list joke.

Free association

This one’s from Elsa Waithe. Pick a topic or even a small item—anything from “being a twin” to “gum”—(pro tip: use something you wrote about above). Get some blank paper (or a blank screen), a pen (if applicable), a timer, and GO. Write down everything you can think of about that thing, for 15 minutes, without stopping. EVERYTHING. Every damn thing. Don’t try to be funny. The results will be roughly 80% filler or nonsense. But without that, you won’t get to the 20% potential gold: weird stuff you forgot about, words that are just funny (“Bazooka”). This one’s a great one to do when you’re just plain stuck. It’s also good practice for letting your mind roam and explore all the possible shapes a joke can take or directions it can go in.

Twitter fitter

This one’s inspired by Kerri Louise.

  1. Pick a short personal anecdote you like to tell or—extra credit—an anecdote that came out of one of the above two exercises.
  2. Write/type it out on one page (about 250 words double-spaced).
  3. Now write the same story in 100 words.
  4. Now write the same story in 50 words.
  5. Now write the same story in 25 words. (You GOT THIS. Hemingway, legend has it, did it in 6 words. Yes, he is Hemingway, but it also wasn’t funny.)
  6. Now write the same story in 140 characters. WHAT? Yes.

Whether or not you ever use this joke, this exercise is useful because:

  • Rookie comics almost always use too much setup. This helps you pare that part down, for one thing, showing you exactly how little context, premise, and information you need to get the audience on the same page as you.
  • Concise is better.
  • It helps you literally choose your words carefully. Shorter words are generally stronger, so you’ll thesaurus your way down to those with the most punch.
  • It forces you to identify the ONE CORE IDEA that makes this thing funny.
  • Advanced move: Many comics try out their jokes on Twitter. Get good at this, and that could be a great testing ground for you, too.  

News you can use

This one’s from GOLD advisory board member Eddie Sarfaty. Open up today’s newspaper. Rip something from the headlines and make it personal using a formula like this:

X thing happened. If that happened to me/in my life OR if I did that…

Example: [Wily politician or powerful person of choice] lies and no one punishes him. If my mother found out I lied about something like that [she would/I would]…”.

Write 10 of these a day. Don’t try to be funny. Let them be funny when it happens, which it will about 1 percent of the time. The practice is what matters. As you do it more and more, you’ll see the funny and make associations faster, and your percentage will go up.

This is a great way of

  • Training yourself to riff
  • Exploring what’s funny TO YOU about the news AND about your life at the same time.
  • Keeping up with current events!

When you did one of these exercises, did something crack you up? Doesn’t have to be a fully-formed joke. An embarrassing moment, or just a funny word? Tweet it @GOLDcomdy and let us know!
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Read Lynn’s bio here.