Tips from Stand Up Comedians
My friend Kirk Reedstrom recommended two audiobooks from Upright Citizen’s Brigade, Comedy Improv Manual and Finding Your Comedic Voice. They both looked great, but I chose 28 Stand Ups: Best Tips, Bits, and Bombs, because it was the shortest, at 4 hours. Which ended up being a bit of a self-prank, because I listened to it twice: once to absorb it all, and once to take notes for you.
This book turned out to be chock full of creative inspiration for how we can keep going and stay true to ourselves. I’ve always been fascinated by the process of stand up, especially how so many of them revise on stage. There is no revision resistance in stand-up, because if you keep the old not-working version, you’ll bomb every night. It’s a powerful motivator to make the work as good as it can be.
Without further ado, here is the advice from Best Tips, Bits, and Bombs that resonated most with me (meaning that it applied to my own creative practice of writing books for children).
1. When you’re just starting out, don’t take advice from other people.
In the beginning, you’re working on instinct, on some inner knowing that you should do this creative thing. There will be a lot of people ready to give you advice. In stand-up, often the people giving advice to newer comedians have been at it for many years, but are still doing open mics, which means they’re not very good. Similarly, there are a lot of courses telling you how to write a picture book, taught by someone who hasn’t actually published one. There will be a time when you can and should seek advice, but in the beginning, play around and work on figuring out your voice. Trust yourself.
2. When you’re just starting out, write clean.
Newer standups often tell dirty jokes or curse a lot. It’s like a shortcut to “look at me! I’m edgy!” They might default to dirty jokes in place of something actually good. But if you try to write clean, it’ll force you to figure out your own take on things. You need to build your craft to the point where you can tell those potentially hack jokes in a new way.
So what’s the equivalent for writing picture books? (Since we’ll assume you’re not filling your picture books with smut and curses.) I’d say it’s leaning on tried-and-true well-worn topics — the first day of school, a new sibling, a new pet, bedtime, how much parents love their children. Yes, there’s a market for those stories, but when you’re still building your writing craft, challenge yourself to write stories that are different from the expected. When you’ve written for a few years, then you can take on a bedtime story, because you’ll be able to approach it in a fresh way. Make your first stories about flying turtles or bananas writing rock songs.
3. Don’t compare yourself to others.
Don’t compare your career to other people’s careers. Your only competition is you. Other people are going to have successes, and if you get bitter about it, it makes it hard for you to do your best creative work. “The energy you spend being mad about someone else’s success could be spent on your craft,” says Wayne Federman.
Blaine Capatch talks about how you might see someone else doing a set and everyone is laughing, but you don’t think they’re funny at all. But if you can approach other creators objectively, you can get curious about why other people like their work, and figure out what lessons you can take from their successes. You can make a decision to be true to yourself, even if it means that particular audience won’t laugh at your jokes.
For writers, there are so many books that come out that are wildly popular and which you will think are terrible. There will be writers who seem to be announcing a book deal every week, who get movie deals and hit the best seller lists. You can’t spend your time resenting their success or being bitter about it. Your job is to write your books.
4. Record yourself, listen to your act.
If you record your act and listen to it later, you will hear things that you weren’t aware of while you were performing. The laughs might not have been as big, but the silences weren’t as long as you thought they were either. You’ll hear where the audience wanted to laugh and you kept talking and didn’t give them space.
This was the most frequent advice in the audiobook, and I had to sit with it a bit to think about how it might apply to writing. Because I suppose we could read our books out loud, record ourselves, and listen back. But thankfully I don’t think that’s what the advice is recommending. What it’s really talking about is finding a way to evaluate your writing objectively. For us, that translates to tricks like putting your manuscript away for long enough that you forget what’s in it, and joining a critique group.
5. Stay true to who you are.
It takes time to find your voice. Jimmy Pardo quotes Jay Leno saying it takes five years to break into the market and ten years to figure out who you are. Is this analogous to writing? Absolutely yes. I wrote for three solid years seriously before I got a book deal, and it was another two years after that before the book came out. It’s been ten years now, and I am still figuring out who I am as a writer, but I’m a lot closer than I was when I started.
Finding your voice is the hardest part. Natasha Leggero quotes a sign at The Comedy Store that you see before you walk on stage, and I love this: “You don’t have to be funny for three minutes, you just have to be yourself.” For writers, we’re not as hemmed in by creating an on-stage persona, but we do have to figure out what we’re good at and what kind of books we want to write, and the way to do that — just like in stand up — is to do our best to stay true to ourselves. You don’t have to be a best-seller, you just have to be yourself.
Another way to stay true to your own voice is to write about what you’re obsessed with. Sean Conroy puts it like this: “What’s interesting, what’s weird, why does this moment stand out to me?” Find those moments and write about them.
6. Have fun.
Certainly someone doing standup should be having fun, but don’t forget that it’s fun to write books, too. Nick Thune reminds us that when you have fun, the audience will have fun too. (If you have fun while you’re writing, the reader will have fun when they’re reading.) Blaine Capatch says “Always have fun on stage, because if you don’t have fun, and the crowd doesn’t have fun, then nobody had fun.” The emotional transference that is writing a book and getting someone else to read it might mean you’re transferring anger or sadness, but come on, isn’t that kind of fun? To be able to send those emotions from your brain to someone else’s? It’s fun!
7. Write different things, try different things.
If you’re doing stand up, don’t just write jokes to tell on stage. Try writing everything from commercials to songs, plays, and movies. And try different kinds of jokes — one liners, act outs, long stories. Trying new things is a way of building your craft, even if you don’t end up using it. You can learn new things about who you are as a writer by challenging yourself to go in completely new directions. For writers, that means playing with structure, genre, POV, voice, and form. Don’t feel like you need to stick to one thing only.
8. Be a human, live your life.
Don’t spend all your time writing stand up and doing stand up. Matt O’Brien says, “Live a life, go to a farmer’s market, go to a museum. Take a night off and do something normal.” Hey writers, at some point you need to get up from your desk and go outside. Yes, I know, you’re supposed to put your butt in the chair. But also you need to get your butt out of the chair and go experience some stuff. If anything, it might give you ideas (or, as the stand ups say, you might get material out of it).
9. Quit. Don’t do it. It’s too hard.
Both DeAnne Smith and Moshe Kasher gave this advice, and I’ve heard it given to writers too. If someone tells you how incredibly difficult it is to be a writer (or a stand-up comedian), do you think “gosh, that does sound hard, I’m not sure I want to do that” or “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! I have no choice but to do this!”? If it’s the first one, you may want to save yourself some time and pain and quit now. I’m reading Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami, and the first essay is about this, essentially. He says, “You can live wisely and well without writing a novel—in fact, it may be easier that way. Those who end up writing a novel do so because they have to. And then they continue.”
10. Often the best bits come when you’re thinking right before a show/deadline.
Several of the standups told stories about times when they were about to go on stage, were thinking about their set, and realized how they could tell a joke in a completely new (and better) way. Sometimes being up against a deadline pushes you to get the work done. If you don’t have a deadline from an editor, you can self-impose a deadline, pace around talking to yourself about your story, and see if that helps you push toward getting it done.
11. Never quit because of any one set.
This advice is from Howard Kremer. Things will go poorly. Expect it. Keep going. Similarly, you’re going to get rejected. Never quit because of one rejection or one bad review. Expect it and keep going.
12. Don’t do a show for friends and family until you’re ready.
Be careful about performing in front of friends and family. You are allowed to protect yourself. Privately bomb. Arden Myrin says, “You know how you have a buddy in the pool on the other end of the noodle? Get yourself a comedy noodle buddy. Someone to be there with you when you’re going to clubs. Someone who is not your family. Give yourself the room to be bad. You’ll know when it’s time to invite people. Give yourself the privacy of the practice time.”
This is why agents cringe when a query letter says “my family read this story and loved it.” Your family is not a good audience for you. Your noodle buddy should be a trusted critique partner who will let you be bad and will help you get better. Keep your family out of it for as long as you can. They’ll either read your story and think they have to praise it, or they’ll tell you what you could improve, and unless they are also writers (or even if they are!), you’ll resent it.
13. How you respond to a bomb is important.
A bomb for a stand-up comedian is like a rejection or a terrible review for a writer, and you have control over your response. DeAnne Smith says, “After you bomb, you can beat yourself up or you can be a friend to yourself. It’s going to be a lot worse if you hate yourself about it. Think of what you could do differently, in a gentle way that’s not making it worse.” Writers can learn from rejections and get better — or maybe what you learn is that you’re not a good fit for whoever is rejecting you, and that’s good information too.
Sean Conroy says, “Bombing is just another word for learning. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a thing you do, and you go, ‘Why did that happen? What can I do differently next time?’ It feels awful when you’re bombing, but it’s completely harmless and doesn’t affect you in any way. All that matters is what you take away from it.”
Think about that: bombing/rejection is actually harmless. It might feel bad, but it doesn’t physically harm you. You’re still there. You can choose to keep going. Because stand-up comedians bomb, and writers get rejected, and the successful ones are the ones who keep going.
I’m going to end with this big quote from Wayne Federman, because it applies so much to writing. He says:
Picture a huge swimming pool, like: huge. Beyond Olympic size. And on one end is the shallow, the other end’s the deep. That’s stand-up comedy. At the shallow end, there’s thousands of people trying to get in the water. There’s water splashing around, you’re getting kicked, some people are just dipping their toe in at an open mic or something like that. There’s no way you can really even know if you can swim or anything at this point because it’s just pandemonium.
But then as you get deeper into the pool, you notice that people are starting to figure it out. They get their stroke, they can swim around a little bit. And then they might be at a club, and even past them, there’s other people swimming really well. They look great. They’re touring comedians.
At the far end of the pool, the deep end, are the headliners…and they’re not only swimming, but they’re doing dives off the top board, and everyone is cheering, millions of dollars are coming their way…
But here’s the great news. Whether you’re at the deepest end of the pool or just at the beginning in the shallow end, you’re all doing the same thing. You’re all in the same water.
Remember that, writers: whether you’re just starting out and struggling to write a manuscript all the way through and make it good, or whether you’re a best-selling author with a book tour and a pile of awards, you’re all in the same water.
Behind the Paywall
This month, paid subscribers had access to:
An essay about the need for a Writer Control Kit (the title of which was taken from a Bleeding Control Kit I saw on a beach) — analog items we can turn to when we feel our attention flagging. What’s in yours?
Q&As about revision, how many drafts it took to write Snappsy, and how to stop being so distracted when you finally quit social media. This week’s question (posting on Thursday) is about when and if to use detailed art notes, with plenty of examples from my own books, so upgrade now (you get a free trial period) if you want to see that. Remember that you can ask a question at any time, here (or by replying to this email).
A new crop of story prompt photos.
Thoughts and Links
Thanks to reader Maya who alerted me to the fact that links in old newsletter emails that were sent via Mailchimp no longer work. If you keep a pile of these old emails around to reread, first of all I love you, and second of all, they all live on Substack now, and the links work on there.
Also, when I set up Substack, I initially thought I was going to make the ability to comment on posts a paid-subscriber-only perk, but quickly changed my mind (I want to talk to all of you!). But I realized a few days ago that the bulk of the archive was still set up that way. Now, were you all digging in, reading old posts, wanting to comment, but unable to? I have no idea! But if such a thing interests you, now you can comment on the full archive.
Tara Lazar posted her annual Gift Guide for Writers, and she asked me to contribute. I submitted two items that I had used that very day.
Paleographers found the oldest sentence written in the first alphabet, and it’s marketing copy about using a lice comb.
I had a fine time exploring this map of the universe.
This is a delightful and hilarious article about a woman with a very messy desk ("what kind of maniac keeps their friend’s scarf, a spare school tie and a T-shirt underneath 17 years of bank statements?") who lets Marie Kondo help her tidy it. Thanks tofor the link.
I made this cranberry lime pie at Thanksgiving and it was amazing, even though it is 19 steps long and requires the use of all of my kitchen appliances. I will make it again. I did not make the sugared cranberry garnish, because I had pie-making fatigue at that point, and my family truly doesn’t care about a delightful garnish as long as the pie tastes great.
One of the books I read and loved this month was Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder by Samuel Wilson Fussell. (I’m explaining it here rather than dropping it below, because you might not click on it based on the cover.) It is fascinating and hilarious, and made me think a lot about what drives us toward obsession, and how thin the line is between a healthy obsession and one that is not.
Books I read recently and loved
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