I have recently started taking a class in stand-up comedy. This is mostly the fault of my compatriot Amanda, who you may remember as Irish reporter Sally Donahue in Horror on the Orient Express. She preceded me in this venture, and now has what they seem to call “a five” in the comedy biz.
That is to say, a five minute set she can bust out just about anywhere. It’s pretty goddamn funny, too. And I figured, hey, you know, I have all these skills just sort of left over from getting that BFA in Theatre Arts, so I may as well plant my feet on a stage again.
Also, Amanda made it look damn fun.
One of the first requirements for this class, though, is that we write a minimum of half an hour each day.
“Piece of cake,” I thought, thinking specifically of chocolate cake with a raspberry-chocolate ganache. “I wrote a thousand words a day for two months a while back. I got this.”
What I hadn’t counted on was how vastly different writing fiction and writing jokes could be.
I’m not a stranger to comedy. In point of fact, I typically pride myself on making sure my stories have a solid sense of humor (so long as it makes sense for them to do so).
But a joke in prose is a very different beast than a joke meant for a microphone. This is something that I realized fairly quickly the very first day. I busted out my weathered brown padfolio, slotted in a new notepad, and started to write.
I wrote in circles a lot that first day, and have continued to do so since. I know some of the absolute, postmortem basics of professional comedy, like how your typical joke has two components: the setup, and the punchline. What I’ve found tends to happen is that I get a setup, then a punchline, but then I have a secondary punchline—related to but separate from the first—that I’d like to toss in as a kicker. But this shit is fractal all the way down, which means that secondary punchline? It needs setup that precedes the initial setup for the original joke.
Eventually, I wind up with a Sierpinski triangle of setups and punchlines, all of which have ceased to be funny because nobody likes math.
So I scrap what I wrote and try to distill it down to its basics the next day—running it through some kind of weird reverse-alchemical process to figure out the bits I originally thought were funny—before going on to write new stuff.
It’s a cycle of production and refinement that is quite foreign to me. I think it only works because joke-writing is so completely modular. You have Joke A and Joke B and you know which parts of the narrative belong to each, and there’s not usually much overlap. You can kind of mix and match as you please, and brevity is always the end goal. So the ongoing distillation process turns out to be pretty sensible. You take a bunch of words that are kinda funny and you concentrate them into a few words that are SUPER funny.
Lather, rinse, and repeat.
My personal goal for this class? To successfully pull off a Brick Joke.
We’ll see how that turns out.