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Comedy writing: What I’ve learned

As a professional writer, I’m always looking for new types of writing to try that may be more fun and more lucrative than what I’ve been doing.

So in May I enrolled in The Writing Program – Level 1 (“Talk Show Portfolio”) at iO (formerly ImprovOlympic) in Chicago. iO is similar to Second City and many students have studied at both, as well as at additional comedy / improve / writing programs in Chicago. The eight-week course teaches how to write comedy suitable for late-night TV, including Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

The course is demanding in terms of between-class assignments but it’s also a confidence-builder. Every week we would go around the table, reading what we had written and making suggestions to each other in an upbeat, positive atmosphere.

For me, signing up was an act of courage. I estimate that I was at least 20 years older than the next oldest student, and I’m happy to report that I didn’t embarrass myself or feel totally out of place.

Here’s what I learned (and some samples of my joke writing):

Most of the jokes we wrote were based on the day’s news. Step one is to find an interesting event and write the premise, which is a brief non-funny summary. (Most writers work from the day’s newspaper or online news sources.) Then the next sentence or two is the joke that builds on the premise.

The U.S. Government is suing Starbucks for firing a barista because she is a dwarf. Starbucks claims her need for a small stepladder or stool is a danger to coworkers and customers. Starbuck’s has a record of shunning the short. Order a small and you get a “tall.”

While experts recommend writing each morning while you’re fresh, on some days I couldn’t come up with anything. But over time, I developed a work process that fits me. So I’d concentrate on finding premises every morning and spending a few minutes developing jokes. Every day (and sometimes in the evening as well) I’d add more premises to the list and work on more jokes. Then shortly before class I’d delete the non-jokes.

25-year-old Crystal Harris called off her wedding to 85-year-old Hugh Hefner just days before the event, originally scheduled for today. Apparently Hef became disillusioned about Crystal and her commitment to the sanctity of marriage when he found out she would wear a pink gown.

Every joke doesn’t have to be a killer to prove you are worthy of participating. In fact, every joke isn’t supposed to be hysterically funny. Professional routines start out with exceptionally strong material, get a little weaker and then finish up strong . . . and that’s intentional.

On Sunday the MTV Movie Awards honored Reese Witherspoon, age 35, with its lifetime achievement award. In other news, Reese is retiring to Palm Springs and will deliver the keynote to the upcoming AARP conference.

Writing jokes gets easier with practice, preferably daily practice. On the other hand, it’s human nature to put off writing anything until the night before deadline.

The University of Chicago has completed a dictionary of the Assyrian language. The world’s first written language, it is written as wedge-shaped indentations in clay tablets. They weren’t sure how to put it in alphabetical order until they uncovered the Assyrian children’s rhyme, “Point to sun, point to dung, point to west, point to rest.”

Certain jokes are in the air and it’s very common for more than one person to come up with the same concept. Sometimes a single concept would be duplicated among class members. At other times we’d hear our joke on TV.

This week the Trib reported that the sooner a new mother returns to work after giving birth, the less likely she is to breast-feed her baby. The study follows groundbreaking research proving that sex causes pregnancy.

It’s been a great learning experience and I plan to keep practicing.


Originally posted 7-25-11

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