The stand-up comedy rule that can make you be a better writer
Complete this sentence with a humourous ending: “It was so cold…”
It’s ok, I’ll wait…
So, how long did it take you to come up with your response? Fairly quickly? Or did you take some time thinking about it? If you answered with the first thing that popped into your head – congratulations! You’re just like most people.
If, on the other hand, you took some time to think about your answer so that it would be unique, unusual, unexpected…you just discovered a stand-up comedy rule that can help you write better stories, poems, commercials, even Facebook comments and Tweets!
Before we go any further, take a look at this:
Were there any similarities between his jokes and your line? Now, whether or not you like Jay Leno, he and his staff know how to write stand-up. The thing is, you don’t need to be a comedy writer to follow this rule:
Never go with your first impulse!
That’s the rule, plain & simple. Don’t go with the first thing that pops into your head! If you’re taking the SAT, well, sure – your first impulse is probably the right answer. But when writing creatively, your first thought is most likely the same first thought as everyone else, and for someone who’s trying to appear original…that’s not good.
In the video clip, Jay makes references to cold temperatures that we can all relate to (like trying to stay warm or having your tongue get stuck to metal), but used those images in ways the audience would not expect. He could have said something like, “it’s so cold that Christmas shoppers are buying extra Christmas lights just to stay warm.” Well, that’s not extremely funny, but I can certainly see someone posting that on a Facebook or Twitter page.
But Jay takes the idea of Christmas shoppers staying warm to an extreme (exagerration is another trick to writing stand-up), and gets laughs because a) the image of shoppers pepper-spraying themselves is funny in and of itself, and b) it was unexpected.
Look at it this way: how many times have you come across an interesting Facebook post or news article and was going to leave a witty comment but noticed someone else had already written it first? Or how many times have you seen a comment that you just knew someone was going to write?
The following is a radio commercial I wrote, voiced, and produced for a Mexican restaurant called El Jimador that had just opened in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region. I think it’s a good example of how not to go the route everyone else might, and create a commercial that will stand out from the multitude of other restaurant commercials out there.
Backstory: I was told the restaurant featured truly traditional Mexican food, not the Americanized fare with which most of us are familiar. They offered all the items one would expect (tacos, burritos, etc.) but many items that might not be so familiar. And they were just opening, so they wanted to get people’s attention, quick. Yes, I could have started off by saying, hey, here’s a new Mexican restaurant, featuring all your favourites, blah, blah, and blah…but we’ve all heard those commercials and it really wouldn’t tell the whole story. The story was about not just what they were, but why they were.
I grabbed a menu.
The cover featured the restaurant’s namesake, el jimador (an agave farmer), and explained who he was and why they named their establishment after him. I loved it! I took that information, condensed it, and used it as the basis of the commercial:
Notice I don’t even mention the name of the place until halfway through the spot. Some advertising gurus will tell you that the client name should be mentioned in the first 5 seconds and at least 5 or 6 times throughout the commercial; that’s hogwash. I eschew the ‘early and often’ rule of copy writing in favour of the ‘make it compelling and they’ll keep listening’ rule. I could go on about that, but I’ll save it for a future blog post.
Also note that I didn’t spend a lot of time reading a laundry list of items; I did need to include some of the traditional items offered (at the client’s request), but overall, I’d say you probably have not heard many restaurant commercials like this one. Most talk at the listener; I prefer speaking TO the listener.
I took a route that was unusual; I didn’t settle for the first thing I came up with. For someone in the business of writing…
Trust your gut; it usually knows what it’s doing. The next time you’re going to write something – anything – ask your gut if it thinks someone else would have thought of it, also. Say, ‘Hey gut, old friend, what do you think?” If your gut tells you it’s the same thing it would’ve said…scrap it and come up with something better.
As I said earlier, this rule applies for any kind of writing. Whether it’s a novel, tweet, children’s literature, or blog post – use a critical eye. Step back and look at what you’ve written objectively, and think before you hit ‘submit.’
You may be surprised at how creative you can be, when you force yourself to think just a little bit harder!