For a while now, I’ve been indulging in standup comedy online during my teeny bits of free time. (Netflix specials are fun, as are the late night shows.) If you’re a writer who doesn’t do the same, I highly encourage you to start.
First, good standup inevitably gets you in a better mood. And I’m convinced that you do your best writing when you are relaxed and happy. Even if you choose to write on a darker theme, there’s a clarity and ease that comes from approaching the theme without stress and worry.
But beyond helping you let go of your troubles for a while, standup comedians are also some of the best storytellers in the world. They have perfected the art of making tales engaging yet brief, and they understand the art of delivering their communication in ways that are easy to understand.
What really makes their efforts work, in my opinion, is that standup comedians are so beautifully aware of social constructs and expectations. They find dozens of instances in everyday life when people have challenged those constructs or gotten into sticky situations with them. Then they use the audience’s understanding of those violations or expectations to connect and get laughs. Through this process, they also relate the stories in a honest, often almost crude way. Their analogies or metaphors have a sense of poetry and rhythm, but they also can be so out of the box that those in the audience are happy that what the comedian is saying is novel. Those who listen appreciate that the comedian takes the risk of putting what is or could be considered taboo all out front in the open.
So it’s not that standup comedians are funny. It’s that they understand more deeply why something is funny. And if you start dissecting that a little bit as a writer, you start to see how people really work within the immediate culture. All of the biases and ways individuals and groups interact and influence each other are laid bare. And once that happens, it’s much easier not only to imagine viable situational plots, but also to establish characterizations based on expected behaviors and how characters adhere to or violate those norms. And on some level, you also gain a sense of how to balance kernels of truth against what others might see as offensive.
So next time you find yourself bashing your head against writer’s block, step back for a moment. Pop some popcorn. Go find a comedy show that appeals to your sense of humor. Take some relief in watching a great storyteller on their feet. Think about all the buttons they are hitting and understand that those strikes are part of an intentional, carefully scripted strategy, rather than the result of a spontaneous bit of luck and personality. And from there, it’s just a matter of choosing which buttons to line up for a story all your own.