Billy Connolly for his BBC Maestro

How to write stand up comedy

By BBC Maestro

Are you thinking about making the step into stand-up? As every pro knows, there’s hours and hours of research and writing behind even a three-minute open mic set. 

If you’ve always been the joker in your pack of friends, the move into performing for a larger crowd may seem obvious – but do you know how to take your natural sense of humour and turn it into a complete and professional stand-up set? In this article, we take a closer look at how to write a stand-up routine.

What is stand-up comedy?

Stand-up comedy is a live performance by a comedian, who delivers a prepared routine that hopefully will make their audience laugh. There can be elements of improv; however, a professional stand-up set will have hours of preparation behind it.

The term “stand-up” originates in America, Sir Billy Connolly tells viewers in his BBC Maestro course. In Britain, he explains, these performers originally worked in variety theatre where they were called “front of cloth comedians”. This was because their role was to entertain the audience while set changes went on behind the stage curtains (behind him is a sea of moving furniture).

Before this, stage comedy has been largely slapstick with a lot of physical humour: the front of cloth performer simply didn’t have the space. Like today, routines were made up from a series of jokes and were often anecdotal. Variety theatre (vaudeville in the US) no longer exists; however, the new type of comedy it created remains, in the figure of the solo comedian, entertaining their audience with usually nothing but their words.

It can feel like a daunting place to stand. As Billy puts it – “Standing up on stage is the best laxative known to man.”

So, what gives a comedian confidence? It’s all about knowing that you have well-written comedy material behind you.

The components of a stand-up set

A stand-up set has a pretty tight structure, however anarchic or entertainingly rambling the material might seem. This makes your job as a stand-up writer easier as you have a framework to work with. What are the components of a typical stand-up comedy set?

The set is the whole performance. This can be a quick slot at an open mic night or a three-hour production in a stadium – the term is the same. Within the sets are routines, and within these routines are a series of jokes. If you look at one of Sir Billy’s famous long routines, like Incontinence Pants, you’ll notice that there are plenty of gags within the routine before you arrive at the memorable punchline.

When you’re putting together your stand-up routine’s script, this is how you structure your set:

1. The opening

What’s your killer opening? How are you going to get your new audience on side? Billy Connolly recounts the time he almost gave a new promoter a nervous breakdown, by musing “What’s my opening going to be?” in the taxi on the way to the actual gig. You can get away with this when you have decades of experience, but for now, you’ll feel a lot more confident if you have something prepared.

2. The routines

This is the substance of your set. For a five-minute set, plan to have two or three different ‘chunks’, made up from clusters of jokes. In comedy, these are often called “bits”.

3. The bits

These are the funny bits, and hopefully you’ve got lots of hilarious original material just waiting to be captured and delivered.

4. The transitions

Don’t forget these, or your routine will sound a bit clunky and won’t flow. Transitions are how you move between the jokes. Unless you’re Milton Jones, your set probably isn’t a long stream of quick-fire one-liners, so you need some neat ways to join together your jokes.

5. The closer

How do you finish your set? Wrap up with a joke that leaves your audience laughing, and they’ll remember you. Ideally, your final joke can be a callback from earlier, or you could bookend your set by returning to your original joke. Billy comments, “there are many ways to end shows. Sometimes it’s just to get off when they tell you to.”

What’s the difference between stand-up and improv?

A stand-up comedian works to a pre-scripted set, while an improv performer has to deliver their routine with little or no preparation. However, there are overlaps, with a stand-up frequently having to improvise during their set and a skilled improviser knowing what background material they can draw on.

Do you need to build in spaces for improvisation when you’re writing your stand-up set? More experienced stand-ups are comfortable with what’s called ‘crowd work’, which includes audience interaction, and naturally leads to tangents and off-the-cuff material. Some of these riffs will become part of the act for future performances.

Be prepared to adapt your stand-up script. A touring comedian will often prepare what’s called a “local”, which is a joke written especially for that venue. “I would always recommend that you start with something they can identify with”, says Billy Connolly. “But it’s not always that easy”.

Billy finds that one way to incorporate local material into his set is to walk around the town you’re performing in that evening. He’d simply people-watch and note what they were doing, so he’d have some idea of the audience.

That opening joke that Billy Connolly muses about in the back of the taxi? He was in Australia, and by the time he stepped out on stage, he’d come up with the “Blue-ringed octopus”. This then flowed into a routine about Australia’s many poisonous creatures – a particularly OTT variant on the “local” theme.

How to write stand-up comedy in 7 steps

The easiest way to write stand-up comedy is to break it down into logical steps. The first time you stand up on that platform, you’ll thank yourself for all the meticulous work and preparation.

1. Learn from the best

Watch other stand-up comedians and go to comedy gigs if you can. Who do you admire? Does Jerry Seinfeld, Jack Dee or Sarah Millican feel like the best fit for your humour?  Catch up with episodes of Live At The Apollo for a good cross-section of stand-up (here’s an engaging clip from an Eddie Izzard set, about dressage). Just remember, you’re after inspiration, not specific jokes.

2. Collect comedy material

Feeling inspired? Start gathering your own material. Keep a comedy journal for a week or two, where you note down everything that could potentially be funny. “Comedians just rejoice in life and make fun from nothing”, says Billy Connolly. “When you consider some of the jokes you’ve told in your life, about cows and mean work and golfers, everybody’s funny. Every situation is funny.”

3. Write every day

Be disciplined and aim to create at least one joke every day. Treat each joke like a mini narrative with a beginning, middle and end. The important parts of the joke are the set-up and the punchline, and the latter needs to subvert the former. It can be easier to start with the punchline and work backwards to craft the perfect set-up.

4. Gather your jokes into a set

When you have collected a good amount of jokes, start working them into longer routines and adding transitions, so they flow together naturally. Start to see your act as one long story, a novel if you like, with the jokes as the chapters.

5. Add an opener and a closer

Now you can really pull things together by adding these two important sections. The opener needs to grab attention and make your audience want to hear more, while the closing lines need to wrap things up neatly – and memorably.

6. Find an audience

Deep breath: practise in front of your friends. Ask them to be honest about your material (feedback from friends is hard, but believe us, better from them than from hecklers). Take any criticism on the chin and learn from it, and work out how you can work the positives into more of your act.

7. Edit your routine

Now it’s time to refine your act. Make any edits based on the feedback, and even if you think a joke is brilliant, if it didn’t land with your friend, you can take it out. Remember, you can always work it into a later set, in a different form. Nothing is ever wasted. It’s also wise to think about the pacing of the performance. Is it too long or too short?

Tips for new stand-up writers

Finally, here are a few extra tips to bear in mind when writing stand-up comedy:

  • Think about the tone. It needs to be conversational and natural.
  • Can you easily memorise your material? Are there any sections you find tricky to remember?
  • Make sure you have spare jokes up your sleeve, in case of emergencies.
  • Practice editing as you go. Sometimes you just know that you’ll have to adapt part of your act on the fly, and if you’re used to doing this, you’ll find it easier.
  • For advice about performing your new stand-up routine, read our article, How to do stand-up comedy

And always remember Billy’s wise words, “it’s a joyous thing to give somebody a laugh.”

Enjoy the process and see you at the open mic night.

Learn how to write stand-up from the Maestro himself, Sir Billy Connolly. He shares his wisdom and experience in his insightful BBC Maestro comedy course, gained from over 50 years in the business.

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