Writing stand up comedy – the process (2)…

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More from Oliver Phommavanh on how he writes stand up comedy routines, so lean forward and smile…

How does writing for stand up differ from writing comedy in fiction?

When you’re writing just for laughs, all that matters is the set up and the punch-line. Whether the set up is a sentence or a paragraph, you’re leading up to a laugh.

Writing comedy in fiction takes this further, because now you’re working with characters. Any gags have to make sense and relate back to the character and the plot. But this brings out character-based humour which I’ve found is actually more memorable and funny. Think back to any classic TV show and you’ll realise that it’s the beloved characters and personalities that delivered the laughs. Morris Gleitzman’s says that pure jokes in fiction can *What sort of nut has a hole? A doughnut!* distract readers and feel out of place.

What makes a good set up?

Anyone and anything can be a set up. The more you can relate it to your audience, the more they’re going to laugh. So finding something funny in everyday, ordinary situations makes a good set up. Of course this links back to your characters. What are their personality traits, more importantly what are their flaws? The more vulnerable a character is in a situation, the more potential there is for a joke. As they say, comedy is a step away from tragedy. Don’t ask me who ‘they’ are, I don’t know myself.

My imagination kicks in when I’m writing. I often ask myself, what’s the worst thing that could happen? What’s the strangest thing that could happen right now? My poor characters have to suffer. *evil villain laugh*

What makes a good punchline? Is it something unexpected? The delivery?

Yep, that’s right. The set up is the audience walking on a rug over a bear pit, and the punch line comes when you pull it underneath their feet. The key is not to let them know when or how you’re going to do it. Stand up comedy relies on timing and delivery. If you can surprise them with a punch line or say something unexpected, then it’ll zing! Funny stories don’t have that luxury of holding something back. I rely on the pace of the story to deliver a barrage of laughs. Most of my editing of my stories focuses on polishing up the gags, making sure there are laughs on every page.

Can you give us an example of the above (set-up/punchline)?

Heaheahea, you’ve put me on the spot…hang on, what do I have here? It’s not a joke per se, but a short excerpt from Thai-riffic!

Here’s the set up: Everyone always has trouble with my surname. I was born here so shouldn’t I have an Aussie surname? I want something easy like Smith or Jones but I’m stuck with Lengviriyakul.
Punch-line: It looks like someone ate alphabet soup and threw up the letters.
Set up: Mum reckons my surname lets people know that I’m Thai.
Yeah right. Wong sounds Chinese. Nguyen sounds Vietnamese.
Punch-line: Lengviriyakul sounds like I’m from Mars. Either that or my parents are dinosaurs.
CUE CANNED LAUGHTER…er hello, is this thing on?

Tomorrow, part 3 – the last of Oliver’s secrets…