When Writing and Comedy Collide
“So, are you an author, or a comic?”
It’s a question I’m asked surprisingly frequently, from both sides of my professional life. For anyone who hasn’t come across me yet, I’m both a sci-fi author as well as a stand-up comedian. For some reason, people looking in at my passions seem to believe they are unrelated, or even divergent pursuits.
And up to a point, I can understand their confusion. Writing is, for most, a very solitary occupation. We hole up in our little writing nests and crank out the day’s wordcount, usually isolated from the noise and bustle of other people. Our interactions with beta readers, agents, editors, and even our audience are often through the filters of email or social media, maybe the occasional phone or Skype call. Conventions and readings are where we actually have to interact directly with these fickle creatures called humans, and even then the dance is fairly scripted, and there’s almost always a table between us and them.
Comedy is different, to put it mildly. You’re standing in front of a room packed with paying customers, blinding lights in your eyes, holding a microphone, being judged on every word, every mannerism, every inflection of your voice, and every expression of your face. It’s all weighed and graded in real time. For many of my more private peers in writing, the experience would be nothing short of a waking nightmare.
My experience has been different. I’ve never considered myself to be primarily an author or a comic. Instead, I see myself as an entertainer who works in different mediums. Whether I’m writing jokes or writing novels, it’s all writing. The only difference is in how quickly I receive the feedback.
With comedy, the response is in real-time. Either people like you, trust you, and they’re laughing along with your jokes, or they aren’t. It is so immediate that I’m able to make adjustments during the performance on the fly to better tailor a set to the peculiarities and tastes of that audience, in that venue, on that night. Imagine being able to do that with a novel!
Critiques in writing are much, much slower, often spanning weeks or even months between the time you finish a draft and feedback returning from your betas, agent, editor, etc. From the perspective of a stage performer, that is a torturous, interminable length of time. An actor, musician, comic, etc, is accustomed to knowing the quality of the day’s work as soon as they’ve finished with it.
However, in both cases, you’re performing for an audience and trying to entertain them with your words and ideas. One is conducted live through the spoken (and sometimes shouted) word, while the other happens in a quiet bedroom, or on the subway, or at a café through the written word. But in either case, your ideas, transmitted through your words, create the experience for the audience.
There are other similarities too, ways the two forms can feed off one another. Writing novel-length works has taught me a great deal about researching topics, building depth, and recognizing nuance and subtle complexity. Writing books has taught me how to be a better storyteller, which makes my time onstage all the more engaging and compelling for the audience. Whenever you can dig down beyond just the superficial layers of a premise or topic, that’s where the best material waits to be mined.
At the same time, my time onstage is always limited, usually to between five and fifteen minutes, but sometimes as short as three or four. It’s within that narrow window that I have to pack as many premises and punchlines as possible to give the audience the most bang for their buck. In a well-crafted joke, every syllable has to carry its own weight, otherwise it’s the comedic equivalent of dead air and needs to go. Watch a touring, professional comic, and you’ll see someone who maximizes the impact of every word on their audience. As a result, I’ve learned brevity and the importance of conservation of words, which bleeds over directly into my long-form writing, where rewrites are often a painful process of hacking away at unnecessary words, paragraphs, and even chapters.
And it doesn’t stop there. My accumulated time public speaking has made me more aware of comedic and narrative flow, pacing, and the cadence and rhythm of conversation. I’m a better plotter, and especially a better writer of dialogue between characters than I otherwise would have been without my comedy experiences.
I’m not actually telling you to go out and start doing stand-up as a way to improve your writing. I rather like being the only little slice of overlap in this particular Venn diagram. However, what I am saying is fight against the human tendency to compartmentalize experiences. Find the links between your passions, think about how they overlap. You might be surprised how many different connections you can make, and how those connections start to reinforce and strengthen each other.
You may find yourself getting better at both of them.