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Copywriting Tips from a

Master of Stand-Up Comedy

I'm sharing this post from John Forde at the Copywriters Roundtable (http://copywritersroundtable.com) because it makes a great analogy between professional stand-up comedy and copywriting. I think you will enjoy reading it.

How to Tell Jokes (According to Steve Martin)

by John Forde


"The only honest art form is comedy."

- Lenny Bruce


Almost every copywriter I know is funny. Or at least, can spot a good joke when upon hearing one.

In my opinion, that's not an accident. Comics, like copywriters, need to know how to tell a good story.

But there's other overlap too.

This Saturday, I was doing what I do on many Saturdays... drinking a cup of coffee while watching Masterclass.com.

If you know the site -- and it's hard not to, given their pervasive advertising -- it's a place where you can watch the mega-successful spill their secrets on camera.

Cooking with Wolfgang Puck. Writing with Aaron Sorkin. Photography with Annie Leibovitz. Guitar with Tom Morello.

And this particular weekend in question, a course on comedy taught by one other than the legendary Steve Martin.

Now, if you know anything about comedians, you know that just having a "solid 10 minutes" is considered an accomplishment.

When Steve first started touring professionally, he had it a little harder. Early shows had him on stage for two hours.

And many nights, if not most, he had to do two shows a night. With fresh material for each show, in case of repeat ticket holders. That's four solid hours of material.

How did he do it?

"I probably had to throw away about 10,000 hours of material, just to get to those four," says Steve.

By the time he started doing movies and TV specials, he got to call more of the shots. His shows tightened to an hour a night.

"I got to whittle those four hours down to one hour," said Steve, which meant using only the absolute best material.

"That's when the show really started to click."

Still, if you've ever edited your own writing -- and please god, say that you have -- you know that's yet another monumental feat. He had to cut 75% of his jokes.

And how to know what to cut?

"Use everything," says Steve. I know, it sounds counter-intuitive. Until you understand what he means by "use."

What he means is that everything -- absolutely everything -- that you decide to keep has to serve a purpose. Because every detail will either work for you or against you.

"When you put your foot on stage for the first time, it matters," says Steve. "The audience is looking at it, they're analyzing it. Whether they know it or not. And you're speaking at that moment, even when you're not speaking. It's not just, 'here's a joke' and then 'here's another joke.' In between those jokes, it's mattering."

Why is such precision so important?

Steve shares a quote from the poet ee cummings: "Like the vaudeville comedian, I enjoy that precision which creates movement."

It took Steve 25 years of perfecting his craft to understand exactly what cummings meant. "The less air, the fewer moments you have where nothing good is happening, the more precise you are. And that precision moves your audience forward from moment to moment to moment."

In copywriting, we know that's also true. Every pointless tangent, every confusing thought, every boring story, even an oddly placed word can cost you momentum.

And the goal, says Steve, is not just a sense of motion but also unity. In the context of comedy, he says, "When you step out on that stage, you're telling a story. And not just any random funny story, but the story of yourself."

Even when the comic ranges wide, the stories add up to a whole about the persona at the mic. Likewise in copy, you might use a half-dozen proofs and examples to make a case, but it all has to add up to one message.

If that sounds daunting, there are shortcuts.

For instance, one trick we can swipe from stand-up comics is the "callback." It starts by laying in an anchoring joke, theme, or detail early on. Then you return to it a few times, over the rest of your set. It gives your audience a sense that the whole thing fits together as a single piece.

In copywriting, we call that the Golden Thread. Early on, you make a powerful claim or share a big idea. On the way to your close, you return to it just often enough to keep the reader on track. And in the close, you cinch the knot by stating it again.

This does more than just hold your message together. It also forces you, the writer, to keep things relevant. In Steve's words, to be precise.

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