How to write jokes for cartoons, television, or other nefarious purposes.
I’m going to go over how I set things up to write jokes. Later on in the article I’ll go over a few specific comedy writing techniques that I use to generate ideas. These are concrete ways to brainstorm concepts for jokes.
First, let’s talk about timing.
Writing jokes when you first wake up is optimal for most people. Your brain is fresh and limber, not burdened by the grocery list or the cost of car insurance. Having an early morning writing session is the best way to be very productive.
Secondly, we need to use another key tactic that I call “setting the table”. You need to have a place ready for you to go to and start writing immediately.
When I decide the night before that I’m going to try writing a gag cartoon I make sure my workspace is ready.
The night before, I clear the desk and put my drawing pad with a pen on top of it on the desk. This way when I wake up and sit down at the desk, everything is set. There is no friction stopping me from creating. I pick up the pen and start brainstorming right away.
Although simple, priming your workspace, apartment or wherever to create is very important. Any little resistance we encounter in life is often enough to get us off the path to what we wanted to do. So prep your space now to make it easier on future you.
The three methods I use for writing jokes
There are three methods I use to write comedy. Let’s go through them one by one.
The just show up method
The first method is to show up and see what happens. Do some doodling. Think about any issue that’s been on your mind lately and start free jazzing on whatever comes. This is a great method when the stars align and you’re bathed in the rays of inspiration. When it works, it’s beautiful but when it doesn’t… well, it sucks. You spend an hour or two and nothing much shows up.
Using random words for comedy
Comedy like most art relies on surprise. Films, novels, and jokes often work because they have a twist – an ending the audience didn’t see coming and is satisfying with the way it fits with the logic of the set-up.
One way to come up with an idea is to consider one concept against another. Two concepts that aren’t related can deliver unexpected results. This is often used for stories.
For example, If you consider these two concepts, automobile and possession, you might be wind up with a novel like Stephen King’s Christine. The same thing applies to comedy. It often uses contrasting elements to create the humor.
Here are the two methods I use for creating jokes that don’t require me facing a blank page and panicking.
These methods use my tool that generates random words for comedy writing.
The informal comedy writing method
First is what I can the informal method. You click the button on the comedy writing tool and try to find two words that seem interesting together. Then you take some time and riff off of those two words. If you only like one word on a screen then click on that word to save it and see if you can get a second word to pair with it.
You shouldn’t click click click through these screens like mindlessly eating chips while binging on a show. Set some sort of limit for yourself. For instance, every third batch of words you should force yourself to choose the most interesting word on that screen.
Otherwise, it becomes very easy to cruise through clicking the screen, thinking it will magically give you the perfect combination. That doesn’t happen – this is just a start. You make the joke and it still takes a lot of thought to work it out into a final form.
I clicked through the screens and got the example below.
These two words together “chunky devil” seemed fun to me – I like the visual image of it. Since I’ve been trying to lose weight lately, I’ve been thinking about these things so there might be something there for me.
Below is an image of my brainstorming of these two words to get a cartoon.
I drew a chunky devil and started to riff on a few lines. Then I realized that there should be someone else there in the scene so I added another figure.
I determined that it should be his doctor. I would have to add a few more visual elements like a hospital table or stethoscope or whatever to set the scene better but you get the idea.
The cartoon would be as follows. We see a chunky devil at a check-up with his doctor and the doctor, with his arms out, exasperatedly says “At least try eating souls without a cola.”
Not a home run but not bad for 5 minutes of work. Do this for an hour or two and you’ll come up with some great ideas.
The formal comedy writing method
The second method for writing jokes is what I call the formal method. It’s a technique that mostly uses what I learned from Jerry Corley, the stand-up comedian, in his How to Write a Joke like Chris Rock video. He calls it listing.
You take two distinct words and for each word write down some associated words. I did it for the “chunky devil” example and came up with a list of related words for each concept. You should aim for at least 15 to 20 words per concept word.
Once you have these two lists, you then compare the words from each column against each other to create a spark in your brain. This is a very efficient method for creating jokes. I highly recommend it.
Here’s the example below I did for chunky devil.
I first compared “weight watchers” in the “chunky” column against “slave labor” in the “devil” column and that gave me an idea. The devil is whipping slaves in hell and one of the slaves who is working hard and sweating says “I think I preferred weight watchers”.
This works well if you can get across the fact, visually, that they are working hard.
Secondly, I noticed the word cheese and thought of a grilled cheese sandwich. Then I thought, what would a grilled cheese sandwich in hell look like? Maybe a grilled headcheese sandwich? I wasn’t too thrilled with this concept so I left it alone and moved on.
Thirdly I saw the word “scale” and thought back to the devil and doctor set-up. This time the devil, looking a little plump, is on one of those medical scales and the doctor says to him “You need to cut back on soul eating”.
I might like this version of the line a little better than the previous attempt. It has a nice short snap to it.
There’s probably still a better punchline available but for demonstration purposes, I’m satisfied for now.
Fourthly, I was thinking of the devil trying to get back to beach body shape. The thought of the devil in a bikini was intriguing but I had enough already created on the page for this article so I stopped. I’ll circle back to some of these ideas later on and develop them all the way to a finished state.
This was also only about five to ten minutes of doodling and brainstorming. For real practice, I would do this for a lot longer to get even better material. Usually, it would take me about 1 or 2 hours to get at least one good gag cartoon idea that I like.
Like most anything else, the more you do this the better you’ll get at doing this. Your ability to free associate and to think laterally will get stronger the more you sit down and write comedy using this method. There’s an expression I heard recently, “it doesn’t take talent to practice” so start practicing.
Go sit down and write some damn funny jokes.
The motivational conclusion to all this comedy writing talk
When inspiration is nowhere to be found, use random words to generate sparks that you can fan into jokes. Start by using this random word tool to find words that interest you. Combine random words and the listing technique and you’ll be able to write jokes in a much more productive way.
With practice, this technique will help you become more productive and improve your ability to write jokes. Good luck!