The comedian and gag writer for the likes of the Oscars; Dana A. Snow lays out the guts of his joke creation process.
Writing, but Seldom New Ideas
I don’t know if I have time to write this article. If you are reading it, I did.
I write a lot. I am a one-man joke machine, so if you ever want a jokes only one man will laugh at, call me. That one man is John Russell of Boulder, Colorado.
If I was performing the whole thing in a show, it would be at least 2 hours long. I select 5 to 20 minutes from that repertoire for the show at hand, based in part on whether a set should be clean or dirty, “edgy” or “family friendly.” (As an outline, it runs 2 to 7 pages.) I give myself writing assignments. Anything that fills a page with short conversational sentences that might be funny. Mostly I add jokes to topics already in my outline. I have a stripper routine (that started with a joke I offered to another comic but they didn’t accept it) where I try many jokes every year and tend to keep one new one a year. I have a slapstick routine that also has had one joke added a year. That one started as an ad-lib and I kept adding to it. In both cases, what started as 5 tight seconds, became 5 tight minutes over the course of a year or more. When I rehearse a routine, I sometimes ad-lib additional jokes and transitions that try to make things clearer or take the existing attitude further.
I seldom add new premises or topics. Recently, I added two, one being my “advice on love” section with a list of things you shouldn’t say on a first date. As a writing exercise, it’s like a Letterman Top Ten List or a Mock The Week (A British game show available on YouTube) closing competition.
When you first go to a therapist, you shouldn’t answer all their questions with: “None’a your damn business!”
I let anything and everything inspire new jokes. I made up an egg joke after seeing an egg reference on the menu at Taco Bell. I’ve written jokes in response to things posted on Facebook and some deserved reposting as my status and some of those seem worth trying in my act. For example, someone quoted a great politician of the past and I came up with a paraphrase as if Trump had started to say the same thing and then detoured:
“Ask not what your country can do for you,
’cause you’re not gonna get it anyway!’
I give myself writing assignments. Anything that fills a page with short conversational sentences that might be funny.
A lot of it is role-playing.
I write gags as if being said by other comedians (like Tom Lehrer and Red Skelton), comic actors/characters, like Art Carney as Norton on “The Honeymooners” or Tom Baker of “Doctor Who” years ago. I’ve written jokes imagining what friends would say. One neighbor dabbled in standup and his real self seemed like Archie Bunker, so I used that attitude to write jokes about my list of subjects.
Imagining what another comic might say:
IN MY PARENTS SECTION – MOTHER’S DAY CARD
“When we’ve got some time t’ kill,
We’re gonna cut you outta the will!”
I explore some philosophical themes that are important to me, such as:
“We are lazy and want rewards without doing the work required.”
Example of a joke from the theme of “we are lazy & want rewards without doing the required work”:
I went on a job interview; the first thing I said was
“Is it too soon to ask for a raise?”
He said “Yes! It is too soon!” I said
“Oh. Then, uh, remind me later!”
I imagine super-idiots’ responses to my topics.
A lot of comics just tell true stories. I prefer jokey satire like The Mad Tea Party part of “Alice in Wonderland.” I imagine super-idiots’ responses to my topics. Captain Peter “Wrong-way” Peachfuzz from Bullwinkle cartoons, The Bizarro World in 1960s DC Comics, Mortimer Snerd on 1940s Edgar Bergen radio shows, The 3 Stooges. Sometimes Steve Martin and Martin Short have used this style. (Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick is hilariously wrong all the time!) Characters who are reliably wrong about everything, such as:
In romance, you shouldn’t say
“I am your slave! All the money I have in the bank is yours! You’re PERFECT! Just being in your presence is enough for me! Um. What’s your name?”
Sometimes I try to write things to improve my act’s marketability. Who would I play in a sitcom? How could the character I play in my act be adapted to be a main character on a sitcom? This was done with Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, Gabe Kaplan (“Welcome Back Kotter”), Seinfeld
In my case, would I play a teacher? A married pretentious idiot? A newscaster? I have many jokes about teaching (which I have done in real life) and teachers are often main characters in a sitcom whether the main character is a kid or a fellow teacher or if it’s about a family where one of them is still in school.
I attempted to write jokes plugging upcoming shows I hope to have, such as: “I’m gonna be in a movie called “Sequel 2: The Sequel!”
I keep trying to come up for titles if I do my standup in a theater. I have two old titles that I used years ago and I have two new ones. They could be used in ads for the show, but also on T-shirts and business cards. When I get one I like, it sometimes inspires a few new gags for within the show. I used the title “The Sensuous Nerd” for quite a while and it lasted longer than I expected, despite the title it parodied be long gone. Those are just methods I’ve used recently.
Earliest Tryouts on Friends
I wrote about 20 jokes, told ’em to friends & trimmed it down to 10 and then 7. It averages about one out of 20 gags I create are actual keepers. It’s the editing that cuts it all down to gags as strong as Rodney Dangerfield & certain other favorites. It’s not that I’m brilliant; I’m just ruthless in cutting or changing what doesn’t work. I have 4 friends who hear the 30 new minutes each week; some in-person and some on the phone because they live out-of-state. When I tell jokes to them, they’re not kept in the act or cut from it based on whether they each friend laughed or not. If I get a laugh but feel embarrassed by the joke (finding it corny after the excitement of making up the joke wore off), I will cut it. If they don’t respond, but I feel
an average audience would laugh, I keep it in to try it again. I have certain friends I regularly use to try jokes. Some are easy laughers and some difficult. One friend doesn’t laugh often but makes useful suggestions on rephrasing. Some friends respond better when I read my jokes imitating comedians from the past like W. C. Fields. Some are even more “politically correct” than me and I want to hear those opinions too. Knowing they’re listening and reaction patterns helps me judge their responses.
I hope this article gives any new comics or writers of stand-up material an idea of my joke writing process. I wish you luck. Do good work!
For Larf Magazine, this is Dana A. Snow, 7-27-18
Author’s custom disclaimer: Copyright 2018 Dana Snow. All rights reserved. These are my jokes! Mine mine mine!! Quotation of these jokes is not allowed in joke books, speeches, other people’s stand-up or on radio or T.V. shows or any other media when not performed by the author. I had to write lots of jokes to find ones that worked and fit my character, so bug off. If it’s worth stealing, it’s worth telling people to see my shows and hire me & pay me! The exception is that I give permission to Steven Alan Green in LARF Magazine and when publicizing Larf.