Writing a Stand Up Routine
Writing a stand up routine is a daunting prospect. You’ve seen it on TV and the comics make it look easy (providing they’re not getting cancelled). But you’re sitting there with a blank page, pencil or if you’re lucky a pen and a head full of as many ideas as a goldfish that's already been fed. Where do you start and once you get going how do you make your routine as tight as…insert your own punchline you’re the one that’s meant to be writing the jokes.
A stand up routine is something that should always be evolving. Even jokes that have been done 50 times still have room to be improved. But where do you start before getting to this point? If you’re reading this then the answer is here but soon you’ll be on your own like a bird fleeing the nest but hopefully without the bit where you get eaten by a bigger bird (a dick on the open mic comedy scene).
I went from having a few ideas to writing my first set through to getting paid to perform. From my experience I’ve noted down a few tips that’ll help you go from wanting to do stand up to getting a slick routine onto paper and then on the stage (which is more likely to be a pub floor to start with). Here’s a guide to writing a stand up routine and if you still need some help I offer 1:1 advice and bespoke writing to get you started.
Writing a routine can be as daunting as when I invited this man on stage
Step 1 - Write Stuff
Seems obvious doesn’t it but you need to get some stuff written before you can even start thinking of crafting a routine. The best thing to do is write as much as you can and worry about trimming it later. Start with the obvious stuff about you. Where are you from? What do you do for work? What makes you tick? What makes you want to smash the place up? You should get enough out of these questions to get started. Even if you’re not coming up with jokes at this point at least you’ve got something to go on. Eventually the jokes will come and if they don’t then I’ve written a guide on how to pretty much make a joke out of anything.
If you’re still stuck then you can always go into the past. What’s a funny story you’ve told to people in the pub that always gets a laugh? What weird thing happened to you when you were a kid that in hindsight is really funny now? Get it all down on paper then work out the beats on the story of a topic. This means trimming down anything that isn’t needed and picking out the punchlines that're going to make your audience laugh. If you don’t have enough of these ‘beats’ then it’s time to write a bit more and maybe use some of those techniques I mention in my other guide.
A traditional comedy backdrop or your mind when you have an hour until showtime. You decide.
Step 2 - Tidy Up
This brings us on to one of the most crucial skills of comedy writing - being brutal. Take a big red pen and sack off anything that doesn’t need to be there. That weird joke that you like but no one else does, get rid of it. That meandering 5 minute story that ‘you had to be there for’, rip it out of your notebook now! The purposely offensive stuff you’ve written because you worship Ricky Gervais, burn it to keep you warm this winter. Unless it’s actually funny in which case try it out. This process of deleting material that doesn’t make the cut will keep you sharper and make your set funnier.
Other ways you can tidy up your material and routine is within jokes themselves. Have a look at the structure and ask yourself if there’s anything there that could be tighter. Is the joke too wordy and it doesn’t need to be? Could you swap some words out for something funnier? Some words are just funny. Stewart Lee writes about how the word wool is funny and who can deny it. Try saying it with a serious tone, ridiculous isn’t it. This is why the military never wear it, probably.
If your room looks like this then tidy it first before your material
Step 3 - Structure Your Routine
Once you have all your material trimmed down and tight you can get it into a routine. Although it might seem like pro acts are often going through a stream of consciousness which happens to be funny, this is not often the case. Even the most tangent strewn acts have a thread that's been put together in an order that works best and as a rule of thumb you want to do a quality content sandwich.
This works really well for a starting out 5 minute set and when you get to longer set times can be relaxed a little. The reason why this works so well is because getting the audience on side quickly is so important when starting out. It settles you and them which will give the confidence to do riskier material. When I say risky I mean stuff that isn’t necessarily dark but jokes that might have a looser structure or ones you’re not as confident in. A strong closer will mean you leave with the audience thinking nice things about you rather than reaching for the rotten fruit.
If you fancy getting really fancy then there are other little tricks you can do with your set structure which the audience might appreciate:
Narrative - Everyone loves a story. If you can write your set with some kind of throughline then it’ll give it a satisfying beginning, middle and end. BUT don’t stress too much about this. It’s better to have stronger material that has no link than to crowbar in weak stuff for the sake of it. Everyone stresses about awkward tangents but the audience doesn't care most of the time. Just take a pause and move on with the next subject.
Callbacks - A useful tool up any comedian's sleeve. For some reason we give credit to people who can remind us of stuff we’ve heard before, it's otherwise known as wit when recalled at the right time. So when your set is done have a look through and see if you can make links between bits. If you can and it seems natural then get the callback in BUT again avoid crowbarring this in, the audience will see it a mile off.
Crowdwork - This one needs to be dealt with like a rabid dog. Keep your distance but the thing has potential to be tamed if dealt with properly. If you’re new it's best to steer clear of stuff with the crowd. It's understandable that you want to build rapport but talking to the crowd is unpredictable, that's what makes it so much fun. So for the inexperienced I’d recommend avoiding unless you can do it in a really controlled way like having comebacks prepped ahead of time for obvious answers the crowd might give. Also, make sure that crowd work doesnt eat up too much of your time. If you've only got 5 minutes you don't want 4 of them to be spent controlling the drunk person in the front row you asked one question to.
If your structure looks like this then maybe you need a rewrite
So that’s a guide on writing a stand up routine and coming up with an act? Now you just need the balls to do it and an audience that'll listen to you. If you'd like more tips on how to start doing stand up then I've written another guide on that too. And If you’d still like some 1:1 guidance and help with writing then please get in touch and I can help you get started. Good luck!