Most writers like everything to be perfect when they sit down to write. They want the printer full of pristine paper, the mug filled with piping hot coffee, and everything on our desk perfectly aligned. Now, we are prepared to write.
Unfortunately, comedy writing isn’t always like that. We have to write in awkward situations, with people all around us, and often on topics we don’t care to write about. That’s the true life of a comedy scribe.
I learned this lesson when I was a writer on Bob Hope’s 90th Birthday Special. We were filming segments in studio when a situation came up. The other writers had gone to do something else and I was the only one there so the assignment fell on me. I sat down at one of the tables and began working away. I felt someone looking over my shoulder. I turned around to find Tom Selleck standing right behind me watching everything I did. I was discombobulated wreck, but I had to complete the work.
Although we strive for the ideal situations, it’s not always feasible. The more experience you have writing outside your norm, the easier it gets. And that’s what this exercise does—helps to develop the skills you need to write under pressure.
To do this assignment, I want you to pick a time of day—a half hour. It can be 2 in the afternoon or even 2 in the morning. Your choice. This is now your writing time. Now for at least the two weeks, at your designated time, you’ll need to do the following:
Open up a news app on your phone or computer (or a newspaper, if you want to go old school). The first item you see, is your topic. It can be politics, entertainment, sports, business, whatever. Now set the timer on your phone (or a kitchen timer, if you want to go old school) for 30 minutes.
Now write. Don’t worry about the quality of the work or the quantity for that matter. Just write. Write as much as you can.
When the timer is done, so are you. Stop your writing and set aside your work. Leave it alone for a couple of hours or even overnight if you like. Once some time has gone by, review your work. What lines would you keep? Are there lines you can tweak and make workable? Do you need to toss some of the lines?
Be sure to let some time elapse before taking on this step. It gives your mind a break and allows you to view your work with fresh eyes.
Do this exercise daily for two weeks. When you start it will take forever for that timer to ding. The jokes you write will be few and far between. As you get towards the end of the two weeks, you’ll notice that that half hour flies by, the jokes come easier, and are better. If you keep it going, you’ll continue to see improvement. Then you can extend the time and focus on topics of your choosing.
Just as when you exercise your body, you have to build up to where you want to be. To train for a 26-mile marathon, you start by training in increments. You run a mile, then two, then ten and so on. The same applies to your comedy writing. Start small and then continue to develop.