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Exercises

Write the Joke; Not the Joke Concept [43101]

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This exercise is tied in with the instructional article Write the Joke; Not the Joke Concept. In that piece we tried to show the difference between the joke concept and the joke. (If you haven’t read the instructional article, you might go back and read it now in order to better understand this exercise.

We claimed there that the concept had within it the potential for several solid jokes. This practice session offers a chance to sharpen your skills in converting a joke concept into powerful jokes.

Below are listed 10 joke concepts. What we suggest is that you select maybe one or two of these each day, and find the gags that are embedded in that idea or an idea closely related to it. That will give you one or two weeks of practice sessions. However, when you exhaust the concepts we’ve listed, you can come up with some of your own and follow the same process.

Here are the concepts:

I’m an old man. Anything you’ve ever heard of . . . I’m older than it.
My wife is such a bad driver, when you see her coming, it’s best to go indoors.
They say all babies are cute and irresistible. I wasn’t.
I have the kind of body that everyone laughs at.
I know I have to go on a diet. My talking scale told me so.
Even when I say something correct, My Mother-in-Law corrects me.
My Mother-in-Law has the personality of a pissed off boa constrictor.
Being my wife is my wife’s hobby. Shopping is her occupation.
If I see a parking place, I take it. Who knows, someday I may have a car.
Traffic is so congested in my town, all the major roads have a waiting list.
Take them in any order you wish. And do as many jokes based on the concept as you can. We recommend getting a half-dozen gags for each.

Just as a reminder and an illustration, take a look at this joke concept and the jokes it might have generated:

Concept: When I was a kid, I went to a tough school.

The Jokes:

I went to a tough school. The kids in our school would steal lunch money from the teachers.
When we had fire drills, we used real fire.
Everyone was scared. The Principal only came out of his office on Groundhog’s Day.
When they called my Mother to school, she’d always arranged to meet them half-way.
We didn’t have a “Honor List.” Getting your picture on a Wanted Poster was reward enough.
It was good training, though. When I finally did get accepted into college, I majored in “detention.”
One kid correctly answered the question “Who killed Abraham Lincoln?” The rest of the class beat him up for being a “stoolie.”

That’s the idea. Have fun with the exercise and see if it doesn’t sharpen your skills at turning out more and better gags.

And Go [43102]

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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.

Getting Back Into Shape [43104]

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Exercising is tough. Once you break from your routine, it’s hard to get back into it. And the longer you wait the harder it gets. Plus, there’s the knowledge that when you do start back up, it’s going to be painful. Unfortunately, the same applies to comedy writing as well.

That’s the predicament many of us find ourselves in right now. We’ve taken some time off, unwilling, but now are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel and realize we need to get back to work. If you had been away from the gym for three months, you wouldn’t just start back up where you left off. Your muscles aren’t ready for that. If you haven’t been writing, your comedy writing muscles aren’t ready, either.

So let’s start slowly and begin warming up.

Day #1 – Pick a topic that you want to write about. It can be a current event or something that you want to add to your routine. Now write a joke on that subject. That’s it, just one.

Day #2 – Continuing with your topic from yesterday, now write 2 jokes.

Day #3 – Did you guess it? Today you are to write 4 jokes.

Day #4 – Yep, today it is 8 jokes…same topic…so you may need to work a little harder. Those comedy muscles may begin aching a bit.

Day #5 – Did you guess 16 jokes for today? If so, you are wrong. Today’s assignment is to take the 15 jokes you wrote and look them over. Are they good? Do you like them? Mark the ones you want to keep and ditch those that don’t thrill you. Rewrite any that you feel merit the extra attention.

Day #6 – Write enough jokes to bring your batch up to 15. If you threw out three, write 3 new ones. If you threw out all 15, you’re going to have a long day. It will be worth the payoff because, you now have a nice bit of material.

Day #7 – We’re going to start again. Pick a new topic if you like or continue on with the one you had. If you feel ready jump back in and write to your daily quota…whatever number that is. If you still feel rusty, do this exercise again.

Keep it going. Writing regularly is vital to good comedy writing.

Vision Boards

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Vision boards were popular when I was in high school. They seemed to disappear but are now making a comeback. I forgot how much I enjoyed making them and how they helped me to focus on a goal or task.

So what is a vision board? It’s a visualization tool that uses pictures and words in a collage form to represent your dreams and goals.

A few years ago, when I was struggling with an issue, a friend suggested I make one. The rules were simple, just collect pictures, words, phrases, and trinkets that drew my attention. Then paste them on a board (mine was just a piece of construction paper) in whatever pattern felt right to me. The end result was a little surprising. When I started, I thought it would be a hodgepodge of pictures and words. That’s what I gravitated towards in life and I assumed it would carry over into my vision board. I ended up with a very structured, organized, simple piece of art. The final piece had my goals at the top and a very defined stairway leading to them. It made me realize that in order to achieve my desires I had to declutter my life and focus on my goals.

The ironic part is that my friend did her own vision board. She is a very tailored, organized person and her board ended up being a scattered mess—kind of what I thought mine would be, to be honest. She had so much crammed on her board that she even had pictures hanging over the edge. It reminded her that she needed to break loose every once in a wild and go nuts.

Neither one of us ended up with what we anticipated. My friend loved her wackadoodle piece of art and I loved my structured, refined end product. In fact, I still have it. When I see it in my office, it reminds me of what I need to do to accomplish my goals.

Whenever I’m facing a new challenge or struggle, I fall back on this exercise. It is easy to do, provides insight into the situation, and can be a permanent reminder for the future.

If you have a goal or project that you are working towards or facing internal turmoil, I recommend doing your own vision board. The great thing about these devices is that there are no rules. There are no requirements. And there is no right or wrong addition to the piece.

The only thing you need to do is decide to do one. Your board can be any size. The one I made in the story above was only 8×11. I have one in progress now that is a full-size poster board. Your vision board doesn’t even have to be physical. You can have one on your computer if that’s more to your liking. Your board can also be fluid. You can use a bulletin board and change it as you deem necessary or as your goals progress.

You decide what is added to your board and what isn’t. Although, I said there are no rules, I would like to add one. Okay, maybe it’s not a rule but a suggestion. Keep your board positive. The idea behind this exercise is to motivate you. It’s not a punishment or a way to degrade yourself. The idea is for the board to inspire you so leave out all the negativity and naysayers.

Your board can consist of all pictures, or all words, or a combination of the two. On the one I have going now, I’ve included trinkets that were given to me. They remind me of the generosity of the person who gave them to me and that’s something I want to hold on to.

The only timetable for completion is one that you put on it. You can keep your board going indefinitely or you can set a firm deadline. The one I have in progress is for a project I’m working on now. It’s an ongoing board and I add to it as new developments occur. I knew this endeavor would be tough and would have its setbacks, so I started the board to remind me of the positives. It lifts my spirits when I need that and is a reminder to get to work because sometimes I need that too.

Vision boards are designed to inspire you. You don’t have to share them with anyone else but can do so if you like. Again, no rules. You also don’t have to keep your boards. I know some people who prefer to destroy them once they have achieved the goal. It’s cathartic for them. Whatever works for you is okay.

If you have a goal or challenge that is eating at you, you may want to try this exercise. Start your own vision board. Keep an open mind and just have fun with it.

Stretch

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Comedy writing is often compared to physical exercise. Both require endurance, stamina, and often, working through the pain. Another similarity with both is that the more you do it and push yourself the easier it becomes.

When you start running, running one mile is agonizing but if you stick with it, soon that same mile is a breeze.

So that’s what this exercise is designed to do…help you push yourself a little further.

As you know if you’ve been reading RT and/or following us, we advocate having a daily quota and sticking to it. So now what we want you to do is to take that number—whatever it is—and double it.

If your quota is writing 10 jokes a day, we now want you to write 20. BUT…and it’s a big but…only for 1 week.

For the next 6 days…yes, you deserve one day off for rest…we want you to push yourself and do double your daily allotment.

There are a few reasons for this. One it stretches your comedy writing muscle. It may seem hard at first but by the end of the week you may find the challenge gets a bit easier. You also may find that to hit your daily mark you’re actually writing more unique and better material.

Also doing it for only one week is doable. There is an ending point so it doesn’t seem as daunting.

When you go back to your regular writing schedule you may find that it’s easier. You’re not struggling as much. You may even decide to up your quota.

There is also a good chance that you will surprise yourself and it’s not as difficult as you thought. Sometimes we just don’t know what we are capable of until we do it. And you may even want to keep it going.

So that’s this exercise…For 1 week, double your daily writing quota.

And, as usual, have fun!

Introduce Yourself

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We borrowed this exercise from Patricia Fripp. Patricia is an award-winning speaker and speech coach. Recently she posted this challenge:

“How do you introduce yourself? I challenge you to craft a one-sentence description of yourself and your presentation that is difficult to forget.”

Whether you are a stand-up or a writer, we encourage you to tackle this assignment.

It is a great exercise for a number of reasons.

One, at one point or another you are going to be asked to provide a bio of yourself. It can be one of the hardest things to write, so having a prewritten one is a time saver.

Two, it forces you to focus in on what you want to be known as. Often, we wear many hats. We have our day jobs and our dream job. When we are asked to describe ourselves, the answer comes out wishy-washy, confusing, or just downright wrong. “I’m an architect but I also do comedy…oh yeah and I write, too.”   By doing this exercise, you can come up with a crisp, clear intro that describes you and your work. If needed, do one for each of your different jobs. Then you’re ready for each and every situation.

Three, it gives you some control over how you want to be perceived. Leaving your introduction to someone else can be precarious. You never know what they will focus on. Recently a writer was interviewed. The interviewer relied on an article he read to introduce the writer. He honed in on one story and used that to base the introduction. The only problem, it was a story about another writer.

Fourth, it’s a way to set yourself apart. “Put your hands together for our next performer, Joe Shmoo” is an intro we’ve all heard numerous times. It’s not unique, it’s not descriptive, and it is pretty bland. Doing this exercise doesn’t guarantee that you won’t have that kind of intro but it helps to reduce the chances. So be prepared and prewrite your introduction that you can provide as needed.

Fifth, it serves as a reminder of what your comedy goal. A well thought out and descriptive sentence should sum up what you are aiming for in comedy. Use it as a reminder of what you are working towards.

We recommend that you accept this challenge from Patricia and come up with your own solid introduction. Be creative, honest, concise, and of course, have fun with it.

 

Join us in following Patricia Fripp on Twitter @pfripp.

Don’t Think

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Here’s a little exercise that doesn’t take much time or effort but can provide tremendous insight.

So here it is:

Take a piece of paper and a pen…easy, peasy, right? Now without any thought write down three things you would like to write.
That’s it. The trick is to not think about. There are no right or wrong answers. Whatever pops into your head when given that question, put down on paper.

It can be the great American novel. Or a better closing for a bit in your act. Maybe a sitcom or even a biography on one of your favorite performers.

Often we tell ourselves what we should be working on. It may be because of money, or prestige, or just because others tell us we should be doing it. Then we push aside the projects we really want to tackle.

This little exercise helps to push those items back to the front. Seeing the list makes you aware of them. Of course, we still have to make a living but now when you find yourself with a little free time, you can work on these — your true desires.

This is also a good exercise to do when you find yourself burned out or disillusioned with the business. Seeing what you really want to do, may inspire you.

Says Who? [43100]

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When it comes to sitcom writing, there are people who believe that the more defined the cast of characters, the easier the writing. I disagree. My feeling is that the stronger, more established the characters are, the harder the writing.

There are shows made up of brilliant, well-defined characters. Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier, The Dick Van Dyke Show, to name a few. Then there are shows where the different castmates tend to blend together. The quality of these shows is usually not as good. The writing isn’t as strong, the characters are a bit routine, and the overall show is just so-so.

The one thing these lackluster shows have going for them, though, is that they are easier to write. I’ll explain my point. If you are writing a show like Raymond, it’s not enough to just generate a funny line. You have to generate a funny line that fits the character you are writing for at the moment. The line has to be in the right voice. A line that works for Robert, wouldn’t work for Marie, or Frank. If you have a funny response that works brilliantly for Ray, you can’t just assign it to Debra. It needs to be reworked to fit her tone and personality. Your task is not only to write a great line, but to make it fit the character delivering it.

That’s not the case in a show that doesn’t rely on strong characters. You can take a funny line and give it to almost any other person on the show. It doesn’t matter who says it because the audience doesn’t really know each character. So, if one character needs a response you can take a line from another character without making too many changes.

So how do you learn to write for characters. As with most writing, it takes practice. For this exercise let’s use a show that had four very distinct characters: Golden Girls. Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia are the cast of characters and characters they were. Each one was different and unique. A line delivered by Sophia wouldn’t work for Rose.

Listed below are a few simple questions. Ones you may hear in your everyday life. Your assignment is to choose one question and provide a response from each one of the four characters – Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia.

Questions:

How was your day?
Did it rain last night?
Can I pick you up anything at the store?
What’s for dinner?
Do these jeans make my butt look big?
Do it again, using a different question. Come up with some of your own. Then go back and do it using characters from a different show.

Have fun with this exercise.

Just One

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It will come as no to surprise that here at ROUND TABLE we are very goal oriented. We go in for all the goal features – writing them down, posting notes, having reminders, etc. There is no goal too big or too far-fetched.

Sometimes we get so busy developing our goals that we forget to actually do anything to achieve them. That’s why for this exercise, though we are recommending something different:

Pick One Goal

That’s it. Just one. It can be something you’ve been meaning to try. It can be a brand-new idea or something you’ve been putting off. Or just something that got pushed to a back burner.

Take this one goal and make it your focus. Put it front and center. When you have time, work on it. Give it the dedication and devotion it needs to bring it to a conclusion. Whatever this goal is, give it your priority until it is complete.

Then, pick another and do the same thing. Let’s work our way through 2022 one completed goal at a time.

Last Night I Dreamt

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Just for fun, here is a quick little exercise courtesy of Bob Hope’s Vaudeville days. It’s a bit he did and we think we can improve it. Here’s the line:

“I had a terrible night last night. I dreamt all night that I was eating Life Savers. I woke up this morning and my pajama buttons were gone.”

Or

“I dreamt I was eating a marshmallow. When I woke up this morning, my pillow was missing.”

That’s the idea. Try and come up with some additional zingers that fit into this form and can keep this bit going. Have fun with it and get a bit crazy.

Write a Sitcom that’s already been Written [43103]

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Wait a minute.  Let’s read that headline again – WRITE A SITCOM THAT’S ALREADY BEEN WRITTEN.  Isn’t that plagiarism?  Isn’t that unethical?  Illegal?

            How many times have you seen a western where the young gunfighter wants to challenge the legendary gunfighter?  You’ve seen variations of it a few times, right?  Now did you ever see the movie, The Hustler?  Wasn’t that about the young pool player who wanted to challenge the legendary Minnesota Fats?

            Surely you’ve heard the story of Faust, who sold his soul to the devil.  Have you seen the musical play or the movie, Damn Yankees?  It’s about a Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil so he can have one season as a great baseball play who will help the Senators beat those “Damn Yankees” and win the World Series.

            Jerry Lewis made a movie called The Nutty Professor.  It’s based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  I’ll bet Robert Louis Stevenson never thought he’d be providing material for Jerry Lewis.  Dean, maybe; but not Jerry.

            Why not get some practice in sitcom writing by going through the classics and coming up with a great story line that can be converted to a script for one of your favorite shows.

            It’s a great start because you’ve got, as you’ve heard so often, a beginning, a middle, and an end.  You’ve got a basic plot.  Now convert it to the characters who populate your show.

            How about the story of Androcles and the Lion where Androcles removes a thorn from the lion’s paw and the lion later saves Androcles’s life.  Try turning that into a premise for The Drew Carey Show or Becker.

            Shaw’s Pygmalion was turned into the musical My Fair Lady.  Maybe you can turn it into an episode for Friends.

            Even Fairy Tales can make interesting starting points for your writing.  Jack and the Beanstalk might be translated into a story that could be appropriate for Frasier

            And you don’t even have to go back as far as the classics or Aesop’s Fables.  You can borrow from modern scripts.  The story of the shootout at the O.K. Corral has been done several times by Hollywood, but it might make an interesting premise for a Friends script too.

            So just for the practice of writing a sitcom script that’s already plotted, do some research.  Find an interesting story that’s already been done somewhere.  Now suit that story to the characters you want to write about – the people who populate your favorite sitcom.

            Write an entire script based on that plot line. It can be funny.  Strangely enough, it can be original, too.  If it’s well written, chances are that no one will recognize the original source.

            In any event, it can be practice in writing a sitcom and in plotting them creatively.

            Have fun writing something that’s already been written.