Creative writing on the fly

Hey Dave – I travel a lot, which I often use as an excuse. But I will confess that my biggest hurdle is that it’s such a challenge to sit down and just be creative on the spot. Putting something on paper that is funny feels like a chore, although being funny on the fly is a breeze. Do you encounter that question a lot? – R.M.

Taking Notes!

Hey R.M. – Yeah, I do get that one a lot. But in a way, you’ve already answered your own question. You’ve creatively written out the solution and only need someone (in this case – me) to point it out for you. I could do that in just a few sentences, but that would make a very short FAQ and Answer for this week.

So instead, let me be creative for a moment…

I remember taking an advertising class in college. Everyone in the class knew when the final project – a creative advertising campaign – was due. But instead of working with the professor’s schedule, (come’on – it was college and homework wasn’t always on my schedule!), I waited until the night before to start the project.

Talk about having to be creative on the spot, that was the ultimate. I cleared my desk, cleared my head and sat staring at a blank computer screen most of the night. I came up with some nonsense that got me through the class, but it could’ve been a lot better if I had done it on the fly when I was truly feeling creative.

It’s tough to write when you have to. 

There are writers that can do it, and I’ve known a few in Hollywood. They’re called professional writers and get paid a lot of money for what they do. They can come up with a Tonight Show quality comedy set or a treatment for a sitcom episode almost on demand.

Working on new material

But notice I said a few. Most of the comedians and speakers I’ve worked with are better writers when they feel creative – not when they have to be creative.

There’s a great story in my book How To Be A Working Comic from a very well-known comedian about comedians taking laptops on the road to write new material. She did the same thing, but when she sat down in her hotel room at a scheduled time to write, the creative inspiration wasn’t there. That’s not how she writes. She lives – then writes about it. She closed the laptop, went out, and then wrote about it when she returned.

To use your term, she learned the best way for her to write was on the fly. So, to give your question a specific answer…

You’ve got it all wrong.

For example, when you travel a lot, you should be getting material by the plane load (or carload – whatever). Writers, whether comedians or speakers, carry a notebook or audio recorder at all times. When they feel inspired (creative) that’s when they write. It could be an experience, a thought, an overheard conversation, opinion from a magazine article, an observation – whatever. It could be an entire bit, a premise, or just a couple words.

Then later you would go over these notes. Do they still inspire you to write more about a certain topic? Can you combine some of these various ideas to make an outline for a story or comedy bit?

But even then, you’re not finished.

Creative writing, whether it’s for a comedy routine or a humorous presentation, can be an ongoing process. If you have a good idea, continue making notes about it when you feel inspired. You can add details, descriptions, punch lines or whatever whenever the ideas hit you. And the best part is that your material can be filled with truth and/or lies. It doesn’t matter.

It’s called creative license.

An expert example of this is in my book How To Be A Working Corporate Comedian. I’m not trying to make another sale (well… okay, maybe a little, but I took an advertising class in college and sometimes can’t help it). The advice comes from the legendary comedian George Carlin who practiced this method using notebooks, audio recorders and computer files. It’s truly genius stuff and as he told me during our conversation (which I recorded because I always carry an audio recorder and notebook):

“The material would eventually write itself.”

You can find it in the chapter called The Best Comedy Writing Advice Ever. And believe me, I wasn’t using creative license when I named it that.

Okay, so maybe I’m more long-winded than creative with this answer, but I’m sharing advice with you that works. You could be like legendary songwriter Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys who once put his piano in a sandbox (in his living room) so he would be inspired to write songs about surfer girls and dudes.

Or you can just go out and live it.

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So, to point out the answer you already had in your question:

If sitting down and trying to put something on paper that is funny feels like a chore, then do it when you’re being funny on the fly. Take notes as you’re living it and write about it later. If it worked for Carlin and countless other creative writers, it could work for you.

Thanks for reading – and keep laughing!

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Say Something Funny on Demand

Hi Dave – I want to ask you if you had any advice for when you tell someone you’re a comedian and the first thing they say is “tell me a joke” or “say something funny.” I think it’s a little rude of them. Also, since my sense of humor is about storytelling, they seem disappointed that I just don’t tell them a joke. Is there anything polite I can say when people say things like that to me? Thanks – K

The joke’s on you!

Hey K – First of all, thanks for driving this week’s FAQ into Audience Participation Land. I’ll have something to say about this (as usual) below, but the best answers will come from working or aspiring comics who’ve had to deal with this.

So…? This is where I’m throwing it out to everyone reading this. Have YOU been asked, “Tell me a joke” or “Say something funny” after someone found out you’re a comedian?

* You can use the contact link above or my email is at the end of this article. Let’s hear what you’ll say when someone demands you, “Tell me a joke.”

As anyone who has been around the entertainment industry will tell you, this is not a new question or dilemma. It’s been a potential headache for performers whenever word gets out about what they do for a living. An example of dealing with this from a Hollywood point of view is a classic scene in the film Lovin’ You with Elvis Presley (humor me, I’m a classic rocker). A local greaser bullies him to sing a song. When he finishes, Elvis (“Sideburns”) asks what this guy does for a living – and tells him to return the favor, “Cuz I usually get paid for singing.”

You can see how it turns out at this YouTube LINK. Fast forward to about 4:55 into the clip – then duck & cover.

What do you do?

“Tell me a joke” has also been the topic of more than a few comedy rants for probably longer than any of us has been around. I can’t remember who was on stage the first time I realized comedians dealt with this on a regular basis, but I’m pretty sure it was at the NYC Improv. And as a cheesy lounge singer in a cheesy lounge might introduce the bit:

“It went a little something like this…”

Comedian: This guy says, “If you’re a comedian, then tell me a joke.” So, I tell him a joke. Then I ask what he does. He says he’s a chef. So, I say, “Okay, now you show me what you do. Make me dinner.”

In an Elvis movie, that would lead to a fight. In a fantasy movie, it could lead to the guy fixing the comic’s dinner. In real life – the guy asking the question would probably think the comic was trying to be funny and laugh it off (with a bit of deserved embarrassment, I hope).

You can also say you get paid for your work. Making audiences laugh is your job and you don’t work for free. If they want to cough up the bucks, you’ll tell them a joke.


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My way of thinking – and this is probably from hanging around too many comedians for too many years – would lean toward the insult comic response. I can crack up just thinking of how Dave Chappelle, Jeffrey Ross, Chris Rock… or even some classics like Joan Rivers or Don Rickles would answer such a question.

I’d take a seat and enjoy the free show.

But you mentioned being polite about it. That’s also clear when you said that you tell stories and your style of comedy – storytelling, rather than jokes – may disappoint them. So, in your case… uh… well, I guess you should be polite.

I wouldn’t exactly want a seat to enjoy that type of free show, but since you’ve asked…

Thank them for their interest in your career and change the direction of the conversation. Most people like to talk about themselves, so go ahead and put the focus on them. Find out what they’re interested in and what line of work they’re in. And… uh… well, then (sorry for this, but I can’t help myself) …

Ask them to do it for you – FOR FREE!

“You’re a chef? Then make me dinner.”

Have a better comeback? You can let me know…

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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