What Stand-Up Comedy Can Teach You About Storytelling

Image Credit: The Comics Comic

I love stand-up comedy; it's my go-to when I'm trying to Netflix and chill but don't know what to watch (I'm sure you're familiar: half an hour of scrolling, reading descriptions, watching trailers, only to end up re-watching something you already know is good.)

I love stand-up because (duh) laughing is fun!

But as a writer, I love stand-up because of how much it can teach about storytelling.

A good comedian has a storyline with a well-defined structure, coupled with delivery and timing.

A bad comedian...does not.

The Best Comedians Tell Stories

The best comedians are not the ones who tell jokes, but the ones who tell stories in a funny way; stories that tie their whole set together.

Sure they go off on funny tangents; laughter is after all, the point.

But they always come back to where they started. If they've done it well, you'll laugh really hard when at the end of their set, they reference something they said during the opening.

Example from one of my favourite comedians: Jim Jeffries - Intolerant

Image Credit: Jim Jeffries

His whole set is based on a single event; one night when he went out for dinner with a germaphobic girl, and the fact that he's lactose intolerant. Every joke belongs to that story or is a tangent that he masterfully ties back to one of those two things: his date with that girl or his lactose intolerance.

The comedians who don't tell stories are the equivalent of a grade-school kid telling knock-knock jokes at recess, only instead of talking about fruit ("Orange you glad I didn't say banana?") they tell dick-jokes.

There's no rhyme or reason, no flow, no theme, no story. Just someone on stage with a mic, telling a bunch of (more often than not rude) jokes.

The Best Comedians Pick Universal Themes

A great comedian will choose subjects that relate to the experience of being human, versus focusing on a particular niche.

Example from one of my favourite comedians: Jeff Foxworthy - You Might Be a Redneck If

Image Credit: Today

Now maybe you think that, because you're not a redneck, you can't relate to his jokes, but let me show you why that's not true.

A line from one of his most famous shticks is "You might be a redneck if you see a sign that says "say no to crack" and it reminds you pull your pants up."

That's universally relatable because you're either a redneck who's had to pull your pants up, or you're someone who's seen a redneck's bum-crack. And anyone who's watched television or driven by a billboard in the last 30 years has seen public service announcements of the anti-drug variety (Just Say No, etc.)

In one sentence, Foxworthy hit three demographics - rednecks, anyone who's seen (and cringed) at bum-cracks, anyone who's seen anti-drug ads.

The more people who can relate to your material, the more laughs you'll get.

The comedians who don't pick universal themes are telling jokes within a highly-limited context; they're speaking to a demographic that has a particular background, and everyone else is left out.

The Best Comedians Make It Personal

A great comedian is one who tells stories in a funny way; that's not be confused with telling funny stories.

COMEDY = Tragedy + Time.

Sometimes, the stories themselves are funny. But sometimes they're actually heartbreaking stories with humour interjected. On their own the stories would be too hard to hear, but with humour, they can be well received.

It takes a masterful storyteller to be able to do that.

Example from one of my favourite comedians: Daniel Sloss, in his Netflix special Dark, talks about the death of his sister who had cerebral palsy. See? I know that doesn't sound even remotely funny, but Sloss finds a way to make it hilarious.

Image Credit: Daniel Sloss

The worst comedians focus entirely on observational humour (Isn't it funny how...? Have you ever noticed that...?) and never make it personal, never share any vulnerabilities on stage. Observational humour - generally speaking - focuses on making fun of people.

So if you as a comedian are on stage making fun of other people and you never make fun of yourself, you're not funny, you're just mean.

If you don't tell me why you're a fallible human - if you put yourself above me - I cannot relate to you and therefore am not interested in hearing what you have to say.

The Best Comedians Only Swear To Make a Point

The best comedians swear to add emphasis; as a way to highlight something noteworthy. Sometimes a single swear-word is the punchline, and in that case it can be hilarious.

An intelligent, well-told story, sprinkled with a few swears can be fantastic to listen to. (See: Hannah Gadsby's Netflix special, Douglas for references to "Dr. Dick-Biscuit.")

But a comedian who uses swears gratuitously causes the words to lose their capacity to provide emphasis. It's also kind of a lazy cop-out, because if you as a comedian are relying solely on swears, you either weren't willing (or capable) of producing truly funny material and are hoping your vulgarity will do the heavy-lifting for you.

If you want to become a better storyteller, watching good stand-up can be just the ticket. 

Personally, I've watched some of my favourite stand-up specials at least half-a-dozen times, and I know it's starting to rub off on me because I'm finding myself imitating their style of delivery in my writing. The structure of this particular blog post was inspired by Hannah Gadsby's Netflix special, Douglas.

Image Credit: Chortle

Watching your favourite comedians not simply to be entertained by them, but with the intention of noticing what you like about their sets, observing what works via the audiences' reactions, and then imitating it in your own storytelling (whether in your writing or just chatting at a cocktail party) can be some of the best learning you can get for free.

Our teachers are everywhere, and great comedians have a lot to teach about the art of storytelling.

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