Hiring a comedy writer

Hello Dave – Here’s a question: You advise us to get writing or keep writing. How do you feel about hiring a pro writer? And how would I go about it? I am a writer and I’d have to admit demand for my services has crashed in recent years. Although I’m writing for a major TV ventriloquist and for an instantly recognizable female comic, I’d struggle if I had to make a living. And I write for my comedian son, but that pays about as well as you’d think.

Gag for you: There’s an old tradition in show business, but I prefer girls. Your pal – CA

Hey CA – I see three parts in your question:

  1. Hiring someone to write for you.
  2. Being hired as a comedy writer.
  3. Trying to sell me a gag.

Okay, the third one is my effort at being funny. I’ll use it (just did!) and follow another old showbiz tradition by promising that a check is in the mail – ha!

Comedy act for hire

Used joke salesman

1. Hiring someone to write for you – depends on your (comic or speaker or performer) career level. If you’re just starting out it doesn’t make any sense – to me anyway – to hire someone else to write your material. What’s the point? If you want to memorize another writer’s script and repeat it – become an actor.  If you want to be a comedian or a speaker – then there has to be something YOU want to say.

It’s all about sharing YOUR humor, YOUR thoughts, YOUR ideas, YOUR observations, or anything else YOU want to tell an audience.

To me (again) it’s a creative art AND a talent. That should be the stimulus to get into this crazy biz. Otherwise get a head shot, memorize someone else’s monologue and start auditioning for acting gigs.

Here’s a story…

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 Years ago I had a guy take my comedy workshop.  The first day everyone takes a turn on stage to talk about their ideas for a comedy act. When it was his turn, he did an “act.” Five minutes of stand-up comedy. But it didn’t seem real – if that makes sense. It was just telling jokes that really didn’t pertain to who he was or what could possibly be going on in his life that would even interest him.

Let me explain what I mean…

Rodney-Dangerfield

One of the best!

I love funny jokes and great joke-tellers. I’ve also been fortunate to work with a few of the best joke-sters. For instance, Rodney Dangerfield made regular guest appearances when I was at both the NYC and LA Improv comedy clubs. He would tell jokes – of course – but they fit who he was:

  • No respect
  • Nervous
  • Underdog
  • … well, Rodney!

I get no respect. My wife said she wanted to make love in the backseat of our car. But she wanted me to drive!

Get it? I can think of dozens of great joke-tellers that I used to watch on TV when I was a kid. What made them great was that their jokes fit their personalities. Think Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Redd Foxx, Phyllis Diller, Jack E. Leonard (one of my personal favorites) and Jackie Mason if you need a history lesson.

Their jokes worked because they fit the comedian’s on stage personality.

Okay – back to the guy in my workshop. He did his comedy act – but nothing fit who he was. It was just some guy telling jokes. Plus I’d heard a couple of them before – which is never good when you’re striving to stand-out in a creative business.

Why do you ask?

Why do you ask?

When he finished I asked who had written his material. He swore he did. When I said some of it sounded familiar and quizzed him more about his writing techniques, he finally admitted he got the jokes from a writer he found online – and had paid 50 bucks for them. I told him there were undoubtedly a number of other aspiring comics who had also paid 50 bucks for the same jokes.

He really wanted to be a comedian. The problem was that he really only wanted to be a famous comedian and was willing to pay for a shortcut.

That’s not how it works.

Since he had never actually done stand-up anywhere, he had no stage experience. He hadn’t even given himself the opportunity to find out who he was on stage.

Comics call that your comedy voice. To find it – it takes on stage experience. Lots of it – which also takes time. And since he hadn’t discovered his yet, how could he expect to find anyone who could write material for him? That writer would have no idea – except to peddle him jokes almost anyone else could do.

I told the guy in my workshop he had to start writing. That’s the first step – and the key to becoming a comedian or speaker – or even a writer for someone else.  There are plenty of styles such as joke-telling or story-telling, along with techniques, structures and different creative ways creative people write.  He needed to find out what ways worked best for him – and what subjects interested him enough to write about.

Holy cow - I think he's gonna make it!!

Holy cow – I think he’s gonna make it!!

The next week he came in with the basis of an original comedy bit. I remember it was about playing in a pick-up softball game when he was a little too old and a little too out of shape compared to the guys on the other team. It was based on something that really happened to him – and filled with his personal thoughts, opinions and descriptions of events.

Oh yeah – and it was funny. AND it was a bit only HE could have written.

He realized he had wasted 50 bucks on words that didn’t mean anything to him. And he had replaced it with something he couldn’t wait to share with an audience.

So the point is – why would anyone want to get into a creative business without being creative?

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* Important announcement: I’m not knocking actors (remember what I said above about memorizing someone else’s script). No way. That is also a very creative and demanding craft. I know – cuz I tried it. I respect creativity in all forms and efforts. I’m just focusing today on the comedy and speaking biz.

That wasn’t as eloquently put as a Shakespearean monologue, but I hope you catch my drift.

And to complete this drift, it’s not a smart idea to hire someone to write for you – until you both know who they will be writing for. Your comedy voice.

When you get to be Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman – or anyone else that burns up material at a breakneck speed – then you can hire writers. Good writers already know who these personalities are and their style of humor. Good writers can write a Jay Leno joke. But writing for someone just starting out – well… they’re just writing words.

Okay all this writing has proven once again how long-winded I can be. We’ll go on to #2 - getting hired as a comedy writer – next week.

As for #3 – the check’s in the mail.

Stay tuned…

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about Summer 2014 comedy workshops at the Chicago (starts June 7) and Cleveland Improv (starts July 12) Comedy Clubs, and private coaching by Skype or phone visit www.TheComedyBook.com

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One Response to “Hiring a comedy writer”

  1. Meta Brown Says:

    Hey CA, maybe you could get more business as a writer.

    A former employer of mine introduced comedy into user conventions with little skits on the conference topic. The first few years, they were written by the marketing staff and performed by the executives. In other words, they were terrible. And doing bad comedy does not enhance an executive’s reputation.

    Then, they got smart and hired a professional corporate comedy team (writers and actors). Their material was right on point for the marketing message. It wasn’t leave them rolling in the aisles funny, but it was funnier than the stuff our marketing team wrote. And the audience was there for a tech convention; they were expecting headline tech talent, not headline comedy talent.

    There are thousands and thousands of similar conferences in the US every year.

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