Archive for the ‘creative writing’ Category

How long do you go until you hit with a bit?

February 25, 2018

Hi Dave – At what point do you drop a bit? Is there a magic number or amount of time that you spend refining before you shelf a joke or bit? Thanks! W.K.

How many times for a joke to work?

Hey W.K. – I enjoy this type of question because it will always start a debate. In fact, it’s already started one – with myself. In other words, I have two answers…

The first falls back on my dedicated opinion that comedians and humorous speakers are creative artists. Writing and performing original material is an ongoing process. You create something and continue to develop it and make improvements.

Will it ever be perfect? Not really… at least for a creative artist.

Here’s what I mean. A lot of comics I’ve worked with have had killer sets. They come off stage knowing they’ve nailed it – the crowd laughed all the way through and both the performer and audience feel pretty good. But then the performer (artist) can usually find some fault. It could be delivering one line a different way or even using another facial expression that could’ve taken everything over the top.

Could it be called a perfect set? Maybe for the audience, but a creative artist will probably always feel there’s some room for improvement. It’s the curse of being creative.


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Here’s another example…

I’ve heard too many interviews with recording artists who’ve had No. 1 songs, but can pick out moments (that listeners wouldn’t notice) where – if they could record the song again – they would do something different (in their mind, something better). The song may have hit No. 1, but they can see room for improvement.

Name that tune!

The artist doesn’t stop selling the music – because it’s still good. It’s just not perfect. They might continue to change and develop the songs in live performances, which is something that has driven fans of Bob Dylan crazy for decades. He never seems to play his songs the same as the recordings.

Okay – now back to your question about comedy bits.

Just because a bit doesn’t work, that’s no reason to think it will never work. If you think it has promise and you’re dedicated to working on it… well, there’s always the chance.

In that case you would keep working on a bit for as long as you believe it can be made funnier. It will never be perfect, because in the back of your creative mind you always think it can be better.

Okay – that was answer No. 1. Now I’ll share with you a different opinion that I’ve also heard from so many comedians that I can’t ignore it.

I also share this in my workshops as a method for putting together a comedy set that might someday get you hired. It doesn’t take away from your creativity, but it saves the audience – and also importantly the club booker – the agony of paying for performances where the comedian is continually working on improving the same not-yet-working bit.

By the way, that’s great for open-mics and what open-mics are for. But when customers are paying upwards of $20 for a ticket, a two-drink minimum and parking it makes good business sense to give them a show with proven material.

This different opinion also shares the name of another comedy writing theory:

The Rule of Three

The best known example of this in writing comedy concerns the actual structure of a joke or bit. For an explanation I saved you time and looked it up in Wikipedia. Here’s the scoop:

One of the best examples of the power of rule of three is in comedy, where it is also called a comic triple. Two is the smallest number of points needed to establish a pattern, and comedians exploit the way people’s minds perceive expected patterns to throw the audience off track (and make them laugh) with the third element. Example: “How do you get to my place? Go down to the corner, turn left, and get lost.”

Okay, okay… That sounds too much like textbook theory, which is something creative artists don’t worry about (at least too much). It also doesn’t pertain to your question, but it leads me to a different Rule of Three…


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I remember conversations about this at the NYC Improv. As I like to say, I don’t make this stuff up and this idea seemed to be a general opinion with a lot of the comics hanging around the bar waiting to go on stage.

The idea is to try a bit or a joke three times in front of three different audiences.

Three things can happen:

  1. The audience will laugh
  2. Some of the audience will laugh, but not all
  3. The audience won’t laugh

After doing this three times, you add up the score:

  1. If they laugh all three times, you keep the bit or joke in the act
  2. If you get some laughs, but not a lot – rework it and repeat the process
  3. If they don’t laugh, cut the bit from you act

Of course the first result is the goal, while the last one is pretty much a death sentence for the material.

The second should spark the creative mind to continue improving the bit or joke. But eventually you’ll need to make a decision. If it’s only going to be a mediocre piece of material no matter how many changes you make, file it for later or dump it for something new and funnier.

Who’s out?

If you want to work in this business, you need material that works in front of an audience.

The creative artist will always continue to develop new material. The working comic or humorous speaker will have material that has already been proven to work in front of an audience – and that’s what they will be paid to deliver. So if the bit or the joke is not working, then follow a similar Rule of Three from the game of baseball theory:

Three strikes and you’re out.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!


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

For details about upcoming comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubs, The Omaha Funny Bone; private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit

Copyright 2018 – North Shore Publishing.


Experienced advice on getting hired as a comedy writer

August 14, 2017

Some time ago I ran an article about getting hired as a comedy writer. I asked if anyone had experienced advice to share with us and my not so subtle request reached one of my favorite writers in the comedy biz.

I’m happy to pass along his words of experienced wisdom.

Marc Jaffe is a stand-up comedian with numerous TV appearances, author (Sleeping With Your Gynecologist), playwright (Side Effects May Include…) and with his wife Karen founded Shaking With Laughter, an organization that helps support the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research. In Fall 2017 Marc and Karen’s efforts will surpass the $1 million mark for funds raised.

Marc is also known to many of us as a writer for the legendary television sitcom Seinfeld.

So for some very worthwhile – and again, experienced – advice on writing for other comedians, here’s Marc…

Re: How to write for others.

Good advice given. For what it’s worth here are a few things I would add.

Tremendously important to have the voice of the person you are writing for as you said, but I would point out that often you’ll have a better chance of getting the comedian’s voice if you like their act, so go after people who make you laugh, not just any hot comedian.

The best time to get an opening if you haven’t been a hangout pal is when the comedian you want to write for is busy or in transition and are taking the next step. I approached Paul Reiser just as he was getting hot and was doing Tonight Shows and Letterman regularly. He wasn’t doing sets on those shows, he was already a name movie star, but he was a regular guest and didn’t have enough material to “waste” on panel on those shows. So he was happy to have someone work on new things for TV that wouldn’t eat up his club act.

Seinfeld needed someone because he got a TV show and I think he felt this was something new for him and he needed to find someone other than a friend to help him.

So, much like comedy, timing is everything. Timing and being funny and prolific. If you do stand-up, you know the percentage of stuff you write that actually works and stays in your act is minor – 10% would be great. You have to churn out a lot of stuff because that percentage will probably hold when you write for others.

Be honest with yourself as a comedian too. I always knew I was a much better writer than performer. If your act is working because you are a great performer who can get away with mediocre writing, don’t try to write for others. When I got the opportunity to write for top name guys, it was phenomenal because suddenly 20% of the stuff I was writing worked. That was because the people I was writing for could always make what I wrote better. They also had a higher standard than I had so that even though 20% worked, it was back down to 10% that made it, because it had to be killer.

Be ready before you seek out an opportunity. If you are good for that first guy, they will recommend you. Reiser recommended me to Seinfeld and then I got other jobs because Jerry’s management was happy with my work for Jerry and they had a roster of other great comedians that needed help at various times.

Also, one of the great things about being a writer is that you can just call yourself a writer. Go to the clubs and give comics a line or two after their show. If they like them, tell them you are a writer, and you’d be happy to submit some stuff to them if they need material.

You never know who has something going on and is in need of some quality help. Reiser did a guest set at a club I was at in Pittsburgh and I asked him afterwards if he needed any help on anything and he had a Letterman coming up that he was too busy to work on. I got the Seinfeld gig because I went up to Jerry after a show and asked if I could submit some stuff right at the time he was looking for someone on staff for his just picked up sitcom.

I gave him some great pages and he loved them. And got a good word from Reiser, but if I hadn’t approached Jerry, I would have never gotten the job.


Thanks Marc. This is not only great advice, but also experienced advice. I’m sure everyone appreciates you sharing this. Now go get a real job… HA!! Okay, okay… I know… that just proves I won’t be writing comedy material for anyone in the near future.


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Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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

For details about upcoming comedy workshops at the Cleveland and Chicago Improv Comedy Clubsprivate coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit

Copyright 2017 – North Shore Publishing.