Using Stand-up to Start Writing Humor

by Amy Ayres
published in Writing

My previous installments of my humor column are Writing Humor When You Don’t Think You’re Funny and On Writing Humor as a Funny Introvert. I promised you that I would share three simple ways for all writers (even introverts) to start writing humor. Next installment will talk about the history of humor writing, so stay tuned.

The last few months have been exciting! I have been able to see some big names but also some local comedians at an outdoor venue near where I live. In the same way a writer reads to gain inspiration and to learn technique, aspiring comedians and humor writers can watch other comedians perform and learn how to perfect their craft, not just be entertained. Speaking with these comedians and unpacking how they craft their comedy, I learned a new way of “reading like a writer.” I also learned how easily the structure of stand-up comedy translates to the page.

In reality, most stand-up sets start on the page. The comedian takes shorthand notes, or even writes their jokes in longform and memorizes them. Depending on their personal style, the comedian “writes” their jokes but then continues to fine-tune and craft them in such a way that when spoken their words have the greatest impact. It is crafted the same way as spoken word poetry, creating line breaks and pauses so the words hit harder and making space for reactions. I illustrate this to further point out that comparing humor writing to stand-up isn’t that much of a stretch.

Recently, I crossed something off my bucket list: becoming a Second City player. I took their Standup I course this past spring and it was an amazing insight into several things humor related. But with this experience I went beyond spectating or reading comedy and I tried my own hand at it.

In a group of five diverse individuals, I bounced ideas, brainstormed, and workshopped jokes. We didn’t pull any punches. We told each other what worked and what didn’t. We gave each other ideas on how to reword, speed up, slow down, or expand a joke. We perfected timing. We learned a lot about knowing our audience. We learned who we were as individuals and how that influenced our humor.

Most importantly, we learned three important aspects of stand-up that most, if not all, comedians incorporate into their sets. With these bullet points, and some practice, we were able to cultivate our own set we then later performed.

Here are the three simple ways to create a stand-up set that you can also incorporate into your humor writing.

1. Storytelling

The name itself screams humor writing. Our course instructor used John Mulaney as an example of a comedian who often uses storytelling, rather than standard joke-telling, to get laughs. The best way to start humor storytelling is to think about something embarrassing that happened to you or someone else. It helps if it’s a story you’ve told before. “Remember that time…” Draft the story. Then pick out the details that give the story color and expand them, even exaggerate them for humor’s sake. Read it aloud a few times until you have it almost memorized, that makes it more conversational and less wordy. Share it with someone else and get their reactions to it. Practice this a few times and you might find you’ve put together a collection of humor essays.

2. One-liners

This can be tough if you have little experience with them. My advice is to search for comedians who use them often in their sets and watch how they are performed. This way you can get a knack not just for how they are written but how they are supposed to land. Someone created a list of the best 110 one-liners. One-liners can be a great asset to humor writing. You can throw them in and catch the reader by surprise. Or they can make for great openers and closers of humor essays. Our instructor advised using them as openers and closers of our stand-up sets. 

The structure of a one-liner is essentially the casual set-up, then the play-on-words followup that turns the whole thing on its head. The key is to make the followup rewarding so it isn’t just groan-worthy. My advice is to set a timer and write as many as you can in ten minutes. Then do it again until you have at least fifteen one-liners. Share them with someone else and let them tell you which ones are funniest. If anything, this is a great way to sharpen your writing skills even if you never use any of them.

3. Character work

This can be so much fun to perform, but still easily incorporated into writing. The best character work goes beyond impersonations of famous people, but rather paints a clear picture of someone we all seem to know and love (to hate). With performance we can use makeup and costume to further our embodiment of the character, but the best comedians use their voice and facial expressions. Maria Bamford is an excellent example of someone who does this well. 

But how do we “perform” people within our writing? First, think of common phrases, or “isms” this person often uses. Next, think about scenarios in which their unique personality can cause conflict or tension with other characters. Finally, do your best to perfect their mannerisms and voice in your descriptions. Again, this is a great exercise at perfecting description and using trial and error to see what works.

With stand-up, you have the added bonus of immediate feedback from an audience to show you what works and what doesn’t. Often in writing, we can only get that kind of feedback if we speak directly to our readers or wait for their eventual review. Because of this distinction, it might be tempting to separate stand-up and humor writing which have more similarities than differences. The only thing we learned that would not work with humor writing is “crowd work” in which the comedian breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, usually in the form of asking a question. Still, I think it would be funny to see a humorist try their hand at one-sided crowd work.

Amy Ayres

Amy Ayres has three novels in progress and is querying two. When she is not in her office writing about terraformed planets, multiple personalities, and Irish folklore, she is hanging with her awesome tech-savvy hubby, stepson, and RubyCat. Visit You can sign up for her Newsletter where she sends out motivational tips for new writers and her special brand of humor. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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