A Comic’s Life: Finding Your Own Writing Process


PEARLMAN3

I’m curious about the writing process of others — comedians, authors, musicians. Similar to finding their voice and persona on-stage, a comic has to find a writing process that best suits them. I have read that stand-ups like and were and are able to type out every word of their brilliant sets. Some of my peers do the same, writing on their laptops, and find this method effective. Conversely, I have heard say of Patrice O’Neal that not once did he ever see Patrice use a notepad. Whatever works.

I heard an interview with and Maya Angelou where they discussed their respective processes. Dr. Angelou said that she wakes up at 5:30am, takes a walk, then returns to her room, bare of anything on the walls, and writes by hand. Chappelle replied that the primary difference between her process and his is the absence of people. “I need the people so bad,” Chappelle said. “I can’t write in a vacuum.” The difference is seismic. Stand-up, unlike short stories or novels, is formed with the audience. Their reaction shapes and hones the bits and, oftentimes, inspires it in the moment.

I found Chappelle’s comments really insightful and relatable. Growing up, I was always comfortable writing on my computer — either school or creative work. Stand-up is different, though. Starting out, I would struggle to type out bits or flesh out ideas in front of a screen. Further, when I would try to perform that typed material, I found myself not feeling or being engaged with the words. Delivering typed material, I felt like I was giving a prepared lecture, reciting the awkward script that I had written, rather than being present, doing stand-up.

I prefer to write ideas by hand. I fill notebooks, writing bullet-points and partially-formed, dumb thoughts. I’ll take one idea and tree-branch multiple possible angles and directions. I’ll talk out that material on-stage, attempting to find which, if any, angles are worth focusing. I don’t have any material written word-for-word in any notebook. I have audio of every set, which I find useful — even if I don’t listen to all of them.

I watched a clip online of Paul Simon singing a half-written song on Dick Cavett’s show, asking Cavett for advice. The song was “Still Crazy After All These Years.” The video is fascinating, hearing Paul Simon talk about writing music. Simon was less concerned with the lyrics and more focused on the music itself. The focus is on the flow of the material, rather than simply the words. Simon discusses selecting different chords, establishing a pattern, and the need to subvert that pattern to please the listeners’ ears.

These approaches are basic in comedy writing, as well. The clip is so fun to watch, because viewers are seeing Simon do on national television what so many stand-ups do when they’re crafting material every night: he talks it out.

Experimenting with different writing processes is valuable, because a shift in writing approach can change the end product. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose loss of vision forced him to switch to a typewriter in his later years, discovered a change in his writing style. A friend observed that Nietzsche’s prose had become more terse and tight since he began physically punching keys. Nietzsche agreed, replying, “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”

I want to clarify that I haven’t read Nietzsche’s work. I just read that piece about him. I’m not that smart. I just like to hear how smart people write.


Dan Perlman is a stand-up comedian from New York. Follow him on Twitter @danjperlman.

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Dan Perlman is a stand-up comedian and writer from New York City. Dan performs regularly at Stand Up NY, New York Comedy Club, Comic Strip Live, and alternative rooms across the city. He has performed in comedy festivals in Brooklyn, Memphis, and Dallas. In 2013, Dan was named Comedy Contributor for Neil deGrasse Tyson’s popular StarTalk Radio show. He co-founded, writes, and stars in the web series, Moderately Funny. Dan also works as a Sketch Company Writer for the Off-Broadway theater group, On The Rocks. Currently, Dan hosts and produces a monthly storytelling show, Hindsight, at Stand Up NY Labs. He also appears regularly on SiriusXM’s Ron and Fez Show. Visit danperlmancomedy.com for more.

2 Comments

  1. Vikingdog71

    March 22, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    Excellent, excellent article!
    I am a life-long musician and songwriter and always have been fascinated with exactly where and how comedians get their inspiration for material. I find that process so difficult and just plain foreign to me; but then I’ll have songs and song ideas constantly going through my head ever since I got bitten by the music bug at the age of 5 while listening to my Hendrix, Rundgren and Zappa albums. 
    I have been a huge fan of comedy ever since I was a little kid with my Carlin and Pryor cassettes but I’ll be damned if I could ever come up with a solid 10 minutes I’d be comfortable with for an open-mike night. But I have written literally hundreds of songs throughout my life.
    The songwriting process for me personally comes in a couple of ways. First, I’ll sit down with my guitar and just start playing various chords and riffs for a certain period of time until a riff or chord progression strikes me as pretty decent or catchy and it’s something I think I could build on; then I’ll grab my trusty recorder and put it on tape. Then eventually I will bring my tape of ideas to band practice and get my band mates opinion to see if it is material they would all like to work on. 
    The songwriting process in a band situation is absolutely fascinating to me because I love to get other people’s ideas on how to improve or add on to a guitar riff I would come up with. Then the base material I originally came up with now becomes all our creation. That’s usually the way I come up with songs for my band. As the Guitarist, I’ll come up with a couple of riffs, then I bring it to practice and then we all put our stamp on it.

    The second way musical ideas come to me is basically from out of nowhere. I could be doing laundry, mowing the lawn, be at work or even as far back as when I was a kid swinging on my swing set and then all of a sudden a melody or a guitar riff will just pop into my head. That’s when I’ll grab my cellphone and just hum the melody or riff and record it onto my phone to work with later on. 

    I’ve always loved the story of how Paul McCartney wrote the song “Yesterday” where he says it came to him in a dream. It sounds amazing but man, I totally get it. I guess you could say it’s a god-given talent of some sort. But my brain is always singing to me for the most part.

    I’ve always love when Ron would talk about his fascination with songwriting. Because he totally gets it! As much as he is fascinated with the art of songwriting; myself as a songwriter; I am just as fascinated with the art of comedy. Again, Great article Dan!

  2. HogsBreathe

    March 23, 2015 at 8:43 am

    Thanks for writing this Mr. pearlman. I’ve been trying my hand at standup for just over 6 months and I’m really fascinated with the writing process as well. I’ve found my writing styles change dramatically even within the first half a year I’ve been writing. I find that my greatest tool for writing is NY girlfriend bc as long as she’s willing to listen I can bounce ideas off her and even record practice sets and get immediate feedback about flow, sequence and a lot of helpful stuff.
    Lastly, that Paul Simon clip was unreal. Thanks again.