March 3, 2023

What a decade of standup taught me about copywriting

Josh O'Neill

Copywriting Intern

2023 marks my 11th year of doing standup comedy. I’d like to think I’ve been funny. I’m not one of those little hats with the propeller on it, but I’m doing alright.

Truth be told, I’m surprised I’m still doing it. When you first start telling jokes, you’re not funny at all. Nobody’s funny right away. Not even Fozzie Bear. Every comic learns one way or another that before you know who you are as a comedian, you have to write.

There’s a lot to learn about writing standup comedy, and while half of it pertains specifically to performance, the other half is transferable across all kinds of writing. I’ve only been at Curiosity for a short time, but I’ve already caught myself using old tricks of the trade. Here are some things I’ve gleaned from my time against the brick wall.

Word economy = good

There’s a reason the classic McDonald’s slogan is “I’m lovin’ it” and not “I’m currently eating a double cheeseburger with extra ketchup, some French fries, and an order of chicken nuggets with BBQ sauce for dipping. I’m also drinking a large Hi-C Orange. It’s all from McDonald’s, the fast-food conglomerate. If you were to ask me if I’m currently enjoying the meal I’m currently eating, I’m more than likely going to tell you, my best friend in the whole wide world, that I am indeed lovin’ it! I got it at the drive-thru!”

If the journey to the point you’re making is any slower than it needs to be, it’s time to trim the fat. Nothing gets more in the way of your message than pointless filler words and clunky syllables that draw things out. I’ve fallen victim to it hundreds of times. Audiences quickly lose interest when you spend more time explaining your premise than moving toward your punchline.

Does this mean every joke should be a one-liner? Should every slogan be three words or less? Of course not. Details enrich your writing, and delayed gratification, when used right, is a beautiful part of storytelling. That said, regularly monitoring your word count ensures that no one’s time is wasted.

(This part could’ve been shorter. This article’s already pretty long.)

Read the room

This seems like obvious advice, but comics break this rule on a nightly basis. It’s important to know what your audience wants, but even more so to know what they despise. Is your mom in the crowd? Mind your Ps and Qs. Are you performing in one of those towns that has a rival town? Don’t mix them up.

In both comedy and advertising, your material’s approval is up to the audience. You can’t make them decide it’s good, but you can very easily get them to hate the content. It comes down to whether or not you respect the time and attention they’re giving you. Audiences are forgiving and polite if you’re not their cup of tea, but if you fully attack their taste, sensibility, or ego, you’ll never win them back.

Be you

In my first desperate year of comedy, I was just trying to be funny. Since that was my only goal, I wrote a lot of things that “qualified” as “jokes,” but they consistently bombed. Talk about frustrating. In hindsight, I was writing jokes I actually hated because I was emulating my idea of a comedian, rather than trusting my instincts about what’s funny. I cared about what the crowds thought, but never considered what/how I wanted to write. As soon as I flipped that mindset, I started writing stuff that made me laugh. Laughing at jokes. What a concept.

It was a hard way to learn that structure isn’t everything. Just because something is 17 syllables, doesn’t make it a good haiku. Just because something has the cadence of a joke, that doesn’t mean it’s funny. Your best writing is done in your voice. This doesn’t mean you have to bare your soul. It just means your work shouldn’t be solely in the name of satisfying your audience. They’re not in the room when you’re writing, so make your time worthwhile. If you write what is undeniably yours, it will stand out and you’ll be proud to stand by it.

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