Students often come to me with the complaint that they don’t know where to look for comedy material. Sometimes they say I have writer’s block. Or they complain about feeling like their material is too old, or stale. They feel stuck.
Here’s what I tell them. Look for the pain. It’s so simple. But not easy. At all.
Here’s the thing. Pain isn’t hard to find. Being alive is painful. It’s also joyful and wonderful. But those things aren’t what you are going to make comedy about. Unless joy and wonder are painful to you. And they might be. Then look there. Look at anything that is painful.
You’ve probably heard the adage PAIN + TIME = COMEDY. It’s been attributed to everyone from Lenny Bruce to Tig Notaro. Here are some of the ways folks have said it…
“Comedy is pain.” Jean-Paul Sartre
“Comedy is pain plus time.” Carol Burnett
“The root of all comedy is pain.” Charlie Chaplin
“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquillity.” James Thurber
“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Mel Brooks
So, its easy. Look for the pain. And then give it time. Let me break that down for you.
- LOOK FOR THE PAIN
It almost seems ridiculous to explain this. But I’ve found I need to. Because though we all experience pain, we don’t always look there when we are looking for comedy material. That’s because we live in a pain avoidance culture. We buy pain killers not vitamins. We escape.Ironically though, when we look at pain, and we laugh at pain, the pain is diminished. When we hide from the pain, fear the pain, turn the pain into secrets the pain increases.
It helps to get specific here. There are all sorts of types and levels of pain. Tiny pains. Enormous pains. Deep pain. Shallow pain. Singular pain. Collective pain. Simple pain. Compound pain. It’s all fodder for comedy. Where there is pain there is funny. Where there is pain, there is almost always a story.
When I say pain I mean anything that hurts in any way. Losing your keys, putting your foot in your mouth. Dating app humiliation. Cancer. Eviction. Break ups. Bad sex. Fear. Greed. Envy. Discrimination. Pride. Gluttony. Shame. Death. Being uncomfortable. Overstepping boundaries. Getting busted. Dysfunctional families. Running into exes. Being a sucker. Anger. Anger is great for comedy. The fuel of comedy. Despair. Frustration. Grief. Disturbances in your force field. Annoyance. Troubles. Confusion. Nauseau. When you are tweaked. Befuddled. Weirded out. When your story seems to go off the rails. When your heart breaks. Look here. This is where the comedy lives.Comedy will diminish the pain. But first you have to shine a light on it. Face it. This is the courage of comedy.
Ok so you found the pain. Now you ned to decide if enough time has passed for it to be funny.The second part of the equation. Plus time. How much time?
Well that depends on how big the pain is. The bigger the pain in general the more time. Little pains, minor tweaks, fights with Lyft drivers, these things can convert almost instantly. But the big stuff. It might take a minute. Or a year. Or it might not.
Check out how fast Patton Oswalt brought the story of losing his wife to the public. And then how long it took for him to find the funny in it. I’m a big advocate of doing the most now, present material you can. But now is a very big place. Sometimes now can take a decade to reveal itself.When you are trying to decide if enough time has passed to make something funny just go ahead and try. You’ve heard the comedic come back: too soon? That’s just a way of asking if maybe enough time hasn’t passed to allow something to be funny. Of course there’s nothing more exciting than comedy that hits at exactly the moment it’s not too soon. Like a tennis ball that lands just inside the line. Right on the edge. So comedians try. And sometimes err on the side of not enough time. And are sometimes forgiven just for trying.
In your own personal material, you can sometimes tell it’s too soon because it feels too vulnerable to be on stage talking about it. Like there’s just no way to make it funny and feel safe. In that case just make notes and put it away till later. You may not be ready. That’s ok. There’s other pain where that came from.
One way you can tell it might be too soon is if you feel like you don’t have an end to the story. Or if you feel the audience will worry about you. But it’s case by case. Julia Sweeney and Judy Toll were both diagnosed with cancer around the same time. Julia felt free to discuss on stage as she went through it, partly because she knew she would recover. Judy felt she was dying, and in fact did, and never got on stage again. However Judy had already brought so much of her personal pain on stage, and converted it into the best comedy, that she knew how to judge, I never pushed her. She’d already talked about heartbreak, and eating disorders and even getting sucked into and then out of Scientology. Judy was an open book. Until she wasn’t.
You have to know for yourself. And the only way to know is to probably go too far a few times. Some people can get funny about bad sex some people can’t. Some people can get funny about political fear. Some people can’t. You learn to understand that feeling in your gut.
It may even hurt a little while you learn. But that’s ok. There’s so much other pain to distract you. Just go back to the drawing board. And remember the beauty of being a comedian. If it’s good it’s good. If it’s bad it’s funny.
Feel free to reach out if you need guidance with your particulars. I have seasonal workshops and work privately with folks as well. Have a creative day.