Personal Stories, Stand-up Comedy

Storytelling in Stand-up Comedy

There’s more to stand-up than just telling jokes. Besides one-liners, the most memorable jokes or sets are usually part of a story. You are always telling a story, no matter how big or small. For example, Russell Peters may have a lot of bits and sets about different people from all over the world. But, he’s basically narrating a really long story about his travels and experiences. The only jokes that don’t need stories and narration are memes and dad jokes. Good luck trying to make a career out of that.

Basic Story Structure

As a professional storyteller, I can’t even remember how many times I’ve heard what I’m about to tell you next: a story is a sequence of events. One thing leads to another. There is always a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can go ahead and exaggerate anything to fit your set, as long as you don’t digress or deviate into a whole different tangent. You’ll know you’ve done that when you suddenly realize you don’t know how to segue back into the original story you were narrating. If the middle of your story is too long and you don’t have a good enough pay-off by the end, you’ll lose your audience.

Specific to stand-up, storytelling might be difficult for someone who is used to writing small observational bits because there’s only so much you can do within the time-frame of the open mic slot. I’ll get to that in a bit.

How Do I Write/Tell A Funny Story?

The short answer is – you don’t. Unless you’re naturally funny, and I mean in conversation, it might be difficult for you to take a serious incident and make it stand-up worthy on your first try. Just like every joke, you have to start with actually writing things down.

When you want to narrate an incident, don’t feel the pressure to be funny just yet. Write your story down – don’t miss any details. Once you’ve written it down exactly as you remember, you can then go about figuring out where you can make it funny. Break it down scene by scene, frame by frame. Look for details to exploit. You can use analogies, puns, one-liners, or just act it out. It will take a while, but your patience will pay off. Just believe that your story is funny, and that’s why you want to tell it so badly.

How Do I Keep The Audience Hooked On?

It is true that quick jokes might seem like they get better response from the audience, compared to long-form jokes; which is why quick punchy bits are great to start your set off, especially if you’re doing anywhere between minimum 10 to 30 minutes. Once you’ve written your story down, figure out where you want to jump into it. You don’t always have to start at the beginning of the story. Unlike fiction, stand-up doesn’t require you to develop every character in your story. Pick the most interesting part of your story and use that as a hook, like “Have you ever…?”, “Has this happened to you?” “Don’t you just hate it when…?” These are just some basic examples, but I’m sure you can come up with your own stuff. Once you have the hook ready, launch into your story. By now, you should know where each punch lands. Make sure you have a good flow so you always keep the audience guessing about what’s going to happen next. Hit them with a misdirection, then land the punch. Ride the laughs and applause, then continue without missing a beat. If you structure your story well, you will be rewarded by the end of the story.

Why Should I Try Stories?

It’s not compulsory if you really don’t want to. But, here’s why you should try it – it’s more personal than observational quick jokes. When you narrate a story, you’re always the center of attention because you’re the storyteller. First person stories, if done right, strike a nerve. If your audience walks out of your show feeling like they know you, it’s the best feeling ever. Storytelling also helps you conserve material. If I’m doing a one hour set (Fizz Out! An Hour of Soda), it would be easier for me to put together a few stories and figure out how to connect them all, instead of going from one joke to another and losing my audience halfway. Yes, that last sentence might have been a shameless ad for my first solo stand-up show premiering in the last week of October.

Stories also have great call-back value. And, if you’ve been doing stand-up long enough, you know the feeling when the audience goes berserk at an unexpected reference to a previous joke.

The Wrap Up

  • Always write your story down, and then look for ways to make it funny
  • Don’t deviate from the story too much. The point is to pepper jokes into a story, not the other way around.
  • Do not abandon it halfway. If you think it’s not working, push through. Get used to telling the story on stage.
  • If you think you don’t have enough time to do the whole story in an open mic, break it into smaller bits that you can try separately. Then put it all together and see how it works.
  • Be patient. Don’t rush through it just to get to the jokes.
  • Beginning, middle, end = hook, set-up, punch (act-out, analogy, exaggeration, call-back)
  • Be open to feedback. Ask fellow comics to figure out if it was convincing enough, whether the jokes were obvious enough, and if they suggest tags, be your own judge.

I wrote this as a quick manual for fellow comics, because I can see a lot of people experimenting with storytelling. If you think I’ve left something out, or I’ve overlooked anything, feel free to have a conversation about it.

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