Selling Comedy Isn’t Selling Out
By Drew Shafer
As a comedian, you might consider yourself a verbal artist. A fear of many artists is “selling out” when they compromise their values or their original voice to make money. In comedy, “selling out” takes the form of writing for others, whether it’s for a more successful comedian, a TV show, or ad copy. Yet, writing projects (including ad copy) that are not your own projects can elevate your writing by providing fresh perspectives and a chance to diversify your comedy skills. The formula for a good ad is the same as the formula for a good joke, so working on one is working on the other.
Elevating Your Own Writing with Side Projects
Writing for others provides an opportunity for fresh perspectives. As writers, we sometimes get stuck in a loop with our writing. We might get stuck on a particular topic in our writing, a specific style of joke, or even overanalyze one line until it is no longer even funny to us. Side projects provide jet fuel for new, creative ideas. Perhaps your task is writing an intriguing new social media campaign for a personal hygiene product. Your brain instantly opens a filing cabinet of your own hygiene stories, puns on product names, or how awful everyone’s hair must have been before conditioner. Right away, you’ve busted the rut you were stuck in and found a new direction for your comedy.
Additionally, writing for others allows you to practice a new set of skills. In sports, many athletes refer to “cross-training” as any activity which is not directly related to their competition. Runners may swim, tennis players may ride a bike, and football players do ballet:
Athletes use cross-training to keep their fitness levels up while providing rest to over-used muscle groups from their activities. Comedy is no different. You can approach any humorous thought in many ways. The way a comedy writer approaches comedy is their “sport,” and repetitive joke structure or technique can become tiresome. The law of diminishing return strikes comedians who rely too heavily on one cadence, style, or topic. Thus, comedians must branch out. Writing ads is a great way to work out those “writer muscles” that may not be getting the exercise they require.
Discovering the Recipe for a Good Ad/Good Joke
The same things that make an ad stand out are also the things that make a joke stand out. First, every great ad has a strong hook. You need to draw the listener/reader in before they move on to the next thing in their life by intriguing them enough to stay with you. This may often answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” In comedy, this is the premise and set-up. If you say “So, I’m online dating now,” you are not drawing the listener to something unique or exciting. If, instead, you write, “since my ex left me, I’ve dated some women crazy enough to make a rogues’ gallery of Batman villains,” audiences will want to know what happens next. A strong hook or set-up gets the attention where you need it to be.
Next, a good ad will introduce the product or service. Now that the listener is engaged, tell them about the product/service. What needs does it fill? From where did the idea come? What does it do? The analog to this in comedy is demonstrating your unique perspective on the issue. The audience wants to know who YOU are and your unique take on the situation.
Finally, every good ad has a defined goal and a clear call to action. You want to make sure people know to visit the website, go to the store, or convince their parents that they need that product right now. In comedy, the desired result is typically laughter. Either way, the call to action is the final punch. What impression do you leave on the audience at the end? The recipe for a good ad is the same as the recipe for a good joke. Learning how to do one well improves your ability to do the other.
So, if you get stuck in a rut or if you ever want to improve your writing, consider writing ad copy. It will ignite new ideas and familiarize you with effective joke structure.