We’ve all seen a hilarious TV scene that’s stuck with us or read a satirical essay that’s made us giggle for weeks. But have you ever wondered what it actually takes to become a comedy writer? There are many different avenues to achieving a career writing comedy, whether you have aspirations of writing a late-night monologue or getting a humorous book published. Some writers like Aidy Bryant begin with a career in comedic performance before using those skills to transition behind the scenes. For others, it can be a more streamlined process of sticking with one format (like comedic playwriting) and simply expanding within that niche over time. Comedy writing is such a broad field full of differing perspectives and paths and there’s no one way to become a comedy writer. As long as you’ve got a passion for comedy and a desire to express it through written work, you can find success as a comedy writer.
To help you navigate what can seem like an overwhelming industry, we’ve rounded up everything you need to know to pursue comedy writing. From industry lingo to whether or not you need improv or stand-up comedy experience, this in-depth guide will break down exactly how to become a comedy writer.
- What does a comedy writer do?
- What are the different types of comedy writing?
- What comedy terms should I know?
- How do I start writing comedy?
- What training do I need to become a comedy writer?
- How do I become a comedy writer for TV?
- How do I get hired as a late-night TV writer?
- How do I become a comedic playwright?
- How do I become a satirical writer?
- What’s the career path of a comedy writer?
- Do I have to be a comedian to write comedy?
“A comedy writer takes any subject—happy, sad, silly, banal—and [places] a humorous perspective on it, usually with the aim to have the audience or reader laugh—or at least smile,” says Kate Anderson, whose humor writing has appeared in comedy publications like McSweeney’s, and The Belladonna Comedy.
Because the world of comedy is so vast, defining yourself as a comedy writer could mean any number of things: a comedy writer for TV, for satirical publications, for standup, or for something else entirely. The true heart of being a comedy writer is understanding what makes a good joke in general, as well as the basic elements of comedy that can be applied to whatever is being written.
In essence, comedy writers publish their takes on whatever topic interests them, but instead of seeking out the drama or tragedy in the story, they seek out the funny parts. Whether that humor is created through dialogue, movement, or something else entirely is up to the format of the work; for example, a comedy writer for TV may seek to find the funny in interpersonal situations, whereas a comedy writer for humor publications may look for satirical takes on the news. Comedy writing can be done on any topic and of any genre; the only thing that it has to be is funny.
There are many different kinds of comedy writing, including for TV shows, sketch comedy, movies, plays, variety shows, articles, books, and essays. But all comedy writing has one thing in common: narrative. Jokes and humorous asides are probably woven in throughout, but the story should be able to exist without them. A string of one-off jokes wouldn’t be considered comedy writing (but rather joke-writing).
Comedy writing jobs typically fall into one of two broad categories:
- Performance-based: Perhaps the most high-profile comedy writers are the ones who work for late night shows like “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” sitcoms like “The Good Place,” or variety shows like “Saturday Night Live.” This kind of work often takes place in a writers’ room and can be highly collaborative. But screenwriters and playwrights often work on comedic projects, as well. If you follow that career path, you’ll likely compose full drafts by yourself or with a writing partner.
- Publication-based: For those who want to keep their comedy writing off-screen, there is an abundance of satirical or humor-based magazines and digital publications that accept article submissions. Expect to work with editors to hone your skills. Or, consider authoring a funny book—although many are written by established comedians (think “Bossypants” by Tina Fey or “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” by Mindy Kaling), there are lesser-known writers who’ve broken into the industry this way.
There are many comedy terms to know including improvisation, callback, punching up, and more. Because comedy writing is under the general umbrella of the comedy world, it’s important to know both specific terminology as well as the basic, universal terms.
These are some of the general comedy terms you should know:
- Slapstick: Considered a “low-brow” form of comedy, slapstick relies on movement, heavy stunt work, and anything that comically, physically affects someone in the writing—think “The Three Stooges.”
- Sketch: A short, pre-written comedy scene that does not rely on improvisation but rather a short “game” of sorts. Think of it as a humorous one-act play; “Saturday Night Live” and “Key and Peele” are prime examples.
- Parody: A piece of work that pokes fun at another. The difference between satire and parody is that a parody has to use the structural format of the original work, like “Scary Movie.” It’s intended to poke fun directly at a specific person or thing, rather than an abstract idea.
- Punch up: To make a joke better.
- Callback: A joke that references something from earlier in the work or repeats the same content from the first mention.
- Double entendre: A joke or line that has two distinctly different meanings, often sexual in nature (but not always). Sometimes the character making the double entendre is aware, while other times the humor comes from the fact that the character is oblivious to the phrase’s other meaning.
- Rule of thirds: A pattern consisting of related beats, jokes, or movements heightened or repeated three times.
These are some of the comedy writing-specific terms you should know:
- Heightening: The act of taking a theme and creating a pattern of increasing absurdity, emotion, and/or physicality. The point is to pile on in order to make it more and more humorous.
- Last man standing: A line that seems extremely funny when it’s written but that loses its humor the more it’s read or spoken.
- Button/the dog barks (and everyone laughs): The final joke that is intended to pack a major comedic punch right before the ending. This typically refers to the final joke on a sitcom, but can be applied to any humorous writing that ends with a powerful joke.
- Zammo: A pop culture reference joke that plays out hysterically during the writing process but that bombs in front of audiences.
- Route one: An unsurprising or obvious storyline. This can be applied to characters or to the overall story.
- Harsh it up: To punch up a joke by making it more abrasive in delivery or when it appears.
- Langdon: A joke consisting of three stages: (1) two elements are introduced, (2) a discussion begins that appears to be about one element, (3) it’s revealed the other element is actually the one being talked about. This joke construction is named after legendary comedy writer John Langdon.
- Lightning rod/purple goat/clay pigeon: A joke written into a work that is purposefully tasteless or controversial in an attempt to distract from a different joke that is slightly better. These tend to be placed so that if an editor or producer cuts something, it’s the more offensive joke.
- Vomit draft/draft zero: The very first draft of a piece of comedy writing. This is the draft that allows you to get the ideas down but come back to later—and yes, this tends to be a pretty bad draft.
- Gilligan (cut): A scene that contradicts the scene before it in a humorous way i.e. one character is fixing something at one time, and then immediately after it they break whatever they were fixing. The reference comes from “Gilligan’s Island,” on which the device was often used, though it can also apply to off-screen comedy writing.
- Ding-dong: A scene that plays out the logical conclusion of the scene before it humorously. This term originates from “Laverne and Shirley,” as they would often wonder in one scene who would do something before the doorbell rang and the people who would do it walked into the scene.
The comedy writing-specific terms above are just a sampling of commonly used phrases. Many of these terms come directly from the website of author and Emmy Award-winning screenwriter Andy Riley, which houses one of the best resources for the wacky and less-obvious comedy terms for any format. Riley additionally has a deep knowledge of the language used in comedic writers’ rooms and has put together a few helpful glossaries. While some of this terminology is specific to on-screen comedy writing, a lot of it can be translated to any humorous format—or, at the very least, is extremely helpful to know for your writing career.
Of course, the language of comedy is ever-expanding and changing, so the most important thing to know is simply how to construct a good joke. If you’ve got that down, the language will fall into place as you practice and gain experience.
If comedy writing is your ultimate goal, the way to start is just by consuming as much comedy as possible. Comedy writing is something that anyone can do if they’re interested enough in learning how, but the best writers are the ones who have a real passion for the content they’re creating. Watch stand-up specials on Netflix, go to your local improv theater for shows (or watch the virtual offerings), read comedic essays and humorous novels—any piece of comedy you can get your hands on will only serve to make your comedy better in all aspects. By understanding the world of comedy as a whole, you’re able to find the part of it you best fit in and recognize how best to navigate that niche to achieve success.
Once you’ve narrowed in on where you belong, start writing. Jot down anything you can, from one-off ideas to full-on stories. While not every piece of content is going to be funny (or even good), you may be able to steal bits from one idea and jokes from another for future projects. Don’t let go of an idea just because it doesn’t seem fully-formed; a one-liner you wrote years ago could be what really makes your current late-night packet pop.
And then, start submitting—everywhere. It is important, however, to acknowledge just how often you can expect rejection in the world of comedy writing. Because there are so many other funny people hoping to grab a spot, the industry is extraordinarily competitive, and you shouldn’t expect instant success. It could take hundreds of hours of writing and pitching to have even one story accepted or one spec script noticed, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. Just like learning from a mistake, consider a rejection a push to take another look at your work. Maybe your button joke wasn’t as hysterical as you thought or maybe a character’s storyline gets more jumbled than you remember. Take the time to reconsider your work within your voice and perspective; however, don’t assume you have to completely start from scratch. A rejection isn’t a stop sign; it’s a yield. Rejections are also a great time to reach out to other writers or friends you trust to get their point of view on your work as well—if you’re the only one looking at your work, you may benefit from the knowledge and opinions of others.
“Guests on the show have taught me that you're going to get rejected and suck a lot of the time,” says Rosanna Stevens of The Antidote podcast. “Especially early on… you can't let other people's assumptions or expectations about you control what you make. You are the only one who can make your comedy happen—but ultimately, you have to learn about, support, and work with other people! Get to know people who are creating comedy, because so long as you are surrounded by people who are making and trying new things, you will always learn. And being a student is good.”
Just like any career in the arts, formal training isn’t necessary to be a comedy writer. The most important training for a comedy writer is simply to write—whether your content is good or not. That said, training can only help.
Both Anderson and Ornella recommend taking classes at local improv theaters, like Second City in Chicago or The Peoples Improv Theater in New York City. While these courses may seem more focused on the performance aspect of comedy, formal institutions offer a wide range of classes that do include those that are writing-based. Plus, you’re able to collaborate with other comedy writers and performers to widen your perspective, gain community resources, and grow from others’ experience as well as your own. Comedy writing is interwoven with the idea of performance (someone has to write the scenes!), so practicing sketch, improv, or stand-up gives you the opportunity to gain writing experience and understand how to write for performers, if that’s the kind of comedy you’re hoping to write.
Additionally, many of the same principles apply to both performing and writing, as Matt Hovde, a resident director for the Second City company and artistic director of the Second City Training Center, noted when speaking about what the theater looks for in performers. Because of the connection, getting the fundamentals of both simultaneously could be a major boost to your comedy writing skills.
“When you can get your voice and your point of view across, that can really separate you from the others,” says Hovde. “In improv, we often encourage performers to play anything! Use your imagination! But at the end of the day… you want to present a character we can believe in, and root for, and feel for.”
If performing in real life isn’t in your comedy career plan, there are also a number of online communities to join from the comfort of your own home. These tend to be more specific in their focus, so you can find groups meant just for writers rather than for performers as well. No matter where you find community, it’s an important part of getting better at your craft, as you’re able to get feedback on your writing, learn from others, consider other perspectives, and be inspired by a supportive (and hysterical) group of people with similar goals.
There are also tons of other resources available for all ilks of comedy writers, from “Poking a Dead Frog” by Mike Sacks—which chronicles interviews with some of the biggest names in comedy writing—to online class programs like Masterclass, which offers training from major names like David Sedaris and Judd Apatow.
“Many comedy writers do improv, sketch writing, character-development, and satire and humor writing classes, and there are some relatively accessible options to attend classes thanks to the internet and scholarships,” comedy writer and host of The Belladonna’s podcast The Antidote Rosanna Stevens says. “I recommend checking out The Magnet Theater Online, Catapault, Second City Online, Satire and Humor Festival, and Diverse as Fuck Festival. It's [also] widely-known that any class or educational opportunity with Caitlin Kunkel is going to be outstanding.”
And again, one of the best teachers will always be the connections you build with other writers or comedians. “I honestly just have found so much power in having a community and networking,” says Ornella. “Reaching out to people you admire is key, too; [at the very least,] all they’ll say is ‘No, thanks.’ ”
To become a TV comedy writer, you need to have a packet ready to submit, network, and scour job boards and social media groups for opportunities.
Finding screen comedy writing jobs can seem complicated, as many are hired via internal connections or promoted from within. However, it’s not impossible to land a TV comedy writing position. Positions are frequently posted on typical job boards like LinkedIn or ZipRecruiter, entertainment-specific job boards, and in social media groups. Keep specific track of the shows you want to work for so you’re in the know if submissions open. But ultimately, again, your connections will go the furthest, so nurture them to the best of your ability and when a job opens up on one of their shows, they’ll know just where to turn.
Typically, those hoping to write comedy for TV should have a speculative (or “spec”) script prepared, aka a potential episode of an existing show. This script doesn’t have to be the same show as the one you’re applying to and could even be a show that ended long ago, but it does have to show off everything from your narrative ability to your joke-writing skills. It may also be wise to have at least one completely original spec script to show your strength as a writer; an original script will show that not only can you be funny, but you can create an entire humorous world around the jokes. Spec scripts are written on your own time and you won’t get paid for their creation, but having them available serves the same purpose as an artist’s portfolio: showing off your talent in a prepared and passionate manner.
To get hired as a late-night TV comedy writer, you need to have a specific writing packet full of jokes and samples ready to submit.
If you’re hoping to write for late-night comedy shows like “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” or “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” the process involves more specific preparation and the submission of a writing packet. Each show tends to ask for content in your packet that’s specific to their show, but Chrissie Moore from TV Kitchen has a great explainer about what was expected when she applied to the NBCUniversal Late Night Writers Workshop. Moore was required to submit “one–two pages of topical monologue jokes,” “one–two pages of original ideas for refillable late night ‘desk bits,’ ” and “two SNL-style sketches (no more than five pages EACH).” No matter what a show is asking for, be sure to tailor your content to them. Emmy Award-winning TV comedy writer Sara Schaefer (“Nikki & Sara Live,” “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”) says a packet sticks out like a sore thumb when it’s clearly a copy-and-paste submission.
“The comedy world is small. We know what other shows are hiring and what their packets look like,” says Schaefer. “Definitely submit your best ideas, just make sure your packet looks like it’s meant for the show it’s being submitted to, i.e. do not submit a ‘Top Ten List’ to Leno.”
To become a comedic playwright, you should consider looking for opportunities through specific theaters and companies. Once your work gets to a point where you feel it’s been workshopped to death and is refined as much as possible, consider submitting to those entities or to any connections you may have in the industry. Some theaters or companies will also have open calls for writers to submit their work. Getting chosen from a general pile may not offer the best chance for your work to be produced, but any chance to potentially get eyes on your play is one you should take.
Comedy playwrights prepare essentially the same way as those who write for the screen: They just start writing and submitting. The more content you have written—published or not—the more you’re able to present to scouts or agents if given the opportunity to show off your skills. When you start sending out your scripts to potential theaters or companies, or for grant/fellowship consideration, don’t just copy and paste to every single possibility; instead, consider what each company or individual wants from the piece first. For example, former vice president and director of operations at Play Publishing Company Samuel French tells Backstage that he looks for “a title that will be done. We need shows that people want to perform, and we service a wide variety of markets here: everything from church groups in a church basement to the regional theaters in Dallas or wherever, and we try to find something that speaks to one of their needs.”
To become a satire writer, you need to be submitting and pitching constantly. For publication-focused comedy writers, the process of getting your work in print or online is basically the same as being a freelance writer in any other concentration. Survey the different publications accepting full submissions or pitches to get a sense of the kind of content they publish and their overall voices. Once you feel you have a good idea and can match it to a publication, check out their submission guidelines; just about every website has its own guidelines. Not all publications pay, however, so make sure you get the entire picture of how to pitch and what to expect before doing so. While there are publications like McSweeney’s, The Belladonna Comedy, Reductress, and The Onion, there are also non-comedy specific publications, like The New Yorker or Catapult, that accept comedy pieces.
When you’re confident that you have a story to offer that fits what a publication is looking for, send in a full spec piece or a short pitch submission (depending on what they ask for) with a simple, straight-to-the-point email. You can also check out freelance writing boards like UpWork for comedy-specific positions to apply to. The best tips for submitting work is to keep tabs on your favorite humor publications and maintain a number of full pieces and potential pitches; when websites post about accepting submissions, you’ll be able to jump on the opportunity in a timely manner with pieces or ideas already in your arsenal.
There is no set path for a comedy writing career; you can start in one area of the industry and move to another with relative ease. While comedy writers may start out writing in one format, it’s typical for them to float around the industry over the course of their careers. It’s also typical to see someone who starts out writing for late-night transition into writing for sitcoms or for satire writers to transition to playwriting, for playwrights to venture into television writing. Sitcom writers may find such popularity due to the success of a show or their overall career that they publish a book of essays, Because there are so many opportunities for comedians to use their writing skills across formats, it’s highly encouraged in the industry. The more you know how to do, the funnier you are, and the more success you can achieve.
Comedy writers aren’t generally expected to retire at a specific age; many keep working into the later years of their lives or until they are no longer able to for whatever reason. In fact, it’s a common thought in the comedy world that the longer you do it, the more encompassing your perspective, and thus the funnier you can be. Even if you’re able to be out-funnied by an early-career writer, those who stick with comedy writing know the ins and outs, can spot the shortcuts, and develop extremely deep connections that solidify their place in the industry.
You do not have to be a comedian to be a comedy writer, but naturally, there is a lot of overlap. While you may think being a comedy writer is a result of first being a “comedian,” it simply is not the case. Taking a piece of writing and making it funny makes you a comedian; no tight five required.
“I don't think someone needs an established life in stand-up or comedic performance to be considered a comedian,” says Anderson. “My experience with improv and performance has definitely helped my writing, but I know people who are great comedy writers who never got into performance.”
If you immerse yourself in the world of comedy and study the different techniques, you’re taking in the same information that a stand-up, improv, or sketch performer would be. At the end of the day, it isn’t brain surgery—it’s making people laugh.
“Have fun with it! That's why I do it,” says Anderson. “I hope I don't ever get to the point where it's not fun anymore. My favorite part is when I make myself laugh while writing.”
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