Comedy monologues are the engine that keeps comedy shows moving. But how do they write jokes for those monologues? A very fair question, as monologues typically consist of material written that very day about events or stories occurring just hours before air. It takes a certain combination of wit, knowledge and humor to craft a solid monologue, but here are some tips to get you started.
Watch and Learn
Perhaps the best thing you can do is to watch the pros. Johnny Carson performed a nightly monologue for 30 years; David Letterman and Jay Leno have been at it since the early-80s; Conan O'Brien since 1993. These guys know what they're doing. Try and get a feel for their delivery, as well as their comedic sensibilities and the structure of their monologue. For instance, Leno will often build his monologue like a newscast, with the top news stories first, followed by scientific news, sports and entertainment.
Follow the News
Over 90% (if not all) of a monologue will consist of jokes about the news, public figures and celebrities. To write the jokes, you'll need to know the news. Learn how certain figures or organizations are perceived (a politician that says stupid things, a celebrity who drinks a lot, a baseball player caught cheating, etc.). Good resources include (but aren't limited to) USA Today, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Drudge Report, Fark.com, The Huffington Post and AOL.
Learn to Write Setups
Easily the most overlooked aspect of writing jokes for a monologue is being able to generate clear, concise setups. A setup, of course, is the straight, truthful part of the joke that states a fact off of which you'll create your punchline. A good setup is generally one sentence long, and takes about four seconds to say out loud. It should be factually accurate, but also lend itself to your punchline. For instance, say a woman in San Francisco let her 10-year-old daughter drive on the highway. You could present the barebones account (a woman in California let her kid drive on the highway) and set up a Britney Spears punchline. Just remember, they should be very short and contain only the information needed for the punchline to be effective.
Learn to Write Punchlines
Punchlines, like setups, should only be about a sentence long and be clear and concise. They should poke fun at known traits or characteristics of the subject of the joke, or another target that shares an immediate association with the topic of the joke. A good joke, however, stays on topic and plays off the subject matter, as it will hold up over time and not just that week. For instance, say there's a celebrity who's involved in an adultery scandal, and you incorporate them into a joke about adultery. If they're cleared of all wrong-doings by all parties a week later, the joke is virtually useless.
Write, Write, Write
Never will you encounter a story that only lends itself to one joke and one joke alone. Each one can likely generate several to many punchlines, and you should feel free to write as many as you can think of. Then, when it comes time to craft your final monologue, use the strongest one(s).
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