Make Your Writing Funny: How to Develop Improv Skills by Yourself

The best kind of jokes are the ones that pop fully formed into your head. Somehow your mind makes that instant connection, that instant relationship between two ideas, and forms a zinger that totally kills. The only problem is that this doesn't happen often, at least not enough to make it your only comedy writing technique. Still, if you develop the skill of improvisational comedy, it helps immensely when coming up with funny lines.

Most articles mention that the best way to hone improv comedy is to find an improv group and work with them. But, as much as I love working with improv groups, finding one isn't possible for me right now, and it may not be for you either. Is there a way you can develop improv comedy skills by yourself?

In music, riffing is to improvise a short musical phrase. In comedy, riffing is to say a joke out loud completely on the fly, usually in response to something. Mystery Science Theater 3000 turned the act riffing movies into a mainstream activity, and not only is it tons of fun, but it'll help you speed up your joke writing and cut down on revision time. Sure, it takes practice to master, but it's worth the effort.

Here's how I practice my riffing. I've been doing this all my life, really, so it's second nature, but I know you can use what I do to improve on your own.

1. Make fun of any form of entertainment. If you're watching a Steven Seagal movie, say a Seagal joke out loud. If you're reading a novel, pause after you read a surprising line and come up with a comeback. Heck, make fun of commercials. Anything is fair game. (You can do this alone if you don't want to look weird, but getting a bunch of friends together to riff a bad movie is still pretty fun.)

2. Keep your mind loose and free. Go with whatever sounds good at the moment. If you dwell on the rules of comedy writing while you're riffing, you'll only cut down your effectiveness. Keep it purely off the cuff. With enough riffing experience, you'll develop a sense of what works and what doesn't.

3. Riff on paper. When you're writing a funny line for a piece of writing, start off loose and put down a joke that comes into your head. Anything at all. From there, go back in and fix it up using all the comedy writing tricks you know. The point is to make that crummy first draft so you don't get yourself stuck. Happened to me all the time before I adopted this habit, so give it a shot.

4. Expose yourself to a ton of media. Usually, the easiest way to riff is to relate two ideas to each other. The more you read and learn about, the easier this gets. Watch movies, read the news, watch all kinds of TV. This will ingrain ideas into your subconcious. When the right setup comes along, you'll be surprised how seamless it feels when your mind pulls another idea from storage and connects the two together.

By all means, if you can hook up with an improv group, do so. But if you can't, you can still practice improv techniques to get results. Even if it's kind of strange to talk back to your TV. Hey, it comes with the territory.


YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Pop in a movie you've seen a few times before. As you watch it, say jokes out loud in response to what's happening on screen. Don't pause it, and more importantly, don't get discouraged if your remarks aren't that great. Not every improvised line can work. Just have fun with it.

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