Where Do You Get Your Ideas?
How to find comedy everywhere
When I asked y’all what you were hoping to get out of this newsletter, a lot of you brought up the problem of generating ideas. How do you come up with a good idea for a sketch? Where do good ideas come from?
Here’s the good news: they come from everywhere.
I expect this might not be good news to some of you. Perhaps a bit exasperating. If you’ve been banging your head against a wall trying to come up with ideas you might be looking at me saying, “What do you mean they’re everywhere? I’m looking everywhere right now and I see nothing!”
Putting Your Comedy Eyes On
In mushroom hunting there’s a concept of “putting your eyes on.” This is a phenomenon where mushrooms seem to be invisible until the moment you see the first one, and then all the rest suddenly come into focus. Maybe you’ve experienced this in other contexts: looking for shooting stars during a meteor shower, or spotting rabbits out in a field. Or, if your life is less idyllic, maybe you suddenly noticed all the cockroaches in your apartment. Looking for comedic ideas is not so different. You need to train yourself to spot them, but once you do, they become easier and easier to see. Of course it helps to be looking in the right area. If you’re looking for mushrooms, you should investigate the moist, loamy soil under trees. If you’re looking for funny ideas, you should investigate experiences that make you feel a strong emotion.
And I mean any emotion. It could be something that makes you laugh, obviously, but anything that makes you truly feel something is worth looking at. Frustration, anger, sadness, confusion, excitement, fear — if you feel something strong, write down what’s going on. These emotional reactions could come from experiences in your personal life, broader cultural events, fine art, movies, books, whatever! A strong emotion is fertile ground for a funny idea because emotional moments carry the building blocks of comedy: surprise and truth. Something you experienced in real life was also unusual enough to jolt you out of your day-to-day existence. Emotional moments are not inherently funny, but they are the soil where funny ideas grow. Here are some select things I’ve observed in my own life over the past year or so:
I was embarrassed about a black eye I got after face-planting on the ground.
I was amused by a woman who kept insisting that the highly specific things her husband did were universal things that all husbands do.
I was annoyed by a circular conversation with hospitals and health insurance companies.
I was angry at Congress’s continued inability to protect voting rights.
I was confused by a sudden surge in ads for fancy keyboards on my social media feeds, even though this is not something I care about at all.
I was anxious about finishing deadlines for this newsletter, even though they are deadlines I set for myself and I’m beholden to no one else.
Few of these things are funny on their own, but I promise they all have the potential for comedy. When you have a moment to think, look at your list of emotional moments and really consider them. Put them under a microscope. Trust that there’s funny to find and ask the following questions:
What exactly is weird about this? Why does this make you feel what you feel?
What contrasting juxtapositions already exist in this scenario that you can exploit?
What else does this remind you of? Can you draw a connection to something seemingly unrelated?
Have you seen this happened before? Is it one point of a larger, recurring pattern?
Answering these questions could lead you to a funny premise and a strong game.
How Could a Black Eye Be Funny?
Let’s consider the first bullet point about the black eye. I’m choosing this one in part because I think it’s one of the least interesting items on the list above. The woman complaining about her husband, for example, already implies a pattern of behavior. And I immediately see what’s weird and funny about her. Not so with the black eye. It’s not particularly funny. There’s no repeating behavior. Nothing about that sentence sounds like a sketch. But I want to show how a little introspection can lead to surprising observations, even when you start with a less-than-ideal kernel of inspiration. So… Let’s! Get! Introspective! [insert air horn sound]
What exactly is weird about the black eye thing? I know it embarrasses me, but why? After some thought I’ve decided it’s because the black eye is noticeable. People will ask about it and I’ll be forced to tell a story where I come off very stupid.
So, is this always the case? I start to wonder if there’s something to the following bold proclamation: “All black eyes are evidence of stupidity.” Is this true?
No. After thinking about it some more, this is clearly not true.
Black eyes could result from a champion boxing match, or a crazy bar fight, or a feat or heroism. If it were a battle scar… that would be a fun story to share. In that case a black eye could be a mark of pride.
But hold on. Now I’ve arrived at an opposite conclusion than I did a moment ago. Are black eyes a sign of stupidity or a mark of pride? These are two opposites coexisting at the same time. And that is a paradox. A truthful juxtaposition of opposites.
Now we’re starting to get somewhere. Let’s keep going: how can we make an audience think about this paradox? How can we make both interpretations of a black eye exist at the same time?
Maybe we play into the trope of tough guys at a dive bar comparing battle scars, but instead of incredible feats of machismo, all their stories are increasingly embarrassing and stupid. This would give us extreme juxtaposition, and repeated behavior. It’s also subverting a normal pattern of behavior by making tough guys proud of embarrassing stories. This is starting to feel like a sketch. But let’s keep probing. Does this do what we want it to do?
As I think about it, I start to worry this might not work. Will the audience understand why these guys are engaging in this behavior? Will they see the connection I’m trying to draw, or will it just look like a bunch of meatheads proud of their stupidity for no reason? We’ve lost the “embarrassment” element. The stupid stories are there, but not the human, emotional connection…
So maybe we can solve both problems by adding a straight man — a sane character in an unusual world. Maybe this guy actually has tough, incredible stories to explain his scars, stories that get more and more glorious, but in this topsy-turvy world no one is impressed by his tales, they just want to hear about how Big Jim over there broke his neck when he got his head stuck under a toilet seat.
This… could work. I won’t pretend it’s the best sketch in the world, but I think I could write this, I think people would see my point, and I think I could get a few laughs out of it. But it’s important to note that this process doesn’t derive the single “correct” angle. There are many ways to play with this idea. And to prove it, I’m going to go back to the start and walk down a different path.
How Else Could a Black Eye Be Funny?
Let’s ask ourself a different question: what does this black eye remind me of? Have I seen something like this before?
Well, let’s see: I’m embarrassed by a bruise in a very prominent, noticeable place. I’m trying to cover it up, but that’s nearly impossible. If people ask questions, I’ll have to reveal embarrassing details… This reminds me of trying to cover up a hickey.
And that’s a little surprising, isn’t it? Hickeys and black eyes are both bruises, but black eyes have connotations of violence while hickeys have connotations of love and sex. These opposites share an unexpected connection. One that we can exploit by exaggerating the two contrasting elements, and smashing them together.
Consider who we generally associate with black eyes: Boxers. Bar brawlers. Grizzled hard-boiled detectives. And hickeys? Giggly, lovestruck teens. What a great set of contrasts. They’re so different it would be a delight to combine them. So…
Maybe a boxer feels the same about his black eye as a teen might about the hickey. The boxer tries to cover up his black eye with makeup, but his gruff Mickey Goldmill-esque coaches notice it and descend into an excitable teenage flurry: “Who is he?! Tell us EVERYTHING!” We juxtapose the violent, hypermasculine specifics of boxing with the gossipy tone of goo-goo-eyed teens.
I think this angle could work too! Again, maybe not the best sketch in the world, but I think it has legs. And if you disagree, you can always keep digging. Maybe there’s a fun connection to exploit between covering up something embarrassing and a conspiratorial government cover-up. Maybe there’s something to the simple human embarrassment — a character forced to repeatedly tell the same embarrassing story as more and more people notice his black eye. Maybe there’s a genre parody angle — a character from an action movie going to work the next day and desperately hoping no one asks about his bruises. Or maybe someone is proud of their black eye — he wants to tell the story, but no one is asking about it and it’s driving them crazy. There are a hundred “maybes” you could explore and each one of them could lead to a perfectly viable sketch. You just have to decide which one feels the most fun to you.
From an Emotional Moment to a Complete Sketch
If you critically examine any emotional moment like this, you can find something funny almost every time. I’m not going to go through every bullet point listed above because that sounds tedious, and ultimately I haven’t written any of these sketches! I have no proof that this exercise can create a good sketch. So let’s try this out with a sketch that’s already done.
A few years ago I had an emotional moment: I was frustrated because a meditation app that was supposed to make me feel less stressed only stressed me out more because it added another task to my to do list. How might you examine this thought and build a game out of it? Go ahead and try it. Look at that list of questions and probe this emotional moment. Bear in mind, there are no wrong answers, just a bunch of “maybes.” If an idea starts to coalesce in your mind, try to write a one-sentence description of the game. Then come up with a one or two more beats. How might it heighten? What might you see to explore this game? Once you’ve written down a few thoughts, take a look at how I approached it.
How similar is this to what you wrote down? If it’s similar: cool! If it’s different that’s cool too! You might even like your version better than mine. In any case you probably came up with something fun, and you can see how the bones of a full sketch can emerge from a single moment of strong emotion.
The Generative Mind and the Critical Mind
When I first started I was convinced that I only had a finite number of good ideas inside me. Every time I came up with something I thought, “Well, that’s the last good idea I’ll ever have.” But the more ideas I came up with, the easier it became to generate even more ideas. So, paradoxically, the more I used up, the more I seemed to have left. This should be welcome news to anyone currently staring at a blank page, hoping for inspiration.
I’ve found that in any creative endeavor you have two thought processes churning away in your mind. One part of you is saying “maybe this is a good idea,” and another part is saying “this idea actually crap.” You need both. The generative part of your mind is able to turn nothing into something, and the critical part of your mind is able to turn something bad into something good. But it’s very hard to have both thought processes running at the same time. So separate them. Put the critical mind farther down the assembly line where it obviously belongs.
First make something bad. Start writing down emotional moments that might inspire you, even if you don’t have an angle yet. Write down angles even if you suspect they’re not funny. Turn off the critical part of your brain and just write down your thoughts. After you’ve filled a page with weird half-thoughts and seeds of inspiration, put your generative mind to sleep and let your critical brain play with these puzzles. Ask the questions I list above. See if you can find something funny in the stuff your generative mind came up with.
This division helps when you’re coming up with ideas, but it also helps when it comes time to actually write your first draft. First make it. Then make it good.
A Final Caveat
I don’t want you to think that all sketches are derived from emotional moments. Some sketches are more cerebral or observational in their comedy, but the premises for these types of sketches can be a little harder to find. You really have to be looking in the right place, with your comedy eyes already “on” to see them. So before you go hunting for these ideas, practice putting on your comedy eyes and looking at emotional moments, where you’re much more likely to find insights that are surprising and true. As you get more adept at drawing connections, finding patterns, and noticing interesting juxtapositions, start looking elsewhere with those same comedy eyes on. There are surprising truths all around you, waiting to be noticed!
Try out the process for yourself. Take some time to write down a couple of things that made you feel something over the last few days. If you can’t remember any, turn on your antenna now and start noticing when you feel things in the coming days. Remember: any strong emotion, good or bad, can work. Once you have three emotional moments written out, scrutinize them using the questions above. See if you can come up with two different angles for each one. If you can, congrats! You now have six different sketch ideas. At least one of them’s probably good, right?
Optionally: Some time in the next few weeks I’ll talk about how to take this one-sentence idea and turn it into a four page script. I know a lot of you had questions about the big leap of turning nothing into something. What does this process look like? I’ll cover this soon!
But I also imagine some of you are keen to get writing at this point. “Enough theory!” you say as you swipe all the tchotchkes off my desk, “Let me at the script!” If this sounds like you, go ahead! You have enough tools now to at least try writing something. You’ve got an understanding of game, heightening, and exploring. You have a sense of what makes a premise funny, so you know what to exaggerate, and a few ideas for premises. This is enough to get your feet wet. You will almost certainly run into some problems, but these problems can be instructive in their own way.
Later This Week, Behind the Paywall
Are you trying out the exercise and looking for guidance? I’ll be posting a discussion thread in a few days for paid subscribers. Need help finding the funny in your emotional moments? I’ll help. Think you found something funny, but want to hear what I think? I’ll tell you . Curious about the inspiration behind any of the sketches I’ve written? I can tell you that too (if I can remember).
While you all gather ideas for sketches, I’ll conduct our first sketch dissection. I’m going to take apart one of my earliest sketches and explain why I put every line where it is, and what I might do differently if I were writing it today.