Interesting subject line, eh?
I’ll be honest...it was a little clickbait-y.
BUT — it’s also true.
See, I’ve been taking some MasterClass courses to get me through the cruel, cold winter.
I started with the classes on comedy (because there’s nothing funnier than having someone break down the nuts and bolts of a joke to you, right? Hehe...heh...no.)
The first class I took was the Steve Martin one, as his name was what caught my eye around this course collection in the first place. His lessons were pretty good, but overall it felt a little fluffy. The advice was a bit generic and stuff you could glean on your own by watching people do stand-up.
I’ll give him some credit: I think it’s hard to teach a skill like comedy when:
1) It comes naturally to you, so it’s difficult to reverse engineer for other people
2) You have a very specific type of humor that works for you as an individual (which Steve Martin definitely does)
So, next I moved on to the comedy class taught by Judd Apatow, which was more writing-focused. I liked his Netflix special and thought it’d be interesting to compare the two courses and teaching styles.
When I dove into Judd’s class (yes, we’re on a first name basis now), right away it felt different. Rather than approaching things from a high level, he dove right into practical, actionable tips.
What I noticed right off the bat: These weren't just good tips for writing comedy. This was good advice for writing in general.
So I started taking notes. Today, I want to share them with you (you know, in case you don’t have access to MasterClass...or the time to sit through 10+ lessons.)
Here’s what Judd Apatow taught me about writing.
1. Find the people who’re doing what you wanna do and ask them a lot of questions.
As a young guy, Judd’s mom worked at a comedy club, which got him insider access to the visiting comedians. He often interviewed them before or after their shows, asking questions about how they learned to write comedy, what tips and tricks they’d found worked well, and secrets to performing.
This was a great way for him to network and build relationships with established comedians and helped him figure out how they got from point A to point B in their careers.
This is a smart thing for any writer to do, too. (I even tweeted about this.) Reaching out to people who’ve found success and learning from them is a brilliant way to figure out how you can do the same. This might happen via:
Hosting a podcast where you interview guests
Putting together a newsletter or blog that includes a Q&A with different authority figures
Doing a video series where you chat with established experts
All of these things help you get insider knowledge, while offering the guest the perk of some exposure as well. The best part: It doesn’t even matter if you have a huge audience for it. It’s an A+ learning experience for you and a doorway to access you might not otherwise have.
2. Have a “take.”
Most iconic comedians have a very signature style or approach. Think of Chris Rock. Think of Jerry Seinfield. You know those delivery styles. You know their cadence. You know their voices.
In line with that, it's important for you to figure out the WHY behind your own writing. You have to be able to answer fundamental questions such as:
What do you think about [topic you’re writing about]? Have you thought long enough to form an opinion around what you’re writing about? If not, push pause and do that. You might find your perspective goes against common consensus and gives you something interesting to say. Opposition is fine--just be able to back up your position.
Why do you like what you like? Defining your taste as a writer means knowing what works and what doesn’t for you (and why.) For example: Do you like something because it’s similar to you? Or because it’s wildly different? Nail that down, then play it up.
What’s your angle? Your writing voice should be uniquely yours. That means you need an angle and a signature style. Are you sarcastic? Sardonic? Quirky? Take the voice in your head and translate that into your writing.
As you add clarity around who you are as a writer, your audience will be better able to identify your unique “take” and/or writing voice and pick it out of a crowd.
3. Look at writing like it’s a job.
Judd said that the best performers he watched and talked to were ones who approached writing as if it were a job, just like anything else. They didn’t ‘wing it’ on stage; they sat down for a few hours every day and worked on writing their material.
Some even followed a mathematic-like formula where they’d start with a piece that worked and then plug in different variables until they found the best (and funniest) end result.
For example:My wife says I am lazy on the weekends, so I __________. The blank would then be filled with 50+ variations on a punchline. From there, he/she could whittle things down to the punchiest end result.
So, see? Even comedians have to practice and look at writing as if it were a job. Practice makes perfect (and devotion to your craft pays off.)
These were the biggest takeaways I got from the first few lessons of the Judd Apatow course, but there are lots of other good nuggets in there too.
If, like a standup comedian, you’re looking for an audience to give you some feedback on how your writing is performing, I’ve been offering up critiques and would be happy to give you some notes.
All I ask is that you send me a screenshot showing you donated $10 or more to my local no-kill animal shelter, PAWS. They save hundreds of pets every year and help them find new homes (which is amazing!) but are always just scraping by.
You get some honest feedback, cute cats and dogs get food and blankies. Win-win, right? Right.
This article originally appeared in my newsletter, A Cup of Copy. Sign up and get these free tips sent right to your inbox every other Wednesday.