Copywriting’s Tight Five—5 Copywriting Tips We Can Learn from Stand-Up Comedy

Estimated reading time: 18 minute(s)

Every night, mere steps away from MarketSmiths’ office doors, the next generation of comics and comedians is sharpening their skills at open mics and stand-up shows all around Brooklyn.

For these future comedy stars, performing their material is only a small part of the job. The majority of the work happens behind the scenes, where comedians sweat and struggle over the task of actually generating, refining, and polishing their material. For comedians, just like copywriters, the writing process is really where the magic happens.

In addition, both also focus on the same basic goal—to emotionally connect with their audience. Since these two professions are so intertwined, there is a lot for each to learn from one another.

We broke down five copywriting tips shared between copywriting and stand-up comedy. So despite the famous words of American author E.B. White, we’re going to dive in and analyze the grammar tips that rule copywriting and stand-up alike.

Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. They both die in the process.”
– E.B. White

1. Use the active voice

For both copywriting and stand-up comedy, exercising the active voice is vital. Grammatically, the active voice refers to a type of sentence structure in which the subject of a sentence is doing the action of the verb. Consider the following two sentences:

  • The doctor cured me.
  • I have been cured by the doctor.

The first sentence is in the active voice while the second sentence is in the passive voice. There are a few reasons why comedians prefer to use the active voice for their jokes.

For starters, the active voice helps heighten a situation’s relatability—something that many comics, particularly observational comics like Jerry Seinfeld and George Carlin, like to do. When a joke is relatable, the audience’s amusement comes from a place of recognizing something that they hadn’t consciously noticed before.

You’ll also hear many comedians and copywriters describe the active voice as ‘punchier’. What they’re really saying is that a sentence feels more engaging when the verb is the direct action of the subject.

Additionally, while both sentences above convey the same information, the active voice conveys the message in fewer words. This leads easily to the next tip we learn from stand-up comedy.

2. Make every word count

For many stand-up comedians, their stage time is limited. Sets can be as short as three minutes long—which means comedians need to make the most of every second. Comedians will often spend large amounts of time writing and rewriting jokes until every word serves a purpose—and the words that don’t are cut out and left by the wayside.

This policy is true for copywriting as well. When it comes to copy, there’s no guarantee how long you have your audience’s attention. It’s imperative that you grab it quickly, get right to the point, and not mince words along the way.

Any words that don’t serve a purpose need to be cut. Every word should flow into the next one, reinforcing the meaning of the word behind it while also adding some sort of new information. If any word is not in support of the set-up or punchline, then a comedian shouldn’t even waste the breath it takes to say it.

Of course, this is much easier to write about than it is to put into practice— with time, comics become experts at sniffing out those unhelpful words.

3. Build story momentum

Being able to build and maintain appropriate momentum throughout a set is what really separates the amateurs from the pros. For some veteran comedians who are developing specials, this might mean sustaining an audience’s attention for an hour or more.

In copywriting, this momentum might also be referred to as flow.

You can tell when something has good flow, because ideas easily transfer from one sentence to the next. Copywriters use momentum to move their audience from the attention-grabbing start to the directly actionable end.

When a comedian’s flow is working well, you probably won’t even notice anything more than the major beats of their act.

For example, watching a stand-up set, you may suddenly notice that a comedian is talking about train commutes when ten minutes ago she was on a riff about a special type of cashew at Trader Joe’s. You might suddenly wonder, “Wait—how did we get here?!” That is the hallmark of a comedian with extraordinary command of momentum.

4. Relate to your audience

Any good comic will tell you that no two audiences will ever react the same way, even if they hear the same joke. In New York, a Manhattan audience is different from a Brooklyn audience is different from a Queens audience. A comic doing a show in a new part of town might be interested to hear some advice from older, veteran comics about what makes that specific audience tick.

Relating to your audience is important because it makes the room feel more comfortable. When people are more comfortable, they tend to laugh more. Getting the audience on your side, and quickly, is important for comedians.

Likewise, if you want to write copy that your audience will have an emotional reaction to, you need copy that feels relevant to them. Often in copywriting, the opening line or paragraph is called the grabber, indicating something that is supposed to grab the reader’s attention early on.

Also like comedians, your audience might be constantly changing, and you need to be able to change your messaging accordingly. Tailoring your message is an important aspect of both jobs.

5. Make it personal…and specific

When a comedian tells a joke on stage that falls flat, they’ll go back and rework it, or “punch it up.” One of the first things a comic will do to punch up a joke is to first consider the joke’s subject. If it isn’t about a specific person or doesn’t include specific details, the audience is going to have a hard time imagining what the comedian is talking about.

Audiences like to hear that a joke is about somebody or something. It grounds the humor and gives the joke a reality to exist in. A joke about a supermarket might be funny, but nine times out of ten a joke that references the local Food Bazaar will get a bigger reaction. A general rule of thumb: stronger specifics beget stronger reactions.

Copywriting is exactly the same way—specific details are simply more believable than broad assertions. Which blog headline sounds better:

  • 5 Things Copywriting and Stand-Up Have in Common
  • A List of Things Copywriting and Stand-Up Have in Common

Obscurity is not compelling. Building momentum with specificity, low-word counts, and relatability is what captivates audiences. Good copywriting and good comedy are very similar in their craft—but at least nobody has to squeeze into the back of a crowded, sweaty bar just to hear your three-minute copywriting set.

If you want to spice up your copy and maybe add a dash of humor, get in touch with us today.

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Christian Miller

From overdue library books to Saturday morning cartoons and bone-chilling campfire tales, Christian has always been obsessed with the art of a good story. His creative interests and passion for the great outdoors have taught him to appreciate the smallest details, so he takes great care to choose the best verbs, vowels, and vocab for every story—especially the story your business is trying to tell.

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