Anatomy of a Joke

Anatomy of a Joke


One of the most often asked questions of me after a show is “how do you come up with your material?”  My stock answer is “ I think of funny shit.”  The truth is, this is the first time I analyzed how I write jokes. I know my enthusiasm over the years  has waned for the writing process.  In the beginning I did my homework.  I’d cassette tape every show and go home that night and transcribe it onto a legal pad long hand.  I underlined all the um’s ah’s and other utterances I wanted to take out. I’ve never been a joke machine, preferring quality over quantity.  I write jokes that aren’t time sensitive for the most part and deal with the human experience.  My focus is on adults because I’m usually talking to grown folk.

There seems to be two ways I get to the funny.  One is when something bothers me and really ticks me off.  I write down whatever that is and ridicule whoever does it.

The last time I was at the Laundromat, I thought about somebody I saw on the train. It was about 4 in the morning, my favorite time to write so I took out my phone and wrote a draft on my email.

When somebody pulls onto the road to ridiculous a good friend should be your GPS system and recalculate your dumb ass. To the dummies out there trying to beat father time..give it up. All that botox doesn’t make you look younger it makes you look like a botoxaholic.  Like an alcoholic,you know one  when you see one and it hurts to look at them. You can’t tell what they’re gonna do. It appears they are happy all the time. Where are the good friends at this point?  I bet they have given up.

“She’s gonna do what she wants,I can’t talk to her anymore. ” and who’s telling these frozen faced freaks they look better or good at all?  It looks like thousands of women prepared for a role as ghoul in a horror flick.  You want your face to be expressive, be proud to show how long you’ve stuck around.  I bet this whole thing started when one woman told another woman “look at her,she thinks she’s cute “. We are either going to die sooner or later so instead of fighting a battle you gotta know you’re gonna lose learn how to get the most out of life and all it’s various stages. Wrinkles and lines have stories to tell.

(The above draft will probably boil down to a couple of jokes)

The next step is to go back and remove everything that doesn’t sound funny right away or that I can’t re work.  Then I figure out what order to put the words, and try saying them in front of an audience.  A positive response and it stays. If I get absolutely nothing, I never say those words in that order again.   Most comedians have at least one joke that gets moaned at.  We’ll keep them in the act because we love them for our own entertainment, or use it as punishment for a crowd that we feel doesn’t deserve our best stuff.

The other way I usually find some funny is  to think of something while on stage.  Those moments are highly rewarding.  I liken it to giving birth.  The joke is healthy and weighs in with good poundage.  In the late 90’s I stopped smoking marijuana for a while. The plan was to go onstage one night and make that announcement and see what came to me.

“I quit smoking marijuana….tomorrow”.

William Stephenson


Whats It Like

What It’s Like


The is a certain amount of anxiety a comedian feels when he approaches the stage.

Will they laugh with me or at me?

Will I remember all the jokes I planned for this set?

How’s my hair?

Anything stuck in my teeth?

It’s like in the Wizard Of Oz, when Dorothy is dizzied from the tornado and the house crashes down on the wicked witch. She opens the door and it changes from black and white to color.  Rich, deep living color.  You go from apprehension to euphoria when that first laugh comes.

Ask a comedian what it’s like to tell jokes for a living and you’ll get a myriad of responses.  Most will try to explain the unbelievable positive energy you get from a room full of strangers.  It’s all about the immediate feedback a comic gets from a live audience that is seated a foot from your face. The sound of laughter is pleasing from afar, and crazy good right on top of you.

The relationship between the comedian and audience is unique in that the audience is an explosive device and the comic is the fuse.  Lighting up a room with laughter is almost joy overload. Any good comic can tell you about the night he had them eating out of their hands.

A comedy club audience is usually filled with seats that are close together.  Laughter being contagious, it works best when folks are shoulder to shoulder.

Garvins Laugh Inn in Washington D.C. had this type of seating and is where I did my first open mike. It was there I also sat near the front row and watched my first weekend show.  The headliner was Joe Bolster and he made me laugh real hard.  I cried tears of joy and remember having to borrow my neighbors napkin to sop up all my tears. (My napkin had liquefied) Great waves of laughter rolled around the room throughout his set. When one wave ended, it was followed by another. How great is this, I thought. Strangers from all over the world had gathered in this one room and created an unmatched energy you won’t find anywhere else.

Of course it’s not that great every night.  Bombing, or stinking up the joint, happens to all comedians at some point.  The worst bomb I dropped was about 12 years ago.  I was at the Peppermint Lounge in New Jersey.  Right away I’m not in my comfort zone.  First, the audition was held in a nightclub that was not ideally set up for comedy.  Second, it was an audition and I tend to freeze up whenever I’m asked to audition for anything.  On top of that the audition was for Def Comedy Jam’s second season.  I had seen the show and knew that I wasn’t the typical Def Jam comic- usually very vulgar and raunchy.  One thing you cannot do in front of an all black audience is show fear.  I had a dump truck full and I showed it. It was as if I came on stage bleeding, and the crowd finished me off.  It started with a muted mumbling from a table a few rows back, and quickly grew to a guttural avalanche of boos.  You’ve seen this happen at the Apollo when the comedian doesn’t get the microphone out of the stand before he is booed off.  Once the momentum had started there was no turning it around.  If I rated the boos I heard that night like a hurricane, it would’ve been a category 5. People needed to be evacuated.  These boos came from a place way down deep in the soul. They acted like I was decapitating their mother while raping their sister right in front of them.

Fortunately, I was able to survive this ordeal with a poem called Your Hair Weave Is Causing Me Problems.  This was the reason I got the audition in the first place.  They let me leave with my life after that and to make a long story turn out well, I appeared on an episode of Def Comedy Jam.

William Stephenson

Floating Jokes

Floating Jokes

Comedians spend most of their working lives in comedy clubs. Sometimes, we are asked to perform in other venues. The other night, the Comedy Cellar had the first of two annual boat rides. Comedy boat rides are a challenge because of the constant movement of the boat along with a horn blast that comes at the most inopportune times. I have learned to negotiate the waves and not drink until I finish working.

The weather was ideal, a perfect summer night. The experience included a 4-hour trek around Manhattan with two shows, the first starting as the boat leaves the dock. On a lower level, the second audience is dancing to a DJ while waiting for their show to start about 15 minutes after the first show ends. Comics hang out in a roped-off section on the stage level in the open air. About 15 of us wait there for our turn to perform, nibbling from a 10-foot hoagie and assorted fruit plates.

I hosted the first show and was the first act on the second. Both went great. The audience rocking the boat with laughter. After my work, I went down and danced to the only song that moved me−MJ’s “You Wanna Be Starting Something.” Back in the comedians area I had a couple of rum and cokes while sitting at a table with fellow comic Ryan Hamilton, enjoying the sweet summer breeze.

On the surface, one would think we have little in common. Ryan is a Mormon from Idaho and doesn’t drink, smoke, or curse. I asked Ryan what it was all about. I waited for my answer while Ryan pondered my query. Sometimes, comedians actually have meaningful conversations! He leaned back in his chair, spread his arms out to the sky, looked around and said …”this.” I took that to mean making people happy a couple hundred at a time.