Learning from comedians: exercises for comic creativity

Comedy creativity doesn’t happen by magic, or by way of some randomly bestowed divine gift. Comedians have to work on it, even when they don’t feel creative. They use range of methods to stimulate their creativity in order to generate new ideas and further developments of their material.

Here are some such exercises, which you can use to develop your comic creativity. Most of them you can do them anytime, anywhere: while sitting on a train, standing in line for the bus, during the dreadful commercials on TV, which surely constitute the worst form of time-wasting on the planet – anywhere, as long as there is some kind of sensory stimulation, but you can be an observer rather than getting drawn into it – some sort of material going on for your observation.

Exercise 1: Alien point of view

Comedians specialize in looking at things differently from the normal or convential.

For 5 minutes every day, look with fresh eyes at what people around you are doing. Consider, how could it be looked at differently? What might aliens think about this? What alternative interpretations would they come up with for what people are doing? Try to keep imagining what such a being  would make of this stuff – how they might view things if they hadn’t learned the conventional interpretations and responses and didn’t follow the usual rules, because they didn’t know what they are. For instance, knowing that we Earthlings have religions, might they conclude that those little tabular objects that we hold in our hands so often, and stare at so intently as we walk the streets or sit on public transport or in the restaurant and speak at lot into, must constitute worship and prayer to some form of elevated deity? Then, how would you carry that idea further?

Exercise 2: making links

This is a free-association exercise, used to develop the comedian’s crucial ability to discover unlikely connexions between things.

Write down a column of ten random items on a sheet of paper, then do the same on another sheet.  Don’t think about it – do it quickly and spontaneously. Then put the two sheets side by side, creating side-by-side columns. What you now have might come out something like this:

links exercise









Then see if you can think of unexpected ways of linking each of the ten resulting pairs of words. Look through both lists, and pick out pairs from anywhere in each column, taking one word at a time and testing it against each of the words in the other column, till a weird way of linking comes into your mind. Note these on a third piece of paper. You might come up with something like this:

I am irresistibly attracted to people who carry a hatchet

You might even link three of the terms together:

I spend a lot of time hanging out near the fruit and vegetable section of my local supermarket. Sometimes I find an aubergine that is so beautiful that I become quite delirious. The staff are rather concerned.

I am irresistibly attracted to people who carry a hatchet in their handbag.

It’s not important to think up very clever or very sophisticated or indeed very funny links – it’s more about training the mind to make links, and to avoid obvious or conventional ones. This is what will develop the particular mental faculty we’re looking for here. If you do this every day, you will soon notice that the habit becomes more ingrained, and you overcome any reserve you may have about it. Then you might proceed to level two of the exercise – making some sort of unlikely link between each pair, in the existing order, all the way down the two lists. For instance:

Ever since I had my vasectomy, I’ve been unable to pass a piece of thread on the floor without picking it up and hiding it in my underwear

I see the tabloid newspapers are all giving away a free jelly today