Debra Garfinkle is one of the funniest writers I’ve ever known or read. So, why would she be taking a stand-up comedy class? Debra — author the Zeke Meeks series (writing as D.L. Green), the Supernatural Rubber Chicken books and five YA novels — shares a bit about the intersection of stand-up comedy and reaching middle grade readers.
You’ve written about trying comedy for your “3/4 life crisis.” What was the writer in you thinking about this venture?
Creative writing had always been my hobby, since I was a little kid writing poems and through my years as a lawyer when I wrote short stories to de-stress after work. After I sold my first novel, writing became more of a job than a hobby. I still enjoyed it and loved getting paid for my former hobby, but got stressed out about publishers, deadlines, promotion, etc. I wanted a hobby to do just for fun, so I turned to stand-up comedy.
I thought doing stand-up would suit me for several reasons: I’ve always loved going to stand-up comedy shows; most of my books are humorous and I write a humorous newspaper column, so I was used to writing humor; I had experience acting in high school and college plays and doing moot court in law school.
Stand-up comedy turned out a lot harder than I’d thought. I learned that good stand-up comics should make the audience laugh every 10 to 15 seconds. So in a six-minute set, that’s 24-36 jokes to write and perform. Also, what may seem funny in writing often fails in performance, so I’d have to write maybe ten jokes for every one that really worked. And it’s scary being on the stage by oneself, with no other actors, directors, or writers to blame when the set bombed. But when the set went well, it was wonderful to hear people laughing at jokes I wrote and performed.
How does comic timing on stage translate to on the page?
I think on the page, there’s more time to set up a joke. Readers can skim if they want. Stand-up audience are less patient. They don’t want to sit through a long set-up in order to hear the punchline.
Bill Word, my stand-up comedy teacher, used to say, “Get to the funny faster.” I try to keep that in mind when I’m writing children’s books. I think child readers are similar to a stand-up comic’s audience in that they mostly want to laugh and have a good time. Sure, I can slip in some meaningful messages, but my main purpose is to entertain. With that in mind, I try hard to delete extraneous things in the set-ups to my jokes.
Stand-up also helped me value callbacks (a joke that references something that happened earlier in the set) and tags (a second punchline added to the first punchline, so that one set-up makes the audience laugh twice as long).
Bill Word constantly said, “There’s something there.” We used to make fun of him for saying it so much, but it was very helpful. Even if we told the worst joke ever, we were encouraged to work with and play with it to make it better. Sometimes the worst joke ever eventually led to funny stuff. So I try to keep an open mind when I’m conceptualizing or drafting books, telling myself that there may indeed by “something there.”
Debra is published under the names D.L. Garfinkle and D.L. Green. You can read more about her books, writing, and treadmill desk at her website. Check out her book reviews written in haiku on her blog, too. They’re fantastic.