For lack of better terms, I tend to look at comedy in two very broad terms, that can be elaborated on later. Big ideas and small ideas.
Big idea comedy, at least in the way that I think of it, are premises that try to tackle the big issues in our society. Poverty, inequality, women’s issues, race, are what I would call Big ideas. These are things that people have an idea about, but may not have thought of them in a comedic way. I think a lot of comedians start out writing material with these ideas in mind. Why? Because it can be easier to grasp for both the comedian and the audience. We have been confronted with most of these ideas, so there is not much set up required. As soon as you start going into the bit, everyone more or less has an understanding of the topic at hand. This does not mean it is easy. On the contrary, big idea comedy writing is usually the hardest to write effectively. There is a reason they are ideas that still linger in our society, and there are many different ways to fail an idea you are trying to get out to the audience. I have sat at hundreds of open mics where the person wants to say something witty about these issues, but instead comes off as offensive or tone deaf. If that is the idea then, to make it seem as though you have no idea what is going on, then exaggeration is your friend.
Newer comedians tend to want to go after these topics for another reason, they have seen their favorite comedians knock these topics out of the park. The problem is that we tend to not see the work that is involved with crafting a joke so it seems easy when in actuality it is quite difficult. So, how would I advise a new comedian to go after these big ideas? I wouldn’t. I would tell them to go after things that others can’t duplicate (this is where small idea comedy comes in). If they really want to though, I would tell them that saying the same thing that every comedian in the world is already saying is not a good way to differentiate yourself from the masses. That is why blue collar comedy is what it is. It says something completely different from what hundreds of other comedians are saying.
Small idea comedy may sound like the opposite, and you would be partly right. Small ideas, as I am writing them, are things that are happening to you directly. It is not as big as race relations, but it can be, just as long as it is happening to you. This seems to be how a lot of comedians progress as they get more comfortable with the way they write. They start off talking about really heavy ideas, and then they look within their own lives to find humor. To a lot of newer comedians, this seems daunting. You may be young and thing the things that are happening to you directly would not be funny, but have you sat down and thought about it? Have you taken time to assess situations in your life that could be funny? When you start thinking about comedy differently, you start to realize that you can find a lot of good material in smaller ideas. How does going out in public make you feel? Do you hate your in-laws? These are things that do not affect the lives of many, but can still be funny.
How can you get to these small ideas and write effective material about them? First, think about the things that bother you. The things that make you laugh. These are things that a lot of other people may find weird enough to laugh at. Some of the greatest comedians ever made their names from looking within and being able to articulate it in ways that made others laugh. What is great about this material is because it is more personal, it is harder for others to duplicate. This is the material that audiences will remember you for. Do you have funny stories? That is small idea comedy!
I hope I was able to get these idea across in an effective manner. If not please let me know in the comments. While you are at it, go here to pick up the new book from my friend Andrew Oullette. Thanks!