The Assbuster Presents: 7 Books About Writing and Performing Comedy

Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

  • The Assbuster Presents: 7 Books About Writing And Performing Comedy

    The Assbuster is a busy man. I’m often stuck between open mics, lousy day jobs and marathon brooding sessions at the Rusty Needle (thanks for the buybacks!), but I still love to cozy up by the fire with a good book, even if the fire is in a trashcan.

    There are a lot of books about comedy. I’ve read many of them. I tend to stay away from the biographies – as much as I enjoy the stories, hero-worship only works for teenagers, and I prefer to spend my increasingly limited time developing my own style. All of the volumes listed here include plenty of writing prompts and exercises, and are best read with a notebook and pen, or whatever writing tools ye techno-literate types prefer.

    1. The Comic Toolbox by Jon Vorhaus
    This is the book that convinced me to pursue this bizarre avocation. Or, rather, by the time I’d finished all the exercises, I was already a multi-faceted comedy writer with a body of work, and it was too late to bail. Along with a lot of astute theoretical observations and a friendly, encouraging, vaguely British writing voice, Vorhaus prescribes enough homework to spark an HBO special, a few pilots, and an addictive faith in one’s own humor and worldview. This is a book to go through over and over, particularly whenever a block sets in.

    Want to branch out from stand-up and try writing a serious novel or a dramatic screenplay (like Woody Allen, Steve Martin and others)? Vorhaus’s Creativity Rules
    is similar but broader in scope and also damned fine.

    2. Step by Step to Stand-Up Comedy by Greg Dean
    While a lot of comedy coaches evangelize for their own brand of funny, Greg Dean provides a very specific technique for rendering your own ideas as jokes, whatever they might be or whatever warped hybrid humor you might create. Anyone can use it, and math and logic nerds will get off on it, hard. Dean also includes authoritative advice for performers, a quick detour through the weird world of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (it cures stage fright) and some humanizing anecdotes from his days as a warm-up act for the Chippendales.

    3. The New Comedy Writing by Gene Perret
    The title bites – it sounds like what would happen if you turned the rest of this list into magnetic poetry – but the exercises are top-shelf. Perret advises all new comics and writers to collect favorite cartoons and draft new captions for them – a load of captions – and, sure enough, a lot of successful new writers’ packets consist mainly of captions or similar gags. He also recommends writing a shit-ton of Tom Swifties, which isn’t as practical but is hard to not enjoy doing. This guy wrote one-liners for Bob Hope, and he indulges in a few old-man groaners here, but this is the motherfucker of all workbooks, particularly for aspiring stand-ups or TV writers.

    4. Zen and the Art of the Monologue by Jay Sankey
    This one doesn’t have much to say about writing, but it’s the only book that cuts to the meat of what it means to take a stand-up career seriously, digging into the loneliness of touring and the tragic irony of the latter-day court jester. It also has a wealth of specific, invaluable insights on performance, a heavy dose of perspective, and a lot of dry, distinctly Canadian cartoons. A lot of you might be better off in writing, acting, improv, or some other field that’s not exclusively for social retards – if you’re set on performing stand-up, this is the book to read.

    5. Comedy Writing Secrets by Melvin Helitzer
    This one’s weirdly controversial – Helitzer’s style is high-status in a sometimes-obnoxious way, a lot of his reference points are conspicuously dated, and a few comedians (mostly on the arty, experimental side) have insisted it made them worse. Nevertheless, this is an expansive and useful index of known joke formulas, for those who need to crank out a few gags to keep the monologue or the Twitter feed rolling on slow days. And – interesting side note – “dating guru” David DeAngelo recommends it to lonely, awkward dudes as a primer on flirting and teasing.

    6. What Are You Laughing At? by Brad Schreiber
    This lesser-known book veers far afield from gag-writing techniques into Christopher Volger’s Junigian ideas about storytelling, and it’s the only book on the list that takes a serious theoretical look at “dark humor” and absurdism. That’s okay with me – I’m a theory slut. But I include it mainly for, once again, the unique, mind-bending exercises – come in wanting a few new jokes; leave with a book proposal and a fresh appreciation for hard consonants and Yiddish.

    7. The Comedy Bible by Judy Carter
    Most people who shop for comedy books start with this one by default – Judy Carter is the most successful comedy teacher in the crowded Los Angeles market and an undisputed ace at self-promotion. There’s some good writing and performance advice here – it’s the only book that really gets into “act-outs” and “mixes,” which are big parts of stand-up SOP – and the pep talks should help reluctant beginners get their asses on stage, which is the main thing that matters. It’s notoriously padded with quotations from famous people, and the performance pointers may seem eerily familiar (if you want to stand-out on the Hollywood open-mic circuit, this ain’t gonna help), but Carter’s career advice certainly worked for her.

    In closing, to quote legendary Assbuster KRS-One: “Take the pillow from your head and put a book in it.” And don’t just skim and nod – do the damned exercises. A good hustle is its own reward.

    The Assbuster is a monthly column from the mind of Emerson Dameron, a stand-up comedian from Chicago who navigates the world of a stand-up comedy, hitting up open mics, and comedy clubs. Dameron is a writer, comedian and gentleman of the old school. He enjoys cats, oranges and the warm glow of a neon beerlight. Shadow him on his website or Twitter @EmersonDameron. He’s game for whatever.


    Emerson Dameron

    PS: If you’re going to read one comedian’s bio, Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up is essential.

    Emerson Dameron

    One more:

    Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue by Dennis Perrin.

    About a writer, but fascinating.

    What do you think?