Ready to start writing some jokes or at least kick-start your brain's joke-generating engine? Be careful: Once you start asking your brain to come up with jokes it might not be able to stop.
“Something From Nothing”
You can use this exercise anytime. Try it when you have down time — when you're riding the subway, waiting at the doctor's office, anytime you're bored. Boredom can be a comic's best friend. When your mind starts to wander, that's when it's ready for comedy.
This exercise is called “Something From Nothing” because it's a quick and fun way to come up with lots of ideas from absolutely nothing. It's like plucking jokes from thin air. Some might be great, and others, well, not-so-great. But that's okay. The object is to get ideas and start making those random brain connections that make up comedy. One idea — good or bad — will always lead to another. That's how the process works.
Here's how it works: Take out a sheet of paper and draw a line lengthwise down the middle. Make a list of thirty to forty nouns, people, places, and things on one side. On the other side, write thirty to forty more. Don't overthink your word choices; just let it flow. Don't try to be funny yet — simply write down words that are interesting but not too specific. Here's a sample list to get you started:
Now that you have a list, set aside an hour or so and get ready to play. The goal is to take a word from Column A and pair it with any of the words from Column B and see if any funny ideas come to mind. It could be anything — a quick joke, a sketch idea, even a premise for a short story. Feel free to jump around the list; there are no real rules here. If an idea makes you think of something totally different and takes you in another direction, don't be afraid to go there; that's the whole point of this exercise. As you make matches, jot your ideas down, draw pictures, and doodle. Grab your notebook and let's get started.
Be warned, once you start asking your brain to look for comedy all the time, it will do just that — look for comedy all the time, even at the most inappropriate times. Funerals, colonoscopies, and waiting in line at the DMV will never be the same. You'll need to find a balance of allowing your brain to wander and asking it for extreme focus as an idea comes up.
The following is an attempt to capture the thought process on paper. Your results will vary — and hopefully they'll be funnier!
Dog paired with Microwave
Hmmm, there's an urban legend about an old lady who tried to dry her wet dog in the microwave with disastrous results. It probably never happened, but what if it did? Hot Paw-kets? … How do urban legends start anyway? How about a sketch about an office full of guys whose job it is to write urban legends and get them out to the public … Or, what about this — a support group for people who were in urban legends telling their stories. You could have the microwaved-dog lady, the woman who was parked in lover's lane with her boyfriend and later found a bloody hook on the car door handle, and the kid who made a funny face and it froze that way. They could all be talking about their problems when a newcomer is introduced to the group. There might be something there.
Dog paired with Secret Recipe
Cans of pet food have flavor names like “Hearty Stew” and “Seafood Fiesta Select.” Do people test them? Is there someone whose job it is to taste test dog food? Is there a temperamental master chef behind these creations? Dogs and cats eat weird stuff on their own. They even eat out of the garbage and drink out of the toilet bowl. Why not give the foods names that reflect that. Names like “Rancid Month-Old Chinese-Food Leftovers Medley,” “Coffee Grounds and Q-Tips Blend,” “I Can't Believe it's Not Poop” and “Diaper Surprise!”
Dog paired with Fossil
What would a prehistoric dog look like? Would it look like Dino from The Flintstones? What if archeologists actually found the Flintstones-like home in a dig? The pig/garbage disposal, the bird/record player, etc. That could be interesting. What if a dog skeleton was actually made out of Milk Bones? That could be a cool prop. It proves you are what you eat.
Elephant paired with Newspaper
Why would an elephant be reading a newspaper? What section, the personals? Maybe it could take out an ad. What would animal personals be like? What if two animals that were mortal enemies, like a lion and a wildebeest, fell in love in a chat room, then finally met each other on a blind date? How awkward would that be? … How about the job listings? Maybe the elephant is sick of its job at the zoo or circus and wants a different career? What job would it apply for, and how would the interview go? That could be a fun sketch…. What's another “weird” job that someone could be sick of? The Tooth Fairy, the Boogyman, the Jolly Green Giant, and Santa might be fun choices to try…. How about this: Have a job interview where someone is applying for the job of Boogyman — “My strengths? Well, I'm really bad with kids … “Or, instead of a job interview — a blind date. The Boogyman on a blind date — that could be a funny sketch or it could be a single-panel comic strip. Or what if the Tooth Fairy's job was outsourced to India?
Get the idea? Not everything was funny, but weak ideas led to stronger premises. The key is not to judge ideas as they come up, just let them flow. If you've tried to make a connection but a word pairing isn't giving you ideas, just move on. Don't make speed bumps on your path to an idea by deciding if a thought is funny or not. Just jot it down and keep going. Do this exercise whenever you can and remember even if you only get one good idea from it — it's worth it.
If you don't get any good ideas from this exercise, don't worry about it. Put the list aside and try again tomorrow. This can't be a chore; it has to be fun. If you're not in the right mood, you're not going to get much, or all your ideas will reflect that mood. Maybe you're too close to the list. Maybe it's just a bad list. Ask a friend to make you a list. Better yet, make it really random by asking a few friends to give you four or five items.