(You may now act surprised!)
However, humorists have an additional reason or two for keeping notes that make this practice imperative.
We all have random thoughts. Some we’ll share; some we won’t admit at gunpoint. However, humorists routinely store them for future use. No matter how insane or seemingly useless an idea is at a particular moment, random very often means there’s a killer punchline hidden in there somewhere, or perhaps just a smile, or anything in between.
Remember being 20 and waking up on that dreaded morning after the wildest, most drunken party ever thrown. That was nature training you to deal with every damn morning when you’re 75.
A Little Standup Love
Every successful standup comedian makes and keeps notes 24/7. If they don’t have a notebook, they’re carrying a pocketful of napkins and Burger King receipts with hastily scribbled notes on every little corner that holds the faintest promise of future legibility. The reasons for this practice are simple:
- Your brain is always disciplined and well-organized ONLY if you are a fictional character.
- Ideas, both useful and useless, do not arrive on a convenient schedule.
- Human short-term memory, when not actively reinforced, has a duration measured in seconds.
- As long as you don’t own any goats, a notebook generally lasts longer than seconds.
The Perfect Filing System
One of the twentieth century’s most successful comedians, Bob Hope kept his Joke File in an eight-by-five bank vault at his home office. It comprised a dozen file cabinets and over a half million jokes (filed alphabetically) written by more than 100 of America’s best humorists, including Hope himself. Today, you can see this collection, over 85,000 scanned pages, at the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment in the Library of Congress.
On the other hand, don’t underestimate the value of old shoe boxes.
If you think the road to hell is paved with good intentions, you should see the road to becoming well-organized.
While I tip my hat to Bob Hope and anyone else so nicely and neatly organized, the only realistic value in any filing system is that you can find said file again at some time in the future. I knew one comedian who kept all of his notes in a 30-gallon trash bag. It worked for him, and frankly, what else matters?
Writers often keep a file of ideas that they will revisit from time to time in order to select an idea for their next project. It’s a standard practice and unquestionably worthwhile. Humorists, on the other hand, keep a joke file for these same reasons and for daily exercise.
If you are a beginner at writing jokes in any format, the odds are pretty good that your finest efforts are just as likely to garner a yawn as a laugh.
That’s nice, dear. Eat your porridge.
Now, picture yourself after many years of writing just one good joke every day. You will find:
- Your brain is more disciplined, capable of finding the funny in just about any topic.
- Ideas now arrive on demand.
- It no longer matters that your short-term memory is unreliable since generating a steady stream of ideas has become routine.
- Your Joke File, more precious than gold, is always available for reference and is now large enough to annoy your spouse.
Today’s random thought could be the perfect funny bit of dialogue or the iconic humorous character that you are looking for in your notes ten years from now. In addition, filing and consciously cultivating random thoughts every day will, over time, train you to find your funny at will. So, you now have an entirely valid reason to shout:
Somebody get me a trash bag!
– John Betz, Jr.
Next Up: Let’s Talk Dialogue