How to Become a Comedy Writer
With the number of comedy shows that parade across nightly television, jobs for comedy writers are always sought after. Not only do you need to have writing experience, but you have to be quick, witty and of course, funny if you want to make it in the comedy writing business. If your sense of humor is something the world needs to see, consider a career as a comedy writer.
Do I need a college degree to be a comedy writer?
The answer to this question isn’t so simple. It may seem ridiculous at first to think that a person would need a college degree to write comedy, but depending on the venue you want to write for, a degree from a four year college may be the best way in.
Once upon a time, being funny was the only prerequisite for a comedy writer. Great comedy writers of the past (think Allan Manings or Richard Pryor) advanced up the comedy ranks by being hilarious, not because of their Ivy League degrees. Then again, back then television wasn’t the big business that it is now. Scripted shows like Saturday Night Live are looking for the best and the brightest, and unfortunately that usually means hiring kids from Harvard and Penn.
All of that is to say that getting a college degree is probably not a bad idea for people who want to work as comedy writers. If nothing else, your degree could give you a nice fall back career if your work in comedy doesn’t pan out. As for what you should study at college, that doesn’t really matter. If you want to work in television, a degree in communications or TV, Film, and Radio would work nicely, but any degree from a high caliber four year university is probably good enough.
These days, just being funny is only a small part of becoming a good comedy writer. The best comedy writers start out as good writers in general, then learn how comedy works over time as they become more familiar with television and script conventions. Learn how to tell a story, the structure of a good narrative, and how to write convincing dialogue. This is where a four year degree in theater, creative writing, or any kind of writing or literature can really help.
What can I do now to turn myself into a comedy writer?
Increase your vocabulary. Funny writers are smart writers. Having more words at your disposal will make you a better writer, one more able to express themselves in language, and a more effective comedian as well. Dumb isn’t funny.
Take classes in Improvisation. Also known as Improv, these workshops teach people the basics of comedy, from presenting stand alone jokes to performing with a larger group. You’d be surprised by the number of entertainers who started out in Improv classes. If you aren’t sure about taking these courses, you can ask the venue that’s giving the lessons if they offer a free sample class to test the waters. Everyone from Whoopi Goldberg and Tina Fey to Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler have spent time in Improv training. Improv makes you think quickly and trust your natural comedy instincts. You also get a rough course in other comedy essentials, such as proper timing, dialogue, movement, using props, character development, and being honest with your comedy.
Watch as much television and film as you can. If you plan on becoming a comedy writer, odds are that you’ll be writing for a TV or film-based performance. Television writing has certain conventions that must be seen to be learned. Try as you might, you just won’t get the kind of training in TV from sitting in a lecture hall as you will from watching endless reruns of Alf and MASH.
Perform stand-up comedy. Look around for amateur nights or open mics at local comedy clubs. Before you can ever get booked for your own set, you’ll have to prove your meddle doing stand-up in front of the harsh amateur night audiences. You’ll get booed, you’ll get some laughs, but mostly you’ll learn to listen to that little voice in your head that tells you what’s funny and what’s not. When it comes to comedy experience, sweating out an evening of stand-up out under the lights at a comedy club is worth two or three college degrees.
How much money do comedy writers make?
With most careers, it is hard to come up with an average salary. Not so with comedy writers — at least those that work in television and films. There are standard minimum rates for entertainment writers, based on Union standards. A television writer with little experience will earn right at $30,100 per episode (minimum) as long as that episode is 60 minutes or less. A longer bit of comedy writing would earn even more. Since most comedy writers for television write for more than one episode per season, you can multiply that number several times over, meaning even newcomers to entertainment writing can easily earn a six figure salary.
Consider this next statistic, though, for a little grain of salt to take with that high salary. According to that same worker’s union, as many as 50% of entertainment writers are unemployed at any given time. There’s a high turnover for TV writing jobs, so that huge paycheck may need to last twice as long as with other jobs.
All comedians need good comedy writers. Television shows would be nothing more than thirty minute soap commercials without the talented entertainment writers behind them. Even speechwriters and journalists can use training in comedy writing, both to liven up their material and to learn crucial lessons about timing and pacing that come from writing jokes. Though there’s no prescribed path to becoming a comedy writer, there are plenty of things you can do right now to improve your chances of making it as a TV funnyman. Watch as much television and stand-up comedy as you can, and be prepared for the inevitable heartbreak that comes from any creative field.