Aug 21

Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV: Review

Note: This is a version of a review I posted on Amazon.

I don’t believe you can learn to be funny. Some reading this (when I say some I mean all one of you), will disagree with me. Some suggest you can learn to be funny. In my experience, people like this, myself included, have been stuck using techniques that stifled their own sense of humour. Once they break out of that, and learn to effectively capture their sense of humour, then it seems as though they learned to be funny.

What you can learn, however, are methods to structure your funny.

And that’s exactly what you learn from Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV. So far I have only read as far as the chapter on monologue joke writing, but that’s because I am in post production on an indie feature I wrote and produced last year. And I wanted to write an original sitcom pilot I’d been meaning to write for a while.

Oh, and I’m a stay at home dad to two kids. No biggie. But more about my film in a minute. Anyway, that chapter blew my head clean off with its clarity. I read it in bed, and I woke me wife up with my enthusiasm as I tried to explain my huge paradigm shift, but all she said was “that’s nice”.

I have read 13 books and I have done 2 courses on stand-up comedy and comedy writing. I don’t think this puts me at a disadvantage with doing comedy, as some comedians think. I originally did stand-up for a full year tweaking the same five minutes without any understanding how to judge if it was working at a high enough level, what that high enough level should be, and also how then to move and develop another five minutes.

Some comics are able to latch on to mentors they meet on the circuit, and they can provide them with the hard-earned advice they developed through experience.

I learned my skills by a small set of books that I found worked best for me out of the large number of books I’ve read. I then put those skills into practise both by generating material and by delivering that material in front of audiences.

I have worked as a stand-up, an MC, a sketch comedy writer and performer, and a joke writer. And been paid. I think you do what you can to model what has worked before.

But the problem with a lot of books is they try to cover too much ground. They want to show you how to write jokes, monologues, stand-up, sketch, solo shows, sitcoms, and screenplays. There’s no way one 300 page book can cover all those.

The best ones just focus on one area. That’s exactly what Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV does.

The section on monologue joke writing was the clearest explanation I have ever read. Typically, in other books that cover this, you get lessons on how to pick topics, generate ideas, but then you have figure out how to structure them yourself.

You get something like “the punchline is your own reaction”. Huh? I have to make a sarcastic comment on what I’ve written. But not all comedy’s sarcastic, so then what do I do? Other times, the advice you follow allows you to write a joke for a comedian in 1983. But not now. This book explains how to write contemporary comedy.

Also, you won’t learn exercises that exist by themselves as some comedy writing books have you do. These often leave you scratching your head as you try to figure out how to turn them into comedy material. With Joe’s book, you learn how to write usable comedy material from the get go.

Yes, you will learn the formulas regularly used by late night comedy writers. They are used because of the sheer amount of work involved. You may also think, “this guy wrote for Leno? Urgh, Leno’s not funny.” You may substitute Letterman for Leno in that sentence depending on your preference.

But you know, whatever you think of those guys and their late night perspectives remember in order to work as a writer on those shows, you have to be able to pump out 70-150 jokes (sometimes more) a day. A day.

Some stand-ups write a couple of jokes a day for a year and have an hour long show at the end of it. And if that’s your goal, then great. But that many jokes will get you fired from your late night position.

While volume may seem like a negative, the more you practice the lessons learned in this book, the more your quality level will increase.

Right now, due to time constraints of looking after two kids, I can generally write around 10 jokes. Not enough yet to work at a high level on TV, but a good starting point.

If you want to learn stand-up comedy writing, comedy screenplays, solo shows, or sitcom writing Joe’s book isn’t for you. Sure, the mechanics of laughter are the same, but with those different genres I just mentioned there are other things you need to learn as well.

In Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV, you will learn every facet of producing material for late-night, which not only includes monologue jokes, desk pieces, etc but sketch comedy too. So if sketch comedy is your thing, then you can certainly learn a lot about how to write sketch comedy from this masterful book.

I mentioned earlier about being in post-production on my first screenplay. While I wrote that script before I bought Joe’s book, the techniques I have learned so far and will learn once I finish the book will help me on my next screenplay. The skills you learn are absolutely transferable, whether stand-up comedy is your ultimate goal or screenplays. The skills from this book can help you edit and hone your comedy in both stand-up and script writing.

In case you’re wondering, I do not know Joe and I gain nothing from writing this lengthy testimonial. I refer to him by first name, because of the experience I have had in reading this book so far. It has made me feel like I am getting a personal tutorial. So I feel I can refer to him by his first name, even though I have never met him.

I thoroughly recommend Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV. Buy it, but more importantly, read and implement its lessons.



  1. Joe Toplyn

    Hi, Jason,

    Thanks for your review. I’m glad the book turned out to be as practical, for you and other people, as I hoped it would be.

    I believe that anybody can learn to be funny–i.e., to get laughs–the same way that anybody can learn to act or play the guitar. All you have to do is read books, take lessons, and practice, practice, practice.

    But it’s true that only students with exceptional talent will turn into Meryl Streep or Eric Clapton.

  2. Jason Peck

    Hey Joe,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my blog.

    I understand and respect what you said. In my experience, however, I think if you don’t have a sense of humor to start with no matter how many lessons you have you can’t gain one.

    Personally, I don’t really have much of a head for numbers. I’m not sure if lessons or books will improve that. I could be wrong. And I’m open to being wrong.

    Anyway, thanks again for stopping by. I think I might try to post updates, from time to time, on how I’m getting along with implementing your book. Without, of course, giving away your content.

  3. Joe Toplyn

    I think desire might be a necessary element to learning anything. If you don’t want to learn how to play the guitar, or think you’d never be good at it, I don’t think anybody could ever teach you to play the guitar. You wouldn’t focus on the lessons, you wouldn’t practice, and you wouldn’t learn.

    But I think if you enjoy guitar music and would love to make music with the guitar yourself, you could learn.

    The same goes for comedy. If you appreciate comedy and would love to amuse people yourself–that is, you have a sense of humor–you can learn to create comedy. If you don’t appreciate comedy and don’t care about making people laugh, nobody can teach you how.

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