What can writers learn from comedians? When you see a polished Netflix special, you don’t see the 50 iterations that came before it. There’s a systematic way that comedians test jokes through different filters. What is their process, and how can writers integrate it to have battle tested ideas?

How do you feel when you see your favorite comedian perform? The jokes come one after another, seemingly without effort, producing a crescendo of laughs.  Have you ever wondered how you get a joke to work? 

A good joke, like a good piece of writing, takes a dose of insight, a unique perspective, and a ton of editing. The spark of an idea must be vomited out and then chiseled over and over again to become the final product. The process of perfecting any creative piece, whether a drawing, an essay, or a joke starts with an idea that must undergo refinement. In some crafts, feedback is a singular event. But in comedy, it requires different audiences to help you shape and tighten your joke. I think other crafts could learn from this process, which I call feedback mountain. 

I’ve been performing stand-up all across the country for over 5 years now. Thanks to the feedback mountain, I show up to every venue armed with a portfolio of jokes that can work across different situations. In the last 10 months, I’ve been writing essays on Substack where I have noticed a similar feedback process at play. 

Each phase of Feedback Mountain holds specific nutrients that allow the idea to mature. My inner circle allows me to test fresh ideas, my fellow craftsmen give me the expertise of joke writing, and public audiences provide me with continuous data points. Each phase allows the joke to grow but also holds limitations that force you on to the next phase. By going through this process, the initial seed is shaped into a well crafted weapon producing laughs on command. What I have found is that the maturation of a joke carries similar parallels to writing, (and any creative endeavor). Traversing this feedback mountain will shape your joke into its final form. 

Level 1: Testing seeds with the inner circle

Let’s assume you have a funny idea. Your jokes will spawn from whatever inspires laughter in you. Some are methodical with it. Most of mine seem to arrive as I’m submerged in water, slightly stoned. 

Whatever your process is, you must catch the things that make you laugh. These little absurdities are the seeds you will nurture into your final product. At this stage, you are an audience of one. You have made yourself laugh, but you do not know if it’ll work in the marketplace of hyenas. Is the premise any good? Can others relate? The viability of an idea can only be understood when it is tested on others. Perspective is the soil in which you bury your new seed.

A good first step is to test ideas on your inner circle. I like to run them on my friends, family and girlfriend. I often bake them into the conversation. Does the joke work when people don’t know I’m looking for a laugh? The beauty of this stage is that I get to read their natural reactions. I see where they’re confused or bored. I see how they respond, and often they will offer different angles from my original premise. These people are also the ones that most understand you. They ‘get’ your style of funny. So even if an idea is rough around the edges, the built in rapport lets them know what you’re going for. This favorable environment will allow your plant to sprout with new offshoots. 

This level of Feedback Mountain has limitations, however. Your inner circle is less familiar with structure and delivery and their advice will often reflect that. My girlfriend might laugh at the joke but she can’t explain why. She is not the type to obsess over a joke and dismantle it. For that, you must turn to your kin.

Level 2: Shaping ideas with my follow craftsman

Jerry Seinfeld’s last book, “Is this anything?”, was an homage to the process of testing new material on fellow comedians. The phrase “Is this anything?” is often followed by a ridiculous new idea and my ears perk up to see how I can help shape it. Whenever you have a new material it is always a good practice to take it to those who are immersed in the discipline.  

Comedians see jokes as puzzles that must be solved. There is an underlying structure to every joke that works and our goal is to seek out the punchlines. Each comedian will bend the premise in a direction that fits their style which will help refine your own. Some comics revel in one liners while others can take any premise into an absurd situation.

On this level of the mountain, there are again limitations. Although comedians are great sources of feedback, one can be led astray if you only rely on their sense of humor. Because comedians are constantly exposed to jokes they’re desensitized and require more to get a laugh from. The extremes at which you must go to procure a laugh from the average comedian could alienate the general public. Thus, once your joke has gotten help from your fellow craftsman, you must go up the mountain where real people reside. 

Level 3: Learning from public audiences

You now have something with potential and it is time to get down the contours of the joke from the vantage point of behind the microphone. Stage time in front of real audience members will provide you with your strongest feedback. After all, the purpose of creating a new joke is to use it on new audiences. 

Andrew Schulz describes doing stand up like playing basketball but where the hoop moves every time. Every night the crowd brings a different energy, your wording and emotional output varies, even the structure of the room plays a role (low ceilings and high density is optimal for standup). Thus, it takes tons of repetition to find the signal through the noise. With enough practice, you can approximate shots into the hoop regardless of its location.

Out of the many jokes that started as seeds only a few will make it to this point where you are consistently using it on stage. Many will stagnate at various points either not producing quite the laugh you want. This does not mean you must discard these ideas. An idea can always burst into maturation at a later point when perhaps your skills or perspectives have caught up and you can twist the joke so it works just right. 

Feedback Mountain For All Creative Pursuits

All creative pursuits require a feedback mountain. Whether you are a writer or a comedian the process of testing your material is inherent to the craft. Joke making, like all art, is not a solo act. It may spawn in isolation but only matures with the insight and responses from others.

As I explore premises and punchlines with my inner circle I learn quickly whether the idea has legs by those who understand me best. As I work with other comedians I shape and add strength to the structure of the joke. And as I practice the joke over and over again in different crowds I learn what makes them laugh and which elements resonated most. This methodical elevation of a new idea across feedback mountain allows you to refine the idea as you increase its exposure. After all, the mark of a great artist is that his work resonates with others.