When I was growing up I wanted to be the funniest kid in school. I read How to Be the Funniest Kid in the Whole Wide World (or Just in Your Class) by Jay Leno. For me, the biggest takeaway from the book was that I should keep some sort of joke journal in which I would record jokes. Every day.
Yikes that's a lot of work, but I was up for the challenge. Unfortunately I didn't take the best approach.
A Lightning Rod For Inspiration
I had interpreted the message as being “Take the journal with you everywhere! You never know when inspiration will strike!”
And I waited for inspiration. And waited.
I barely filled up half a page.
At the time and for most of my life, I had assumed this advice to keep a joke journal was only aimed at a special type of person. This person has a talent for comedy--being funny is something you can’t teach apparently. There were some people that were just born funny, and their natural gift made them lightning rods for inspiration. These people were rare. That’s why only a select few ever make it to the top.
Would I be one of them? Not with an empty joke journal! I grew skeptical and discouraged.
Still, I kept journals of jokes and ideas, more because I always had a head full of them than anything. The journals would get lost in the shuffle of other notebooks and I never really kept up with one consistently like I do now. But I was a prolific writer as a kid, I still have many of the comics and cartoons I drew, the rap songs, the short stories, the scripts, skits and even novels that I wrote. Maybe I had a natural disposition for ideas--or maybe I was just bored out of my mind growing up in Delaware, but either way I didn’t understand what the point of a joke journal was. I didn’t seem to need it to create things that were funny.
Then I don’t know what happened, but as I got older it started getting harder and harder to come up with ideas. And whenever there were long periods where inspiration didn’t strike at all, I worried I didn’t have the talent. And then I became convinced that inspiration only came at the worst times. I’d kick myself for going to a party, where inspiration would strike, and then I wouldn’t have the damn joke book to record it. I’d always forget to write it down when I got home, alcohol can make you forget sometimes. But I’d always remember to brush my teeth. What’s the secret?
Make it A Habit
I didn’t forget to brush my teeth after a party because it’s such a well-ingrained habit. So is shooting free-throws for great basketball players, and writing jokes is for great comedians.
What I’ve been missing all this time, it turns out was:
Making a daily habit of sitting down to write jokes in my joke book and
Using exercises that are designed to help generate material.
That’s what the joke book is actually for: open it up every day and do the exercises for five, fifteen, or thirty minutes. Spend whatever time you can, the importance is making a habit of creating. Before you know it, you have a ton of material to develop and play with. If I had made a habit of using it in this way, I would have been able to record the jokes the morning after the party.
Why Be a Lightning Rod When You Can Make Lightning?
It was unreasonable for me to think that I would find inspiration to record in my joke book every day. Maybe some people are exceptionally talented in finding inspiration so much that they don’t need to exercise, and those people are rare. But they aren’t the only ones who “make it” as comedians--some people get there from relying on hard work and refining their craft. Those people rely more on creating inspiration.
Because you can’t always find inspiration, but you can always create it.
You can always stumble across something you find funny, but you’re more likely to stumble across something you’re in a funny mindset and actively practicing the art of writing jokes and finding humor in things.
To do that, there are simple exercises you can spend as little as five minutes on every day in order to generate material even if you’re in the pits of writer’s block. I’ll explain some of my favorites in a future post.
How I Keep A Joke Journal Today
Technology put the joke book in my pocket, so there’s no excuse not to have it. I use google docs app so that I can sit down and really write on my laptop when I have time to focus, and then I can add and update on the go with my phone whenever inspiration strikes or if I’m just bored on the subway. I name each doc by topic (ie jokes about dating, NYC, being diabetic, etc.) and I can refer to them whenever I’m looking to create or update a new set.]
I’d say on a good day I’ll aim for 20 jokes, 10 on a busy day and 50 if I’m feeling ambitious, but these are just guidelines for goals. I don’t want to lose sight of the actual goal, which is to write bits that I can use on stage. Some days I’m sure I’ll come up with several bits, other days nothing, but the important thing is to keep your creative muscles engaged.
It’s too soon to tell if this will be the secret to my success, but so far I can say that committing to the habit of opening up the joke book and doing some creative exercises every day has made my train rides more fun, and it’s made me feel like I always have something interesting to try at an open mic.
What sorts of creative habits keep you going? How have you been able to motivate yourself to stay focused and keep creating? Feel free to share any tips with me on social media (@jason_eljaso) in the comments, or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org