How Writing Lyrics Is Like Writing Comedy (And The Songwriting Skills You Can Learn From Comedians)
When the legendary Jerry Seinfeld talks about making his jokes connect to each other, he says something very insightful. He compares it to writing lyrics.
“I’m looking for the connective tissue…like a jigsaw puzzle,” he says. “And if it’s too long — if it’s just a split-second too long — you will shave letters off of words. You’ll count syllables. It’s more like songwriting.”
It’s like songwriting. I completely agree.
In this post, I’m going to show you how the work of writing lyrics as a Songwriter is very similar to the work of a Comedian. We’ll discuss
- The basics of writing comedy
- Comedy writing techniques for writing lyrics
- Being consistent and concise
- Using setups and punchlines
- Using characters
- Using contrast and misdirection
- Why being bizarre works
- How to boost your songwriting skills
I’m going to start by giving a brief overview of writing comedy. These are just the basics that any Comedian is familiar with — I’m not pretending to be an expert.
Just bear with me for a minute. Let me set the stage. I’ll go over the basics of comedy writing followed by how it’s like songwriting and how the two intersect.
The Basics of Writing Comedy
Comedy is one of the best natural medicines available, especially when done well. It could be anything from slapstick to intellectual humor — whether or not you laugh is what counts.
A lot of people don’t realize that Comedians are craftsmen and craftswomen. They spend hours writing jokes, re-writing jokes, practicing and throwing out jokes.
Here are the basic ways to write funny jokes (and, you could say, good songs).
Seinfeld is famous for using a big wall calendar to keep track of his writing — each day he writes, he puts a big red X on that day. “After a few days, you’ll have a chain,” he says. “Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
Consistency is key to being good at something, whether it’s writing jokes or writing songs.
Songwriting can be full of setups and punchlines. For example, your verse could have three lines that set up the fourth line. You could write three vague-ish, poetic lines followed by a clear, real-world, relatable fourth line that brings all four lines together and explains the whole thing.
British Comedian Andy Hamilton makes the point that sometimes you should say less. “Learn to be concise,” he says. “Pay attention to the rhythm of a sentence and how a joke unfolds. Just moving an adverb can change it.”
People have short attention spans, so the quicker you can get to the funny part of a joke, the better.
Use Setups and Punchlines
The most basic way to construct a joke is using a setup and a punchline. Give people a hypothetical or real situation or scene, then give an unexpected punchline.
The clearest example of this is the question-answer-response type of joke, like a “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke. Obviously, good comics take this basic idea and run with it, creating much more intricate and clever jokes. But the structure is basically the same.
Audiences connect with characters, especially the funny characters. They can see themselves in those characters, often without even realizing it.
If a comedy writer’s characters are delivering funny lines blandly, it may not resonate with the audience. When a good Comedian uses a character in their joke, they’re always interesting, whether they have a goofy voice, walk strangely, or make ridiculous faces.
Use Contrast and Misdirection
This is a classic method for writing jokes. Making people think a joke is going one way only to take it a completely different direction: that’s comedy. (See “Use Setups And Punchlines” above).
Using contrast as well can be very effective in comedy. Painting a picture of opposites can show the ridiculousness of one or both sides.
Being bizarre or silly is one of the oldest ways of getting a laugh. When something is so ridiculous or so silly or so weird, it can be super funny. Absurdity leads to hilarity.
People like Bo Burnham, Eric Andre, and Jim Carey are known to get absurd and take things to the extreme (especially Andre). But that’s part of why they’ve had such great success. They get people’s attention.
How Is Writing Lyrics Like Writing Comedy?
You’re probably not a Comedian. Most likely, you’re looking to make music your career, or at least to get better at writing songs.
So why did I just go through the basics of writing comedy?
Maybe you’re already seeing where I’m going with this, maybe not.
How is writing lyrics like writing comedy? Go back over that last section and swap out “Comedian” with “Songwriter” and “joke” with “song.”
These are all things that apply to writing songs. Let’s break it down.
Be Consistent. Writing songs consistently is one of the most important things you can do as a Songwriter. Ask any great Songwriter and they’ll tell you to write as much as you can.
Malcolm Gladwell, although not a Songwriter, presented a fascinating idea in his book Outliers called the 10,000-hour rule. The idea is that “ten thousand hours [of practice] is the magic number of greatness,” and he cited how The Beatles played a ton of shows before becoming Rock Stars.
The more you do something, the better you’ll get at it.
Be Concise. I once heard a Songwriter say that, when writing a song, you’re basically saying the same thing over and over again throughout the song. That’s great advice. Keep it simple and be concise. If you force words, metaphors, or ideas into the song, it will probably show.
Only use enough words to say what you need to say. Then once you’ve said it in the way you want, stop singing.
Setups And Punchlines. This is one of my favorite comparisons between comedy writing and songwriting. Songwriting can be full of setups and punchlines.
For example, your verse could have three lines that set up the fourth line. You could write three vague-ish, poetic lines followed by a clear, real-world, relatable fourth line that brings all four lines together and explains the whole thing.
On top of that, you could view the verses as the setup and the chorus as the punchline. Another way to say this is “tension and payoff.” The verses provide the anticipation and the chorus takes you home.
Are they concise in what they’re saying? Do they use setups and punchlines? If they’re telling a story, are they using vibrant and alive characters? Do you notice any misdirection or contrasting statements or images? Are the lyrics just super weird? All good questions to ask when you’re studying other Songwriters’ lyrics and other Comedian’s jokes.
Use Characters. Paul Simon is one of the best Songwriters out there, in my opinion. He does that by painting a picture inside your head, especially by using characters.
One great example is from “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes,” where he tells the story of a young man and woman.
She makes the sign of a teaspoon
He makes the sign of a wave
The poor boy changes clothes
And puts on after-shave
To compensate for his ordinary shoes
And she said honey take me dancing
But they ended up by sleeping
In a doorway
By the bodegas and the lights on
Wearing diamonds on the soles of their shoes
So good, right? It’s almost like you’re there watching these two people in a movie.
Use Contrast and Misdirection. Catching the listener off guard can be a powerful tool for a Songwriter.
Jacob Collier is a master at using contrast. He’ll take a song from cinematic, to funky, to folky in a matter of minutes, all without losing the listener. You can do that when you’re a musical genius. Examples of this are his songs “With The Love In My Heart” and “Savior.”
Misdirection, on the other hand, can be very effective when used in your lyrics. Take the listener to a place, then at the last second, surprise them by pulling the curtain back, making them realize they weren’t going where they thought they were going.
Be Bizarre. Not every Songwriter can pull this off (or wants to), but it’s definitely a technique that writers use. The Beatles are a clear example of weirdness paying off. Granted, they were on drugs for a good amount of their careers, but still.
For example, “I Am The Walrus” includes the lyrics, “I am the Eggman / They are the Eggmen / I am the walrus / Goo goo g’ joob.”
In “Octopus’s Garden,” they sing, “I’d ask my friends to come and see an octopus’s garden with me / I’d like to be under the sea in an octopus’s garden in the shade.”
And in “Dig A Pony,” they say, “I dig a pony / Well, you can celebrate anything you want / Yes, you can celebrate anything you want.”
Strangely, these song examples all involve animals. Whatever the case, The Beatles got super weird sometimes, but they got away with it.
How Can You Get Better at Songwriting?
What are we to do with this comparison? Well, hopefully, it will help you get better at songwriting.
While learning from comics, it’s important to put that knowledge into action. So I’m going to touch on just two things you can do now: study and copy both Songwriters and Comedians.
The first step is to study other Songwriters and Comedians. Study those whom you look up to, or anyone writing or being funny professionally. Look at how they structure their songs and jokes and look for the elements we covered above.
Are they concise in what they’re saying? Do they use setups and punchlines? If they’re telling a story, are they using vibrant and alive characters? Do you notice any misdirection or contrasting statements or images? Are the lyrics just super weird?
All good questions to ask when you’re studying other Songwriters’ lyrics and other Comedian’s jokes.
After studying the pros, copy them. No, I don’t mean plagiarize their work. Just let their songs and jokes inspire your songs.
Borrow their setup-punchline structures. Re-write a song that has relatable characters but with your own descriptions. Simplify a song you love in your own words. Try writing strange lyrics or gibberish words, see what happens.
Try to turn a comic’s joke into a song. See what happens.
To Succeed, Think Like a Comedian
All this is to say, songwriting is very similar to comedy writing. If you want to succeed as a Songwriter, think about watching and paying attention to good comics.
As Seinfeld said, trying to make a joke flow is like writing a song.
For more songwriting advice, check out these recent blogs: Which Song Structure Should You Choose?, 7 Tips on How to Write Song Lyrics When You’re Stuck, and 5 Songwriting Tools That Help Save Time.
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