One thing I’ve noticed about comedy writers is how afraid many of them are of their own emotions. Jokes are a way to hide from our feelings. We learn to make jokes when we’re kids so that other people won’t notice how terrified we are. If we get good at making jokes, we can bury our feelings forever. Or so we think. But it is those uncomfortable emotions, the ones that made you want to make jokes in the first place, that may be the key to your success as a comedy writer. I offer as an example, Amy Schumer.
Amy Schumer has certainly made a name for herself with her fresh voice. It’s not that she’s necessarily saying things that no one has said before, but she’s coming at it in a new way. She has found an audience, particularly among young women. Like her or not, she found a way to get attention and to express herself. Her success is worth noting if you’re trying to find success for yourself.
When I broke into TV writing nearly forty years ago, it was enough for a young writer to be able to mimic what other writers were already doing. I wrote spec scripts for existing TV series. I tried to write like the writers who had already made it. I was good at mimicking what was already being done, and that was enough to launch my career. But that environment no longer exists. (I received an e-mail just the other day from a wannabe writer who asked me what he should do with his spec Mike and Molly script. I gently told him to use it as practice and then write a spec pilot. But really, he wrote a Mike and Molly and thought he could use it to get a job? If you’re that out of touch, you’ve got a long, steep hill to climb.)
The way for me to succeed when I was trying to break in was to mimic the voices of others. I was lucky because I hadn’t really found my own voice yet so mimicking came in handy. You need to find your voice now and use it to get attention. I don’t envy you that challenge.
From what I’ve seen of Amy Schumer, one of her techniques is to tap into things that really bother her. And not in a Seinfeldian “Did you ever notice…” kind of way. From my perspective, Amy Schumer seems to say to herself, “Hey, I see other young women doing this or saying that, and it troubles me because I don’t think they’re helping themselves,” or “Wow, here’s another way young women are perpetuating stereotypes about themselves,” or even more important, “Here is something about myself that really troubles me.” Then she finds a way to dramatize what is troubling her. Key and Peele do the same thing, and they do it brilliantly sometimes.
One way to find your own voice is to dig down into your own emotions. Figure out what bothers you. Not just what annoys you about other people. We don’t need more superficial complaining about the lines at Trader Joe’s. I mean reaching down to your deepest insecurities and fears, trusting that what troubles you or handicaps you also is a problem for others, and then finding a way to dramatize what you’re feeling. That is your voice. Maybe you turn those feelings into drama, or maybe, like Amy Schumer or Key and Peele, you find a way to twist those emotions into comedy.
You have to find your own voice. You can’t just do your version of what someone else is already doing. Finding your voice may be difficult and it may be uncomfortable. But look around at the people who are making a name for themselves in comedy. Look at Louis C.K. or Jim Jeffries or any of a dozen other younger comics. Look at Chris Rock when he burst on the scene. The brightest stars in comedy are the people who take the most chances with their own feelings. Richard Pryor was the master of them all.
Success is about taking risks. The risks don’t all involve quitting a safe job or moving to a new city, even though those are two big risks you likely will have to take to make it in comedy. The risks also involve tapping into emotions inside of you that you don’t like to look at, and then turning those emotions into your own unique voice.