by Ashley Morrison.
I love comedy. I love the craft of it. I love how a skilled performer can take you one way, only to throw you in a completely opposite direction – which is the one that gets the bigger laugh. Being a successful stand-up comedian means being a successful writer. If ever there was a test of writing prowess, this might be the hardest test of all. The reward will either be instant (and either big or small) or it won’t exist at all; either the audience laughs…or the performer dies on their feet.
There is an infinitely wide range of styles and techniques that appeal to different audiences, and which change and evolve over time, from era to era. From the music hall humour of Morecambe & Wise or Tommy Cooper, to the impressions of Rory Bremner or John Culshaw; from the slapstick, monkey-faced gestures of Lee Evans to the skiptastic Michael McIntyre; from the one-liners of Stewart Francis to the intellectual storytelling of Eddie Izzard; and comedians right on the edge, such as Ricky Gervais who challenges us on so many levels, with his “watch through your fingers” mockumentaries and his most recent character, Derek – the handicapped volunteer in an old people’s home who teaches us that kindness trumps all. All of these rely on superbly crafted writing.
These thoughts led me down the road of researching one of my favourite comedians – Jerry Seinfeld. In an extensive interview with Larry Wilde, Seinfeld talks about the art of writing and how he has honed his skill over many years. It seems to me that the process of writing really great copy – be it advertising, internal or external communications, direct marketing and so on – can in some ways be compared to the craft of writing comedy.
The phrase “less is more” is one which is often applied to a plethora of situations, but this tends to be very true in advertising. Short and memorable beats long and therefore slightly less memorable every time. Before making it on to the Letterman show, Seinfeld performed the same five minutes of material some 200 times before he felt it was completely finished. He’d rework and rework it, juggle things around, adjust his timing, knock off a few words here and there – constantly trying to make it fractionally better. The end result is a performance that appears to be effortless – but the opposite is true. The work that went into the finished product was gruelling.
So relating this to copywriting, one needs to be one’s own harshest critic in order to be successful. Yes, a client will probably tell you if your work isn’t hitting their nail on the head (and the sales figures might show that too). Of course, if the client isn’t a very good judge of what makes good copy, then it might be down to you to persuade them that you know better – so that’s even more of a reason to hone your skill.
But what if a writer doesn’t have the ability to make such editorial and structural judgments? If they don’t realise that, by reducing a 10-word sentence down to a 5-word sentence, that would considerably improve the message – or, in the comedian’s case, raise a bigger laugh? “Well, I would suggest insurance sales,” replies Seinfeld. So if you want to make it as a comedian, you’d better make sure you develop your writing chops pretty quickly. The same goes for copywriting.
Finally, Seinfeld makes what I believe to be one of the most important points of all. He’s asked what advice he can give to aspiring comedians to make it that bit easier to build their careers. First of all he says that nothing makes it easier – there are no shortcuts. Secondly, he cites an annual comedy convention which takes place in Las Vegas. The up-and-comers flock there to meet the agents, the managers and the talent scouts. There are seminars and discussion groups where the comedians can discuss their craft, network and try to get some sort of deal.
Seinfeld wishes he were in charge of this event. He would get rid of everyone there apart from the would-be comedians: he would herd them all into one room, and then from the ceiling he would drop a banner that says “JUST WORK” on it. And then he’d send them all home.
It’s an important lesson. If you think of writing like a sport (or any discipline, in fact) you’re only going to get better at it if you practise. So when you’re first starting out and business is slow and the phone isn’t ringing, the first piece of advice to an aspiring copywriter would be: JUST WRITE.
It doesn’t really matter what. Rewrite ads which have already been written. Rewrite some junk mail you’ve received through the post. Come up with some ad copy or straplines for some products you use every day. By all means read, read, read advice from other experienced copywriters…but unless you give your brain a workout, you’re not going to improve and hone your skill. It’s a cliché for a reason: practice makes perfect.
Ashley is a blogger, copywriter and editor.
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