The Serious Guide To Joke Writing, by Sally Holloway

Book review by Steve Bennett

Sally Holloway’s new guide to joke-writing is a slightly depressing affair. Not because it doesn’t work, but because it does.

By reducing comedy to a series of exercises and formulae, she has come up with techniques that can be used to generate puns and quips on any subject. The results she quotes vary from the limp to the amusing, but what binds them all is the soulless mechanism of juxtaposing words and ideas until something sticks. Matters of finding a distinctive comic style lie beyond the remit of this guide.

It would be naïve to think that even the greatest writers don’t go through similar processes of creating sprawling ‘joke webs’ or freeforming rants until something funny emerges. But by necessity, guides such as this can’t help putting the process above the personality and attitude of the comic. This is literally the sort of comedy-by-numbers, also propagated by the countless stand-up courses now available, that churns out hundreds of new acts who are technically competent but ultimately uninteresting. The essence of good comedy lies in the individuality of the soul, not in intellectual drills.

That said, even the most accomplished comic needs a leg-up to get over writer’s block once in a while, and the exercises here could help get the creative juices flowing. Someone with strong comic instincts should surely already be thinking along the lines Holloway outlines, but even the best driver sometimes needs a sat-nav.

Holloway – who was a stand-up for just over a decade – has tested out all these techniques with classes she teaches, as part of the Amused Moose empire of courses or independently, and she liberally quotes the results her students got from them. Few of them make entirely convincing evidence that this is the route to comedy gold – as a typical example one of Holloway’s own gags that she includes is ‘Chaos theory, when something small can turn into something large? Yeah one day I ate this tiny little cake and the next day my bum was enormous’.

But failing is all part of the process, she rightly asserts, amid plenty of encouraging words about how to get motivated, how not to fear writing bad jokes, how to turn off your internal censor, of how ideas can come when you’re not concentrating on the job because of the groundwork you did when you were…. Advice like this might be as valuable to the comic newcomer as her word-association games that generate the jokes.

With its practical bent, The Serious Guide to Joke Writing will provide some help with the 99 per cent perspiration behind any comedy act. But if the one per cent inspiration’s missing, no guide will ever help you.

  • The Serious Guide to Joke Writing by Sally Holloway is out now on Book Shaker, priced £12. Click here to buy from Amazon for £11.40

Published: 28 Feb 2011

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