Get to the funny faster: Stand-up comedy and middle grade writing

Debra Garfinkle is one of the funniest writers I’ve ever known or read. So, why would she be taking a stand-up comedy class? Debra — author the Zeke Meeks series (writing as D.L. Green), the Supernatural Rubber Chicken books and five YA novels — shares a bit about the intersection of stand-up comedy and reaching middle grade readers.

zeke meeks TV turnoff weekYou’ve written about trying comedy for your “3/4 life crisis.”  What was the writer in you thinking about this venture?

Creative writing had always been my hobby, since I was a little kid writing poems and through my years as a lawyer when I wrote short stories to de-stress after work. After I sold my first novel, writing became more of a job than a hobby. I still enjoyed it and loved getting paid for my former hobby, but got stressed out about publishers, deadlines, promotion, etc. I wanted a hobby to do just for fun, so I turned to stand-up comedy.

I thought doing stand-up would suit me for several reasons: I’ve always loved going to stand-up comedy shows; most of my books are humorous and I write a humorous newspaper column, so I was used to writing humor; I had experience acting in high school and college plays and doing moot court in law school.

Stand-up comedy turned out a lot harder than I’d thought. I learned that good stand-up comics should make the audience laugh every 10 to 15 seconds. So in a six-minute set, that’s 24-36 jokes to write and perform. Also, what may seem funny in writing often fails in performance, so I’d have to write maybe ten jokes for every one that really worked. And it’s scary being on the stage by oneself, with no other actors, directors, or writers to blame when the set bombed. But when the set went well, it was wonderful to hear people laughing at jokes I wrote and performed.

How does comic timing on stage translate to on the page?

I think on the page, there’s more time to set up a joke. Readers can skim if they want. Stand-up audience are less patient. They don’t want to sit through a long set-up in order to hear the punchline.


Debra Garfinkle (D.L. Green) with a Zeke Meeks’ fan.

Bill Word, my stand-up comedy teacher, used to say, “Get to the funny faster.” I try to keep that in mind when I’m writing children’s books. I think child readers are similar to a stand-up comic’s audience in that they mostly want to laugh and have a good time. Sure, I can slip in some meaningful messages, but my main purpose is to entertain. With that in mind, I try hard to delete extraneous things in the set-ups to my jokes.

Stand-up also helped me value callbacks (a joke that references something that happened earlier in the set) and tags (a second punchline added to the first punchline, so that one set-up makes the audience laugh twice as long).

Bill Word constantly said, “There’s something there.” We used to make fun of him for saying it so much, but it was very helpful. Even if we told the worst joke ever, we were encouraged to work with and play with it to make it better. Sometimes the worst joke ever eventually led to funny stuff. So I try to keep an open mind when I’m conceptualizing or drafting books, telling myself that there may indeed by “something there.”

Debra is published under the names D.L. Garfinkle and D.L. Green. You can read more about her books, writing, and treadmill desk at her website. Check out her book reviews written in haiku on her blog, too. They’re fantastic.






Linda Johns
  1. Dear Linda,
    Thanks for sharing this technique for developing humor for middle-grade books. That is awesome.

    Celebrate you.
    Never Give Up
    Joan Y. Edwards

  2. Thanks so much!

    My son and I both loved the Franny K. Stein series. Great writing and illustrations. I mostly read grownup books now that my kids are older, but you guys are making me want to read middle grade books again.

  3. I’m a fan! Interesting to hear how stand up works with writing humor. Ba-dah-boom!

  4. Two of my favorite recent middle-grade funny books are PICKLE by Kim Baker and BETTER NATE THAN EVER by Tim Federle. So many good titles mentioned here!

  5. Huge fan of Debby’s hilarious books! Not that writing funny novels is easy, but to me stand-up seems really hard. And brave!

  6. Oh good picks!
    I read the book by blogger Jenny Lawson “Let’s Pretend this never happened” and that was funny. Loved it.

    I really enjoy funny MG and funny chapter books also : The Dear Dumb Diary series & the Franny K. Stein series with scholastic (by Jim Benson) are great. I also love humor like in “Milo” and “The Hero’s Guide to saving your kingdom”. Love that stuff. There are so so many great MG books that have that “Smart humor” in it, know what I mean?

    I do like Sophie Kinsella also, she’s great for a fun, fast read.

    I’ve just picked up “Tiimmy Failure” from the library and that looks like a fun MG also.

  7. Thanks a lot, Jill.

    I haven’t read I Funny. Sounds like I would love it. I’m putting it on my To Read list. I love stand-up comics Alonzo Bodden, Kathy Griffin, Joan Rivers, and the late Mitch Hedberg. Some funny middle grade authors I love are Gordon Korman, Dav Pilkey, and Roddy Doyle. For grownup books, Sophie Kinsella, Jen Lancaster, Maria Semple, and Jill Mansell make me laugh.

  8. WOw. Super impressed by this author. A lawyer, a writer, a successful publishing career that continues. I need to see if I can find these books at my library, I love humor in writing.

    Interesting timing of this post also. I just started reading “I Funny” by James Patterson and that is centered on an MC and his comedy/stand up comedy.

    I wonder if the author has any favorite comedians? Authors or entertainment inspiration for comedy writing?