Josh Howie – how I write comedy

After nearly a decade of being one of our finest gagsmiths, LiF favourite Josh Howie has embraced storytelling – and faced his writing demons. About the ideal candidate for the ‘How I write’ series, then

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Ah, the irony. Writing a piece on how I write comedy, when what I’m meant to be doing right now is writing comedy.

So, there you go. Procrastination is obviously a large part of the process. There are quite a few contradictions within my writing process – even calling it a process has until recently been wishful thinking. Traditionally, great swathes of time pass when I get nothing done, and the self-hatred and disgust build up until I have no choice but to vomit it all out onto the page, or I have an Edinburgh show deadline; which ever happens first. It’s fear, rather than laziness, that means I hate the idea of writing.The only thing I’ve known to trump fear, is deadlines. And mortgage payments. Yet when I finally do sit my arse down to write and the ideas start flowing, and I’m enveloped in smugness at my wit and cleverness, I’ll always admonish myself for not getting down to it sooner.

I’ve read all the writing and comedy writing books, or at least their first chapters, and they all say essentially the same thing – just write. But it’s easier read than done. All the great comics and even the not-so greats (but successful), have that in common. They learnt how to sit the fuck down and squeeze that fucking blood out of that fucking twat stone. After a decade, I do finally feel like I’ve turned a corner, at least in that the spaces between NOT writing are getting shorter and shorter.

And what do I do when I write then? Well, let’s split up the output into three subsections: gags, truth and stories.

Gags are easy – at least for me. They’re puzzles. Give me an aphorism, a cliché, whatever. How can it be subverted, messed with to reveal something new that reflects on the original? I love writing gags. Ten years of training my brain has made it almost subconscious. Move this bit here, that word is better etc. Who knows? It just feels right when you’re left with the perfect little idea expressed in the perfect way.

‘Twitter has become my notebook’

The problem then is, how do you incorporate it into your set? At one point I had a hundred-page document of just gags and concepts that I’d never developed or gone through properly. What’s turned things around for me has been Twitter. Before, when funny ideas came to me, I’d jot a few words down in my notebook or iPhone. Now, I’ll instead put it straight up on Twitter.

Twitter has become my notebook. Knowing there’s an audience (6,670 at last count 10 minutes ago) forces me to develop the idea into an actual proper joke. Follower response then gives me an immediate idea of what’s good, with a bonus ego rush. Not that my followers are always right: ie no retweets for something I think is funny and does ultimately work well live, and vice-versa. I used to be precious about not putting online what I thought was great stuff, as though it’s somehow being “used up”.

But the reality is, only a very small percentage of your followers will ever see any given tweet anyway, and when it’s in your set it becomes one tiny cog amongst many others. Yes, you’re opening yourself up to plagiarism, but it also serves as a way to timestamp and prove that you originally wrote the gag.

Then, every few weeks, I’ll put all those tweets into a document and start tinkering. Quite a few will be funny concepts, but the initial draft weak. I’ll rewrite, rejig and start grouping them together. As my life is somewhat limited at the moment, most of the jokes fall under “wife” or “kids”.

Next it’s off to new material nights to see what actually works. Then, possibly the hardest stage, and certainly something I’ve traditionally failed to do – actually incorporating these fuckers into my real set. It’s just hard and takes work, without any of the satisfaction you get for writing something funny. But good linking is vital. Without working out exactly how to arrive at your new subject matter, those jokes will sit on the page forever.

So whilst I’ve finally got a good system going for writing, developing and implementing gags, I’ve also come to appreciate their inherent limitations. Gags are like little magic tricks. Tricks being the operative word. Twenty-minute sets, let alone hour shows, where you’re repeatedly tricking the audience, will diminish the audience’s trust in anything you have to say. That’s fine if the audience is specifically there to see a gagsmith. And someone like Milton Jones has the inventiveness in his joke writing, and the playfulness in his persona, to make me want to watch him again and again.

But for me, jokes can act as a barrier, and I use them as way to hide. Hello TRUTH and STORIES.

Kitson, Maxwell etc

Under truth I would also include ideas and theories as to how you perceive the world, which are therefore true to you. If they are true to you, then most likely they’ll be true for a lot of the audience too. Stories can contain that truth of course, or certainly the best stories do.

This is a much newer outlet for me, and coming from a gag background, and having observed some people get away with a procession of very weak five-minute stories tied up by half-funny conclusions, I’ve distrusted and scorned narrative in the past. But, when done well (Kitson, Maxwell etc), I’ve been taken to another place. And through trial and error over the past few years, I’ve been able to take audiences to a more honest and satisfying place than I ever managed with just gags alone.

I think of a story as being the plot that is driven forward by the original kernel of truth about yourself. You have to find that funny fucked up moment in the story, and then work outwards. If you’re lucky then the perfect gags will drop into the perfect places and they won’t seem like gags anymore. The story is pushed forward as funny follows funny. I don’t claim to be an expert on this – I have managed to do it, but replicating it is the hard part. You can write stuff out, but a lot comes from being onstage and panicking, and somehow in the sweaty desperation of trying to survive and get a laugh, reaching for a truth. Hence, tape all your gigs, and actually go through them! This is something I’ve known for years, but only made a habit of doing recently. It means that forgotten half-muttered asides come together, and the stories build.

Anyway, I’ve got to go and pick up my son now. I don’t want to present myself as someone here with all the answers. If I really practiced what I knew in my heart, then I would’ve politely declined the request to write this article, let alone written double the number of words that was asked for. But rather this than the dread of facing the blank page of funny and finding myself wanting.

The truth is that I’m struggling as much as anyone, but I will say that overall I’m getting funnier. And that’s really the whole point isn’t it?

• Follow Josh on Twitter at @joshxhowie.
• The next “How I write” blog will be in two weeks

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