Turn your stand-up comedy set into a 10-minute play

A stand up comic can write a wonderful 10-minute play out of one routine. All you need for a play are two characters in an interesting conflict. Theaters offering a 10-minute play festivals primarily select comedies, and often appeal to the same audiences that love stand-up.

Nearly all ten-minute play festivals explicitly reject monologs. After all, the very nature of theater is unmediated conflict among characters. Those festivals insist on plays having two characters, and sometimes they tolerate a third and fourth, despite the casting complications.

Why should a stand-up comedian do this?

Maybe you successfully delivered a particular set at the only stand-up comedy club in your town, and you have no plans to take it out of town. A successful 10-minute play can be produced any number of times around the country without your having to be present.

Maybe you have a comedy set that you personally can’t deliver effectively because this is not the story of someone of your age, gender, or body type. A young woman can surely write a brilliant set whose persona is an old man, but it might take an old man to deliver on stage most effectively. Many stand up comics have routines involving or depending on their own gender, physical appearance, and ethnic identity, but why waste a good idea that doesn’t fit you personally?

Maybe you have a set about a situation that would be especially effective if delivered by two actors, rather than retold by one comedian. If your set is not observational, but instead reports a conversation, great. Audiences in comedy clubs identify with the comic who tells a story, but for an exciting and fair fight, two well-matched characters on stage is hard to beat.

Consider a quarreling couple, the roommate from hell, or a dispute with a DMV clerk. There is more tension if the second character can actually speak for and defend himself or herself. That’s the essence of plays.

Stand up routines are akin to short plays

Like a traditional play, a typical stand up comedy routine has a character and a situation, such as a first date. Spoken lines dominate both forms, and no one expects a short play to develop a character deeply.

Camino Real Playhouse likes a short play that has “a beginning that grabs your attention, a middle with some meat and character development, and an ending that makes sense.” That sounds like a good stand-up set, too.

A traditional play has a character with an objective, an uncooperative antagonist, and one or more complications or obstacles. By the end of the play the objective might or might not have been met, but the audience has enjoyed watching someone pursue a goal, which is the essence of narrative.

There are differences between sets and plays, of course, leading to differences in audience involvement. A comedian tells a story and makes observations, while a playwright lets the audience experience the story as it happens, making their own observations. Stand-up offers a single, controlling narrator to trust and to identify with, while a short play lets the audience figure out where their sympathies lie, as they would if overhearing a conversation. Both dynamics are fun.

You don’t need or have time for a complex plot, but something needs to happen to make the situation different by the end of the play. A series of funny lines can obviate the need for the forward plot progress of a traditional narrative, and still lead to the big close that comics like to exit on.

Stand-up comics have a big head start over most beginning playwrights

You already understand the importance of structure, rhythm, timing, compression, silences, the need for editing, the importance of trying material out before an audience, and the nuances of comedy.

You have already written dialog, and you have probably created several personas or characters for different material. So all that you might need to learn are a few playwriting principles, the required format for submissions, and strategies for submitting your play to theater festivals.

Getting started

Find a set that reports a conversation, one character thwarting what the other wants, or disagreeing with a belief. You have such pairings in your sets, stories of you and someone else: a child, a parent, a boss, a significant other, a date, a clerk, a doctor, a cabbie.

If all of your sets are a series of your witty observations, rather than inter-personal conflicts, no problem. If there is no potential two-character inter-personal conflict in your set, you can divide the lines between two similar characters. Maybe two friends at the bar complaining about work. This simple bifurcation requires sparkling dialog and some disagreements and character differentiation to compensate for the lack of serious conflict.

If you have a free ranging set complaining about work, you can create characters and minor conflict if one character insists that the worst part of work is the stupid boss, and the other insists that no, the worst part is annoying coworkers.

Your routine is about the hassles of dating? Let the second character riff instead on the hassles of being in a relationship, maybe drawing material from a separate set you already have. No character likes to have his or her own suffering topped in the telling, so sparks should fly.

Still no story? Sketches work, too

Most festival guidelines explicitly ask for play submissions to be traditional stories, not sketches. Those theaters want a protagonist with a personally important objective, conflict and obstacles, rising action, and then resolution, or at least closure, by the last page.

But do not despair if your routine is really a sketch: they can be accepted for some festivals, too. Sketches involve situations, not stories with character arcs. Sketches seem most readily accepted by festivals that market themselves as more of a variety show than play festival. Look for festivals set in bars or brewpubs, like Barhoppers in Charlottesville, the Cary Playwrights’ Bar Plays, or Home Brew Theater in Cincinnati.

To see which festivals do not insist on stories, read their websites’ taglines or synopses of plays that they have accepted in the past.

Consider one play selected for the 2018 Carrboro ArtsCenter festival. I have read but not seen Theater More Like Baseball, a 10-minute play by Mark Cornell. The story, before a surprise emotional reveal, is this: two people take a reluctant friend to see a play, but he rants about preferring baseball, since theaters don’t let you eat, or drink beer, or yell at the actors. The core of that play, the argument that baseball is better than theater, reads a lot like a comedy set.

Even comic routines that are a series of one-liners around a common idea can be adapted as sketches. Imagine a Rodney Dangerfield routine of jokes around his thematic complaint that he gets no respect, with the lines divided between two characters who one-up each other to be the more pitiable. And recall to mind the traditional street corner “dozens,” amusing bystanders by dueling insults.

Sketches usually have a character with a goal, but the goal is relatively unimportant. Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch is famous not because of one character’s inconsequential goal (getting a refund for a dead parrot) but because of the escalating, absurd argument: the pet store clerk insists the dead bird is merely resting. In Lucille Ball’s classic TV chocolate factory sketch, her goal (not getting fired) is merely a MacGuffin as we watch the physical comedy of her struggle with a conveyor belt.

Just start writing the dialog

And then format your first draft in the form theaters want, which is easily searched online. Once you do this, count the pages. The script portion of your play, excluding two pages of front material, should be eight or nine pages long (the usual rough estimate is that a page of dialog takes one to one and a half minutes on stage). If you can, revise to nine pages.

If doing so ruins the play, let the play be whatever length it wants to be. Some festivals take 20-minute plays, and occasionally a festival looks for two-minute plays, so let the play decide how long it wants to be. With Americans’ attention spans shrinking, short plays will always be in style. 


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