Comedy Podcasts as Dialogue Improvers

ColGray

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I've spent the last couple weeks editing a novel--finished last Friday, woo!-- and been in decompress mode for a few days, which, for me, means woodworking. I've always got my ear buds in and, typically, I'm listening to an improv comedy podcast.

What struck me was how much of my own ("my own") dialogue style is cribbed from this style of conversation and it got me wondering what, if anything, other people use to study and/or improve dialogue?

I should also specify, I'm talking about experienced comedians who are masters of the art, not a couple of college guys who took a class at Second City that one time. (Example: Paul F Thompkins, Nicole Parker & Bobby Moynihan)

And by, style, here i mean:
  1. Single central theme/discussion point
    1. Tangents, driven by personal experience and specific particulars, change the course of the conversation
  2. Lots of interruption and ping-pong of speaker --
    1. setup speakers complete thoughts, but excitable conversations or people interrupt and talk over one another
    2. Interjections happen
    3. Quick asides to tangential characters with a single important point
  3. Characters are actively listening and reacting
    1. No one is waiting for their turn to talk
    2. Reactions happen in the moment
  4. Call backs drive development and unity
    1. Someone references a prior conversation/interaction/event as either a through-line or a new interpretation
  5. Bizarre characters are best when they make grounded choices
    1. If the voice is too consistent, it's boring -- there can only be so many straight-wo/men in a scene, and they need to be the straight-wo/man in different ways.
    2. If the voice is too bizarre, it's boring -- crazy is crazy, not interesting.
    3. Even wizards get hungry and prefer different types of cheese or dragon flakes or whatever
 

CupofJoe

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Not comedy, but I listen and listen to Aaron Sorkin's writing on Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 and The Newsroom.
I don't know any ne that writes [smart] dialogue better.
For little more low brow, but still stunning dialogue almost all the writers on Buffy especially Joss Wheldon and Jane Espenson.
If there was an Comedian I wish I could sound like? It would have to be Dave Allen.
 

AnRoinnUltra

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I dunno about studying but radio call in shows can throw up some quality stuff for fiction. 'Go ahead', 'yes, my problem is with the seagulls, they are all over the place', 'right, I see, but we're not talking about seagulls', 'well it's no different to dogs wandering about the place, only worse, because they can fly' etc. The more pretentious the host the better I think -I used to love podcasts but struggle to get through any now unless it's specialized experts (such as Chronscast), the general chit chat stuff might have been done to death, or else I'm tuning into the wrong ones.
 

ColGray

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Not comedy, but I listen and listen to Aaron Sorkin's writing on Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60 and The Newsroom.
I don't know any ne that writes [smart] dialogue better.
For little more low brow, but still stunning dialogue almost all the writers on Buffy especially Joss Wheldon and Jane Espenson.
If there was an Comedian I wish I could sound like? It would have to be Dave Allen.
Oh, absolutely!

Sorkin's dialogue is so stylized, but also, he's a master of showing character while discussing plot. I get that many people dislike his style, and that Sorkin has some crutches and lines he re-uses, but some of that is that he was freebasing cocaine while simultaneously writing Sports Night and West Wing. His stage play of To Kill a Mockingbird was incredible.

David Mamet is another master of this--but unlike Sorkin, his style is more direct and interrupting and he writes incredible one sided phone calls (which, what a strange talent, but, seriously, it's an incredible talent) -- Glengary Glenn Ross is masterful.

The BBC did a series of Shakespearean monologues a few years ago. Those are less for the dialogue and more for meter, rhythm and either speeches or internal monologuing. (Mark Antony's eulogy by Damien Lewis, or, Ralph Fiennes and Richard III)
 

ColGray

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I dunno about studying but radio call in shows can throw up some quality stuff for fiction. 'Go ahead', 'yes, my problem is with the seagulls, they are all over the place', 'right, I see, but we're not talking about seagulls', 'well it's no different to dogs wandering about the place, only worse, because they can fly' etc. The more pretentious the host the better I think -I used to love podcasts but struggle to get through any now unless it's specialized experts (such as Chronscast), the general chit chat stuff might have been done to death, or else I'm tuning into the wrong ones.
lol, listening to crazy is fun until you start agreeing with them -- hey, they're right! Seagulls are just dogs with wings!!

I can't do drive time radio (morning shows or 2-6pm crews n the US) type shows or "Two People Who Think They're Way Funnier Than They Are" type podcasts, of which there are a million. Interview podcasts can be helpful, but they're (intentionally) structured as question/answer and I'm more interested in conversational interactions. I want people who practice being funny and are consistently taking audience feedback on that specific topic.

Neighborhood Listen is a favorite -- they have a lot of random, Hey how's it going, and then a jumping off point for a discussion with someone about a specific topic, but it is also heavily about asides, interruptions, references and then the characters they play build over each episode (e.g. the sound engineer is in a different room in the house for each episode). The development of the characters is part of what i find helpful when I'm thinking through dialogue and cadence and the rest.

(For a quick list, The Neighborhood Listen, Comedy Bang Bang, Hey Randy*, College Town*, and, The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project*, are all on my list/in regular rotation and all kind of have that similar model/caliber of improv comedian.)

*: Subscription Only
 

AnRoinnUltra

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The Neighborhood Listen, Comedy Bang Bang, Hey Randy*, College Town*, and, The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project*,
Thanks, will look them up -I've tried Comedy Bang Bang and thought it was good but DNF'd because I couldn't figure where they were going, will give it another go.
Yeah, call in shows are def something I listen to in small doses, mostly because the producers seem to set them up for pointless bickering.
Was just thinking there the best thing for dialogue would be to work behind a bar -I reckon there are universal character types across all cultures and social groups and that'd be as good a place as any to find the interesting ones holding court.
Appreciate the list (y)
 

ColGray

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Worth noting that CBB can be super hit, hit or miss, but there's a core structure and you get to learn the comedians that appeal to you. For something funny -- and for a good 3 way dialogue example with a bunch of shifting power dynamics-- any of the Andy Daly & Jason Mantzoukas episodes are superb.

This is one of my favorites (and again, remember, this is all made up as they're talking with no prior notes or prep).

 

sknox

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I wonder if there aren't significant differences in how one handles dialog, whether comedic or serious, between radio (or podcasts) and television (or movies) and writing. I'm sure there can be aspects one notices, but writing for radio and writing for television are certainly two different art forms.

I look to other books to for models on how to write. Even there, dialog in a thriller or detective novel is rather different from dialog in epic fantasy, to grab random examples. A great deal, in writing fantasy, is going to depend on setting and era.

I currently pay attention to how an author evokes character through dialog. Masters are this are many, but a few of my favorites include Damon Runyan, Raymond Chandler, Patrick O'Brian, and Charles Portis (specifically, True Grit). Unfortunately, each of these are so era-specific and genre-specific, it's really difficult to find specific tools to employ. I'm more like an aspiring painter wandering through the art galleries just standing in awe.
 

Swank

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I like to designate a reading speed so people get the joke timing right.
 

AnRoinnUltra

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if there aren't significant differences
I'd say there definitely is. I'm no expert so take this as a random internet punter conclusion but I reckon the pace and tone has to be different. Readers probably retain information that a listener mightn't so a narration needs to constantly reinforce where the protagonists are, and who they are (x, y, z were standing... <ninety seconds later> ...which meant x, y, z).
For what it's worth I've started writing straight for audio for my current book, and don't keep the written text after the chapters are done as I reckon the constant repetition would do a readers head in.
 

Toby Frost

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I think it's a shame that comedy isn't given more respect as an art form (true art is miserable and difficult, it seems) because writing it is a crash course in writing a lot of other stuff. To work as comedy, you have to be able to tell jokes, and telling them as effectively as possible is a real skill. However there are real differences between spoken stuff and what's written: when I did readings of some of the Space Captain Smith books I'd occasionally shuffle words around so that they sounded better. Some puns don't work written down, and some types of comedy (comedy of embarrassment, for example) really have to be acted to work.

One thing you learn from writing comedy is the function of each character. I came to realise with the Smith books that any of the four leads could have an argument at any time, which make getting jokes in much easier. All of them could be the oddball of the group or the straight man, depending on the situation. People seem to remember the weirder characters more, but often those sorts of characters couldn't hold a story by themselves, as they often just do one silly thing, and making people wait for them to do it makes it more effective when they do (if that makes any sense).
 

ColGray

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I think it's a shame that comedy isn't given more respect as an art form (true art is miserable and difficult, it seems) because writing it is a crash course in writing a lot of other stuff. To work as comedy, you have to be able to tell jokes, and telling them as effectively as possible is a real skill.
!00% agree, yes.

Putting aside Farce (Moliere, some Shakespeare, most of Comedia d'el arte), a lot of what makes comedy good is that it is grounded. Characters have real motivations and you, the viewer, can empathize with them. That's drama! And then you add the comedy!

One of the major UCB shows is Assssscat and it starts with a guest monologist delivering a serious monologue about something that happened to them. That is the jumping off point for the improv show (there's no, I need a location and an item from the audience, stuff). It sets a grounded tone for the improv, which makes it funnier: people laugh harder at real things happening to real people than they do at, Zany wackiness ensues.

I think it's also why many comedic actors can do dramatic roles-- robin williams, patton oswalt, ben stiller, melissa mccarthy, kristin wiig, bill hader, aubrey plaza (sorry, these are all Americans, just who popped to mind first)--because comedy = drama + funny. Seeing a dramatic actor attempt comedy is both rare and often painful -- Robert DiNero is held aloft by his costars in both Meet the Parents and Analyze This, while Meryl Streep owns in The Devil Wears Prada.

Another tangentially CBB show is, Scott Hasn't Seen, (sub only) where they just watch popular movies that Scott Aukerman hasn't seen (it's a very inventive title). He wrote on Mr. Show and wrote/directed movies and his own show and to hear him break down a movie by character, plot, arcs, what works/what doesn't and then how to improve it... it's listening to someone apply, Save the Cat, to a movie you know, with the addition of, Make it Funnier/Better, and I find it super helpful from a story structure learning standpoint.
 

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