Lots of people are funny; very few can be comedians. For anyone unsure about the transition from the first to the second, longtime Onion editor Joe Randazzo’s new book, Funny on Purpose, is here to hold your hand. Subtitled The Definitive Guide to An Unpredictable Career in Comedy, Randazzo has produced an incredibly readable book that works as both a crash course in comedy and a reference text for a seemingly endless number of possible comedic careers. Split into broad groups – writing, performing, drawing, digital, and business – the book pulls apart this often-opaque industry and lays it out for anyone to understand.
The first section, “Writing Comedy,” covers everything from penning sketches to organizing full-length books, with the helpful inclusion of joke packets that Randazzo actually submitted for late night jobs, along with his present day notes on his past work. His own successes and failures in the comedy writing biz – he didn’t get those late night writing jobs – give an honest darkness to all his advice. “So, really, all you need to do to write a funny sketch about a team of spies who communicate by farting is to subvert the momentum of a thousand millennia and stake a claim for human consciousness in the vast, thoughtless plane of existence.”
In “Performing Comedy,” he offers similarly specific advice on everything from getting started in standup to auditioning for scripted work; in one bit, he carefully breaks down the process of developing a comedic character, offering tips on identifying your character’s mannerisms and point of view. “The Visual Arts” section then takes a quick glance at the world of comic strips and animated series.
Randazzo wisely begins his section on “The Digital Realm” with the worry that “40 percent of it will be outdated, outmoded, or just plain wrong by the time you read it.” His advice for the internet, then, is specific enough to discuss the details of Twitter and Vine success stories while being far more interested in the universal elements of digital production – self-motivation, consistency, audience engagement – that will translate to whatever futuristic social media platform arrives next. His last section, “The Business of Comedy” concedes that “comedy is a product,” and gives tips for both comedians trying to figure out the business side, and business-minded types interested in working in comedy.
For a comedy nerd, some things may feel like generic “comedy advice” – start at open mics, this is how a Harold works, YouTube is amazing – but the book’s approach is totally democratic, accessible to anyone who’s ever laughed at a joke. It also touches on less “cool” areas, like prop comedy and short-form improv, that have fallen out of popularity but may just be looking for that one brilliant comic to bring them back.
At times, Funny on Purpose falls into the trap of other insidery showbiz how-tos, discussing things like an agent’s commission or table reads which no one reading this book will need to know for many years. But overall its thoroughness is a positive. As John Hodgman puts it in his foreword, “Comedy as both a practice and a business requires a set of skills that historically have been closely guarded by a guild of bitter weirdos.” This book gets into all the awkward nooks of comedy that most people prefer to gloss over, like what kind of software should you use to start your podcast. It’s also packed with real-life advice from people like Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, Jack Handey, Joan Rivers, and Weird Al Yankovic.
Perhaps its finest accomplishment is the book’s ability to convey how difficult it is to be funny on purpose, particularly for profit. “Comedy is designed to be an endlessly cruel enterprise of disappointment and agony,” he explains at one point. Over and over again, Randazzo reminds the reader that working hard and consistently is the key to making any of this knowledge actually useful. And he ends with a downbeat existential postscript – “How All of This Relates To Your Inevitable Demise” – that will give you a sense of what hanging out with your new comedy friends will actually be like.