Joke Writing and Inspiration

Laurie Kilmartin shared a list of joke transitions that are commonly used in the writer’s room at Conan. I am fascinated by this. I’ve never been good at writing joke jokes. On stage I mostly tell stories and a few observational bits. But good old fashion set up, punchline? It’s so hard for my brain to work like that. I’m jealous of people who can do it.

I love that she posted this list. Inspiration isn’t always magic. When you feel stuck you don’t have to climb a mountain to recover your passion before you work on something creative again. Some times you just need a list and an understanding of the structure and rules of what you’re creating. Some times art is just math. Set up + transition leads to joke.

What Are We Allowed to Joke About?

I’ve really been dreading social media the last couple of days. There’s A LOT going on in our culture and everyone has a strong opinion about everything. 

But it’s not the opinions I’m trying to avoid on Facebook, it’s the jokes.

Last year I created a video series called HOW TO LEAD A CULTURE OF CONFESSION. I believe we are all constantly auditioning to be the type of person someone feels comfortable opening up to. How we handle certain situations will let others know if they can trust us with what’s really going on in their life.

We have to be careful with what we joke about.

This isn’t me trying to police every word out of people’s mouths. I don’t want to make blanket statements that you can NEVER make a joke or laugh about anything close to this subject or that one.

I just want us all to be careful.

I think the most important question you can ask yourself is: “why do I feel comfortable making this joke?”

A flippant joke about killing yourself, eating disorders, assault, or spousal abuse (all things I’ve heard joked about at church events) might be the thing that pushes someone away from opening up to you.

They might be suffering in silence with something from their past and the joke you made let them know you believe that no one around you is struggling with that, so it was ok to make the joke. If no one else is dealing with it, they must be the only one. And if they’re the only one, no one will understand. So it’s better to keep it locked up inside.

Be careful.

Paul was willing to give up meat that he had absolutely no problem eating if it might cause weaker Christians to stumble. Are you willing to sacrifice a joke?


If you’re interested in the rest of my series, HOW TO LEAD A CULTURE OF CONFESSION, check out all 4 parts.

Video # 1 | Everyone Has a Story

Video #2 | What We Joke About

Video #3 | Dealing with Gossip

Video #4 | Sharing Your Story

Talking to Strangers is Cool Now (please?)


When was the last time you had a conversation with a stranger?

Waiters don’t count. Nothing where either one of you is getting paid to have the conversation counts.

The other day I was on Craigslist looking for a wife (not really) and I found a listing entitled “Need a Friend? Why Not Rent One?” Yes. Yes. Let it sink in. Rent a friend. Yes. I bookmarked the ad and tried to go back to it yesterday but it’s been removed. The guy was 27 and charging $25 to hang out with shy people or anyone who didn’t have a friend. I wonder if he got any work. I wonder if anyone rented him for an hour just to convert him to Christianity. People are weird.

When was the last time you had a conversation with a stranger? Rent-a-friends don’t count.

I think some of my favorite conversations have been with people I know nothing about and probably will never see again.

I’m sorry, Mom. I can’t say something about how great it is to talk to complete strangers without apologizing to you for the way I acted my entire childhood. I was wrong.

My mom loves talking to anyone and everyone when we’re out in public. We’re in line at Six Flags when my eavesdropping mom hears someone say the word “Missouri” and all of a sudden she’s talking for 45 minutes because she’s from Missouri. It doesn’t matter in what context Missouri was said. She just hears the keyword and jumps in. My mom is Google. My mom will be a stranger’s auto complete.

Talking to strangers --MY MOM

I’d go to the bathroom at a Chili’s and come back to my mom holding a random baby. What?! Whose baby is that? Where did it come from?! Do I have a new brother? I know the process takes some time and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t in the bathroom for 9 months. Turns out it belonged to that booth over there and now my mom is a babysitter.

Growing up my mom really embarrassed me. I would get so mad when she would try and do this. Once in a restaurant I LUNGED at her and dragged her back to our table because PLEASE STOP TALKING TO STRANGERS!

Now that I’m older (and finally going through puberty) I’ve completely turned around on this. I occasionally eavesdrop and join conversations myself. Recently I was at a restaurant with my family when I overheard a lady talking. Something about a doctor and how he came to his diagnosis. She was saying how rude he was and how he never liked talking to the patients. I turned to her and said “Excuse me, ma’am. Are you talking about House?” She was. I recognized the episode and knew what season it was from BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE A GIRLFRIEND AND I HAVE A LOT OF TIME ON MY HANDS. I talked to this lady for a minute and returned my focus to my parents. My mom looked at me like I just levitated. She was shocked. I had changed.

Binge watching this show is like going to medical school. When I finished season 5 I got a medical license in the mail. I can perform surgery because I watched this show.

Friday night I ended up at Denny’s at 4 am sitting with a street preacher,and two atheists. It was a surreal night.

I was in Austin, Texas to see one of my favorite comedians. The show got out around 10:45 pm. I didn’t feel like heading home so I walked over to 6th Street. For anyone who doesn’t know, 6th Street is where all the bars, clubs, drunks, college partiers are late at night. It’s a whole different world that I’m not involved in but it’s entertaining to watch.

Talking to strangers can open your eyes to all sorts of things. These people are outside of your life, and some are WAY outside the culture you’re used to. It offers a new perspective.

That night there was an older guy standing alone observing just like me. I walked over and asked him for advice on how to talk to girls. Why? I mostly just wanted to hear what he’d say. Part of me was hoping for something crazy. “Tell her she smells like spaghetti! Girls love that!” But he actually had some nice insight. “They’ll talk to you and they’ll let you know if they’re interested. All you can do is keep trying.”

At one point I approached a “college bro” after watching him get turned down by a girl. He offered to be my wingman and told me about a website that teaches you how to pick up chicks. I was pretty creeped out but agreed to tag along because why not? It didn’t take long for me to discover he was just as bad at talking to girls as I was except he didn’t know it yet. This guy was oozing confidence. I didn’t participate in the picking up of chicks as much as I just watched and laughed.

Then I found a guy standing quietly with a sign in the middle of the drunken craziness. The sign said “What if?” When someone approached him wondering what the sign meant he asked them “What if Jesus is the only way to God?” He was a street preacher. Kind of. He didn’t stand on a box and yell. He waited for people to come up to him and let them do most of the talking. He stayed calm and never got angry. Everyone else sure did, though. Holy cow.

I spent a lot of time watching this scene. It was so crazy to watch all of the different reactions. Mostly anger and guilt. One girl walked up to me because she thought I was with the preacher. She got up in my face and talked like she was defending herself. “Hey! I go to church every Sunday!” Ok. Cool. No one said you didn’t. Why did you just yell that at me?

There was one guy standing next to the preacher who just crying. No one was talking to him. He just cried. I walked up to see if he was ok. He was a Christian. He told me how sad he was to see how angry everyone was at the guy with the sign. He tried asking me my religious views but I didn’t want to tell him because I wanted to see what he’d do.

He tried to share the gospel with me. And it broke my heart. Because he didn’t know how. He spoke in circles and never actually made any points.

I asked why he believed in Jesus. He said it was better to “believe in something than to not believe in anything.” I pushed him a little. “Ok,” I said, “but why Jesus? You just said it’s good to believe in something. Why not Islam? Why not Buddha? Why did you pick Jesus?” His response was “because I don’t know about those religions.” That’s it?! That’s your only reason?! What if he had said that to an atheist? They would have ripped him to shreds.

Stepping outside your comfort by talking to strangers makes you think. It makes you question yourself.

I had to ask myself “What would I have said if I was the crying guy? Do I have a good reason for following Jesus?”

That night I had no schedule and no agenda. I was completely free to go where the wind took me. In American culture it’s almost impossible to be that way 24/7. We’ve got doctor’s appointments and set times when we have to be at work. But what if you tried to be open just once this week? No looking at your watch and nowhere to be. Start a conversation with a stranger and see where it leads.

My Friday night with no schedule or agendas led me to Denny’s. After all the bars had closed I was still talking to passerby's who stopped at the street preacher with the sign. The street preacher was talking to one guy and I was talking to his very drunk friend. We decided we should just take the conversation to somewhere we could sit down and eat so we did. Denny’s. Not my favorite but who cares. At least it wasn’t Waffle House.

It was a little difficult to have a decent conversation at Denny’s because one of the guys was a little too drunk. But it was still pleasant and interesting.

Toward the end of our meal an older guy sat down close by and sketched us. Kind of a weird sentence. We didn’t ask him to or anything. He just did it. Before he started sketching he wrote on the paper “Time & The Good Lord Permitting.” He showed it to us and let me keep it.

Talking to Strangers a portrait

When was the last time you opened yourself up to talk to a stranger and see where it goes? Have you let yourself be free and taken where the wind (or the guidance of the Holy Spirit) takes you?

It’s easy.

You don’t have to be a weirdo and try to force a conversation. Look for organic reasons to talk to someone. Maybe you both observed something odd happen. Walk over and say “did you just hear that old lady fart, too?” Simple.

It could start an adventure. You might hear about a new band or movie that’s going to blow you away. They could really change the way you think/talk about something. Or you might do that for them. What if the conversation turns to religion and they share their thoughts on Christianity? You could respond to that. You could share what the Bible actually says about this or that and fix the damage a church or a “Christian” had done in this person’s life.

Talking to strangers. It’s worth it.

Again, I’m sorry mom.