by Kelly Zemnickis
I ordered a LOT of books during the past year and a half, have I read all of them? No. No one has. Stop saying you did!!! But I definitely used the past year and a half to learn and grow as much as possible, so some of my suggestions were born out of the “must do comedy better!” mindset, and others have been on my shelf for a while now and are treasured guides that are marked up and dog eared. I hope they inspire you to write more, whatever it is that you want to write about!
1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King was one of the first books when I really started to get into playwriting (I have four plays under my belt, thankyouverymuch) that people kept telling me to read. So I did. And let me tell you, if you’re a writer or love learning about the craft, YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK. I love how he starts off in the foreword by telling you that “this is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit”. And then he goes on to recommend an exception to that rule, The Elements of Style which I must confess I have still not read. But I think I should because he quotes a rule in that book, “Omit needless words”. Oh, as a stand-up that we need to do…. don’t we? Get to the punch quicker. Another bit of advice that I highlighted in a read once is when King reminds you that while good ideas seem to come out of nowhere “[the writer’s] job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.” I keep a notebook on hand at all times for such reasons.
2. And Here’s The Kicker by Mike Sacks was recommended to me by my friend Mark, and it led to a friendship with Mike Sacks that I am incredibly grateful for. That’s not to say that if you read a book by Mike you will automatically become his friend, but he’s a decent guy so maybe you will. This book is a collection of interviews between Mike and a who’s who of creative heroes of mine and folks I didn’t know of prior to reading the book. Both this book and its follow-up Poking A Dead Frog are filled to the brim with solid and honest comedy and writing advice, which I can’t recommend enough. I love the bits of advice sprinkled through it, like this gem from John Hodgman who notes “Concentrate on being the most honest writer you can be, and let everything else follow- because it will.”
3. How To KILL in Comedy: Find your Comedic Character by Steve North was a book I discovered by taking one of many online comedy classes in 2020. It was actually a class taught by Steve himself, and he cleverly mentioned that he had a book… smart guy. But having actually taken classes with Steve (and if it’s in your budget, PLEASE take a class with him- he’s an incredible teacher), having experienced actually working with him… this book is like having Steve in your back pocket. It’s a fantastic workbook and provides solid advice and guidance to getting the best performance time after time. I definitely credit Steve with helping me find a stronger sense of self and craft a better set.
4. Yes Please by Amy Poehler is hands-down one of my favourite books ever. I don’t have the luxury of going for a coffee with Amy and talking about comedy and life, but by making my own coffee and sitting down with this book it’s like Amy is right there with me. I love how she encourages you, through her own life experiences, to go out there and try and fail and start again and turn back and move forward… because life is a dance. Say Yes more often. Embrace it all. This book gifted me with my personal motto, my life advice that I offer up to those who ask, Just Do The Thing. It’s simple but to the point. Stop talking about it and do the thing… and if it doesn’t work out? Try something else. I love this book.I might just read it again now.
5. If life is a bowl of cherries- what am i doing in the pits? by Erma Bombeck was written long before I came into this world but is a treasured paperback that still sits on my shelf today. I credited my parents with introducing me to Erma’s work at a very young age, I recall bringing in a book of hers to class in 5th grade and laughing over passages to my friends who graciously pretended to listen while they lined up for hop-scotch. Erma was a syndicated columnist in the States and wrote about the perils of being a mom, wife and homemaker- things I clearly knew about at the age of 10. But when asked who my comedy heroes are, she’s up there. LONG before I knew that I could make people laugh with my words, LONG before I even considered being a stand-up comic Erma Bombeck was making me laugh even if I didn’t totally understand the context. I can’t say every story she wrote in the 60s, 70s and 80s still holds up but I highly recommend adding this to your reading list. She was a trailblazer and definitely deserves more love.