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Comedy writer highlight: Luke Burns

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

Luke Burns (Twitter/website) is a New York-based writer/pandemic birder, humor writing teacher, and sketch coach and director who has been featured in the New Yorker, McSweeny’s, NY Mag, and more. He was a writer for Maude Night for four years, and in December will be hosting a live show called Space Council (an interactive sci-fi comedy with game-like elements). Subscribe to his weekly newsletter that focuses on short humor writing here.

Below, we made him answer five short questions.

You have a love of making games or gamifying your stories (example here). Can you tell us more about that?

One thing I think short humor does really well as a medium is to bring readers into worlds that operate according to their own unusual rules. So in that sense I think there’s a pretty natural overlap between games and certain types of humor writing. In both cases you’re immersing yourself in, and exploring, a particular kind of offbeat logic, and in the process you perhaps wind up seeing familiar things in a new light.

Did you stay in NYC during the pandemic? What was that like?

I did. There have been so many different phases to the pandemic it’s hard to sum up what it was like. In the early days it was harrowing, but my experience was also that people - in the city at large and also in the smaller comedy communities I’m part of - went above and beyond to take care of each other and look out for each other.

From a comedy-specific perspective, obviously not being able to do live shows was a huge change. Zoom shows aren’t the same as live shows, but people did a lot of good, creative work. I was directing a sketch team before the pandemic, and they did a really impressive job making the leap to virtual shows and put out a ton of really great video sketches, all made remotely.

There have also been some heartening developments in New York comedy, like the creation of the Squirrel Theater, and some of my favorite places, like Caveat, the home of the long-running short humor readings show I co-created, thankfully did make it and are continuing to do really great stuff.

How do you expect your life to shift as life returns to some semblance of normality?

It feels like things keep shifting in so many big and small ways that it’s tough to hang onto any expectations about what the status quo might be! One big thing I’ve missed is, of course, going to see live comedy shows, hosting and performing at shows, and the serendipity of running into people at events like that.

That’s something I’m hoping to get to do more of in the months ahead - and in fact, in December, I’m putting up a comedy show I co-created, which will be the first live show I’ve done since the pandemic started.

How did you come up with your best joke?

I don’t know that I can say which of my jokes is my best joke, but I think that a good sign that a joke is really working is when I’m able to surprise myself with it - when I hit on something that never would have occurred to me when I started writing. I think that the element of surprise is something that the jokes I’m most proud of have in common.

Describe your comedy writing process.

I spend a lot of time working over my ideas - free associating, thinking about what form they might take, assembling material - before I sit down to write a draft. I do this so that I can feel really confident that a premise is going to work before I start writing actual sentences, but also, if I’m being totally honest, I find first drafts incredibly difficult. This is a way to avoid getting to them for as long as possible.

Photography: Allen Irwin

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