Comedy writing is a never ending process of hit and miss. Real laughter is an involuntary action. Even when we shouldn’t, we can’t help ourselves. Comedy is full of contradictions. One of the roles as you write comedy, is to deflate human pomposity. Just what is it that makes one laugh?
A bit of terminology:
- The set-up is the bit of information needed to understand the punchline
- The punchline is the part of the joke that makes the joke funny by connects the dots in a surprising way
- A capper is the final joke that sends the audience into uncontrollable laughter. It may not be the best joke but it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The difference: Joke or Comedy
Writing a joke is not the same as writing a comedy. When you write (or tell) a joke, you begin with the set-up and end it with the punchline. The punchline is where the joke becomes funny, the set-up is merely a means to an end. There is no story, just set-up. When writing a comedy, the central focus is the story, which exists for its own sake, in a world which is often somehow exaggerated or severely understated. Single lines don’t make a written comedy. The funny part comes from the cumulative effect across the entire story.
A little comedy myth busting
1 There’s no magic formula.
There is no step by step guide which you can follow and be guaranteed a funny joke at the end. Just like any type of writing, it’s trial and error. It’s writing and rewriting. Give it a go, test it out on an audience to see if it makes people chuckle.
Situations themselves aren’t funny. In fact, the situations used in comedy are the same situation you find in drama’s or high action. It depends on how technique is used, the most important technique for comedy is language. Telling jokes requires clear precise communication. Think of that uncle you have who sucks at telling jokes. He forgets bits of information during the set up. He reveals the punchline before the set up. He stutters his way through the joke, correcting and remembering as he goes. Think of auntie Jo who tries to tell you how funny it was when Mary fell and pulled the tablecloth down with her, and always finishes it off with ‘oh you had to be there‘. No, you didn’t. A funny thing well told will make the audience laugh, whether they witnessed it themselves or not.
Rules of the game
1 Be strict and selective
Writing comedy isn’t about packing in as many jokes as you can think of, it’s about getting the right jokes in. A common dilemma happens when one joke in particular is amazingly funny but doesn’t fit in with the rest of the funny bits. It stands out, throwing off the balance of the piece as a whole. Throw it out. No, really. The collective whole is stronger without it. Stick to the right jokes in the right places that work as a collective. Check whether the strength of your humour is in the jokes or in the story by telling the story without the jokes. If it’s still funny, you’re good to go.
2 Make yourself laugh
Comedy comes from personality. Your comedy should come from your personality to begin with. Stop trying to write what you think your editor will find funny, or whoever is looming over your work. First and foremost, make yourself laugh. Then take your material and test drive it on an audience, rewrite and adjust if necessary, check drive with audience and send it in if all goes well. This is how you create original comedy with your unique style.
3 Comedy is about character and timing.
Comedy is derived from character, yours and the character from your story. The funny bits of written work should come naturally to the character. Here’s an example. John is extremely cheap, not because he doesn’t have money but because he doesn’t like to give it away, even if he gets something in return. John is being mugged in an alley.
Mugger: Give me your wallet or I’ll kill you.
Mugger: Your money or your life! Fast!
John: I’m thinking…
Meet Mary. Mary is afraid of bacteria and doesn’t like touching people for fear of contamination. Mary is being mugged in the alley across the street.
Mugger: Give me your wallet!
Mary hastily starts unbuttoning her pocket to get to her wallet.
Mugger: Your wallet! Fast!
Mary pulls out the wallet. The mugger tries to snatch it from her hand but she jumps back in reflex.
Mary: Can I just… Is it ok if I just put drop it in your hand?
These examples also show the importance of timing. Both scenarios need a moment of silence. John needs time to think before he decides. Mary needs time to figure out a way to hand over her wallet without touching anything. The silence is part of the build up and comes from their personality traits. Writing characters that make you laugh works the same way as writing any other character, you introduce him and gradually reveal all the quirks that makes him funny and puts him in interesting situations. Don’t reveal everything at once, the process of revealing is part of the build up necessary for the ‘punchline’.
An important aspect of timing and build up is the rule of three. People are hard-wired to look for patterns to predict what’s going to happen. Your job is to show them wrong. Three events occur. The first two out of three are set in a pattern (a straight line), the third breaks the pattern (curves away / twists / the derailment). Breaking the pattern heightens the tension (unpredictability) and surprises the audience, resulting in laughter. There are countless of patterns to break, for example:
Category 1 – Category 1 – Category 2: I love cuddly animals, I have a cat named Purrser, a dog named Max and my favourite Teddy bear is called Barry.
Expected trait – Expected trait – Unexpected trait: He was handsome, fit and addicted to hamburgers.
Love – Love – Hate: Mary got a care-package from her boyfriend when she fell ill with the flu. It contained everything she needed: Flowers, a great film on DVD and her homework.
The list goes on. Plain – Plain – Odd. Extreme – Extreme – Plain. Rhyme – Rhyme – Not Rhyme. You name it. You can rework a classic to still be funny even though the audience isn’t surprised by the twist, by making them doubt their prediction briefly before the pattern breaks.
There’s a banana peel on the floor. (A classic, the guy will slip on the banana peel.) Jacob must cross the room to get a book. Jacob walks across the banana peel and grabs a book from the shelf. (Wait, what? No slip?) Jacob brings the book back, stepping on the banana peel again without even noticing it’s there. (Ok ok, you got me. I thought he’d slip but he doesn’t.) A few minutes after browsing the book, Jacob gets up to put it back on the shelf. He walks over and slips on the banana peel.
The language of Comedy
Linguistic special effects require:
- (unusual) descriptions
- (Surprising) Metaphors
Funny Fillers, should not be expected to carry the weight of the joke
Example: Funny names
His name is Tjohnson, though the T is silent, as in “Tjacket”.
The building was called Towcester (pronounced Toaster).
Read more about comedy through absurdity.
Example: A character’s inability to use the right word
Mary: Did you see anything odd on the night of the murder?
John: Yes indeed I did, two very aspicious persons I saw. (Should be: suspicious)
Mary: Did you see the victim as well?
John: Oh I saw her all right, quite a travesty, such a pretty young thing. (Should be: tragedy)
Read more about comedy through character traits.
8 Well-known Comedy Concepts to get you started
1 The Switch
Two quite different people must switch place for some reason. Maybe they lost a bet or there was a mix-up in the paperwork. Both characters learn something new, some lesson they wouldn’t have come across in their own regular life. Example: 21 Jump Street
2 Fish out of water
The lead character is in an environment where he is comfortable and competent. He forced out of it and must overcome something about himself in order to be successful in his new environment. Example: Hot Fuzz
3 Opposites forced together
Create two characters that are fundamentally different, unlike #1 they will not be switched but put together. They are forced to work together towards a common goal. Example: Zombieland
4 Be careful what you wish for
Something amazing has happened (usually a bit of magic is required) only it’s not as great as he thought it was going to be. Example: Click
5 Forced to do something idiotic
Usually enforced by something harmless, like a bet. Example: How to lose a guy in 10 days.
6 A lengthy Inconvenience
Put a character into a situation he hates to be in (preferably one everybody hates to be in) and make him stay there a good long time. Example: Meet the parents
Take a concept that is very serious, like a horror film and make it funny. Example: Scary Story
8 True Tall Tale
Look for the headlines in the newspaper for this one. Every news site has a category for funny or bizarre news. Make a note of the ones that strike you the most. It could be used as a starting point or in an element of your story.
Sources: Willis, C. Learning to Write Comedy
Evans, D. The Seven Laws of Comedy Writing