6 Requirements of Good Comedy


Requirement 1: Appeal to the intellect (rather than the emotions)

Appealing to the emotion can go horribly wrong incredibly easy. Take for example jokes at the expense of a certain group of people, whether it is based on ethnics or any other criteria: how many lawyers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Whatever the answer is, lawyers are insulted, the joke goes at  their expense. People respond to such jokes subjectively, they get angry, which is an emotional response. To everybody who isn’t a lawyer and doesn’t particularly love lawyers, the joke appeals on an intellectual level, allowing them to laugh at the joke (if the other requirements are met). One method of preventing people of responding to the emotional burden of a word is to make it lose its connotative or emotional meaning before using the word in a joke.

Requirement 2: The joke is mechanical

H. Bergson believed that humour consists of a mechanical inelasticity, just where one would expect adaptability and flexibility. It is funny when James acts inappropriately or response oddly to a situation. “Dumb” characters are funny because they say what they think while clearly not grasping (having adjusted to) the situation.

Requirement 3: It must be inherently human (reminding us of humanity)

Something is funny only to the extent that it reminds us of our humanity. Animals for example, are only funny when they seem to behave in a human way. This effect is strengthened by dressing them in human clothing. Reminding us of our humanity can also be achieved through observation and familiarity, by pointing out the experiences that we all have in common but don’t normally acknowledge.

Requirement 4: There is a set of societal norms that the observer is familiar with.

This can be through every day life or through the writer providing expository material (or both).

Requirements 5: The situation and its components must be inconsistent or unsuitable to the surrounding or associations

Comedy is based on incongruity. It matches the unexpected with the expected, the usual with the unusual and points out the misfits from society norms. For comedy to work there must be a cultural or societal norm, idioms, idiosyncrasies and terminologies where incongruities can be found. The important issue is knowing what norms exist and which are out of date.  If a joke needs explanation, then it failed. The explanation removes the incongruity, and thereby removes the reason for laughter.

Three aspects of incongruity are literalization, reversal, and exaggeration. In literalization the joke comes from taking a figure of speech and then performing it literally. Reversal is simply reversing the normal, taking what is normal and expected and doing or saying the opposite. An exaggeration is taking what is normal and blowing it out of proportion. Events occur to which the characters will react beyond all proportion: the mountain out of a molehill syndrome.

The greatest incongruity is the violating of societal taboos. These are all subjects which society has decreed should be discussed discreetly, if discussed at all.

Requirement 6: the joke must be perceived as harmless or painless to the readers

The action has to be perceives as causing the “victim” no actual harm, their physical, mental and emotional well-being may be stretched, distorted or crush but they always magically recover quickly and are not changed by the event. Take slapstick for example, where an entire brick wall can fall upon a person. It is funny because the character responds to the event with confusion, simply getting up, dusting off his suit and scratching his head as he looks down on the bricks around him. He is never truly hurt. Compare this to a real life situation of watching one of your mates trip and fall. It’s funny… until you realize he broke his arm in the fall.

Sources: Willis, C. Learning to Write Comedy
                Evans, D. The Seven Laws of Comedy Writing