A guy walks into a bar. A chicken crosses the road. A rabbi, an imam and a nun go just about anywhere together... and hilarity ensues. Or maybe it doesn't. Comedy or "what's funny" is an incredibly subjective thing. How do you learn to write it then? Are there really any "steps" you can take to write something that turns into a funny joke?
Like any kind of writing, comedic writing takes practice to get right. Funny ideas don't come easily to everyone. And like any kind of writing, it is mastered by some people after just a little practice, while it takes others a lot of work to get even a giggle from the viewer or reader.
That being said, anyone attempting to come up with funny ideas and learn how to write comedy might want to begin by considering a few things. Whether you end up being funny or not - well, make yourself laugh. That's the most important thing.
Use these tips to learn how to write comedy.
- Pick a kind of comedy. When you're going to write a comedic piece - an editorial, a sitcom script, a short story - zero in on the kind of humor you want to use and stick with it. Clearly, there's a difference between Denis Leary humor and Garrison Keillor humor. If you start a piece going nuts and cursing like Leary, and then somehow end up with the folksy, nostalgic "Lake Woebegone" stuff Keillor's famous for, you're going to have a mighty confused audience.
What kinds of comedy might you choose from? There's slapstick like the Three Stooges' humor. There's parody like "The Colbert Report." There's dark humor like some of the Coen brothers' movies. There's edgy humor like Leary's. There's family humor like you'd find in Disney films. There's dry, observational humor as in "Seinfeld." There are many possibilities out there to consider.
So how do you choose? Well, think of what makes you laugh. If you don't make yourself laugh, you may not end up making anyone else do it either. Think of what doesn't make you laugh; unless someone is paying you big bucks, you won't want to use that kind of humor. Think of the jokes you tend to make successfully; you may be able to identify your comedic strength. And think of the piece you want to write as well as your audience. If you want to write a kid's play, for example, political humor or observational humor about drinking beer will probably not work. On the other hand, if you want to write a comedic editorial for a local college paper, politics and beer might be the perfect combination. As another example, a script with a lot of physical comedy might be great for film, but not for radio.
Whatever type of comedy you pick, be consistent within a piece. Think of how you feel when a great comedy suddenly gets dramatic. Well, if you switch from slapstick to dry and sophisticated humor, or vice versa, your audience may have that same feeling.
- Use conflict. They say anger is at the center of all comedy. This doesn't mean you need to be a raging psycho to write comedy well. It usually does mean, when a person writes something comedic, that they're addressing a conflict in a way that's funny - maybe because it's easier or more personally satisfying to do it that way, or maybe because we humans for some reason find conflict amusing. What's the Three Stooges, really, other than guys getting mad at each other and smacking each other around? What's "The Daily Show," other than comics ranting - granted, in a subdued and ironic fashion - about the ineptitude of government. A situation comedy almost always features a "situation" that's a conflict. Character A can't get XYZ and his pursuit of it is funny. The "funny" comes from the frustration he finds on his chase.
So how do you use this reality to write comedy? In whatever you're writing, find the conflict in there and play on the obstacles. Your character can't get his cat out of a tree. Maybe this launches into physical comedy as he tries to climb the tree. Maybe it prompts some dry humor as he talks philosophy to the cat. Maybe his neighbor gets annoyed and comes out with a shotgun and suddenly, it becomes a passage about dealing with people with guns. It's up to you. But find the conflict, the anger, the thing that doesn't work, and find the humor in observing it, fixing it, fighting it, ignoring it or dealing with it. And then add more conflict and start over again.
- Know when and how to exaggerate. "More" is usually better. What would be funnier in the above cat-tree scenario: a guy coming out of his house with a shot gun, or a guy coming out of his house with a rocket launcher over his shoulder? The answer is often the rocket launcher - it's bigger, stupider and more outlandish. But if you're writing a story or play with a tone encompassing dry humor or realistic humor, a shotgun would be better, because the exaggerated visual of the rocket launcher doesn't fit that tone. However, that doesn't mean exaggeration shouldn't be used in less cartoonish humor; it should be used in way that's appropriate to what you're writing.
Exaggeration can be tricky. We've all seen comedy go overboard and end up in the "too much" category. So as you make choices in your writing, ask yourself, "Could I take this one step further to make it a little funnier? Or if I do something else, will it start going downhill."
- Choose your words carefully. Neil Simon was quoted once as saying the "k" sound is funny, or funnier than some other sounds at least. The fact that the guy wonders what sounds are funniest is maybe indication of why he's America's most successful comedic playwright. Your job as a writer of comedy is always to maximize the impact, find what's funniest. Don't let your punch line stand at the first version you devise. When you find your novel's main character in a funny situation, consider if there's something even funnier out there he could do. Don't be satisfied by "sort of funny." Writers are always tweaking their work; comedy writers are not the exception.
- Embrace the concept of three. One of the few points of some consensus in the comedy-writing realm is that jokes should come in threes. This may go back to the Three Stooges, I'm not sure. If you read a funny editorial by Dave Barry, or watch a Leslie Nielsen movie or an old "Seinfeld" episode, you can check this law of comedy in action. There's usually three beats (or multiple sets of three beats) to a funny joke. "I could have done this. Or that. Or maybe even that." If the "maybe even that" is missing, the joke feels unfinished. Or in physical comedy, a guy will hit his toe, then his face, then his head. Take away the head bop and it's not as funny. Add a smack to the back of the head with a brick, and you may feel like you need to see the man assaulted two more times. Or think of all of the jokes you've heard that begin with a rabbi, an imam and a nun. Again, I have no idea why this particular rule works, but it does. If you're writing something funny, keep it in mind and try to put it to use.
- Watch the timing. In some ways, talking about comedic timing is somewhat futile - it's sort of an explicable thing. But timing is crucial. Ask anyone who's laughed at a "spit take" or said, "That punchline didn't work at all..." Sometimes, timing is a matter of drawing something out until it's at its funniest possible point. Other times, it means knowing when to quit. Timing will depend on the kind of comedy you're pursuing, sometimes. A sarcastic piece might require carefully plotted repetition of ideas. Or if you're doing slapstick, you might need to keep the physical comedy going rapid fire up to the "big payoff" moment, whatever that may be. In any case, it's important to realize that when you say something (or have a character say it) is often just as important as what is said. Analyze your favorite comedy routines in film or TV, or read plays and comedic books and see how they use timing to their advantage.
Writing comedy is challenging. But any kind of writing is a challenge. If you want to give it a try, go for it, and enjoy. And to repeat: be sure to make yourself laugh. Sometimes, that's the best we can hope for!