Humor is one of the best ways to connect with people. In fact, if you ask someone what qualities they seek most in a potential partner or friend, a good sense of humor is almost always high on the list.
Stand-up comedy is an increasingly popular mode of entertainment. But in addition to live performances, more markets are looking to add humor to their material, including blogs, advertisements, newsletters, and video content.
Writing comedy is not as easy as it sounds, and what makes it harder is that only the best make it to commercial success.
Experts liken it to professional sports: income is only paid for present jokes that work, and nobody pays attention to your past success.
The good news is that writing comedy is a skill that you can learn.
How to Write Comedy
If you want to try your hand at writing comedy, here are tested and proven tricks that you can practice:
1. Know Your Audience
Before you start to think up funny scenes, make sure you know your audience. For example, how old are they?
Remember: What makes a 6-year-old laugh will be very different from what a sixteen-year-old would find funny.
Next, learn what expectations your audience has. An important part of comedy is the delight of getting something unexpected. This means you need to know first what their expectations are so you can subvert them.
2. Make Use of Repetition
Comedy writing relies a lot on repetition, which comes with a twist in the end. For example, a “knock-knock” joke works with a formula of repeated words, ending with a surprise.
The following are ways you can use repetition to create humor:
A Character Who Keeps Making Mistakes
Situational comedy uses this a lot, where embarrassing or awkward events become funny.
Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It uses this technique in having the five children unwittingly make foolish wish after foolish wish, each one getting them into hilarious situations.
A Character Who Keeps Doing Absurd Things
In Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy, Aunt Frances is the nervous aunt who wishes to protect her niece Betsy from any possible pain.
She overdoes things by wanting to listen to every little thing that Betsy experiences in school, and stays awake every night listening to the little girl describe her nightmares—which Betsy has resorted to embellishing because her aunt always seems to be interested!
A Character Who Uses Funny Gestures or Phrases
Miss Cornelia of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne’s House of Dreams is a classic example of using the repeated phrase, “Isn’t that like a man?”
While it gives a hint to her possibly unhappy past, the constant repetition makes her stand out as an amusing character.
3. Use Delays and Understatements
Part of what makes a great joke funny is the suspense before the performer delivers the punchline. We feel an expectation as it builds up, but not knowing when the other shoe will drop adds to the humor.
Understatement is a literary device wherein you downplay the effects of something. Doing so will amuse your readers more than giving them a literal description.
For example, in Pixar’s movie Ice Age 2, the pregnant lady mammoth asks her husband Manny if she looks fat, and he responds no. This sets the stage for her comeback, “Are you blind?”
4. Learn from Comedy Experts
If you can find a mentor for writing comedy, by all means, get connected with that person.
If not, the internet is a great way to learn from many experts in comedy writing and performing. Read or watch interviews with comedians and comedy writers.
For example, humorist writer of Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris shares how he keeps a diary. You can follow this advice by keeping your own diary for one week, listing down funny things that people say or funny situations that you come across.
5. Actively Seek Feedback
Just like writing other genres, getting feedback is crucial for writing comedy. Share your humorous lines or scenes with your family, friends and writing group.
The advantage of testing the waters with people of different ages and life stages is that you will find which demographic responds best to your sense of humor.
Comedy Writing Examples
One of the best ways to start writing comedy is to immerse yourself in it. Mix it up by reading short stories, plays, screenplays, and novels.
Some great examples to get you started are:
Example #1. Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
Now it is curious how progressively little frets grow and multiply after they once get a start. Things which I didn’t mind at all, at first, I began to mind now—and more and more, too, all the time. The first ten or fifteen times I wanted my handkerchief I didn’t seem to care; I got along, and said never mind, it isn’t any matter, and dropped it out of my mind. But now it was different; I wanted it all the time; it was nag, nag, nag, right along, and no rest; I couldn’t get it out of my mind; and so at last I lost my temper and said hang a man that would make a suit of armor without any pockets in it. You see I had my handkerchief in my helmet; and some other things; but it was that kind of a helmet that you can’t take off by yourself. That hadn’t occurred to me when I put it there; and in fact I didn’t know it. I supposed it would be particularly convenient there. And so now, the thought of its being there, so handy and close by, and yet not get-at-able, made it all the worse and the harder to bear. Yes, the thing that you can’t get is the thing that you want, mainly; every one has noticed that. Well, it took my mind off from everything else; took it clear off, and centered it in my helmet; and mile after mile, there it stayed, imagining the handkerchief, picturing the handkerchief; and it was bitter and aggravating to have the salt sweat keep trickling down into my eyes, and I couldn’t get at it. It seems like a little thing, on paper, but it was not a little thing at all; it was the most real kind of misery.
Example #2. Gilmore Girls screenplay
The Gilmore Girls TV series is full of humorous retorts and snappy comebacks, and what makes them even funnier is the nonchalant way that the characters deliver them.
For example, Lorelai Gilmore’s mother Emily, with whom she has had a strained relationship from her teenage years, gives Lorelai an analogy by saying with all seriousness:
“When a woman gives birth to a crack baby you do not buy her a puppy.”– Emily Gilmore, Gilmore Girls Season 5 Episode 13
Example #3. Modern Family TV series
Modern Family, a sitcom that began airing on ABC in 2009, is dubbed one of the most quotable shows on television. An example of one of its famous one-liners, delivered with a straight face, is:
Phil: I’m a cool dad, that’s my thing. I’m hip, I surf the web, I text. LOL: laugh out loud. OMG: oh my God. WTF: why the face?”
Example #4. Anne’s House of Dreams by L.M. Montgomery
In this fifth book in her Anne of Green Gables series, L.M. Montgomery introduces a character named Miss Cornelia, whose first words in the book are as follows:
“I’ve brought my work, Mrs. Blythe, dearie,” she remarked, unrolling some dainty material. “I’m in a hurry to get this done, and there isn’t any time to lose.”
Anne looked in some surprise at the white garment spread over Miss Cornelia’s ample lap. It was certainly a baby’s dress, and it was most beautifully made, with tiny frills and tucks. Miss Cornelia adjusted her glasses and fell to embroidering with exquisite stitches.
“This is for Mrs. Fred Proctor up at the Glen,” she announced. “She’s expecting her eighth baby any day now, and not a stitch has she ready for it. The other seven have wore out all she made for the first, and she’s never had time or strength or spirit to make any more. That woman is a martyr, Mrs. Blythe, believe ME. When she married Fred Proctor I knew how it would turn out. He was one of your wicked, fascinating men. After he got married he left off being fascinating and just kept on being wicked. He drinks and he neglects his family. Isn’t that like a man? I don’t know how Mrs. Proctor would ever keep her children decently clothed if her neighbors didn’t help her out.”
Although the first description may not strike us as funny, repeatedly having Miss Cornelia punctuate her speeches with “Isn’t that like a man?” lends a level of humor to her scenes.
How Can You Make Someone Laugh?
The ability to make someone laugh is a highly valuable skill, even if you never write down your best lines. But if you do intend to market your comedy writing to the masses, be aware that many experts believe comedy writing is one of the most difficult techniques that a writer can master.
Here are some quick tips for making someone laugh off the top of your head:
- Play on the unexpected. What makes a joke funny is usually its ending on a note that is not what your listener expects. For example, telling about the time you got lost in the woods might end in you coming across a McDonald’s, showing that you weren’t really lost after all.
- Deliver your joke using the rule of 3. A joke can be a list of 3 things, with the first 2 being completely ordinary and serious, and the third being absurd. The build-up helps set the stage up for the punch line. For example, “What would you like? Coffee, tea, or me?”
- Be ready to give an ironic answer. For example, at a party, when someone compliments you for being a good listener, you can say, “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
- Be affectionate when teasing someone. Teasing someone, as long as it’s to show your affection, is a good way to loosen up conversation in a gathering. But be sure you don’t come across as being judgmental, as that can surely dampen the atmosphere.
Comedy Writing Exercises
Now it’s your turn to practice applying these tips and tricks. Start by listing down the funniest situations you have experienced in the past week.
Choose two of these to develop into a scene, paying careful attention to your audience’s expectations and using repetition, delay, and understatement.
Share your work in the comments below, and feel free to give your feedback to others!