Writing true comedy

Think about the last time you read a book that was a comedy, and think to the times you actually laughed at loud. It’s possible you never did, yet you can still recognise when a story is supposed to be humorous. The difference, however, between thinking; “That’s humorous”, and actually laughing, is a vast one.

Of course, there are a hundred reasons why comedy may work in one medium, and fail in another. Delivery is arguably the most important part of any joke to work, and telling that same joke in a novel is always going to be at a disadvantage. Another aspect could be that reading is just a very peaceful act for your audience to embark on, just because they recognise something is funny, there is no guarantee that they will laugh just because that is not the experience they are seeking. If someone wants to relax and unwind, they might be just too resilient to want to laugh at a story and potentially disrupt that peace.

Of course, it’s not impossible. As with all aspects of writing, it’s just very difficult to get right, but by looking at techniques from different styles and mediums, perhaps there is something we can learn about making our audience laugh.

A key proponent to this is consistency. Your audience has to know that what they are now reading is either a comedy, or at least intended to make them laugh. While we can meld genres to create a black-comedy horror, or a funny action romp, there needs to be communication between the two, and equal time for them to shine. A horror that only has one or two jokes sprinkled in, is going to be un-funny no matter the quality of those two jokes. It will only seek to undermine the horror aspect but alleviating the tension, just as a single horror aspect in a comedy will ultimately downplay the overall humour as a whole. It can be a balancing act with two genres, you want to use the comedy to create an atmosphere that the reader can find fun and enjoyable, and sprinkle in polarising moments of danger or action to highlight the jokes. A joke can potentially resonate much further after a moment of distress for our characters.

A joke depends on it’s delivery. On the page, we don’t have the luxury of that of course. The next best thing, then, is our characters. Assigning a character as designated joke-teller can be perfect, especially in a story that blends genres. Having too many wise-cracking characters in an action story or even a comedy can be irritating, and diminishing the quality of your jokes through sheer quantity. This, however, can be circumvented through careful usage of voices. Of course, allowing your characters to have singular and unique voices is important for any story, but in comedy writing, it is absolutely imperative. Having one character a subdued sarcasm-machine clash with someone proficient in ‘Dad-jokes’ is a perfect set-up for contrast and disagreement, where true comedy can emerge from.

The true spirit of comedy comes from relationships, a point I have argued for previously. Sometimes, those relationships aren’t always positive, and that is where comedy through clashing comes shining through. Mixing ‘odd-couples’ is a tried-and-tested comedy gold-mine, used in examples of literature for centuries. One character is a neat-freak, forced to exist in the same environment as a veritable slob, and the comedy emerges from their disagreements and clashes in identity. Another trope is the classic ‘fish-out-water’ scenario. Take your character, who lives a very comfortable and relaxed life, and suddenly throw them into an environment that they do not understand, and once more, comedy emerges from them misunderstanding the new world they are in, something that we as an audience understand all too well, or something that we don’t at all, allowing us to empathise with the character as a surrogate. Understanding these tropes and what makes them funny can be vital for understanding why we want to include clashes of interest and character, and how we can twist them into humour.

Another disadvantage books have compared to live-action joke telling, is unpredictability. A joke can only be at it’s maximum effectiveness the first time heard, and thus re-watching even our favourite sitcoms will not elicit the exact same reaction as the first time. Where books struggle with this, is the time taken to read a sentence, understand it, and visualise it in consistency with the rest of the image we have constructed thus far. A joke in a sitcom however, is quickly and concisely delivered to the audience with visual cues, no imagination required, and thus it’s unpredictability is increased. Through the medium of a book, unpredictability is reliant on your ability to communicate the comedy clearly and concisely. We all have moments where our imagination has proven funnier than reality, such as when someone tells a story, and your visualisation is possibly much more absurd than what happened, but you’ve also tailored it to your own way of thinking. When writing comedy, it’s important to understand that your audience will interpret it the way they want to, so by making a joke too abstract or too much effort to visualise will severely dilute it’s effectiveness.

Possibly the easiest way to make your audience laugh will be through dialogue, in combination with the other points, as opposed to just funny situations and ‘physical’ comedy through descriptions, and through careful structure and techniques, that infinite potential that your writing could prove funnier than something spoken. A golden rule of stand-up comedy is to start your set with your second-funniest joke, and finish with your first. This engages your audience from the get-go, and leaves them with a lasting impression of their overall experience. This of course takes practise, and your audience will recognise when you’ve tried to shoe-horn in a joke for the sake of it. We can also study other comedy techniques in comedy placement and frequency. You may notice when re-watching The Simpsons, (obviously seasons 3-9, we’re not idiots), just how packed each episode is with jokes. There is literally almost a joke every line, save for the moments where emotional density is key. While they benefited from a team of highly-competitive and very funny comedians, their usage of ‘hang-on’ jokes is also key to the success. A ‘hang-on’ joke is used to build off another jokes punchline, and then perhaps another off of that. Sometimes they are semi-related scenes, but always repercussions of a single joke that build and build towards a bigger laugh,

A double-edged sword often used in writing structure is the ‘recurring joke’. A joke that is brought up several times in one story, in different scenarios. Use it too often, and it will quickly be fatigued, and simply be annoying, wasted time that could have been used for a more interesting joke. If we combine this with the fabled ‘Act of three’, however, we can find the sweet-spot, not too sparing to be forgettable, and not enough to be irritating and tiresome. Of course, just using a joke three times is absolutely no guarantee that that joke will be funny more than once. It takes careful planning and placement for a joke to land, and a recurring joke can be just as difficult to get right, but if done right, the pay-off is high.

One final usage of using consistency, characterisation and voices to your advantage is through unique characterisations. Futurama is almost perfect at this. They have such unique and unforgettable characters, that the majority of their jokes can only work for those characters, which is such a rare and unusual occurrence. While you could take any quote from Homer Simpson and give to most sitcom leads and still have it land, there aren’t really any other poor/lobster/squid/doctor/alien people in sitcoms who can mimic Dr Zoidberg’s quotes and situations. This allows unique comedy to come out of extremely unique situations, especially when combined when the sand-box world Futurama created, where anything and everything is possible. Of course, this can come at the cost of alienating your audience with very specific and self-referential comedy. Especially in an episodic format like Futurama, where if new viewers were to catch an episode several series in, there is the potential for confusion as opposed to laughs. There needs to be a certain build-up and communication through to the audience in regards to the character first, but once that is found, we can create characters with unique perspectives, motives and backstories that coalesce in a way that gives through to completely original and unique comedy and situations.

Of course, finally, we need the understanding that comedy is completely subjective. What makes 99 people laugh might not make you chuckle too. We can’t create universal comedy for everyone, even at our best some people won’t find you funny, and you know what? That’s just fine.

Market yourself towards people who share a similar sense of humour rather than a universal crowd. After all, it’s better to make 4 or 5 people guffaw with laughter than to make 100 people think; “That’s amusing.”

Comedy through writing may be at a disadvantage, but as long as we understand comedy techniques and apply them while understanding the strengths and weaknesses of our medium, there is endless possibilities of making a truly funny book.

Have you ever read a book that truly made you laugh? What do you think makes a story genuinely funny? Perhaps you think it’s impossible? Let’s talk about it!

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