You know, I think if I were to sit down and list all the topic requests I’ve received since I started Being a Better Writer, and probably even some of the requests I received before starting it, comedy would likely be at the top of the heap. This is a constantly asked-after topic. And yet, for four-plus years, I’ve steadily declined. Why?
Simple: I don’t write comedy. Sure, I have funny moments here and there in my stories, and may write a short or a chapter every once in a while that prompts quite a bit of snickering, but I don’t see that as being a comedy writer. I write adventures, reflective pieces, etc, etc, but almost never have I sat down and told myself “I’m going to write a really funny story.” Those moments of comedy in my stories? Those are the characters being funny. And sure, the characters are an extension of myself and my intent, but at the same time, I don’t see that as “comedic writing.” That’s characters and situations I have taking advantage of the moment to be funny, rather than me writing a story with the express purpose of delivering laugh after laugh. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy writing characters or scenarios that produce a good laugh—to the contrary, I welcome it—but that the comedy is never the sole goal of the story … save perhaps with one exception, that being the short story Kitchen Creature from Unusual Events. Comedy is a side dish, yes, like fries to go with the burger, but it’s never the main course in my works.
Why? Well, I’ll go back and repeat the old adage once more: Dying is easy, comedy is hard. You might recognize that in variance from my post on tragedy, but the fact is that it keeps coming up because comedy is hard. Crud, Battletoads-slash-classic-Nintendo-hard.
Actually, let me rephrase that a bit as we finally begin to circle inwards towards today’s topic: Good comedy is hard. Cheap comedy? Fairly easy … but, well, cheap. Low-cost, really. And, on that note, fairly low-brow as well.
Okay, some of you might be confused at this point, wondering either what I’m talking about, what I mean, or both. So for the moment, let’s ignore cheap comedy and all its implications, and just focus on the tough stuff. The good stuff.
So, to begin, what makes good comedy good? What makes it work? Crud, how can one even classify comedy as good? I know simply by bringing in the term, some will disagree with it. But the fact of the matter is that there are elements that go into comedy that can bring about the most laughs, while there are also elements that go into it that can fall flat, or only amuse a few. If the goal of comedy is to bring about a large degree of laughter and joy, then good comedy would be comedy that does that to the widest degree and to the most effective level.
How does one do that? Again, bearing in mind that I am not a comedy writer, so this is only my best thoughts and work on the matter, but the first element of good comedy is the unexpected. The twist, the surprise, the taking of what was expected and doing something different with it.
Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s something that’s straight out of left field, IE, something that doesn’t make any sense. Comedy has to have reason and logic behind it. It’s just that it’s unexpected logic. If it helps, think of your favorite classic cartoons that made you laugh, like Tom and Jerry or Wile E. Coyote trying to catch that darn roadrunner. Many times what made you laugh was the presentation of an unexpected twist on what you expected coming. What happened was always amusing, but there was always a bit of shock value to it, a moment of “wait, what?” that set your mind reeling in a new direction.
Good comedy revels in this sense of the unexpected, this sudden surprise joke that moves things in another direction. But, and it needs to be said here, that while the direction is one that is unexpected, it still does need to make some sort of sense. Granted, non-sequitur comedy is a thing, but even then, the sudden change of direction is understood as part of non-sequitur comedy, and so works for that reason, that the viewer sees and knows it’s a non-sequitur (sort of like the creator is giving them a wink and they’re sharing the joke that the joke was, in fact, nothing related to anything).
But in other words, good comedy isn’t just unexpected, but also prepped. It’s something that’s been set up, established, and yet still manages to surprise and shock the reader. Which isn’t to say that a one-liner can’t be funny (RE—The 80s), but that a joke that’s been slowly building over the course of a chapter or a scene can deliver a far better laugh when it hits as it delivers on a building expectation that the audience has been following along with.
Actually, it may help to think of that building expectation as the comedic form of escalating tension. In a regular, basic story, you’re going to want to have escalating tension (which we’ve talked about before), this basic rising sense of dread and pressure as the story nears its climax. Likewise, you want to do this with comedy as well. Often with some form of singular or multiple Chekov’s guns being added to the mix—albeit ones that are going to be delivered as part of the punchline.
Sound like work? Well, yes. As already stated, comedy is hard. Building up a joke takes effort, as does delivering that twist. But that’s not all you have to keep track of … because one joke isn’t going to cut it. No, not at all.
Which means you need to be orchestrating multiple gags, all across a story, while building up to the big ones. It’s almost like writing an adventure story, except that instead of battles and gunfights, you’re going to have laughs and jokes … all piled on top of some other sort of story that serves as the framework for the whole thing. And then, near the end? The best forms of comedy will have all the gags come together, all piling into one another in a sort of twenty-car pile-up of humor that leaves the audience rolling.
Example time: A lot of good comedy shows and do all of the above, but I’m going to single out an episode of Malcolm in the Middle I watched the other day as an example that sees three separate plot-lines bounce around one another before colliding near the end. Two are primary, and then one is tertiary. But in the end, they all come together and collide, as good comedy should. The primary plot lines involved the parents of the family dealing with what may be cancer for the husband, stressing out more than usual and acting in bizarre ways as they try to cope with the possibility of one of them facing something so devastating. This bounces off the arc for the two older siblings, who are trying to make it to a high-school party that weekend and almost immediately find themselves grounded by the ire of a stressed-out mother. Those two storylines bounce off of one another providing small comic relief and setup while the third story revolves around the youngest brother’s quest to keep his class pet from undergoing torture at the hands of the class bully. Which mostly serves to add more comedy to offset the set-up of the other two storylines, keeping the jokes coming at a consistent pace (and also ended up setting up a running gag that lasted the rest of the season) as well as explore the background info of one of the other stories.
In the end, the youngest brother’s storyline mostly concludes to make way for the other two colliding: The older siblings sneak out, leaving behind dummies in their place … dummies which then are given a heartfelt parental message from the still worried father in the middle of the night—who ends up upsetting the dummies in the worst possible way, which involves one’s head exploding and the other terrifying the youngest brother (it was a Halloween mask) who wakes up to see it inches from his face while his father screams, and, well … you get the picture. My point is that like any other story, all the elements came together at the end to serve the purpose of making the audience laugh. Good comedy does this … while still following the rules of most other stories.
Again, this is why good comedy is hard. It’s almost like having a story layered atop another. The base story is the foundation (the adventure, the romance, whatever) while the comedy is a similar structure of rising elements built atop of that, almost like a second story … well, if not a second story, a second framework. But it’s a lot to keep track of.
Now, one last thing I need to mention: Audience. Personally, it seems that more than many other forms of storytelling, comedy really requires that you know your audience. Especially in today’s day and age and where comedy is subject to scrutiny from all kinds of special snowflakes. But even setting them aside, the truth of the matter is that when setting up or telling a joke, your audience matters. They are the ones that are going to be interpreting it, reacting to it, etc, and if you set up a joke that your audience isn’t familiar with or doesn’t understand the context of, it’s going to fall flat.
What’s tricky here is that this comes down to individual senses of humor atop everything else. For example, some people don’t like the webcomic Schlock Mercenary because the jokes are delivered by a troop of space mercenaries and can be pretty violent and grim (to which the author begged the question of ‘If they’re not fans of violence, why are they reading a comic about space mercenaries?’) while others find that the slapstick of something like The Three Stooges just doesn’t make them chuckle. Others want to be amused by clever mental trickery, while still others want low-brow toilet humor that requires as little personal thought as possible.
You cannot appeal to all of these audiences at once, and so you must know your audience and what’s going to make them laugh. This is why a lot of traveling comedians, during their shows, will have a whole slew of jokes that can be easily modified to meet the needs of the audience they’re performing in front of, making jokes that tie into their home or the local political climate.
Likewise, knowing what kind of jokes your readers expect to see, or what sort of humor amuses them most, is key to keeping them entertained. If you simply throw out every gag you can think of, a shotgun approach to your writing, you may get a chuckle here or there, but you’re not going to deliver a consistent experience.
Okay, enough said, I think. Time to get back to the other half of today’s promised topic: cheap comedy.
Cheap comedy is, in essence, the low-hanging fruit. Easy sex jokes, cheap laughs, sniping humor that cuts, sarcasm, toilet jokes, etc. I’m not saying that these can’t be used for a laugh, nor that some of those topics can’t be made absolutely hilarious if presented in a clever manner … but cheap comedy isn’t concerned with setting things up in a clever manner. Cheap comedy throws the punchline at the reader like cash at a politician, half the time expecting a laugh, and the other half almost boasting about “how clever” it was. These are jokes that aren’t hard to see coming, that require very little thought to put together, and only amuse those who come at their entertainment with the absolute lowest of expectations, both in what’s delivered and what they’re expected to put forth to “get it.” They’re “shock value” as much as they are humor.
Let me explain a bit further here, just so you don’t mistake what I’m saying, by way of an example. Have you ever seen Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (or for that matter, anything by Mel Brooks)? If not, stop reading right now and run—do not walk—to the nearest available MR. RENTAL and pick it or one of his many other films. You’ll thank me later. Then come back. I’ll wait.
Now? Seen it? Okay, well, Blazing Saddles has sex jokes. But they’re clever sex jokes, the kind that make you think for a moment “wait, was that meant to be a—?” followed by the light-bulb coming to full power and a “They did!” Then riotous laughter. Or they slowly build in the background. Crud, you might not even notice many of them on the first watch because of how low-key they can be.
Compare that, however, to the sex jokes made by the low-budget studios that make things like the “EPIC Movies” and their ilk (the series, not the genre). There’s little cleverness to be found, no moment where the audience is supposed to think on it. Instead it’s the shock value of someone looking right at the screen and going “It’s funny because sex” and that’s about it.
That’s “cheap” comedy. The quick, easy joke. The low-hanging fruit. The kind of easy gag that most of the audience could see coming, presented with little fanfare and lead-in.
And unfortunately, you see a lot of this in young writers attempting to write comedy. They go for the simple, easy, cheap humor, often expecting it to be the gut-busting humor of the greats without having any understanding of what the difference is between what they’re doing and what made those greats great.
So, final bits of advice? Atop everything said here today? First, remember that I am not a comedy writer. I make jokes in the act of my writing, but that’s not the core of what I write. So, as much as this topic has been requested, and even though I only now after four years feel comfortable offering advice on the topic, it’s general advice. There are comedy writers out there that offer their own spins and can offer in much more detail what I’ve said here. I’m only covering the basics I know and understand. I hope it helps, but I would advise going further than what I offer.
Second, if you want to write comedy, good comedy, then read and watch good comedy. Study it. Try to understand what makes it tick. Go watch the great classics of comedy, like Mel Brooks, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. Read works from comedic authors like Dave Barry, Gordon Kormon, or Sir Terry Pratchett. Note not just what makes you laugh, but what goes into it—the setup, the delivery, the tone … All of it! Learn from the best, then practice putting what you’ve studied into application with your own work!
And don’t give up. Comedy is hard, remember?
Good luck. Now get writing.
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