Comedy Writing—Tips & Tricks To Make ‘em Laugh
Trying to infuse your story with humor? Look here for tips on how to make your readers smile.
Writing comedy is no joke. Hitting the right comedic notes to make an audience laugh takes a little talent and a lot of hard work. Just ask any comedy writers. When done right, the funny situations, punchlines and witty dialogue come together to create a story that has your readers coming back for more.
What’s the secret to tickling your readers’ funny bone? Good question. Humor is not a one-size fits all situation, but there are a number of tactics you can use for joke writing to try to pry a smile out of almost anyone. The good news is you don’t have to be a stand-up comedy genius to write a good punchline or laughable scenario. A love of humor and the tips below will start you on the road to writing comedy.
Humor Writing Terms To Know
Slapstick: Big laughs based on physical comedy. Think The Three Stooges.
Sketch: A short, pre-written comedy scene like a humorous one-act play. Think Saturday Night Live.
Parody: Poking fun at an existing person or thing, usually by exaggerating a trait. Think Scary Movie.
Punch up: To make a joke better.
Callback: A joke that references something from earlier in the work or repeats the same content from the first mention.
Double entendre: A punchline with two distinctly different meanings, often sexual in nature (but not always).
Rule of thirds: A pattern comprising related beats, jokes, or movements heightened or repeated three times.
Heightening: Taking a concept and creating a pattern of increasing absurd, emotional, and/or physical points. Each one more humorous. Think Buddy’s eating habits in Elf.
Last man standing: A line that seems extremely funny when it’s written but that loses its humor the more it’s read or spoken.
Button/the dog barks (and everyone laughs): The final humorous joke that is intended to pack a major comedic punch right before the ending. Think the last “extra” scene after the credits roll.
Route one: An unsurprising or obvious storyline. This can be applied to characters or to the overall story.
Langdon: Named after legendary comedy writer John Langdon this is a joke consisting of three stages: (1) two elements are introduced, (2) a discussion begins that appears to be about one element, (3) it’s revealed the other element is actually the one being talked about.
Gilligan (cut): A scene that contradicts the scene before it humorously, i.e. one character is fixing something at one time, and then immediately after it they break whatever they were fixing. The reference comes from Gilligan’s Island, on which the device was often used.
Ding-dong: A scene that plays out the logical conclusion of the scene before it humorously. This term originates from Laverne and Shirley, as they would often wonder in one scene who would do something before the doorbell rang and the people who would do it walked into the scene.
14 Comedy Writing Tips to Get You Started
1. Brainstorm funny stories and scenarios
Now you are saying that’s an obvious part of comedy writing. And it is. But that doesn’t mean it won’t take a bit of work. Try brainstorming ideas or topics that tickle your funny bone. Chances are, if you get a laugh out of something, others will as well. Take that concept and expand on it. How can you make it funnier? Grander? Sillier? Play the “and then” game and keep going until you run out of funny moments.
Pro-tip: Record yourself or you and your friends discussing a topic, so jokes and punchlines can flow without having to stop to jot them down.
2. Be Authentic
It’s often said that truth is stranger than fiction, and real life scenarios are often the source of the funniest moments. Take stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld as a prime example. No one can doubt his ability to make people laugh. His sitcom Seinfeld was the number one TV show on NBC for years, and week after week viewers tuned in to watch a half an hour about…nothing. Jerry Seinfeld tapped into the everyday, authentic situations he observed in his real life and spun it into comedic gold to gain big laughs.
3. Be specific
Writing comedy relies on details. The more defined, the better. Anyone can make a joke about a dog that can’t learn to sit when its owner is trying to train it. But add details to the situation, like making the dog a Dalmatian or a teacup Pomeranian and the joke writing is pushed to new realms. A Dalmatian who sits only when on its owner’s lap is a very different visual than a teacup Pomeranian. The same goes for walking and poop and scooping.
4. Be logical
Don’t skip this step. I know you want to. Comedy is supposed to be silly so you shouldn’t have to conform to logic right? Sometimes the funniest moments can come from the most logical moments, as long as they are strung together in the right format. Too much of the same topic and readers might get bored. Instead, build up to and around the final punchline by leaving a trail of smaller incidents readers can follow like a crumb trail. Think Zoolander written by and starring Ben Stiller, where walking the catwalk is turned into a comedy classic.
5. Time it
Ask any comedian trying to make people laugh at their comedy show and they’ll assure you timing is everything. Inserting a funny word, phrase, sentence or punchline at just the right time, usually the last possible moment, acts like an exclamation point on the funny situation you are writing about. With this element of surprise and hopefully delight, you point readers into a new direction or offer them the comedic relief they need. Think almost any line Ron Weasley speaks in any Harry Potter book.
6. Trigger points
No matter how funny your book, it’s essential to pace your jokes and one-liners, allowing for ebbs and flows for each comedic situation. Even the comedy greats have down moments that allow their readers to collect their breath. Pacing is the key element here. Compressing your jokes into a scene where they build off of one another, leading to a climax of laugh out loud moments is important. Triggering “the roll” as Jerry Seinfeld calls it, keeps the reader engaged in the scene, even if not all the jokes are hilarious. The combined effect of amusement keeps them reading.
7. Pick a few words
Many words on their own can be funny. It can be the way they sound, like hullabaloo or upsy-daisy or how they are spelt like macaronic (not a cheesy pasta dish but mixing two different languages together) or dongle, which sounds like it should be a fancy dog toy but is really a piece of hardware that connects a computer to another device. How to find these words? Try using a thesaurus. Find the word you need to use and then look at the options available.
Pro-Tip: Check out the Dilbert Blog for list of inspirational funny words
8. Be different
A great way to find humor in a situation is to find a twist on a cliché. By setting up the basics of an expected, established scenario and then adding a twist at the last moment, readers will be surprised and engaged. This technique, sometimes called “reforming”, will have your readers guess at the next cliché set up. For example, In Judd Apatow’s The Forty-year-old Virgin, the writer takes the Cyrano de Bergerac premise and applies it to the concept of a helping man lose his virginity later in life. Hilarity ensues.
9. Be particular
By hyper focusing on one small detail in the greater scene, big laughs can ensue. Trying to outdo and out grandize a scenario can lead to readers being confused and missing the finer points of humor bound in the situation. With a little focus and the right amount of contrast, the image can be turned into a one off that readers will remember. For example, in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story written by Rawson Marshall Thurber, the premise of dodgeball as a sport starts the story off on a comedic foot. But by adding a coach who trains the team by throwing wrenches at them because “if you can dodge a wrench you can dodge a ball” takes the comedy to new heights.
10. Play on repeat
Often referred to as “the call back,” comedy writing often sets up a situation and alludes to the joke at a later date. For a TV show or book series, this might become a line or scenario readers expect to see, like with Ron Weasley and his hand-me-down articles that never quite work right. Fans will salivate waiting for these little Easter eggs and they provide a through line giving stability to a one off punchline. In a single book, these repeated cycles widen as the circle grows. For example, in Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore, the H in Jesus H. Christ is often alluded to and at the end of the book, readers get a satisfying answer that is simple, obvious and of course draws a laugh.
11. Comedy is Tragedy Plus Time
Often credited to the great comedic personality, Steve Allen, this classic rule of thumb has become a standard. How many times have you heard the line “Too soon?” after a timely joke about painful subject matter. The truth is, there can be healing in making fun of a horrible situation. Harold Ramis, famously known for playing Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters, once had a job working in a locked psychiatric hospital. Mental health is a serious subject and should never be made fun of, however one might see how the experience sheds light on the human experience.
Improvisation (often shortened to improv) is the act of making something up on the fly, without prior thought or planning. You’ll often find improv troupes performing shows at comedy clubs. On TV, Whose Line Is It, Anyway? Is a classic example of improvisational comedy. Try freewriting a scene without worrying about if the grammar is perfect, or point of view consistent. You can edit or rewrite all of this later. The point is to be writing jokes and exploring possibilities without inhibition, to see how a scene might play out before pruning it down to the best bits and ideal pacing.
13. Edit it
No matter what you are writing, there is no getting around the editing portion of the writing process. Believe it or not, being funny is hard work and takes a lot of effort. Hopefully, as you tell yourself the first time, you make yourself laugh and get in a few jokes or puns. But you need to run over those lines again and again to home in on the good stuff and leave out the extras that might bog down your punchlines. Try reading the book to a friend or family member and note what gets big laughs and what flops. Next, get someone else to read it to you and see how your words translate.
14. Borrow from the greats
While it’s illegal to plagiarize, and never a good idea to copy someone else’s jokes, immersing yourself in the works of the writers that make you laugh is always a great primer for researching how to write a rip roaring comedy. And what fun exploration it is. To kick-start your reading task, here are a few famous comedic authors to consider:
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation by Hannah Gadsby
Bossypants by Tina Fey
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
One for the Money by Janet Evanovich
Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella
A few comedic don’ts
Good comedy is really a matter of taste and if you surveyed a hundred people, you most likely wouldn’t find a consensus on what is funny. Everyone’s sense of humor differs. However, there are a few areas to be cautious about:
Don’t tell the reader something is funny. Avoid using qualifiers like “they joked” or “chuckled” or “they all laughed.” Let your comedy do the work for you.
Don’t go overboard. Once you’ve hit maximum funny, take the laugh and leave. Over-using a joke, punchline, or situation can drive all the comedy out of a scene. Christopher Walken demanding more cowbell is hilarious the first time you see it on SNL, but if some version of that sketch aired every week, it would grow stale in a hurry.
Don’t make your main characters annoying. One-note personality types that rely on a tired stereotype or overused trait have the potential to make readers put a book down.
Don’t alienate groups. Stereotypes can often be a shortcut to comedy, but they can often turn off readers more than leaving them chuckling.
Writing Comedy Resources
Seeking further advice on the topic? Check out these books on the topic:
Comedy Writing Secrets: The Best-Selling Book on How to Think Funny, Write Funny, Act Funny, And Get Paid For It by Melvin Helitzer and Mark Shatz
Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy by Judd Apatow
The Hidden Tools of Comedy: The Serious Business of Being Funny by Steve Kaplan
The Comic Toolbox How to Be Funny Even If You're Not by John Vorhaus
Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin
A funny thing happened…
True comedies aren’t always about a hilarious situation, but about how a strongly defined character reacts to a bizarre situation. Unfortunately analyzing why something is funny is a lot like finding the ingredients to falling in love. It’s a mixture of magic, right-time-right place, and maybe a little luck. The point is to have fun (and maybe a few laughs) while writing.