Writing Comedy: Thoughts From The Sit-Down Comedian

What does it mean to make somebody laugh? YOU know you’re hilarious, but Comedy, as a genre, is hard. Going into the specific tastes of somebody’s humour is convoluted and confusing territory, one that is, too often, dismissed with cheap and easy jokes. Successful comedy writing today includes an intricate understanding of comedic beats, conventional structure and perfectly driven dialogue. It is easy to think yourself funny, it’s far more difficult to convince others through a big screen.

What’s interesting to look at when it comes to comedy is its origins. Shakespearean ‘Comedies’ for example are determined by a ‘happy ending’- usually a wedding- and are more generally identifiable through their light-hearted tone and style, much like modern day Rom-Coms. The necessity of getting hearty laughs in this case is shown to be left somewhat to the side in amongst the progression to contentment and justice. Despite the fact that the jokes in Shakespeare’s comedies still transcend to contemporary audiences through themes and characters (think RSC if no films with a Shakespearean story plot spring to mind) the works themselves are not remembered specifically for their comedic value.

The origins of comedy on screen start with 1895 silent films for television, which, with the absence of dialogue, relied more heavily on Slapstick and Burlesque to give humour. The anchoring of meaning to physical actions and expressions are relayed successfully by mainstream comedians on the circuit today, likewise in films that rely on disaster to give humour, as seen in the likes of Jack Ass, Bad Grampa etc. Whether you like it or not, the reason why these films work so well is because they break the convention of an every-day situation that audiences can relate to.

When you start to think about it, you realise that almost every means of humour relies on the isolating of a situation from normality. As in early slapstick, the physical look of being ‘out of place’ is a key trick to establishing humour. Playing with appearances such as height or costume for example instantly sets them apart from the crowd around them in a way that humorously draws attention. Experimenting through gender roles is also an easy way to achieve humour through transforming conventional character attributes. When this is combined with dramatic irony and audience understanding, this works even better.

Toying with dialogue would similarly have the same effect. A talking animal? A swearing Grandma? When people say what is not expected, or simply say the wrong thing, we find their carelessness, humiliation or obtuseness funny, and likewise the reaction of the unsuspecting recipient funny too.

The progression of Dark humour, from the original spoofs and social commentaries of the 1960’s into the modern world, is one that is probably considered the most relevantly funny today. In joking about matters that aren’t deemed appropriate to joke about, our laughter- perhaps nervous at first- allows for a release of tension surrounding the seriousness. Going back to our Shakespearean comedies again, the subject matter, however dark, convoluted or intangible, is approached in such a way that allows release when humour is identified.

Despite dark humour being so popular, this is also a kind of comedy that is unbearably hard to get right. If the jokes fall flat, or are too outlandishly insulting, you may find yourself grappling with not only the attraction of the audience, but also the sustaining of their interests.

As with all things, humour is a very objective and personal thing to have. It can be very specific to one’s taste, or even previous viewing experiences. In this case, it might be worth considering that two heads are better than one. When getting a gauge on humour, the more opinion you get (hopefully) means the more successful you are in achieving laughs first time around. As a writer, we know that you’ve read your way through hundreds of screenwriting books, analysed the greats, read up for the important lectures. You know what makes you laugh, how characters and plot work together and are familiar with the various intricate stages of planning your plot, BUT you find yourself incapable of writing a funny line of dialogue to achieve your long sought after humour. It might be time to consider a collaboration.

On that note, the key thing to remember when attempting to write comedy is to work with the skills that you already have. Any-one can fill a page with cheap and easy jokes that fall flat. As a writer, the most important thing about your story is how it sustains your audience’s attention. At the same time as our laughing at what’s happening on screen, we need to stay absorbed enough in the characters and their relationships in order to CARE about following them through the rest of the plot. Whether you think it’s funny or not, perhaps it’s worth working backwards with the script, adding jokes in more naturally as they come to you as you read over a completed story. It is far harder to punch up captivating events in your film than adding in jokes. Remember that we, as an audience, want to root for them and see them meet their objective, the humour along the way is just a means of enjoying the all-important story line of your feature even more.