I was recently asked to contribute a chapter on comedy writing for an upcoming book on writing. As I was figuring out what I want to write, something occurred to me: I have no idea how to explain what I do. It probably sounds funny that a comedy writer cannot explain how to write comedy. So as I’m trying to figure out how to explain comedy writing, I thought I share some words of wisdom.
Comedy is an outlaw. In that, it doesn’t have to follow any rules except one: be funny. Comedy, like love and fear (the other two outlaws), is personal and defies explanation. Just as someone prefers one mate over another, or fears snakes and not heights; what is funny to one person is not funny to someone else. This explains my trouble with writing a chapter on comedy writing. I know what I think is funny, but it’s harder to understand what the audience thinks. I recently posted this very question on Facebook and called friends for their opinions. Every person responded with a different piece they felt was the funniest.
Do a Google search on comedy and you will find dozens of articles on comedy writing (Trust me- I’ve been reading them to try to figure out what I do). Nearly all the articles cover mechanics and structure. What they don’t tell you is how to become funny.
Here’s the part you don’t want to know: comedy is work. Stop laughing, it’s true. You have to train yourself to see the humor in things. I need to warn you: the training will make you an asshole. Once you’ve learned to make a joke out of anything, you won’t be able to quit. You’ll become the smart-ass. The kind of person who asks the urologist if your semen will be clear after the vasectomy. On the other hand, your partner won’t try to drag you into too many let’s-talk-about-how-you-feel conversations anymore. So, you’ve got that going for you.
Part of that training requires reading; a lot of reading. This includes the news. There are a couple of reasons why you need to read the news everyday:
- People are stranger than you think. If your zany characters are eclipsed by the news, then you aren’t pushing hard enough. As soon as you think you’ve developed a character that is going to be your comedic vehicle to drive your jokes, someone will do something even crazier. Herman Cain quoted the Pokemon movie in his farewell address. If I wrote that a year ago, you would’ve thought I was insane.
- You have to remain current. Humor has a relatively short shelf-life. The edgiest material is what is happening right now. You are doing really well if you can begin to predict a funny situation before it happens.
- You need cultural anchors. What I mean by cultural anchors is your references have to be widely understood. Prior to 2009, the tea party had a different meaning than it does now. Before the tea party movement, we weren’t debating the merits of the Boston Tea Party (maybe historians were, but nobody listens to them). Today, the tea party has had a polarizing effect in our culture. Your humor has to consider that. Dennis Miller gets away with dropping obscure cultural references mixed with a robust vocabulary; you can’t. I love Dennis Miller. I think he’s a brilliant comedian, but you need a dictionary and an encyclopedia to follow along with him.
- Language trends change every few years and the news typically reflects it. Remember a few years ago when the media merged celebrity couple names to make one name? Now every political incident is a something-gate. In the ‘90s, there was a period when we dropped Jewish words into normal conversation. The good news is, keeping up with language trends doesn’t require any effort. Just by reading you will pick up the trends organically.
Here’s an exercise if you want to start writing comedy. Pick up the paper, find and article, and write a joke about it. The object of the exercise is to find the humor in something that is not funny.
Here’s a link to an article I had published doing this exercise. The article is dated, but is still relevant for the idea of the exercise. The idea came to me as I was cooking dinner and listening to the news. I don’t remember the focus of the news piece; I remember George Bush had just done something which had implications against Iraq. I remember thinking when are we going to stop screwing these people? That was it. I sat down and wrote this article.
The exercise nearly paid off. Years later, I was interviewing for The Onion to be a staff writer. As part of the interview process, I was given a list of fake headlines and I was to write a newscast for each headline on the spot. Ultimately, I didn’t get the job, but it was a personal victory for me to be able to write a funny newscast without any preparation. Here’s an example of one of the articles I wrote:
You may have noticed based on the two articles above that I talk about sex. I have news for you, folks: Comedy isn’t pretty. Psychologists have described humor as the sudden release of tension. On a physical level, laughter is our body’s response to surprise of an unforeseen stimulus. One of the tools a comedian uses to create tension is to discuss something uncomfortable; enter the sex, fart, and poop jokes. Pushing the audience into an uncomfortable area raises their tension levels. The punchline is the release valve to bleed off that tension. In the Panda Wants Abortion newscast, I wrote dialogue for an artificial insemination protester. Here I’ve brought the audience into a slightly uncomfortable situation. The joke is we know what artificial insemination is, so the audiences’ brains are creating a framework of what that means. The punchline is the protester was objecting to the use of artificial semen. This is one of the mechanisms of a joke: build tension, put their minds on a specific path, and nail them with a left hook while they aren’t looking. This isn’t the only comedic style and you don’t necessarily need to make the audience uncomfortable, but it illustrates a basic framework of a joke.
A question I get from aspiring comedic writers is: How do you know if you’ve gone too far? You don’t. The concept is subjective because what is funny is personal. It’s the same argument as what is pornography and what is art. In my book, Donations to Clarity, I wrote several chapters with questionable content. I wrote a character who was a homophobe and a character who impersonated a homosexual. These are two subject areas I needed to be careful of. In the ‘80s, comedians could beat up homosexuals all day long. Eddie Murphy made a career out of roasting homosexuals and Richard Simmons. That doesn’t fly in 2011. You can still make fun of Richard Simmons, but not because he’s gay. The hair and the striped shorts are still free game.
One of my rules for comedy writing is to not to insult anyone- directly. Offended? I don’t care if they’re offended, and you shouldn’t either. You don’t want to insult. In this case, making homosexuals feel like I’m picking on them. And it’s not about gay rights or embracing everyone. To me, comedy is about enjoyment. My goal is to take the audience out of their lives for a small time, and give them something to laugh about. That does not include abusing a subset of the population. Along with this, I was worried about how I portrayed women. I’d never written women before, and I was concerned I was too degrading to them.
I could get away with writing a book without the homophobe and the homosexual impersonator. I couldn’t really write a book without any women in it. Because I chose to write the characters anyway, I did a couple of things to protect myself:
- I wrote the homophobe and the homosexual impersonator as idiots. In the case of the homophobe, the way I developed the character, it made sense for him to dislike gays. It would have been incongruous if I’d written him any other way.
- I asked a few homosexual friends and women read the chapters. I explained what my concerns were and asked for their honest opinions. A funny thing happened: not only did I get their blessings, but they gave me insight to develop the characters better.
Now that doesn’t mean I was completely protected from criticism. I recently had a female reader email me claiming I degraded women. If you read my book, you know I made the guys idiots and the women were the only sane characters. Normally I don’t respond to these emails, or I send a quick note with several suggestion of what they can do with their opinion. This particular woman hit a sensitive button for me; I wanted to know why she felt the way she did. And wow, did she! I got a page and a half on how I degraded women because I had a female character pee a little when Bigfoot scared her.
Which brings me to my next point: if you’re going to write comedy, you’d better have a thick skin. You need a thick skin to be a writer. It needs to be thicker for comedy because you are going to piss someone off. Comedy isn’t pretty. No matter how careful you are, you are going to offend someone. And they will write you and tell you all about it. The good news is they’re just giving you a new character to put in the next book. It’s the circle of life.
The last point I want to make in this article is dialogue. As a comedic writer, most of your jokes will be between characters talking. There are other styles you’ll use, such as situational and environmental. You could even write physical comedy (slapstick). I wrote some slapstick in my book. Slapstick is a unique style that requires a muscular writing style, which I’m not going to get into in this article. What were we talking about? Dialogue! Here’s my advice for dialogue. Go to your neighborhood bar; not a nightclub or meat market, unless you are specifically seeking something from that element. I mean a nice Irish pub; blue-collar, middle class. Hit it at happy hour for a couple of weeks and just watch. You’ll begin to see trends. There’s a group of regulars. They usually get there as soon as the place opens, and they stay after the happy hour crowd leaves. Some times they go home to eat, and then come back to the bar. These are your tickets. They are golden fountains of verbal diarrhea. Get to know them. They will tell you the funniest and strangest stories you’ve ever heard. My idea for the weight of the human turd conversation in my book stemmed from this.
In reality, the guy I was talking to thought we were all going to die by being binged in the melon by rocks falling from space. It was a surreal conversation. This guy was really worried about being knocked off by space pebbles. Although I didn’t use the space rocks in the book, it inspired me to add a similar conversation to the book.
Also go to cop bars. Police officers have fantastic stories. I’ve gone into cop bars, explained I was a comedy writer looking for material, and I would buy a drink for anyone who told me a funny story. I have never walked out of a cop bar with less than three hilarious stories.
Before I let you go, I’ll give you another comedy trick. One way to keep your comedy and your dialogue current and relevant is to use the internet. I’ve attached several links to websites full of ideas. One website, Overheard in _______ is just conversations people have overheard in public places. Part of comedy is the examination of the human condition. Because you, the writer, can’t be everywhere; use the internet to expand your research.
Another great site is Texts From Last Night. This is a website of texts between people. Most of the people are young, maybe college age. It’s a great resource for picking up attitudes and dialogue from the 20s to early 30s age group.
One of my favorite sites is Shit My Dad Says. The site is run by a 30ish comedic writer who posts the shit his dad says. His father, a retired doctor and veteran, is this grumpy, tough-as-nails, no bullshit kind of guy. If you don’t think this site is funny; comedy writing may not be for you.
Now, I am not telling you to steal lines from these sites. Use the sites to develop your character’s dialogue, pick up new terminology, and inspire you to write something funnier.
Now, go away and write something funny.
Noah Baird, author of Donations to Clarity, is often thought of as funny by dogs and small children. Women also laugh at him, but only when he’s naked.