Comedy… why do we like it so much? What makes it different from other genres? And how can you add some funny scenes into your story to provide a bit of light relief?
Briefly, comedy is what makes people laugh – but it’s also treacherously subjective. Home videos of people falling off trampolines can have some viewers rolling with laughter, while others find nothing amusing in it whatsoever – to them, physical harm could never be funny.
But could you mix and match types of comedy so you write something that everyone will think is funny? And how could that translate into a book?
Let’s think about that for a bit.
What makes a joke?
For inspiration, think about a few particular books that make you laugh. Take a quick run through them and pick out some of the funniest scenes or passages. Break these passages down into chunks, and pinpoint what it is that made you chuckle. Was it slapstick? Was it dialogue? Why was it so funny – did it tie in with a character’s personality, or clash with what you expected of them?
How is the laugh constructed? Look at the build-up to the punch line (it’s a good idea to highlight the punch line so you can clearly define the ‘delivery point’ and the prose that surrounds it), and see if you can determine what the author does regarding word choice and rhythm. Usually, you’ll find a build-up, a very quick diversion that makes you drop your guard, and then the arrival of the punch line.
Working out what makes you laugh at your favorite books in terms of the combination of context and construction is a great way to start your journey into comedy.
Try not to think about movies made from a book – comedy in films is often very visual, accentuated by physical performances and editing. The skill of making someone laugh through words alone is rather different.
We can look to stand-up comedians for inspiration, too. Even though they may look as though they’re making it up as they go along, few performers improvise on the spot – most actually script out the whole performance, only adding moments of improv to tie separate gags together.
British comedian and writer Andy Hamilton has some excellent advice for aspiring comedy writers:
“Learn to be concise. Pay attention to the rhythm of a sentence and how a joke unfolds. Just moving an adverb can change it. I’m still learning.
“Make sure you invest in a character. Anyone can write jokes. Well, almost anyone. But if you are writing a sitcom it’s the characters that make it interesting. They have to resonate.”
A funny character
If you’re writing in the comedy genre, at least one of your main characters will be funny. That might mean they’re sarcastic and flippant, or clueless and clumsy – or maybe even intelligent but absent-minded. What is important is that the funny character is at odds with the world you write around them. They are a constant, walking contrast.
One great example of a contrasting character is the permanently bewildered Arthur Dent from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here he is about to be thrown from an alien spaceship:
“You know,” said Arthur, “it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”
“Why, what did she tell you?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t listen.”
Characters can also interject with a funny one-liner. This is unlikely to get a huge, bellyaching laugh alone, but more of a giggle or a smile. But it still counts – and some literary creations are masters at the one-liner, such as P.G. Wodehouse’s creations Bertie Wooster and his butler, Jeeves.
“…Jeeves,” I said, “nothing seems to matter.”
“No, Jeeves. A woman has tossed my heart lightly away, but what of it?”
“The voice of Love seemed to call me, but it was a wrong number. Is that going to crush me?”
– From the short story The Spot of Art
As you can see from that example, comedy (especially one-liners) can be overt or subtle – and different people find different styles more pleasing.
Contrast and misdirection
Another comedic method is based on making people think a story is going in one direction, then making them laugh when it goes another way. That’s misdirection, and the difference in what they thought you were going to say, and the reality you delivered, is the contrast. Boiled down, it’s essentially a case of subverted expectations.
Although, strictly speaking, Bill Bryson is not a fiction writer, his writing is exaggerated for effect – so we can use it to see how he misdirects us. In this example, the first paragraph could be a lament at how terrible his mother was at cooking, but the second turns it into light-hearted humor:
“It’s a bit burned,” my mother would say apologetically at every meal, presenting you with a piece of meat that looked like something — a much-loved pet perhaps — salvaged from a tragic house fire. “But I think I scraped off most of the burned part,” she would add, overlooking that this included every bit of it that had once been flesh.
Happily, all this suited my father. His palate only responded to two tastes – burned and ice cream — so everything suited him so long as it was sufficiently dark and not too startlingly flavorful. Theirs truly was a marriage made in heaven, for no one could burn food like my mother or eat it like my dad.”
– Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
The bizarre and silly often make people laugh. This might be through exaggeration, or describing a wacky situation for the reader to imagine.
The absurd is generally funny to us, but even absurdity operates on something of a scale. Some people appreciate zany situations that spiral so far out of the bounds of possibility that they’re left with no option but to chuckle at the extreme nature of it, but others may find such a thing goes beyond the limits of their sphere of humor.
In the latter case of light absurdity, those readers tend to appreciate an absurdist interpretation of real situations – an easily understandable translation of common worries, fears, annoyances, personalities, and so on. For example:
“Тo me, the future doesn’t seem real. It’s just this magical place where I can put my responsibilities so that I don’t have to be scared while hurtling toward failure at eight hundred miles per hour.”
– Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened
A funny scene
Building a complete comedy scene on the page can take a while, and they’re very tricky to pull off in isolation. This is because the most effective narrative comedy is a combination of funny characters, some contrast, a silly situation, and misdirection. These all take time to assemble on a strong foundation for laughs.
In the following example, the character Crowley is a demon – but he’s actually a rather nice person. He can’t bring himself to be demonic towards humans – as he likes them – so instead he torments his house plants:
He had heard about talking to plants in the early seventies, on Radio Four, and thought it was an excellent idea. Although talking is perhaps the wrong word for what Crowley did.
What he did was put the fear of God into them.
More precisely, the fear of Crowley.
In addition to which, every couple of months Crowley would pick out a plant that was growing too slowly, or succumbing to leaf-wilt or browning, or just didn’t look quite as good as the others, and he would carry it around to all the other plants. “Say goodbye to your friend,” he’d say to them. “He just couldn’t cut it. . . “
Then he would leave the flat with the offending plant, and return an hour or so later with a large, empty flower pot, which he would leave somewhere conspicuously around the flat.
Crowley’s plants were the most luxurious, verdant, and beautiful in London. Also the most terrified.
– Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
There are elements of absurdity here, with the notion that plants can be terrified. Yet that absurdity isn’t so far-fetched in the world created by Pratchett and Gaiman. Through the foundations built by this world, there’s a humorous uncertainty that hangs around – maybe these plants actually are afraid. That’s odd, and therefore subtly funny.
The comedy is also delivered through the inspection of Crowley’s character, by taking an extreme element of his personage – as an ‘evil’ demon – and ratcheting it down through contrast. He can’t bring himself to be nasty to people, but he still must exercise his demonic nature. The fact that the targets are his unassuming plants is comedic alone, but there’s also the unspoken discomfort of his own inner conflict that stands at odds with what he’s ‘supposed’ to be.
When all of these things come into play at the same time, the result can be very funny indeed.
Work with others
A helpful parting tip regarding writing comedy is not to go it alone. The only way to know if what you have written is funny is to see if people laugh.
In his book Comedy Writing Secrets, author Mark Shatz recommends writing with a partner whenever possible. He explains that teams of two or three writers spark each other’s wit and test and reﬁne each other’s ideas.
This advice is also recommended by Eric Idle from legendary comedy group Monty Python:
“Getting six guys to agree on what’s funny is easy. We read it aloud. If we laugh, it’s in; if we don’t, it’s out.”