If I could impart only one pearl of wisdom to the fledgling comedy writer, it would be this: Give up. There’s already too many of you young punks trying to break into the business, and I don’t need the competition. Every dime you make selling your funny-make-‘em-ups is one less piece of the pie for me. And I’ve got bills to pay. So just back the fuck off and leave the comedy to the professionals.
I kid, of course.
See what I did there? I started this essay by pretending to be the wise comedy mentor. And then – blammo – I became verbally abusive, trying to bully you into giving up on your dreams. This is a classic comedy technique known as the “Ol’ Switcheroo”. You probably didn’t even see it coming, did you? You’ve already learned a little something, and we haven’t even gotten warmed up!
This is just one of countless tricks from my comedy-writing playbook. If you really want to quit your dead-end day job and make a go at becoming the next Dave Barry knockoff, it’s going to take more than gumption, hard work and a devastating wit. You have to learn the formulas that’ve been passed down by generations of comedy writers. Once you’ve mastered the art form – and it is an art form, despite what certain holier-than-thou “real” authors may claim – you’ll be on your way to a successful career in comedy, making dozens of dollars for your efforts!
One of the best tools in your comedy arsenal is the element of surprise. Your joke begins in a certain way, appearing to follow a conventional plot arc. But then, at the last possible moment, you pull the rug out from under your reader, taking the story in a completely different direction.
Take this classic chestnut…
“I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” the doctor says. “What’s the bad news?” asks the patient. “The bad news is that you’ve got only three months to live.” The patient is understandably upset and says, “What’s the good news, doc?” The doctor looks at him and says, “I just fucked your wife.”
Your reader will laugh, not because the joke is inherently funny, but because it defies expectations. We don’t anticipate a doctor – who up to this point appeared entirely professional – to make such a scandalous confession. It’s shocking and morally questionable, and therefore funny.
Best of all, a joke like this will torment a reader for months afterwards. It’s what we in the biz call the “slow burn” effect. He’ll think about the joke and wonder if he really liked it as much as he thought. I mean, it didn’t really make much sense, did it? Why would the doctor’s admission to having intimate relations with a patient’s wife qualify as “good news”? Good for who, exactly? And why would he choose to reveal his infidelity at such an inappropriate moment? Surely there was a better time to have this conversation, like after the guy had gotten out of chemo.
Your reader will soon become obsessed with the joke. He’ll worry that his inability to find the humor in it points to some personality flaw. Maybe he’s just not smart enough, or his sense of humor is lacking in some way. He’ll repeat the joke to his friends and ask, “Can you tell me what’s so funny about this?” Soon, the joke will invade his dreams, and he will begin his long descent into madness.
Comedy, as in life, is only funny when bad things are happening to other people. And I’m not talking about emotional abuse, either. I mean physical violence of the most horrifying kind. The Three Stooges aren’t considered comedy icons because of their witty repartee. And the Marx Brothers wouldn’t be nearly as timeless if not for Harpo’s adorable compulsion to rape every woman he saw.
But the real trick in writing comedy filled with random acts of brutality is giving it a context. If you’ve done your job well, a reader will sympathize with your characters. They don’t want to see them getting smacked around like a piñata unless it’s actually justified. Why do these characters deserve such punishment? Who did they sass? Will they prevail in the end? And what does all this meaningless violence teach us about them – and about the human condition in general?
If that seems like too much work, just include the following sentence somewhere in your story:
“And then, for absolutely no good reason, a small boy ran over and punched him in the balls.”
Understanding the difference between parody and satire can be especially difficult for young writers. Let’s examine the nuts and bolts of these comedy constructs more closely.
A “parody” takes an existing person or idea and mimics its characteristics – often to the point of absurdity. For example:
“Hello. My name is President Bush. You may remember me as the guy who invaded Iraq. Soon I’ll be invading Iran, and just about every other nation populated by poor, brown-skinned people. And you know why? Because I’m craaaaaazy.”
By contrast, “satire” invents a fictitious situation for the purpose of ridiculing a public person or idea, sometimes directly commenting on its flaws. To wit:
“Hey, Jeff,” Suzy said. “Have you heard that George Bush is planning to invade Iran?” Jeff just sighed. “I’m not surprised. Bush has a legacy of cultural imperialism.” “I wonder why that is,” Suzy pondered. “I think I know,” Jeff said, an impish grin on his face. “It’s because he’s craaaaaazy.”
As you can see, neither of these examples are particularly funny. So let’s just forget about parody and satire altogether and move on.
To craft a truly memorable comic story, it needs to end with a bang, not a whimper. This is usually referred to as “The Punchline.” It’s the part where, were you telling your story in the Catskills, a well-timed cymbal crash would be utilized. But because of the limitations of the written word, you don’t have the luxury of a drummer. You have to “sell” your humor with a strong finish.
Here’s an example of how a story’s punchline can go horribly, horribly wrong:
As a priest is walking into a bar, he happens to see two giraffes fucking a gorilla. The priest goes up to the bartender and says, “Sir, do you know that you have crazy animals committing sin outside?” And the bartender says, “Yeah, I heard something about that.” The priest looks confused and says, “Oh, okay.” And then they stand in silence for a long, long time.
The joke began promisingly enough, with interspecies fornication and an offended priest. But somewhere towards the end, the comic premise runs out of steam. The characters don’t have a strong point of view. And worst of all, the last sentence describes an awkward, uncomfortable silence. That’s a killer when it comes to comedy.
Let’s try that joke again, this time with a more amusing payoff:
As a priest is walking into a bar, he happens to see two giraffes fucking a gorilla. The priest goes up to the bartender and says, “Sir, do you know that you have crazy animals committing sin outside?” And the bartender says, “Yeah, I know. But the good news is, they just fucked your wife.”
Ah, that’s better. And you know why it worked? Because it included three essential elements of comedy: surprise, absurdity, and wife-fucking. That last part is especially important. Nothing says “funny” like some dude’s old lady getting nailed by giraffes.
The Rule of 3
Most effective humor adheres to a simple principle of numerology, which suggests that something will always be funnier if repeated at least three times. There’s no good explanation for why this is, other than the very real possibility that readers are fundamentally stupid. In a perfect world, a comedy writer could cut right to the chase and tell us what’s so damn funny in the first line. But apparently some people need to be spoon-fed their humor.
An advanced variation of the Rule of Three allows for more complexity. In this form, a humorous conceit is established, the set-up is reinforced, and the pattern is eventually broken, resulting in hilarity. Here’s an example:
Two monkeys are having sex in a car. One turns to the other and says, “Hey, I didn’t know you were gay.” The other one replies, “Hey, I didn’t know I could drive a car.” Then a man walks by and says, “Shut the hell up, you fucking queer talking apes!”
Do you see how the Rule of Three has been used here? The joke begins with two monkeys earnestly discussing their bizarre abilities. And then, in the third and final line, a new character is introduced who rudely berates the monkeys and “calls out” the joke. Its basic comedy math: setup-setup-punchline.
Then again, maybe it’s funny because it’s about gay monkeys. Yeah, that’s probably it. Ha! Gay monkeys. Like a monkey could be a homo! Where do they come up with this stuff?
* * *
Well, I think that about covers it. Did I miss anything? Hmm. Well, there’s irony, but you can probably figure that out for yourself. And comic exaggeration, that’s a pretty important rule. You know about that, right? Something about exaggerating stuff so it’s funny.
I wish I could tell you more about comedy writing, but there simply isn’t time. But the good news is, I just fucked your wife.
(This story was originally written for a friend, for a publishing website that, to the best of my knowledge, no longer exists.