Writing comedy might seem like a mysterious art that only those born with natural comedic flair can master. The truth is, most people have a sense of humour and if you’re interested in writing comedy, then you’re probably someone who enjoys making other people laugh. But how to translate that onto the page? Below are some brief points to consider and practical tips you can apply to your comedy manuscript.
Watch stand-up comedy
You know how everyone goes on about comedy timing? Well, that’s because it’s probably the most important part of making someone laugh. I’ve written comedy scripts for tv and sketch comedy groups. I’ve done stand-up and now I’m writing comedy books for children. Even across these varied forms, I’ve found that timing remains pretty much the same and can be applied to different writing styles.
Watching stand-up comedy is a brilliant way to identify different modes of comedy timing and mimic them in your work. (Note: mimic the timing, not the content.) Do you prefer quick-paced, one liners that move quickly and catch the audience off guard? Or how about slow-burners that build up to a cracking punchline? Watch a mix of different stand-up comedians to really analyse the timing of their jokes and find what you like best.
Work out what makes you laugh
Your work should make you laugh. I know they say that laughing at your own jokes is in poor taste, but if you don’t laugh at your story then why would a reader? Working out your comedy style is key before you start writing. Do you like more casual, observational humour? How about an absurd or surrealist style? What makes you laugh should be what you’re writing down, because you’re far more likely to make others laugh too. A joke shared is better than a joke told.
For kids? Hang out with children
If you’re writing comedy for children then you should really be spending time around them. Whether it’s children of family or friends, or even children you work with, spending time listening to what makes them laugh is really important. Don’t just rely on toilet humour for your jokes. Kids have amazing imaginations and so their capacity to explore a funny idea is huge. They can stay with a joke for longer than an adult. Write comedy for children you know rather than the idea of a child in your mind, you’ll have a much higher success rate.
Don’t kill the joke
Something I’ve noticed a lot in comedy manuscripts is overdoing the joke. The writing will be building up perfectly to a punchline – then we get it, we laugh, but the writer keeps going. The laugh that the punchline elicited has worn off but the prose is still labouring the same topic. If you’re building on a punchline then do so for two more punchlines (or ‘ha ha’ moments) at most to stick with the rule of 3 that works well in writing generally. A joke is stronger without having to be explained. If you don’t think the joke is strong enough without two more pages of jokes about the same subject after, then cut the joke. It should be funny enough to stand alone.
Read your work out loud
This one helps with your timing. Reading your work out loud allows you to feel the natural rhythm of the text. It will highlight awkward phrases or sentences and help you to streamline the text better. Especially when you’re trying to make someone laugh, hearing the writing out loud will give you a better idea of whether the joke lands or whether you need to work on the build up a bit more. Extra points if you’re brave enough to read it to someone else – if they genuinely laugh, you’ll know the timing is on point!
Don’t punch down
Punching down is a phrase used to describe comedy that relies on making fun of people because of certain traits e.g. race, class, sexuality, disability. These jokes are only funny if you believe there’s something inherently weird about someone’s identity. It’s important to know the difference between jokes that cross the line between mocking someone for something we all do, versus mocking someone for a particular characteristic. That doesn’t mean you should avoid these topics in your comedy writing, just make sure you aren’t writing a joke that with a different context could be a cruel insult. If you aren’t sure whether something you’re writing is offensive, then cut it – it’s better to write about what you know anyway.
Keep a record of funny things that happen in your real life
Speaking of writing what you know… I have a list on the ‘notes’ app on my phone of funny things I’ve seen happen or have happened to me. Over the years I’ve realised something I find funny, and so like writing about, are embarrassing incidents. So if I’m in a situation that I find myself cringing about, I’ll make a note of it to work into a story later. You can even do this with memories. Do you have any memories of embarrassing, funny, or strange things that have happened to you that you could work into a story? Things with an element of realism make it easier for a reader to empathise with the character in the story, eliciting a better response and bigger laughs.
Share your work
At the end of the day, you’re only going to know if your writing is funny if you let other people read it! Give people copies of your work to take away and read. Standing over their shoulder when they’re reading won’t work unless you want to experience a lot of ‘polite’ laughter at the bits they think you want them to laugh at. Let them go away and read your work in their own time, but ask them to tell you which bits they find the funniest. I’ll get texts from people with certain lines from my books at random times of the day because I’ve asked them to tell me when they laugh. It seems weird, but it’s the only way to find out which jokes land the best across the board.