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November 2009
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Writing to Make others Laugh

“What is comedy?” Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke.”—Steve Martin

As a humorist or comedy writer, you must be able to write funny material. Your material must be able to generate amusement or laughter from your audience. Otherwise, your writing isn’t funny.

According to the book, “Comedy Writing Secrets”, humour has tremendous value. It’s an art form. But it is not a mystery—it has structure and formula.” So, if you want to make people laugh, you first need to learn how to write humour. This involves understanding why people laugh, developing or sharpening your own sense of humour, and learning the various humour devices.

To write humour or comedy, you must also know how to write well—you must know the rules of grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and style. Unlike the stand-up comic who can use props, facial expressions, sound effects, and so forth, the humorist must rely on his/her words to communicate information that he/she feels is amusing or hilarious.

To write humour, you need to know what makes others laugh. So, you need to discover what topics make people laugh. Every audience is different. Often, it is the element of surprise or incongruity that makes people laugh at something.

You also must be aware of what makes yourself laugh. You cannot write humour, if you are incapable of laughing at yourself or events, incidents , situation in your everyday life. Why? You have no idea what is or isn’t funny. In short, to write humour, you require a sense of humour.

A sense of humour provides the writer with the ability to laugh at himself/herself— and at what goes on in their everyday lives. Many aspects of life are absurd. Yet the humorist finds comedy in the absurd, the bizarre, the extraordinary. Even the truth can be funny.

A person who has a sense of humour is able to find humour in most things, even death. For instance, the person who has a sense of humour will often remember the funny things about a person who has just died, refusing to dwell on the follies, failures, or negative aspects of the deceased person’s life.

To write humour, you also need an imaginative and unconventional view of the world. You need to see the world from a perspective that is counter to conventional wisdom or counter to public opinion. In short, you need to see the absurdity in everyday life, and then be able to write funny material.

There are many places for writing humour, including poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, screenplays for movies, and script writing for sitcoms. Each of these forums uses various humour devices to get laughs, such as irony, parody, lampoon, satire, nonsense, understatement, exaggeration, and wordplay.

There are a myriad of topics that are funny, such as war, social issues, politicians, and celebrities, and sex.  In fact, a writer can find humour in most topics. Therefore, the humorist or comedy writer must stay well-informed. Essentially, life is absurd.

Humour is an important element of our popular culture. Not only does it sell products and make people famous, but it enriches our lives. Without humour, life would be rather dull. Without humour, life would be devoid of happiness. Without humour, most days would be “bad hair days”, even for the guy who is bald or shaves his head to look bald.

Humour is everywhere. For instance, on TV, you can watch classic reruns of “The Three Stooges” or “Friends” or “Mash.” Currently, shows such as “The Office” and “30 Rock” are very popular. Most newspaper columns have humorists who write about things that are funny. Regularly, Hollywood releases romantic comedy films, screwball comedies, farce. Visit your local book store, and you will find a myriad of books on humour and comedy, such as “I Am American” by Stephan Colbert, “I Shudder” by Paul Rudnick, or “Naked” by David Sedaris, or “Disquiet, Please: More Humour Writing from the New Yorker”.

Despite the myriad of possibilities, writing humour is difficult because humour is subjective. What one person finds hilarious another person sees it as offensive or taboo. Take for instance, the sitcoms “Trailer Park Boys” or “South Park.” The scripts of these sitcoms are based on ribald humour or vulgar humour. And only those who enjoy this type of humour and the topics explored would want to watch these sitcoms or find their satirical approach funny. While a teenager might find South Park funny, even hilarious, a 76 year old grandmother living in a nursing home wouldn’t. So, humour is subjective.

Writing humour is more than telling a joke or one liner, it requires the ability to find humour in the absurd, to see a situation or incident from a humorous perspective, to exaggerate a truth, to mock folly and vice.

Often, the truth is funny. So, to write humour, you need to be capable of observing the world around, seeking out the amusing, funny, or hilarious. You also must be able to make note of topics, subject matter, people, incidents, news, information, ideas , that are funny or amusing.

To write funny material, you should be aware of the things that make you  life. To assist you in the act of self-discovery, you should save things that you find funny or amusing, such as comedy films, joke books, stories or    columns in the newspaper. As well, make a mental note of what you find funny or amusing in your everyday life. And keep a notebook or journal. Whenever you see, hear, or read something funny, write about it.

Most comedy originates from funny characters and humour stories, not jokes or one liner’s. The comedy writers for Saturday Night Live know this fact. So, seek out funny characters in film and sitcoms—and then determine why they are funny to you.

The humorist writer is well-informed, he/she is aware of what is making news and what people are talking about. The humorist is able to use the news to write funny material. Shows like “David Letterman, The Tonight Show, and The Colbert use the news as a source of humour.

As well, timing is everything. If you are unable to surprise, or unable to introduce the unexpected, your audience won’t laugh.

To write funny material, you need to be aware of what is taboo—topics you should not write about. Often, this depends on the type of audience who will be watching or reading your artistic work. Avoid writing humour about off-colour topics, such as sexism, racism, child abuse, rape, murder, and ageism. Avoid writing humour that is obscene or vulgar. Use profanity sparingly. Be aware of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Cannot Say on TV.”

According Mel Helitzer and Mark Helitzer, who have written a very good book on how to write humour and comedy ( “Comedy Writing Secrets”), successful humour requires three elements:

 

  1. Material. The material must be appropriate to the audience, and relate well to the persona of the writer/performer.
  2. Audience. The audience must complement both the material and the presentation style of the writer/performer.
  3. Performer/writer. The performer/writer must present the right material to the right audience in the right way.

 

If you are interested in learning to write humour, you should purchase “Comedy Writing Secrets” by Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz. It will tell you all you need to know about writing humour/comedy. As well, you should buy “How to Write Funny”, a collection of essays on how to write comedy, edited by John B Kachuba.

Shakespeare once wrote that life is funny as often as it is tragic. Therefore, to write humour or comedy, you need to seek out that which is funny and then write about it.

If you aren’t very funny, develop your sense of humour. You can begin by learning to laugh at yourself and by not taking your life too seriously. Then start writing about the funny things that happen to you in your everyday life.

Next, study the great comics and well-known humorists, and master the humour devices that they use.

And then, don’t forget about it. Just write about it!

Exercise

Here are a few questions to help you get in touch with your sense of humour:

  1. What books made you laugh? List them.
  2. What movies make you laugh? List them.
  3. What topics make you laugh? List them.
  4. List the TV shows you find funny.
  5. What sorts of jokes make you laugh?
  6. What isn’t funny? What topics should be taboo?
  7. When did you last laugh? What did you laugh about?
  8. Who are your favourite comedians and why?
  9. Name the people who can make you laugh? Why do they make you laugh?
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1 Comment

  1. queenie14 says:

    I have always enjoyed looking at the quirky, fun and unexpected things that happen each day, and make myself laugh out loud when creating another short story for my website.
    Topics that make me laugh include the many challenges of living in the bush in two tin sheds, coping with farming life and no mod cons. My family, mother, women friends; growing up in Africa in 50’s and 60’s; creating hilarity from my own discomfort and being able to turn the ordinary into the remarkable.

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