So you want to write comedy? But you’re not sure you can make people laugh? It’s a valid concern: being funny doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
But humor is a great way to grip the reader and make them feel emotionally attached to your story, so, understandably, you’d want to include it in your writing. In this article, we’ll cover all the essentials you need to know to strike a humorous chord and get your audience chuckling.
There are different types of humor and humorous writing. Which one you write will depend on your personal style. Let's have a look at some of those types.
What kind of medium do you want to write comedy for? Did you know that there are many kinds of humorous writing, both meant for the written medium, as well as types adaptable to the screen for audiovisual mediums? Here are the most common ones:
This list of comedy types is not exhaustive, and these works could be fiction or nonfiction, or even a mixture of the two. It’s helpful to know which medium your piece of writing is going to end up being because you’ll need to know whether your audience is going to be reading it, viewing it, or hearing it, as this will affect the delivery. It will also affect the structure of your piece, and this requires planning.
For instance, if you’re writing comedy for a stand-up show and you have several characters in your story, the delivery of each character is up to you and you only, versus in a movie where you can rely on actors.
In a sketch, the storyline will primarily focus on one specific incident, whereas a stand-up will require some sort of story arc.
As well as different kinds of comedy writing, there are also different kinds of humor. Here are a few:
We won't go over all the types of humor here, as there are many to cover. But this should give you an overview of a few types you might identify with. It can be helpful to decide what your type of humor is. This way you can watch other comics in the same genre and use their material as inspirational, and educational to help you with your own progress as you write comedy.
When writing a comedy, many different elements come into play, and you mustn’t underestimate the importance of any of them. Humor is a very fine affair, after all.
So what exactly you should pay attention to? Keep on reading, as that’s what we’re about to dive into.
You’ll want to settle on your characters fairly early on, as these play a big role in your story. After all, they’ll be the ones delivering the lines and the emotions.
Firstly, you’ll want to make them relatable. “Relatable to whom?”, we hear you ask. Relatable to your audience. So think about who your audience is. Think about what they struggle with in their daily lives. Think about the things that pull at their heartstrings, what frustrates them, and what they get up to each day. This will help you create characters that your audience can imagine being.
Laughter is a response to an emotion, after all.
If your audience feels like the characters really get them, they’ll relate to them. They’ll feel sad for them, and they’ll laugh with them.
The other key to writing great characters in a comedy is to build them a personality. And remember to have them act how they would act, not how you would like them to act. They must be credible. Your audience has to believe that they really would act the way that you’re having them act.
We recommend basing your characters on real people you know. You don’t have to name them, of course, and we aren’t recommending you reveal their secrets and private life to your audience, but there’s a real benefit to cherry-picking parts of people’s personalities that you meet throughout your life. Comedy material is everywhere, friends! Plus, this will help you steer clear of stereotypes and cliches.
If you have one person in mind when creating a character, try to think of other people you know who resemble them. It can be tricky to write comedy as it can quite easily veer into the grotesque if the characters are unrealistic, and you’ll lose your audience.
Using your own life is also a great source of comedic material. One particular way this is often done is through self-deprecating humor. This means poking fun at your character traits, physical aspects, or even misfortune. A great example of a self-deprecating character is Chandler, from Friends.
This helps the audience really relate to you, or feel superior to you, which is a commonly used technique to get the audience on your side.
Be careful though, using yourself as the butt of a joke is risky business. There’s a fine line between a little light-hearted self-deprecation, which can be hilarious, and being straight-up tragic, which can just make your audience feel uncomfortable and sorry for you.
Avoid crossing that line by using self-deprecating humor sparingly. Rather, sprinkle it throughout, rather than making it the central focus of your story.
If your story includes more than one character, you’ll need to think of how these characters bounce each other out. If you have villains, you’ll need good guys. Is one character super uptight and well-presenting? Include another who’s maybe a little unhinged and always puts their foot in it.
And then think about how these traits would interact with each other to create humor.
Storytelling is a talent that you are either born with or not. And if you’re not… that’s just too bad!
No, we’re joking of course. You can totally learn it.
Storytelling comes in handy in so many situations - not just when you write comedy. From marketing to getting a job, or even educating others, your ability to tell a good story can have a big impact. When we say “tell a good story”, what we really mean is telling a story the way your audience wants to hear it.
Put it this way. Imagine you’re interviewing for a job as a salesperson, and you have experience as a waiter and teacher. At first glance, it might seem that your experience is irrelevant to the job you’re applying to. But depending on you tell the story, you can change the interviewer’s perception. You could tell them, for instance, about the way you excelled at upselling desserts to your customers or the times you had to help them decide what to order by assessing their needs and recommending the best dishes.
You could also tell them how in your role as a teacher, your negotiation skills were often required in order to manage a classroom full of children, and good negotiation skills are key to a sales role.
Can you see how if you went into that interview with no idea how to tailor the story to the interview, there’s a very small chance you would walk away with that job? It’s the same thing with comedy. Know your audience, understand what they want to hear, and tell them a story.
How do you do that? Practice, friend. Practice.
Do this in front of a mirror, or record yourself to listen back so you can hear how you sound. Is your story fun to listen to? Do you sound funny when you tell it (this is important if you’re writing a comedy that you’ll be narrating out loud)? How’s your timing and rhythm?
Practicing beforehand also enables you to experiment with different props, gestures, and styles. Again, this is helpful if you’re going to be on stage, for a stand-up show for example.
We also recommend practicing in front of friends or family. Choose people you know will be honest. Get their feedback, and implement the changes they suggest, if you find the advice to be valuable.
Storytelling is a muscle that needs to be exercised. You could try using prompts to write a new story every day. This way, you’ll practice a range of different scenarios, and grow more comfortable over time. We promise your stories will become more and more elaborate; you’ll surprise yourself!
There are an endless amount of books, Ted Talks, online courses, in-person classes, and other educational resources to help you learn - and excel at - any skill. Use them! That’s what they’re there for.
This somewhat carries on from the previous suggestion - watch the pros and learn from them. Watch a comedy every day, observe the storytelling techniques they use and the way they inject humor into the story. Practice the same techniques.
Your story has characters, right? What better way to create believable and relatable characters, and use them to tell your story than to know and understand people?
Talk to them, ask them about their experience, how they would react to a given situation, and so on.
We all tend to think that we’re the only ones who feel the way we do. You’d be surprised how many people can relate to your story. Authenticity can be felt, and people warm to it. Be open about your experience of life and you’ll attract your people.
Many steer clear of controversial topics because they can really divide a room. But controversial issues tend to be emotional for people, as they’re tied to strong feelings. And getting into people’s feelings is a great storytelling technique and an even better way to get people to laugh - if you get it right.
Think of all the sitcoms you know that just use everyday storylines to highlight the absurdity of … well, life. And that’s what we love about these shows. That’s what makes them funny.
There are some well-known techniques that you can use when you write comedy that’ll help get the audience on your side and crack a smile. We’re outlining some of these below, so you can use them in your own writing.
As Judd Apatow notes in his online masterclass, “Difficult circumstances lend themselves to comedy.” Create a predicament for your characters. Have them make a bad decision that gets them into a sticky situation. And build your funny storyline from there. Remember to keep their reactions realistic though, based on the personality you’ve given them.
This is similar to creating an inside joke with your audience. Carefully place pieces of information that you’ll later pull out again to deliver a punchline. Careful not to wait too long though - you want your audience to know what you’re referring to.
Don’t abuse callbacks though. Three or four times in a show is funny, any more begins to feel old and recycled.
Reforming is a technique used a lot in comedy where you twist a cliche. In other words, guess what the audience is going to expect, and build up the story so they continue to think that is the direction you’re going in. Then, at the last minute, throw them a curveball and transform the cliche.
Plus, incongruity is hilarious.
Some words just sound funnier than others. When you go back and read through some pages you wrote, see if you can’t swap out some of the words for something funnier. We also recommend you make a list of the funner alternatives, and over time you’ll have a repertoire of funny words.
We’ll keep this one short and sweet: the longer the build-up, the bigger the payoff should be.
These should get you off to a good start. Now, moving on to one of the most important aspects of writing comedy.
Who are you writing for? This is an incredibly important question to ask, as it will inform the kind of jokes you tell, and how you deliver the humor in your piece.
If you want to write comedy, you need to know humor is subjective.
What does your audience find funny? What is their lived experience each day? What do they struggle with?
And as you practice, it’ll pay to note what your audience does find funny. How many laughs does a particular joke get? Don’t get too attached to jokes you find hilarious; if your audience doesn’t laugh, the joke might have to go.
Finally, we’re going to cover some common mistakes that you should avoid when writing comedy. These could save you a few awkward moments; you’re welcome!
If you’re too over-the-top, you could come across as silly, or grotesque. Or worse, you could overpower the plot. Trust that your story is funny enough to entertain and make people laugh. If you try too hard your audience will see right through your act.
Puns and unfortunate situations aren’t enough by themselves to make a comedy. Just like scary monsters aren’t enough to make a horror. The story is what makes the success. Relatable characters, realistic situations, authenticity, and all the things we’ve covered in this article. Those are the elements that’ll help make your story great.
Does your audience need some context to understand the intended meaning? Is it necessary for the joke to land? If so, make sure you provide that. You can build this up throughout the story, or give the information they need when the time comes.
If you’re trying to write comedy in a style that’s not your own, or be funny in a way that isn’t true to you, this will be obvious. Your audience can smell this a mile off. This is why it’s so important to explore and nurture your funny side, through practice, education, and other recommendations we provided earlier.
Writing comedy isn’t a piece of cake that you can dust off in an afternoon. It’s all too tempting to watch the end result and assume the process was easy and the comedian came up with the puns in his sleep. The reality is that a lot of thought and hours, even weeks of refining have gone into each and every show.
Haven’t you noticed that stand-up comedians only release a new show every few years? And the same can be said for any type of comedy - or any art form, for that matter. They are few and far between.
If you wait until you’re ready, you might never start. Get writing, practice, refine, and then - and we can’t stress this enough - get your material before an audience. You need to see how people react to your stories in order to know if your jokes are landing. We recommend an open-mic night. Nothing like performing in front of a group of strangers who are unprepared and raw, as you know their reactions will be genuine.
We hope that you have found this article helpful and that you feel you have some tools now to write comedy.
Most of all what we’d like you to take away from this is to practice, practice, practice. And then get yourself out there.
And remember, don’t give up, persevere, get advice from people who are ahead of you in the game, and support from loved ones around you. Take time to refine your craft. Writing comedy is an art, and art doesn’t happen overnight.
Good luck, you've got this!
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