Mar 10 2009

Some Suggestions for Humor-Writers

Published by at 1:10 pm under Comedy

Comedy and humor are notoriously hard to teach, but here are some tips.

1. Conciseness is essential.  Cutting out empty lines in a joke usually makes it funnier.

 

2. Exaggeration is usually helpful. It makes the exchanges more memorable and helps keep readers on your page. For example, if I want Agent Orange to come off as comically paranoid, I might have him do a rant about the critical danger presented by squirrels, those sinister vagrant rodents. In contrast, if his bogeyman was something like terrorists or global warming, it wouldn’t be as clear that I was trying to make him seem ridiculous.

 

3. The most successful comedians vary their levels of wackiness. Unwacky humor is usually more dry/wry and more subtle. Wackier comedy is usually in your face. For example, Dave Chapelle’s wackiest humor is best when it comes out of nowhere. Check out his Sesame Street sketch. He talks soberly about how Sesame Street is teaching kids bad things. “It teaches kids how to judge people, how to label people. They judge Oscar right in his face. ‘Oscar, you’re so mean. You are such a grouch.’ ‘Bitch, I live in a f***ing trash can!’ ”

 

4. Jokes that are hard to follow are awful. Jokes that disrupt the flow of the story are also usually awful.

 

5.  The best kind of humor advances the story, develops the cast and entertains readers. As a rule, I recommend staying away from comic tangents. If you absolutely have to take us on a comic tangent, try to keep it as connected to the here-and-now of the story as possible. For example, if we had a mad scientist character reminiscing about one of his spectacularly bizarre experiments, he might say at one point in the story “This reminds me of my hybrid elephant-jellyfish. I miss Sparky.” Please don’t go off on Family Guy-style tangents that derail the story. Novel readers (and even comic book readers) tend to expect more cohesion than the typical sit-com viewer does.

 

6. Two main skills distinguish good comedians from the rest: delivery and material. First is delivery. A good writer will pace out a joke well, in a way that’s easy to follow. Give the readers pauses as necessary. Second is the quality of the material. A good comedian can look at scenes and figure out some funny situations that might arise.  The best way to learn this skill (besides practicing) is to watch/read a lot of skillful comedy. What sort of situations did these other writers use for comic effect?

 

SUPERHERO AND SUPERHERO-LIKE SHOWS:
–Kim Possible, all seasons
–Justice League/JLU, particularly the episode with Booster Gold.
–Jackie Chan Adventures, particularly season 1
–Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, particularly seasons 1-2.
–Heroes, season 1.
–Maybe the later seasons of Teen Titans. I don’t think it works particularly well for older watchers, but I’ve noticed that kids seem to like it a lot.

 

CARTOON STRIPS
–Calvin and Hobbes
–The Boondocks
–Dilbert

 

TV
–Chapelle Show, particularly seasons 1-2. Also, his stand-up stuff’s pretty good.
–Frasier
–Futurama
–Black Adder
–The Office (U.S. and/or U.K., depending on your market).

 

MOVIES
–Austin Powers 1 and 2
–Office Space
–The Big Lebowski
–Clerks
–Thank You for Smoking.  It’s not as good as the book, though.
–Monty Python, particularly the Holy Grail.
–American Pie
–Men in Black
–My Fellow Americans
–Monsters, Inc. and maybe the Toy Story movies
–Lilo & Stitch, particularly the Man in Black social worker character.
–Harold and Maude
–Hot Fuzz
–The 40 Year-Old Virgin
–The Hudsucker Proxy
–Clueless
–Caddyshack
–Zoolander
–Stardust
–Princess Bride (both the book and movie)
–Liar, Liar

35 responses so far

35 Responses to “Some Suggestions for Humor-Writers”

  1. Dr Eagle Gon 17 Mar 2009 at 9:27 am

    I’d like to add something to this if I may.

    One of the most consistent and effective tools in comedy is something I call ‘The Garden Path Routine.’

    You lead the reader/viewer down a path, then just as they think they know where they’re going, you switch it. The suprise generally makes them laugh.

    An example:

    Brad: Hey Jim, fancy some popcorn?

    Jim: Nah, I’m cool, I really gotta keep away from that stuff.

    Brad: Aww, c’mon man, just one bag of popcorn!

    Jim: Seriously, I can’t. It’s bad for my health, all that oil messes with my cholesterol levels, it’s salty, it’s–

    Brad: C’mon Jim, I’m paying.

    Jim: Get me a large bag.

    Hopefully you got my point!

  2. B. Macon 17 Mar 2009 at 9:36 am

    Hmm. One comic routine is to list a few items, one of which is clearly not like the others. For example, a character’s three rottweilers are named Brute, Mangler and Sparky.

  3. Dr Eagle Gon 17 Mar 2009 at 9:47 am

    Indeed. In a way, that’s actually a variation of the Garden Path.

  4. Holliequon 17 Mar 2009 at 9:48 am

    Wild incomptence can also work . . . or just plain wacky/random things (see: nobody expects the spanish inquisition!)

  5. Wingson 16 Apr 2009 at 7:57 pm

    @ Hollie

    I only have one sentence for you: Donuts and bagels are remarkably similar. Bonus points for me actually saying this in real life. In the middle of math class.

    - Wings

  6. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 16 Apr 2009 at 8:16 pm

    “For example, a character’s three rottweilers are named Brute, Mangler and Sparky”.

    I’ve thought about that before. If I were to get three bulldogs (not likely, they scare me) I would name them Ripper, Shredder and Princess.

  7. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 16 Apr 2009 at 8:21 pm

    “…actually saying this in real life. In the middle of math class”.

    I’ve done stuff like that before. In English I once remarked on the possibility that the whole universe is just a piece of lint in God’s pocket.

    I’m also fairly observant. In my Earth Science class we were using foam cups to make artificial fossils, and we’d just finished a unit about the ecosystem. I pointed out that using non-biodegradable things to do our experiment defeated the purpose of learning that the greenhouse buildup is bad.

  8. Wingson 16 Apr 2009 at 8:23 pm

    @ RW – You are an excellent person. I can feel it!

    - Wings

  9. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 16 Apr 2009 at 8:37 pm

    Haha, thanks. :D

  10. *i88*on 06 Jun 2009 at 10:42 am

    My philosophy is to make comedy that is funny because it’s true. That’s why I find Dane Cook or Dave Chapelle or The Office hilarious because it makes those references, ya know? Also pop culture references are hilarious. One time, I had to make a speech and as an opening I yelled at the top of my lungs, “I wish I was Ryan Seacrest!”

    I’m slightly insane in a nice way.

    -*i88*

  11. Sandmanon 19 Jun 2009 at 3:53 pm

    I would like to make a suggestion- Supernatural. While it’s mainly a horror show, it blends humour in nicely to nearly every episode [well, i've only seen the first three seaseons so I can't really speak for season four].

  12. Tomon 19 Jun 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Supernatural, good show, good show.

    Sometimes the Wangst does pile on a bit think though, but yeah, pretty darn awesome.

    Season three kinda lagged a bit, but dear God did season 4 make up for that. Holy crap, it was awesome.

    I don’t know how good its humour is, though. Most of its humour seems to come from obscure references to 80s movies and rock bands and the like. Most of the references fly right past me. Granted though, the occasional few I do get are hilarious.

    Fun fact: The first episode I watched was the first episode of season 4. I went through about 6 episodes more before my friend gave me season 1-3 on DVD so I could catch up.

    And in season 4, a whole new layer is added to the show, religious themes. This is because the entire season is centered around the Winchester’s efforts to stop demons freeing Lucifer from Hell and starting the apocalypse, whilst being aided by angelic forces with questionable morality. I’m so happy I’m not making that up. They handle that well. They make some demons likable characters and some angels assholes.

  13. mrs marvelon 10 Jul 2009 at 5:59 pm

    also i recommend watching the orinal animated version of batman. Harly quinn and joker in Mad Love and Beware the Creeper are really funny:)

  14. Nicholas Caseon 20 Feb 2011 at 9:24 am

    Okay, I think I’ve done a lot better with my comedy scene.

    (Dunimas after being healed and Exsusia finding him for the first time)

    “There you are!” Dunimas heard. He whirled his head around and beheld a red-haired boy in white cloths. He then swung a katana at Dunimas.

    “Whoa, you’re the one with the sword and I’m not even scared-and I’m a coward! You really stink at this stuff! Maybe you should try a new hobby…how about knitting?” Dunimas joked just barely missing the blade.

    “Rgh, enough of your jokes! I’ve come to kill you and take Arre back!” He yelled.

    “Fine, but you’ll have to try and hit me with your sewing knitting needles.” Dunimas grinned.

    “That’s enough!” The boy yelled at the top of his lungs. He then swung at Dunimas again.

    “Okay, I don’t want to fight, just go away alright?” Dunimas rhymed without realizing it.

    “This isn’t some crazy rap-battle! I want to kill you! Now stand still you crazy fool!” The boy cut off Dunimas rapping.

    “Um, mind telling me why you’re mad at me? There’s no need for jealousy.” Dunimas shrugged.

    “If you rap one more time you’re dead!” The boy thundered, charging at Dunimas.

    “I didn’t even rap! Besides even if I rap I’m dead anyway. You tried to kill me before I did anything!” Dunimas pointed out.

    (Dunimas hightails it like a coward)

  15. Nicholas Caseon 20 Feb 2011 at 9:30 am

    Wait a sec, I messed up, here’s my revision.

    “There you are!” Dunimas heard. He whirled his head around and beheld a red-haired boy in white cloths. He then swung a katana at Dunimas.

    “Whoa, you’re the one with the sword and I’m not even scared-and I’m a coward! You really stink at this stuff! Maybe you should try a new hobby…how about knitting?” Dunimas joked just barely missing the blade.

    “Rgh, enough of your jokes! I’ve come to kill you and take Arre back!” He yelled.

    “Fine, but you’ll have to try and hit me with your oversized sewing needle.” Dunimas grinned.

    “That’s enough!” The boy yelled at the top of his lungs. He then swung at Dunimas again.

    “You know you should get two swords, then you might actually get some awards. Kid in white clothes, last place in participation for knitting!” Dunimas joked once more.

    “This isn’t some crazy rap-battle! I want to kill you! Now stand still you crazy fool!” The boy growled.

    “Um, mind telling me why you’re mad at me? There’s no need for jealousy.” Dunimas shrugged.

    “If you rap one more time you’re dead!” The boy thundered, charging at Dunimas.

    “I didn’t even rap! Besides even if I rap I’m dead anyway. You tried to kill me before I did anything!” Dunimas pointed out.

    “Shut up!” The boy roared before Dunimas hightailed away as fast as he could.

  16. Nicholas Caseon 01 Mar 2011 at 7:58 pm

    Okay someone please reply to this. I just want to get some pointers on this.

    “I’m gonna teach you how to fly and shoot energy waves and lift buildings and a buncha other cool stuff.” She smiled. She seemed legitimate, especially when Dunimas remembered that thrashing Haden put on him and how Arre healed him.

    “Wait a sec,” Dunimas said looking around, “Where’s Arre?!” Dunimas shrieked.

    “As far as I know, you dropped her like a sissy once you saw Haden’s son, Exsusia, pop up in front of you. She’s in good hands though.” Nora said.

    “You’re knowledge length must only be an inch then.” Dunimas mumbled.

    “Look, I can train you or I can drain you!” She threatened.

    “‘Train me or drain me’, that sounds so wrong!” Dunimas remarked.

    “I do not mean that kinda ‘drain’!” She said annoyed.

    “Okay, but you’d better be more specific from now on. Being specific can determine whether you have a baby at a hospital or in a bathtub.” Dunimas pointed out.

    “You know, let’s just get on with the lesson. The key to flying is jumping…and missing the ground.” She revealed.

    “Really?! Alright then!” Dunimas said before jumping down the cliff.

    “Once you get down there, tell the ground I said hello!” Nora laughed.

    “Will do-wait what?! I’m gonna hit the-” Dunimas began but was cut off from his face plummeting hard into the hard, rocky ground. “I didn’t even figure out how I got here.” He moaned. He stood up, he was surprised. He felt just fine when he shook the dirt from his cloths. “Oh, I forgot. Ground, Nora said hello. By the way, she’s a retard.” He said. Dunimas looked up and saw Nora laughing at him.

    “You’re the retard! ‘The key to flying is jumping…and missing the ground.’! I thought you’d at least ask how to miss the ground!” She laughed.

    “How many mystical tacos must you scoff down your throat to realize that you’re mum left at 9 this morning-leave me alone!” Dunimas said.

    “Whatever.” She said rolling her eyes.

    “Okay, can I please speak to someone with the IQ higher than a rabbit?” Dunimas asked.

    “Then go speak to a rabbit.” She countered.

    “Why would I go speak to a rabbit I’m not in Alice and Wonderland.” Dunimas said squinting his eyes.

    “Did someone say, ‘Alice in Wonderland’?” Dunimas heard. He turned around. No one there. He turned around once more. Still no one. He felt something cold and hard tap the back of his head.

    “Alright who is that?!” Dunimas yelled turning around. There was a man balancing perfectly on a staff. He had an extremely long white beard which looked to Dunimas about 15 feet long. “What are you doing over here? The retirement home is over there!,” said Dunimas in an adult voice pointing in a random direction, “These are vegetables…”

    “Really? ‘Vegetables’?” Nora said with her hands on her hip.

    “The girl’s right!” The old man yelled.

    “This is why I will never do drugs when I grow up.” Dunimas mumbled to himself.

  17. B. Macon 01 Mar 2011 at 9:33 pm

    –I’m noticing a lot of replacements for the word “said.” For example, “shrieked,” “mumbled,” “threatened,” “remarked,” “revealed,” “laughed,” “moaned,” “yelled” and “pointed out.” I don’t think you need all of these. I’d recommend sticking with ones that add something to the line that isn’t already obvious by the dialogue itself. (For example, “’Train me or drain me,’ that sounds so wrong!’ Dunimas remarked” could be shortened to just “That sounds so wrong!” without any dialogue tag because it’s pretty obvious who’s saying it and which line he’s referring to).

    –When you’re talking about “you’re mum,” please change “you’re” -> “your” because “your” is used when you’re talking about something possessed by someone. “You’re” is only used as the contraction for “you are.” Also: “you’re knowledge” –> “your knowledge”

    –“ Being specific can determine whether you have a baby at a hospital or in a bathtub.” I have no idea what he means but I found this humorous nonetheless.

    –“How many mystical tacos must you scoff down your throat to realize that you’re mum left at 9 this morning-leave me alone!” What does this mean?

    –“Okay, can I please speak to someone with the IQ higher than a rabbit?” Dunimas asked. “Then go speak to a rabbit.” She countered. “Why would I go speak to a rabbit I’m not in Alice and Wonderland.” Dunimas said squinting his eyes. I feel like this exchange could be sharper. (For example, perhaps a wittier retort than “Then go speak to a rabbit”) .

    –““These are vegetables…” “Really? ‘Vegetables’?” Nora said with her hands on her hip. I’m not sure what’s going on here.

    –I sort of like the training sequence, although there’s not very much training going on.

  18. Nicholas Caseon 02 Mar 2011 at 5:24 am

    Um, there is no training. This is where the training is about to begin.

  19. B. Macon 02 Mar 2011 at 10:53 am

    Telling him the secret to flying isn’t training?

  20. Nicholas Caseon 02 Mar 2011 at 1:32 pm

    No, she just did that to get back at him. Master Yin will teach him how to really fly.

  21. Nicholas Caseon 10 Mar 2011 at 8:50 pm

    Okay, I think I did better with this sketch. Someone (particularly Ghost or B.Mac) Please review.

    It’s and excerpt but the training is about to begin.

    “I guess it couldn’t hurt to try.” Dunimas moaned. The old man wheeled around on his cane.

    “Then it’s settled. Meet me on Mou-“

    “No no no! This isn’t some old corny movie where this kid gets trained by some old guy and has to climb up some ridiculously large mountain just to get to his house, just to have to do a bunch of chores which secretly teaches him how to fight!” Dunimas refused.

    “Oh…fine!” The old man said. His eyebrows formed a frown before stroking his incredibly long beard.

    “No, ‘oh fine’!”

    Dunimas turned around and saw Nora’s boiling red face.

    “I’m going to teach you and that’s final!” She roared.

    “So I’ll eventually learn how to fight by jumping off cliffs.” Dunimas said squinting his eyes in annoyance.

    “I was just joking. You’re going to follow me, walk inside my dojo, pay 75 dollars, bow down, and then I train you.” She instructed.

    “Why do I have to pay 75-“

    “What did I just tell you to do?!” Nora interrupted.

    “ I follow you, walk in, bow down to 75 dollars and you’ll train me.” Dunimas said acting as if he misheard her.

    “Hey, he’s my-“

    “No! You bow down to me!” she screamed standing on her toes and cutting Master Yin off.

    “Oh, so I walk in, bow down to 75 dollars, bow down to you, you scream at me, then you train me.” Dunimas said.

    “Dunimas, just how dumb are you?” Nora asked.

    “It varies.” Dunimas admitted rubbing the back of his head.

  22. Nicholas Caseon 13 Mar 2011 at 6:05 am

    Um…is anyone gonna reply?

  23. Silvercaton 03 May 2011 at 1:14 pm

    A couple more good shows to study from (although these are more on the wacky side):
    Freakazoid
    The Tick
    Earthworm Jim (except there’s no DVDs for it)

  24. Aineon 16 May 2011 at 10:54 pm

    The show Static Shock has some great lines. But the only way to watch it is illegally since no one decided to release the DVDs. Still, pretty funny.

    There’s the part where Richie becomes Gear (though he has no hero name) to save Virgil since Ebon suspects he’s Static (which he is, so lucky him). Anyway, I think Ebon is the one who comments on the new guy dressed in whats barely passable as a costume and Static says “It’s a work in progress. I want to call him Robin the Boy Wonder.” Richie responds: “Uh… No.” “See? We’re still working on it.”

  25. Peter160on 07 Nov 2011 at 4:54 am

    IMO Merlin (BBC) has a very good sense of humour, it takes the audience away from that dark side of the show even if it is just for a few moments.

  26. Janon 05 Jul 2012 at 11:03 am

    My story was working with already very established characters, and I’m awful at writing comedy, so I had a friend tell me what she liked in comedy, and I tried to see what I liked as well. Coming up with ‘comedy of errors’ sort of thing, the subject was a suprise party. [Two girls who can't cook try to bake a cake and fail miserably, the decorators accidentally tell the guest of honor about the party, and they invite the police chief, then bring up illegal fireworks.] Maybe this kind of thing would work for others.

  27. B. McKenzieon 05 Jul 2012 at 11:06 am

    “Two girls who can’t cook try to bake a cake and fail miserably, the decorators accidentally tell the guest of honor about the party, and they invite the police chief, then bring up illegal fireworks.” Haha, that all sounds promising.

  28. Samon 18 Aug 2012 at 9:33 pm

    The Office UK or US?

  29. B. McKenzieon 18 Aug 2012 at 11:01 pm

    I think both are pretty solid. If you only have time for one, I’d recommend going with the one closer to your market.

  30. Characteron 26 Oct 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Sorry, I just have to lament the fall of Teen Titans. It was my favorite cartoon as a kid, the favorite cartoon for my entire family (and if you knew my sister, you’d be amazed) and then they just child-proof it like that, with Teen Titans Go. Raven, my favorite character, is ridiculos, Robin’s seriousness is just gone (he was my favorite character!), Beast Boy and Cyborg are about the same, but Starfire has absolutely no depth! They turned teen titans into Sesame Street, but worse because it has no educational value whatsoever!

  31. Characteron 26 Oct 2013 at 5:49 pm

    Okay, Nicholas Case, that is hilarious, if a bit hard to follow. It’s still funny, but you need to work on the beginning.

  32. ShonenChicoBoyon 26 Oct 2013 at 6:10 pm

    Hah! I remember Teen Titans. I used to love that show. I didn’t find it funny per say, but it was. (That one episode where they get trapped in a TV and chase each other through various shows on different channels, including an unfortunate interruption of the climactic “Luke I am your father” scene from SWs. I remember laughing so hard at that.)

    Kim Possible and Jack Long, American Dragon were also two of my favorites, and they are both pretty funny.

    Big Bang Theory was, in my opinion, not as funny as everyone makes it out to be. I still need to see the Office and Supernatural.

    Anyone seen Gintama? One of the funniest shows in existence, I think. Never mind that it’s anime, it’s freakin’ hilarious. Every episode, even the “serious” ones, never fail to give me a good laugh.

    Three things you didn’t mention here (that should be mentioned) are underplay, sarcasm, and parody. These are probably more common in comedy nowdays. If used effectively I personally think they are the best stock for laughs out there.

    “It rained so hard, the whole city flooded. Most unfortunate is that Starbucks was closed.”

    “It’s only a flesh wound.” “Obviously.”

  33. Darkslowbro210on 17 Apr 2014 at 8:49 pm

    I’m developing a parody superhero show, which naturally has a lot of comedy.

    Patrick: Remember Cleft, the goal is to stay low. It’s not normal to see angels here on Earth

    Cleft: I get it, I get it. Why are you even worrying? The cap hides the halo, and this shirt hide my wings!

    Patrick: Don’t we know all this?

    Cleft: True, but the readers don’t.

    Patrick: Who?

    Cleft: Forget about it, it’s Funland time!

    Patrick: Remember, lay low.

    Cleft: You said that 3 sentences ago.

    Patrick: (sighs) alright…

    (Cleft runs off)

    Patrick: Wait up!

    (Cuts to Cleft)

    Cleft: Geez, not flying sure is restricting. (notices roller coaster sign that says “Flight”) Now that’s more like it!

    (Cuts to ride)

    Carnival Man: That’ll be one one buck.

    Cleft: K’

    CM: Say, what’s yer’ name?

    Cleft: (nervously looks at dollars) Uh… Bill… Dollars?

    CM: K’, Bill.

    (Cleft gets on ride and ride starts)

    Cleft: Huh. this is higher than I usually go.

    (Car comes down)

    Cleft: (screaming) THIS IS NOTHING LIKE FLYING!!

    (Coaster stops after ride sequence and Cleft slams out of the car, losing his cap and shirt)

    Patrick: (mumbling) so much for staying low.

  34. B. McKenzieon 19 Apr 2014 at 10:10 am

    “I’m developing a parody superhero show, which naturally has a lot of comedy…”

    I’m not feeling the comedy here. For example, having a character repeat himself and then having another character point out that he’s repeating himself is not the most comedically promising setup that comes to mind. I’d recommend checking out books from comedically skilled authors, ideally authors that mix comedic elements into other genres (George R. R. Martin, Pratchett, and Rowling come to mind for fantasy). I think that would help a lot with comedy, character development, and plotting.

    In particular, I’d recommend checking out characters who drive comedy by being competent (or clever or witty)* rather than characters who drive comedy by being incompetent (e.g. losing his shirt on the way out of a roller coaster).

    *Some examples: Tony Stark, Daniel Craig’s James Bond, Tyrion Lannister and Peter Baelish (Game of Thones), Harry Potter’s narrator, pretty much every Terry Pratchett character, etc.

  35. That guyon 28 Jul 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Another extremely funny author that is one of my personal favorites is Derek Landy who writes the Skulduggery Pleasant series. Not only are his characters witty and funny but he is brilliant at writing action scenes and his characters are good.

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