Writing Comedy

comedy shutterstock_95080714.jpg
Everyone can enjoy a banana gag.

Comedy writing is hard to pull off. For some it’s a natural, effortless talent, but anyone can learn the basics and you’ll never know if you’re any good at it unless you try.

 

In this article we’ll look at:

  • ​Quickies and sketches

  • Comedy categories

  • Red Herrings

  • Reversals

  • Switches

  • Exaggeration

  • Coming up with ideas

  • Tips on sketch writing

  • How to write gags and jokes

  • Thinking up gags and jokes

  • Writing for shows

  • Finding comedy shows to write for

Quickies and sketches

A quickie consists of dialogue and/or action leading to a single gag — the punchline. As the name suggests, quickies are usually short. One quickie from the BBC sketch show Big Train has a monk taking a contemplative walk in a peaceful garden. The monk passes a statue of a naked woman and, seeing no-one around, he surreptitiously reaches out to touch one of the statue’s boobs — and an alarm goes off.

Sketches are longer and consist of a string of action and/or dialogue that extracts humour from a specific situation. The classic sketch then ends on a visual or verbal punchline to wrap everything up.

Take Monty Python’s ‘Restaurant Sketch’. A couple in a restaurant are about to order their meal when the man mentions to the waiter that he has a dirty fork. The waiter is horrified and fetches the head waiter. The head waiter is also horrified and fetches the manager. The manager is so upset by the dirty fork that he kills himself with it. The chef then bursts in, blames the customer for the manager’s death and tries to kill him. The chef is tackled by the two waiters and all three die in the ensuing fight.

 

Here the humour comes from the ludicrously exaggerated way in which the restaurant staff over-react to the discovery of the dirty fork, but the final joke is provided by the customer. He looks at the carnage around him, turns to the camera, and says, “Good job I didn’t tell them about the dirty knife.”

Comedy categories

Most comedy ideas can be put it into one of the following categories:

Red herrings

We’re fooled into thinking the situation is one thing, then the punchline reveals it’s completely different. Take another quickie example from Big Train where we see a woman in a white coat using a brush to clean the face of a blackened body. From the looks of it this is obviously a forensic pathologist preparing a burnt corpse for examination. A phone rings. The woman answers it and her conversation reveals that she’s actually a beautician in a health spa trying to apply blusher to a customer who’s spent way too long under a sun bed.

Reversals

People or things acting contrary to expectations. The main characters in the sitcom Father Ted are all reversals. You’d hope that priests are intelligent and principled men. We certainly hope they’re not stupid (like Father Dougal), dishonest (like Father Ted) or drunkards (like Father Jack). The sitcom Absolutely Fabulous is based on a reversal. Here the mother, Eddie, acts like a spoiled teenager and her daughter, Saffie, acts as if she were a long-suffering mother.

Switches

A person or thing in the wrong situation. In the BBC comedy show Goodness Gracious Me one sketch featured a Hindu man trying to keep a cow as a pet. Here the switch is between a cow and a dog or cat. The sketch looked at the problems the man faced trying to keep a cow in a suburban home. Chief amongst these was the enormous cow-flap in the kitchen door — it was so large burglars kept using it to sneak into the house.

Exaggeration

Where things go completely over the top, such as in the Restaurant Sketch above. In another example, a sketch from the BCC show Smith and Jones, we see two men admiring a stereo system that’s a miracle of modernisation — it’s absolutely tiny, virtually the size of a Tic Tac box. However, we then discover the system has so many features it can be worked only with a huge remote control that’s the size of a door.

Coming up with comedy ideas

Not all comedy ideas fit neatly into one of the above categories, but most will. Have a go yourself. Take something ordinary like a high-street bank and see how it might respond to a reversal, switch etc. Once you’ve established an idea ask yourself a few questions as to how and why the situation arose and it’s likely implications. The answers will often provide more opportunities for humour.

How can we apply a reversal to the bank?

Banks are traditionally difficult to borrow money from, so a reversal of the normal situation would be a bank that’s desperate to get rid of its cash. Perhaps the money has become contaminated in some way and the bank staff want to get rid of it as soon as possible. If so, how was the money contaminated in the first place? What’s it contaminated with? What will it do to anyone who touches it?

How can we apply a switch to the bank?

Who’s an unlikely person to put in charge of a bank? How about an Apache chief. How did he end up running a bank? Are all the staff Apaches? Does the manager stable his horse in the walk-in safe and scalp mortgage defaulters?

How can we apply an exaggeration to the bank?

Banks are secure buildings, so could the security aspect be exaggerated? Perhaps the manger has bricked up all the doors and windows. Why the extra security? Are the staff trying to stop anyone discovering they’ve run out of money? Is the manager on medication that’s made him paranoid?

How can we apply a red herring to the bank?

We see a gunman frisking the customers in a bank queue. We then find out he’s not a crook, he’s actually one of the cashiers collecting overdue bank charges.

Tips on sketch writing

  • If you’re writing with a particular show in mind make sure your material is appropriate to its audience. Be guided by past material. If it’s a new show, or one you’re not familiar with, contact the production team and find out what they want.

  • Keep the dialogue to a bare minimum. Look at every line and word and make sure it serves a purpose. If you can do without a word, cut it.

  • Don’t forget the pictures. Many writers concentrate on dialogue and overlook the visual element. In the Cow sketch mentioned above we don’t just hear about the cow-flap in the door, we see it too.

  • Avoid clichés. Avoid sketches that involve well-worn characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, the Godfather etc. These characters have been favourites of sketch writers for years and people are tired of them. In the same way, avoid sketches involving doctors and policemen. Uniformed professionals are another sketch show staple and it’s hard to come up with a police/doctor gag that hasn’t been done before.

How to write gags and jokes

Most gags comprise a factual statement followed by a punchline that conjures up a funny visual image or twists the meaning of words — some do both, like this one by Groucho Marx:

One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas.
How he got in my pyjamas I’ll never know.

This plays on the meaning of ‘in my pyjamas’ and presents us with a mental image of an elephant squeezed into a pair of jammies.

The following are ‘Yo mama’ jokes (also called ‘Snaps’). These gags are stylised, but almost every joke you can think of works on the same comedic principles  — they deliver an unexpected play on words or a funny image, or both.

 

Yo mama’s…

  • …armpits are so hairy, it looks like she’s got Don King in a headlock!

  • …breath smells so bad, when she yawns her teeth duck!

  • …so greedy, she got married just to lay hands on the rice!

  • …so dumb, she think a hot meal is stolen food!

  • …so fat, she went to the movies and sat next to everyone!

  • …so poor, she goes to KFC to lick other people’s fingers!

  • …so stupid, she saw a sign that said ‘Wet Floor’ and did!

  • …so ugly, she looked out the window and got arrested for mooning!

  • …so hairy, she went out in the woods and Big Foot took pictures of her!

  • …so ugly, they filmed ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ in her shower!

The best way to develop your gag-writing skills is to practice. Can you think of a punchlines that might follow each of the following statements?

Their house is so cold…
My friend is so lazy…
Her dog is so stupid…
His cooking is so bad…

Tricky isn’t it? Get your brain into gear by making notes. Pick a topic, in this case bad cooking, and write down a list of:

  • People connected with cooking.

  • Places where cooking takes place.

  • Things that involve cooking.

  • Occasions when you cook.

  • Words or phrases you associate with cooking.

(If you’ve read the chapter Coming up with ideas you’ll see that these questions feature a selection of Rudyard Kipling’s six honest serving men: What, Why and When, How, Where and Who.)

Answers to the above might include:

• People who are connected with cooking?
Chef / Cook / Gourmet / Critic / Bus boy/ Waiter / Gordon Ramsay / Restaurateur…

• Where does cooking take place (or where people buy food)?
Kitchens / Grocers / Butchers / Restaurants / Hotels / Cafes / Diners / Markets / France…

• What objects are used in cooking?
Food / Pots / Pans / Stoves / Ovens / Spices / Meat / Fish / Vegetables / Fruit / Cans / Knives…

• When does cooking take place?
Evening out / Shopping trip / Barbecue / Breakfast / Lunch / Dinner / Brunch…

• What words and phrases are associated with cooking?
Michelin stars / Flavour / Aroma / Greasy spoon cafe / Snack / Obesity / Yummy / Cookery book / Recipes / Ingredients…

Next write down a list for opposites. This might seem odd, but many gags work by combining things that are normally opposed to each other. Your cooking opposites might read like this:

• Who?
Dieters / Health inspectors / Trainers / Thin people / Skeletons / People with food allergies…

• Where?
Health spa / Weight loss camp / Deserts / Empty food store / Prisons…

• What?
Empty fridge / Broken can-opener / Empty cupboard / Empty plate / Rumbling stomach…

• When?
Lent / Diet / Illness / Famine / Disaster / Poverty…

• Words/Phrases?
Starving / Hunger / Raw /Appetite loss / Tasteless / Full / Puke / Poison…

Try to include as many entries as possible under each category.

If you’ve read the chapter on Coming up with ideas you’ll see that you’ve just completed your Research phase. Next comes the Thinking phase — you have your lists of words and phrases, now mull them over looking for connections. Inspiration might strike quickly, but if not, put some real effort into it for a half-hour, take a break, then come back to it.

 

How about..? 

His cooking is so bad, the Michelin Restaurant Guide has put out a contract on him.

His cooking is so bad, his last barbecue was declared a crime scene.

Her cooking is so bad, the prison saves on a gas chamber by having her make the last meals.

You can probably think up some better ones yourself!

Tips on writing gags and jokes

  • Be brief. Like sketches, keep them as short as possible. Take any opportunity to reduce the word count.

  • Give it time. Once you’ve brainstormed a list of gags put them away and take a fresh look the next day. Some of your creations might not look so good now that you’ve slept on them, but you should find new, better ones bubbling up.

  • Don’t be too direct. Some gags work best if you approach the subject matter sideways. Take the snap ‘Yo mama’s so hairy she went out in the woods and Big Foot took pictures of her!’ A shorter version would be ‘Yo mama’s so hairy she looks like Big Foot!’. The second version might raise a smile, but it’s a direct comparison that’s too blunt to do more than that. The original version delivers the same message, but conjures up a funnier mental image i.e. Big Foot excitedly snapping a picture of yo mama to show to all his Big Foot friends.

  • Keep a comedy notebook. Make lists of notorious celebrities, dumb adverts, movies, politicians, current events, odd street signs, strange newspaper headlines etc. The next time you’re stuck for an idea flick through your notebook and let it inspire you. Think up alternative funny captions for the cartoons and pictures you find there.

  • Join the dots. Look for ways to make new and unexpected connections between current trends, celebrities, news events etc. To help think up topical gags brainstorm some ‘equal and opposite’ word lists (see ‘Thinking up gags’ above) for a selection of current news-stories and see what crops up.

  • Multiple meanings. Keep a look-out for double-meanings and list them in your notebook. Thinking of ways to add to these lists is a great mental exercise:

Reservation: Indian/Restaurant/Doubt/Shyness…
Fire: Flame/Sack/Shoot…
Swing: Toy/Music/Sex/Politics…

Playing on different interpretations of the same word can lead to a great gag. The Groucho Marks elephant gag quoted above is a good example of a gag that turns on a double meaning. The following Tim Vine joke is another example:

I phoned the local gym and I asked if they could teach me how to do the splits.
They said, “How flexible are you?”
I said, “I can’t make Tuesdays.”

How do I become a comedy writer?

It’s so easy! But sarcasm aside, just find a show you want to write for and send in material (more on the ‘finding’ part below). Comedy writing is either speculative (‘on spec’) or commissioned. Spec writers submit material to a show and get paid by the minute if any is used. Commissioned writers are paid to write a specific amount of material. Most writers start out as spec contributors and, assuming they’re any good, will eventually be given a commission to encourage them to come up with more.

 

The best person to approach in a production team is the show’s script editor. These editors read submitted material and manage the output of the commissioned writers. Most will also have a hand in rewriting material that needs polishing. Many comedy script editors started out as writers themselves and are usually sympathetic to the beginner.

Finding comedy shows

At any one time there will usually be at least a few television or radio comedy shows in production, the trouble is finding out about them — quite often the first you’ll hear of a new show is when it’s broadcast. Topical shows are recorded in the same week they’re broadcast, giving you a chance to send in your own submissions, but most non-topical sketch shows are recorded months beforehand, meaning you’ll have to bide your time and wait for the next production cycle to start, assuming the show is recommissioned for a new season.

Writing for established shows

If you see a show you’d like to write for, contact the production company and ask if it’s coming back for another series and, if it is, if they’d be interested in looking at your work. If the show accepts spec material they should have guidelines telling you what they’re after.

Writing for new shows

Getting involved in a new project is hard unless you have inside information, but there are ways of finding out about new shows in the pipeline:

The trade press. Media periodicals often carry news items about new comedy projects and sometimes a producer starting a new show will place an advert asking for submissions. Three popular UK periodicals that cover new comedy productions are: 

The Stage a weekly newspaper for theatre, television and radio professionals.

Broadcast a weekly newspaper for the television industry.

Televisual a monthly business magazine aimed at broadcasters and production companies.

Cold calling. Some production companies specialise in comedy. Get in touch and ask if they have any new projects in the pipeline. Some producers also specialise in comedy projects. Try writing to them (via a production company) and see if they’re involved in anything that might require freelance material. No one should object to a short, polite email, but don’t send in reams of material.

Finding shows on-line. Many comedy fans work in media (or know someone who does) and might be privy to inside information. Keep an eye on the comedy sites, forums and social media outlets. Occasionally they’ll feature a post about a new show starting production. In the UK the British Comedy Guide is a good place to start looking for leads.

Main image © Everett Collection c/o Shutterstock

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