Rules for comedy that I learned as a Hollywood script writer
|I was a writer for a comedy show in Hollywood in the early 1990s when I was 20 years old. These are some rules for comedy I learned from my experiences. I’ll try to think of more.|
The hero is humble, he has many flaws, without seeking payment, he stands for a cause. The villain is vain, he thinks he will win, but his pride and his ignorance defeat him in the end.
(Just a reminder that in all writing, including comedy, pride goes before a fall. Pride is a characteristic of an antagonist, and humility is a heroic trait.)
1) Never tell the same joke twice in the same episode. You can show a different variant of the same concept, but not in the same issue of a comic book or the same episode of a TV show. The variant must have different details, and not be identical, despite following the same formula.
2) Give the audience something they don’t expect. If a person is in a recognizable situation the audience can relate to, have the character react in a surprisingly unanticipated way. For instance, if a character is caught masturbating, instead of being ashamed, have him be shameless and willing to share details of what he is doing.
3) It is better to have two characters discussing a funny incident that happened in the recent past than it is to show that incident happening. For instance, if a fat character got his hand caught in a candy machine while trying to steal a candy bar, it is funnier if a character talks about the incident rather than having the incident acted out.
4) When Laugh In aired in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were a lot of subjects that were off limits to their writers. Now, we can write about masturbation, homosexuality, and a lot of other taboo subjects that were off limits when Laugh In was produced. There is always the danger that a writer will write a joke identical or too similar to another joke already written; for this reason, it may be advisable to write jokes that push the envelope and deal with inappropriate topics, because they are less likely to be repeats of other jokes.
For instance, if you were writing “Yo mama” jokes and you came up with: “Yo mama’s so fat, when she went on a diet, Betty Crocker went out of business!” That joke is funny, but many other people could’ve came up with that same joke. Jokes about taboo subjects might be more likely to have you treading fresh ground.
5) If you’re having trouble coming up with an ending to a comedy skit, try having the protagonist say something that contradicts his actions. So if he just did something completely strange, have him accuse a perfectly normal person of being weird.
6) If it’s somehow indicative that an action of a character or interaction of characters has happened before, such as two characters having a past history that happened off camera, this can be a source of humor.
The lowest form of comedy is to make fun of someone because of a characteristic they can’t control, like their race, disability, etc.
The second lowest form of comedy, in my opinion, is to name drop a historical figure or politician or celebrity and have that become the punchline. For example, someone could be looking at a stain on a mirror and another person might say, “That looks like Amerigo Vespucci!” In this situation, an audience might laugh because they might or might not know who Amerigo Vespucci was, and it is instinctive to laugh at this type of joke because the audience thinks they are expected to.
In my opinion, only a desperate writer name drops punchlines.