6 Comedy Rules That Seem Random (But Aren't)

Learn the immutable laws of laughter.
6 Comedy Rules That Seem Random (But Aren't)

Comedy is a science, and like most science, it’s governed by rules.  Like “don’t lick the microphone”  or “smashing watermelons with a sledgehammer is no way to have a comedy career.”  Here are six more random rules of comedy for the stand-up comic, funny screenwriter, or comedy club fan in your life.  

Joke material is everywhere

In a clip from his comedy writing MasterClass, comedian Steve Martin skips the Rule of 3 and shares an important lesson he learned from another funny man, Charles Grodin.


Martin gleefully observes a couple destroy each other in the name of comedy.

So Martin is the kind of dude who gets uncomfortable around conflict.  If an argument breaks out at a dinner party, for example, Martin might try to step in and make peace.  But Grodin had another gleeful perspective:  “Oh! When two people get in a fight, I just sit back and watch.”

It was more than voyeurism.  If there’s trouble, let it happen, says Martin.  Take notes!  That’s because trouble is the stuff of funny comedy scenes. If you learn the shape, the volatility, or the subtlety of arguments, that’s grist you can later mill into giggles.

Remember, says Martin, you are a thought machine.  If you have a million thoughts a day, a million things that happen to you, just learn to pay attention -- there’s a lot of comedy material lurking in your head.

Tragedy + time = comedy

No one is really sure where this formula originated--it’s been attributed to such disparate comic voices as Woody Allen, Tig Notaro, and Mark Twain.  Patton Oswalt tweaked it for an album cover.

Irwin Entertainment

Happy Patton and Sad Patton are equally disturbing.

Steve Allen, the OG Tonight Show host, put it like this:  “When I explained to a friend recently that the subject matter of most comedy is tragic (drunkenness, overweight, financial problems, accidents, etc.) he said, “Do you mean to tell me that the dreadful events of the day are a fit subject for humorous comment? The answer is ‘No, but they will be pretty soon.’”

So what does that mean in practical terms?  Basically, your infuriating day at Costco is probably only a couple of weeks away from being a staple of your stand-up routine.  Your pain is funny!  Basically, because it isn’t mine.  Everything is funny, said Will Rogers, as long as it’s happening to someone else.

Comedy doesn’t work when not enough time has passed, which admittedly is subjective.  When Gilbert Gottfried told plane crash jokes just a couple of weeks after 9/11, he was met with boos, hisses, and a shout of “Too soon!”  And thus, “too soon,” the corollary to “tragedy plus time equals comedy” was born.

Don’t put a joke on a joke (or a hat on a hat).

Writer and director David Zucker, one of the geniuses behind Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies, has 15 rules of comedy.  Let’s goof around with his first one--”joke on a joke.”  

Or rather -- don’t put a joke on a joke. “Two jokes at the same time cancel each other out,” argues Zucker. Per his theory, if Leslie Nielsen were to deliver a punchline in a zany way, the comedy is diluted rather than enhanced.  The more straight-faced the delivery, the funnier the joke. 

Zucker’s advice lives on in comedy circles as “hat on a hat.”  Imagine McLovin trying to buy liquor with his bad fake ID in Superbad.  Wouldn’t it be even funnier if McLovin were wearing some kind of crazy fake goatee?  Er … no.  That would be stupid. Instead of laughing at the pain of this very real situation, we’re distracted by the “funny” facial hair.  It’s a joke on a joke.  Or a hat on a hat.  Still doesn’t make sense? Here’s Seth Meyers explaining it to Bill Hader.

Any comedy with a number in the name probably isn’t funny .

A rule from Comedy Central: The Essential Guide to Comedy states that any comedy movie with a number at the end of its name is likely terrible.  

The Hangover Part III. 

Scary Movie V.  

Police Academy 6: City Under Siege. 

We’ve explored why it’s so difficult to make good comedy sequels -- the mindless catchphrase repetition, the ramping up of explosions and special effects, the been-there-done-that reprising what worked in the original. So consider this your warning -- never see a comedy with a number at the end of the title.

Well, except Paddington 2.  You’ll love it.

Writing a comedy movie, like swimming in the ocean, is safer with a buddy.

Pick a random hit comedy on IMBD.  As an example, we’ll choose … Step Brothers.  Who wrote it?  Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, with a story assist from John C. Reilly. How about Bridesmaids? Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo.   21 Jump Street? Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill.  See where we’re going here?

Comedies, unlike epic poems or terrible novels, are almost always written by multiple writers. It’s not hard to understand why--ever sit around in a room and try to make yourself laugh?  Multiple writers’ give and take provokes funny repartee that is hard to produce inside of one’s own head. Plus, you get instant feedback.

It worked for Monty Python. Getting six guys to agree on what’s funny is easy,” says Eric Idle. “We read it aloud. If we laugh, it’s in; if we don’t, it’s out. If four guys think something’s funny and two guys think it’s not, we solve that very simply: We take the two guys out and kill ’em.”

The comedian is funnier than you, the audience member.


This should be intuitive, people.

This is a rule for all you comedy lovers out there. If you go to a show, just remember: Even if your friends think you’re hilarious and should really try an open mic, the comedian is funnier than you.  So let the professional do the jokes. You? Shhh.  Be quiet.

A corollary:  No one at the club paid to see you. They paid to see the comedian.  Shhh.  Be quiet.

Related:  Heckling is not part of the show. No one wants to hear it.  Shhh.  Be quiet.

And also:  Yes, the comic can “handle it.” But they shouldn’t have to.  Shhh. Be quiet. 

And while we’re at it: Tell the people at your table how hilarious you think the comic is after the show, not during it.  It’s rude to the comic and it’s rude to the people sitting around you.  Shhh. Be quiet. 

Do we have to say anything about turning off your phone?

Look, you paid for the show too.  Laugh!  Enjoy yourself!  And when in doubt, shhh.  Be quiet. 

For more ComedyNerd, be sure to check out:

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