3 'Go-To' Comedy Writing Tricks from an Industry Insider
First, a disclaimer and a claimer: I have never actually written a scripted sitcom that has aired on television, but for over a decade I have been leading increasingly expensive workshops for the youth, and you can't do that without picking up a few tricks along the way. Also, and this may seem like bragging, but each of the rejections I've received from major networks has virtually begged me to submit again at a later time. Legally, they can't say that unless they mean it. Am I crazy to just give away all of my secrets to writing sitcom scripts? Or maybe not so crazy?
My Five Tricks for Setting Up a Comedy Writing Area
I. Take everything you hope to use for writing comedy out of the room. Sit quietly (or lie down if you have health issues) in the center of the room and visualize the saddest thing you can think of. Dwell on it. Then, willy-nilly, just yell out any kind of furniture without censoring yourself. Write it down. The next day, put the opposite of that kind of furniture in the room and then make all of your design decisions based on that.
II. Install bamboo wind chimes and a strategically placed low-voltage computer fan somewhere near your desk. Keep the fan going night and day.
Just jack the one off of your processor. Modern computers don't generate heat.
III. Sponge-paint the walls. This might seem optional, but it isn't. Sponging works on virtually any surface. Make the base coat darker and the next coat lighter. Stick with satiny and faux glaze textures. Or any texture, really.
IV. Use a Dell computer model I15RV-477BLK SKU: 8786054. And get plenty of extra memory, but not too much. Ask your Dell support person what I mean.
V. Buy a mechanical egg timer that can be set for seven-minute intervals. Time yourself constantly until you can get it down to five minutes.
In a pinch, sand will do, but you'll need a second timer to make sure it's correct.
My Four Go-To Comedy Philosophers -- Choose at Least One
Additional Disclaimer: This is the 21st century, and MRI techniques have now cleared up any remaining questions about the nature of comedy. Therefore, some of my essential go-to philosophers listed below may no longer be useful.
I. FREUD: He said, "The pleasure of humor ... comes about ... at the cost of a release of affect that does not occur: It arises from an economy in the expenditure of affect." Plus, "The energy released in laughing at a joke is the energy normally used to repress hostile and sexual feelings." You can't read that and not laugh.
II. ARISTOTLE: He hints that incongruity is the basis for humor, and thus his favorite example of comedic writing is this story excerpt: "... and as he walked, beneath his feet were -- chilblains (a painful, itching swelling on the skin, typically on a hand or foot)." Although the comedy is a tad on the nose, his explanation is the special sauce.
III. KANT: He explains that "Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing." As an example, Kant provides this cute bit: "An Indian at the table of an Englishman in Surat, when he saw a bottle of ale opened and all the beer turned into froth and overflowing, testified his great astonishment with many exclamations. When the Englishman asked him, 'What is there in this to astonish you so much?' he answered, 'I am not at all astonished that it should flow out, but I do wonder how you ever got it in.'" As we say in the business, "You can't write shit that good."
Feel free to use that one to impress your friends. They will appreciate your wit.
IV. ME: I once said, "All comedy is anger -- essentially just people yelling at each other." As I like to tell my students, "If they ain't screaming at each other, fix it!" But at the same time, let me add a caveat: Make sure that if you don't have something nice to say, then say nothing at all. Humor is not about poking fun. Just think about that word: "poking." Suddenly it's not so funny, is it?
My Five "Go-To" Comedy Writing Tricks
I. The Comic Timing Trick: How many times have you heard that all comedy is timing? Easy to say, but hard to explain. Here's my trick: Write your comedy very fast or very slow or at a normal speed, but pick a speed and stick to it. If you have trouble typing fast, then slow might be your speed. Find your comedy speed.
II. The Funny/Not Funny Trick: After every joke, there should be a corresponding really sad moment. Then right back to something funny. Why does this work? Because it just does.
Her husband just died. Use that to your advantage!
III. The Write What You Know Trick: Your own experiences are like gold -- they are yours and yours alone. Don't squander them. For example, if you have a favorite episode of Kramer, write that one. (Bonus tip: If you TiVo the episode, it's easier to get the words just perfect. If you think TiVo is too "yesterday," then contact your cable provider and ask about their digital recording package.)
IV. The Wacky Next Door Neighbor Trick: When you include the wacky neighbor in your pilot, don't give him or her a devastating skin condition. If this is a temptation, ask yourself a few questions: A) Why am I doing this to my show? B) Is there an ointment?
There is. And that ointment is "comedy."
V. The ABV Trick: Always be vulgar. Year after year, we get more data that vulgar is what males from 13 to 37 want. And, other than females, males are your most important audience. If you don't believe me, try this demonstration: I am now going to print a phrase chosen on purpose to make you uncomfortable: "sanitary napkin." Right? It gets your attention! And then you laugh to relieve pent-up energy "normally used to repress hostile and sexual feelings." (Freud)