Six easy steps to earning massive quantities of respect, love, and money through comedy (or your sanity back)
by Bill Bibo Views: 1729
Of all the genres, comedy is probably the most difficult to write, especially upon command. It is the most subjective. People laugh at different things. Some like silly, some like subtle, some don’t like to laugh at all.
Some people think certain places and things are inherently funny. Neil Simon writes in The Sunshine Boys, “Words with a k in it [sic] are funny. Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a k. Ls are not funny. Ms are not funny.” If you’re still unsure you can also look it up in Wikipedia. There is actually an entry for “Inherently funny word”. Everything is in Wikipedia.
I have many books on the subject sitting on my shelves and someday I will read them. So what makes me an expert? Absolutely nothing. Yet, the following thoughts on comedy are entirely my own, or at least borrowed entirely from numerous people who are really good at what they do. Use them, abuse them, or forget them altogether. Whatever you choose, it is my hope that when next presented with a Greeting Card of Doom or even just a blank screen or sheet of paper, you’ll be able to sit back, relax, and write something funny.
STEP 1: Reality is funny
All comedy rests on a strong foundation of reality. Or is it that reality rests on a strong foundation of comedy? Either way, what’s funnier than everyday life? Look around you. Read the news. Half your work is already done for you. It’s been written that millennials in the US get their news from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Why? A truth is easier to take when presented in a humorous way. It hurts less. You might even learn something without knowing it.
By creating a scene set in reality your reader can easily relate to what you’re presenting, giving them a better chance to see the humour in your work and perhaps the humour in themselves. Make your foundation feel real, and then so will be the reaction of your audience.
STEP 2: Now take it up a notch
Take that reality, your reader’s familiarity, which you’ve previously established, and push it off-centre. Mix it and mash it. Change it up. Change the characters, change the place, or change the situation. But be very careful if you change all three. You need to leave some of your foundation intact or your reader will just be confused, and worse yet, never laugh.
For example, for my shortlisted story for Mash Stories, My Big Fat Mythical Greek Wedding, I took the typical worn and tired marriage set-up and threw it down in the world of Perseus and Andromeda. The result is the story of an exhausted hero coming home after a day of killing monsters to a not-so-loving and nagging wife. All Perseus wants is to sit down and rest. All Andromeda wants is to tell Perseus how worthless he is. Once I started typing the ideas almost jumped onto the page.
STEP 3: The Kenny Rogers rule
“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em…”
Do you want a quiet chuckle? Something lightly humorous? Or are you a gambler? Do you live on the edge going for a guffaw and laugh-out-loud merriment?
Look to your audience. What are they hoping to see? Some competitions may want something cute and mild. Some anthologies may want you to be outrageous. Judge the level you want to achieve. You decide how far you want to go.
STEP 4: Do the unexpected: be brilliant
I once met Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, at a book signing for the fourth book in his trilogy. As I stood in line I tried to think of something clever to say, but when it was my turn I sputtered, “Any advice to someone just starting writing science fiction?” (Clever, right?) He smiled and pretended he hadn’t heard that same thing a thousand times before and said, “Don’t blow up your hero’s home planet in the first chapter.” This is exactly what he did. Brilliant.
Harry Harrison wrote a series of very funny books called Bill, the Galactic Hero, as a satire on life in the military. In the very first one our hero gets his arm blown off in battle and is taken to the hospital. Being in the future, the doctors can easily graft on a new arm and send him on his way. Only, there’s one problem: the only spare arms they have are all the wrong colour and the wrong side. So Bill goes through the entire series with two mismatched right arms. Brilliant.
STEP 5: Test it: read it out loud
Comedy is like poetry. It is meant to be heard out loud. Read your story out loud. Better yet, find someone to read it to you. Listen to how they interpret it. Is it still funny? Is it still funny at the parts you thought were funny? Listening adds an entirely new dimension to your work than seeing it on paper. You’ll hear what doesn’t work and what could be better. Maybe a new joke or idea will occur to you as well.
Here’s some shameless self-promotion as an example: each quarter Mash Stories does an amazing job creating the audio versions of all the shortlisted stories. When I first heard their rendition of My Big Fat Mythical Greek Wedding, it felt like a completely different story. I laughed out loud and said, “I wrote that? Hey, it’s pretty funny.”
STEP 6: Keep the comedy alive
It’s a well-worn adage that if you want to write well you have to write every day. If you want to write comedy you have to learn to think funny every day. It shouldn’t be too hard. Keep your eyes and ears open. Keep a small notebook or pad of paper with you. Listen, look, and write it down. Looking at life is the best tool ever. You just can’t make some of this stuff up.
If that fails then steal—I mean “learn”, from the best. Or “learn” from the adequate and make it better. It’s done all the time. How many times has a man walked into that bar? Look at the sitcoms on television any night of the week. There are only a handful of plotlines that are handed over from sitcom to sitcom. They just change something and do it their way. But if you do it right people will forget the original.
So there you are. Six more or less easy steps to earning massive quantities of respect, love, and money through comedy (someday). Has it worked for me? Let’s just say that life is a process and there are many roads upon which we can travel and as the sun sets… Oh heck, just ask me after I finally get off the shortlist and win a Mash Stories competition.
You’re the writer. Now go write me something funny.
Bill lives with his wife in Madison, WI. Late at night he writes about intelligent mummies, incompetent zombies, and other things that scare him in the hope that someday they no longer will. He’d like to thank his wife and children and especially his grandsons, Nolan and Sonny, for keeping the child alive in his heart. It’s so deeply rooted now nothing could remove it. @bbibojr
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