Writing a Comedy Screenplay: What Makes Us Laugh?

By May 3, 2017Blog

Want to know the funniest joke in the world, according to a large scientific study?

We’ll get to that. But first, what makes you laugh? The question has intrigued scientists and comedy-lovers alike. Or maybe you’d rather not analyze the underlying components of what makes something funny. As a young intern I began my career working with Lizz Winstead (co-creator of The Daily Show) and her group of comedy writers (including Emmy Award-winning comedy writer Jo Miller) – and I was consistently surprised how unfunny the analytical process of comedy writing sometimes can be. E.B. White famously said: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

So again – what makes you laugh? If you imagine a few jokes or scenarios that always make you smile, what do they have in common?

If you think about it, every joke has a crucial element of surprise. And every funny image has a surprisingly incongruous combination of ideas. The “kick of the discovery” is a phrase used by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Have you noticed that comedy almost always involves misleading the audience and then surprising them?

A few years ago, ScreenCraft hosted a panel called Professionally Funny: Comedy Screenwriting featuring some of the industry’s top comedy screenwriting professionals. If you’re interested in reading more about that great event, you can get a comprehensive set of notes and quotes from the event, available to download for only $3 here.

And if you’re writing a comedy feature film screenplay, be sure to mark your calendar for these comedy screenplay contest dates.

Here are a few highlights to keep in mind when writing comedy: 

  • Avoid too many “jokes.” Writing a comedy is a very specific exercise in genre, but at its heart it is no different than writing drama, horror, action, or any other mode of narrative. The key is to define your premise with the utmost specificity and to know your core characters inside and out. According to Mike Werb (screenwriter of The Mask), “the more you know your characters, regardless of genre, the more you can pit them against something unexpected, which can lead to high tension [and conflict], whether [it be] dramatic or comedic.” There is often a tendency to frontload and overload comedies with jokes, but the best comedies have elements of drama and, conversely, the best dramas often have moments of levity. Jokes, bits and gags are important, but as comedy screenwriting guru Steve Kaplan points out, they are surface elements of your script, not the spine: “Jokes constantly have to land, but there have to be comic characters that work to hang them on, because jokes are subjective.” In other words, you can’t ensure that every joke you write will play for everyone, but you can have more control over how your characters impact and appeal to viewers. Great characters are your throughline, your safety net.
  • Comedy is serious. Neither the characters nor the actors playing them should ever feel like they’re in on the joke. Nothing backfires faster than actors or characters that know they’re funny before an audience has a chance to make that determination for themselves. Characters can’t be in on the joke; they have to be earnest and invested. Smugness kills the relationship with the audience.
  • Take a step back. As Charlie Chaplin said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” A good comedy shows us a different perspective. It takes a step back from the emotional drama of daily life, and allows us to laugh at it from a distance. Some of the best comedy writers have mined the tragedy of their own lives for things to laugh at.
  • Confidence. Embrace your unique comedic tone confidently. So much of comedy is in how it’s delivered. Nothing kills creativity and comedy more than the fear of making a mistake or fear of looking bad. There are no wrong answers when you’re in the open mode. Wait until later to be critical. Write first. Edit later.
  • Focus on the mundane. There is much humor to be mined out of magnifying the mundane. As the great comedy screenwriter David Mandel pointed out in our comedy panel, this was the operating principle behind both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Richard Whitley remembers from his days as a staff writer on Roseanne that the mantra there was to “make the big out of the small.”

You can download the full event notes here for a deeper exploration of comedy screenwriting. And if you’re writing a comedy TV pilot, be sure to check out our popular online screenwriting e-courses here.

Oh, and still wondering what’s the funniest joke in the world? The British researcher Richard Wiseman searched for funniest joke in the world by thousands of people to rate their favorite jokes. The study was interesting because it revealed a lot about humor tastes across demographics and cultures. Shock only takes us so far – because crude jokes offend some while entertain others. But surprise is crucial to making everyone laugh.

A hunter and his friend are out in the woods, when suddenly his friend collapses onto the ground and doesn’t seem to be breathing. The hunter calls 911: “My friend is dead! What should I do?” The operator replies, “Calm down, sir. Take a deep breath. I can walk you through this. First make sure that he’s dead.” There’s a silence, then a loud bang. Back on the phone, the guy says, “Ok, now what?” 

With that – happy writing!

We look forward to reading your script