L is for Laughs

BLAST_LI’ve spent most of my career writing cartoons and teen sitcoms where getting laughs from the audience is paramount! Not surprisingly, many screenwriters are comedians. I, alas, am not. Luckily, we all have the ability to be funny if we keep in mind the following three tips…

3 Tips for Making People Laugh

Subvert the expected. This is a comedian’s greatest tool. When the audience/reader expects something to play out a certain way but something else happens, they laugh. Here’s a simple example from WRECK-IT RALPH. This character has been set up as a tough soldier who fights giant bugs, and then this happens…

Wreck-It Ralph subvert expected comedy ex

… and the audience laughs. Simple but effective!

Tell the truth. The cold, harsh truth is always good for a laugh, especially if the character would rather not face the truth or have it known. This example is from GALAXY QUEST:

Galaxy Quest harsh truth comedy ex

Find the pain. Lastly, truth is always accompanied by pain, either physical or emotional. The pain of that last example is that Kyle is embarrassed to be caught downloading porn, which we learn immediately when he does this:

Galaxy Quest pain comedy ex

Basically, if the truth doesn’t hurt, it’s not funny! For instance, if someone said, “Her hair is brown,” that’s the truth but is not funny unless the character desperately wants everyone to believe she’s a natural blond. Truth combined with a character’s pain is what makes a joke.

2 Examples of Making People Laugh

GALAXY QUEST. Besides fitting in with our space theme, this movie is an excellent example of classic comedy. Right from the opening scene, it gets to the truth and pain of each character. Take Gwen for example. The truth is that there’s only one woman on the show (a common problem in action movies still) and the pain is she’s only there as eye candy and she hates that. Lots of jokes come from this! Then there’s Guy – the truth is he’s not even an actor, just a glorified extra, and the pain is he wants to be important but his role in the show is to die. As for subverting the expected, the character of Dusty does this well. As expected, the other characters freak out about being on a real alien spaceship, but Dusty does the unexpected – he acts like he knows exactly what he’s doing and starts giving orders to the aliens. Hilarious!

And the second example is a quote from WRECK-IT RALPH that shows all these elements working in tandem:

Wreck-It Ralph comedy quote

When the Surge Protector asks, “Anything to declare?” we expect Ralph to answer yes, no or maybe with respect to the fact that he’s bringing an illegal cherry into the jurisdiction, but instead he comes out of left field and declares, “I hate you.” This answer isn’t just unexpected, it’s the truth and it includes pain (hate). Even Surge Protector’s reply is unexpected, truthful and full of pain: 1) the expected response is anger, but Surge Protector is agreeable, 2) the truth is that he hears this a lot, and 3) the pain is being hated hurts.

1 Link for more help

As I was writing this it dawned on me that comedy sounds brutal! So much pain! But presented the right way, it makes us laugh. Presented a different way, it makes us scream. I reveal how in this post: How Writing Horror is Like Writing Comedy.

Also, if you want a great book to hone your comedy writing skills, check out THE COMIC TOOLBOX by John Vorhaus.

And in case you’re just dropping in now, here’s our April A to Z list thus far:

A is for Antagonist

B is for Backstory

C is for Character Change

D is for Dialogue

E is for External Conflict

F is for False Stakes

G is for Genre

H is for Heroes

I is for Internal Conflict

J is for Juxtaposition

K is for Kittens!

Coming up:

M is for Midpoint

N is for Narrative

O is for Outlines

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

25 thoughts on “L is for Laughs”

  1. I’ve been using the “subvert the expected” in my blog posts lately, because I need a good way to end my post stories. 🙂 Galaxy Quest is one of my favourite movies ever. Some of your script examples didn’t make it into my DVD version, though – now I am wondering if I have a cut version or if they never made it in!

      1. I admit I haven’t seen the movie in ages and don’t remember if my examples made it in. I got them from a Galaxy Quest script, and it’s likely that things changed in the final edit. If so, I’m super sad that porn joke didn’t make it into the final movie. That was gold!

  2. I have a really unique and specific sense of humor, so a lot of what most people find funny I find neutral (or amusing, but not FUNNY) and I end up laughing at moments that nobody else does.

    1. You’re the tough one in the audience! I felt like this in university, especially watching dumb movies with boys. What were they laughing at? Were they drunk? [beat] Yes, they were drunk. Such is life in the college residence.

  3. This is a great post for me because I don’t write comedy, though admire those who do it well. Of course, on occasion I do find myself laughing out loud while writing some scenes — really cracking myself up — but since my books aren’t out yet I have no way of knowing if I’m the only one who finds the scenes funny. What a frightening thought!

    1. That is frightening! And the hardest thing about comedy. Though one of the best ways to hone your craft is to get reactions from an audience by reading out loud. Or even getting someone else to read it out loud. The first time is always the worst, but then it’s exciting because you will know which jokes need to be improved! Now I’m having flashbacks to that first table read I sat through, hearing the actors read through my episode and cringing when something didn’t get a laugh and giving myself an secret high five when something did.

  4. I enjoyed learning something about the comedy writing process. I’m the queen of funny one liners and funny storytelling at work. And sometimes I incorporate some of that in a blog post My favorite is the humor you have to think about 1/3 second longer to get. I don’t personally know any of these shows, but then I’m a 54 year old woman. I haven’t watched comedy specifically designed for teens since the original cast in Saved By the Bell. 😉
    Happy AtoZing!
    Visit me at: Life & Faith in Caneyhead
    I am Ensign B of Tremps’ Troops
    with the A to Z Challenge

  5. I make many dower characters because that’s what I’m comfortable writing, but you’re right… I need to throw some humor in there, too! Thanks for the tip. 🙂

  6. Great examples. I usually do little jokes that only I may get in my stories. A friend wrote a Rom Com that parodied the love triangle trend in YA. It made me laugh quite a few times and actually ended up being one of the only love triangles I didn’t hate.

    ~Patricia Lynne aka Patricia Josephine~
    Member of C. Lee’s Muffin Commando Squad
    Story Dam
    Patricia Lynne, Indie Author

    1. It is hard! I struggled with it even after I learned these tips. Though that could be because in cartoons they literally want every single line to be funny. So many jokes = brain explosion!

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