I’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…
… 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:
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:
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:
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.
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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:
O is for Outlines