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The Secrets of Comedy Writing

By Trisha Howell

The following comedy writing secrets were notes I made to myself as a result of reading and digesting 6 books on comedy writing. These tips are presented here in a very compact form, and you may need to read them very slowly and think of examples to make them sink in.

You may also want to read the two best books I read, which were:

The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not, by John Vorhaus, Silman- James Press, Los Angeles, California, 1994. Comedy Writing Secrets: How to Think Funny, Write Funny, Act Funny and Get Paid for It, by Melvin Helitzer, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1987.

Other books on which these notes are based include, in the order of usefulness:

Comedy Writing Step by Step: How to Write and Sell Your Sense of Humor, by Gene Perret, Samuel French, Los Angeles, California, 1982. How to Write Funny: Add humor to every kind of writing, edited by John B. Kachuba, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2001. Funny Business: The Craft of Comedy Writing, by Sol Saks, Lone Eagle Publishing Company, Los Angeles, California, 1991. Tragedy & Comedy, by Walter Kerr, Da Capo Press, New York, New York, 1985.


To be funny is to have been where agony was. Comedy is not relief but the rest of the bitter truth. Comedy is truth plus pain. Comedy is the other side of tragedy, ridiculing tragedy’s presumptuous and overconfident affirmations. It’s difficult to produce laughter where there is no incongruity, no real vulnerability, no façade to pull down. There’s nothing funnier than boldly telling the simple truth, without euphemisms, political correctness, etc. Humor is serious stuff—it observes, analyzes, and comments on the human condition while helping us cope with some of life’s harsher realities through laughter. Humor is as real and honest as human suffering. It is used for feelings that are too deep for tears.

Honesty is indispensable in humor. (Do not write a funny line untrue to the premise or characters.) Relevancy means relating to the present characters and situations. Humor doesn’t have the time to be hypocritical nor the patience to be polite nor the tolerance to be timid.

To critique a viewpoint with humor, pretend to seriously adopt it and then take it to its logical extreme (where exaggeration reveals the truth—that the viewpoint is ludicrous when all its logical implications are stated).

A situation is invariably comic when it belongs simultaneously to two altogether independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different Trisha Howell• Howell Canyon Press ••888.252.0411 • Free bonus gifts at and


meanings at the same time (often when one character interprets all the events to mean one thing and another character interprets them to mean something totally different: it’s the disparity between the two that is funny, and it’s funny when the two character collide).

We have many automatic and unacknowledged reactions, and their sudden expression in a joke/anecdote will elicit a laugh that is a combination of identification plus relief that it was not we who were so foolish to express it.

The comic point of view is essentially that of the stranger or alien, the outsider looking in. Think off center.

Complete nonsense is always pleasurable.

Anything pretentious or hypocritical is fertile ground for humor. And it’s universal: to be human is to be foolish.

The more specific, the funnier.

Humor has done much to eliminate misleading euphemisms as well as inhibitions.

Set up and reverse expectations. Reversals in a comic story must be unexpected and yet clearly motivated by the character of the players. Find the patterns in your story and explore the reversals inherent there. Brainstorm the ways you can heighten repetitions and reverse expectations.

Wit is the unexpected copulation of ideas.

Like Oscar Wilde, substitute the opposite (when it fits) for a humorous twist. Wilde substitutes one element in a cliché to become something new, surprising, and funny. For example, “If one tells the truth, one is sure sooner or later to be found out” or “Only the shallow know themselves.”

The unexpected surprises us by subverting the commonplace.

Satire is a big lie that’s somehow true, mobilized as an attack weapon to get a comic effect. It uses irony, derision, or wit in any form to expose and attack folly or wickedness.

Parody is an exaggerated imitation, usually humorous, of a work or style of art that generally holds its subject up to ridicule.

Irony uses words or situations to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. It exposes the incongruities of everyday life, the incongruities between what might be expected and what actually occurs (the discrepancies between reality, with its shortcomings, and a more desirable state)—the half-truths, deceptions, and self-deceptions that help us get through the day. Things are never what they seem, and the essence of ironic humor is the

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lack of fit between life as it is and life as we imagine it should be. Life is absurd, but we try to make sense of it, and this doomed effort creates some of the best comedy.

Irreverence entails fearlessness and resistance to conformity. Humor itself is a trampling over boundary lines, a rebellion against social standards, and it usually takes an adversarial position.

Most humor is based on disparity, especially the disparity between how we see ourselves and how we actually are (our self-delusions). Comedy reminds us of what we already know, feel, or refuse to admit, illuminating those truths, emotions, and denials in an altogether different and entertaining way. Laughter is the outward expression of a nerve struck well.

Establish a playful mood. Then to make people laugh, devise a plausible (and quite possibly ridiculous) yet unanticipated alternative for something that is or is supposed to be a certain way (the natural assumption). Then call attention to this alternative in such a way that the reader of auditor abruptly becomes aware of both its contrast with and its similarity to the norm. Your reader anticipates one thing then unexpectedly gets another. Yet what he gets makes sense, in its own warped way.

The punch line is an unexpected yet, on reflection, not utterly unexpected (clues on the way that you thought were heading someplace else) revelation. The punch line takes the expected line of thought and gives it a sharp detour, but this revelation is somehow within the material in an oddly logical way.

Direct reversal is sometimes the answer. Examine common assumptions about life then deviate as far as your imagination will allow. You must deviate sharply from this should (yet the should must still be applicable: implicit analogy [certain key points in common] but ‘should’ and ‘is’ contradict each other via exaggeration, incongruity, etc.), and to a degree that it renders the should absurd. Twist, distort, exaggerate, draw absurd parallels, be irreverent.

Humor of character frequently is based on emotional reactions inappropriate or incongruous to a given situation. The unique personal approach the character takes is manifested in overreaction, underreaction, or unanticipated reaction. Funny characters are unusual, strange, odd, perhaps obnoxious, and always extreme. Show concretely how they look, move, sound, what damage they do, etc. Humor comes from tormenting your characters. Drop your characters into a setting rife with opportunities for tension, incongruity, disaster, and embarrassment. Extreme characters in strange situations seem to create funny plots all by themselves. Create a comic character or physical flaw. Humor is carried more by character than by action or plot. Comedy is not so much found in the premise as in the characters’ reaction to the premise.

Funny banter must still be communicating something important between the characters.

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Law of comic opposites: Create two characters with opposite perspectives: Who could give this person the worst possible time? Comedy is less about laughs than about willful, perverse destruction of character serenity and peace.

To create comedy, you must combine seemingly unconnected items until you find the comic connection (the truth of the disparity). Thoroughly dissect a topic and prepare a list of relationships—find words (double, triple meanings), phrases, events, people, facts, things, symbols, and pictures that are similar and opposite to the main topic. Find the relevant beyond the obvious—the nonstandard meanings—and thus the humorous connections. Take a realistic image in your mind and distort or exaggerate it to visualize a funny image. Or juxtapose two images and outrageously exaggerate. Take standard phrases and generate funny questions that might have generated those replies.

Humor tools include: exaggeration; understatement; (unexpected) reversal/switches; intrusion of the unexpected word, phrase, person, or event; reversals or substitutions of words (wordplay), identities, conventional wisdoms, or behaviors; wildly inappropriate response; anachronism; failure, humiliation, incompetence, embarrassment and other misfortune—willful, perverse destruction of character serenity and peace; miscommunication and misunderstanding; absurdity and fantasy; bathos (pride goes before a fall); insane ‘logical’ progressions; parody and satire; timing; mime; slapstick; repetition; extremes; indecision; suspension of conventional controls (then fly into worlds of nonconformity, illogic, or silliness); unusual juxtapositions/ clash of context; simplicity; clarity; relevance; surprise; irreverence; incongruity; identification; precision; rhythm; tension and release; telling a truth or lie (e.g., the direct opposite) to comic effect.

Specific humor tools: Rule of 9 (generate a list of ten related potentially funny things to find the best one—you can do this in answer to questions such as, What would a funny name for a sports team be?); Rule of 3 (jokes are often structured as introduction, validation, and violation of an idea/theme/expectation); Jokoid (interim step to a funny joke—fills the place where a more comic turn of words will eventually go: e.g., Jokoid “A man’s commitment to women’s liberation lasts until the next bikini comes along” becomes joke “A man’s commitment to women’s liberation wilts in the face of a wet T- shirt”); Doorbell effect (give the character a strong expectation of a certain outcome, make the audience believe that the expectation is valid, and then defeat the character’s and audience’s strong expectations as rudely and ruthlessly as possible); Eyebrow effect (snowball effect: solution to problem creates larger problem whose solution creates larger problem, etc.); Clichés (use only if twisted into something new, if expectation is defeated; for example, a clichéd character becomes funny when you imbue him/her with an attitude that is wildly inappropriate to the nature of his/her cliché); Running Gag (change the details, the importance of the circumstances, and which character has the line or attitude but keep the overall structure the same); Callback (end by referring to earlier joke or idea—this funny completion can be very satisfying to the audience); Raise the stakes (new element of risk or reward: What’s the worst possible thing that can happen to this person next?); Comic vocabulary (keep a list of funny things for future use); Ear tickles (alliteration, external and internal rhymes, great puns).

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Misfortune, fear, prejudice, pomposity, inadequacy and conceit are the fertile ground out of which to cultivate comedy; identification, exaggeration, incongruity, irreverence and surprise are its most potent fertilizers.

The ten commandments of comedy writing: Be brief, simple, clear, bold, relevant, recognizable, controversial, unpredictable, original, and salable. The ten prohibitions of comedy writing: Do not: Honor authority, be courteous or reverent or obedient, have a false straight line, go past the punch line, explain, apologize, be innocuous, conform, be tentative, be untimely. The seven sins of comedy writing: timidity, deference, obscurity, pomposity, blandness, bad timing, imitation. The four essential steps to writing comedy: Pick something readily identifiable; zero in on the conflict; take an unconventional point of view; surprise us.

Types of comic stories: center and eccentrics; fish out of water; character comedy (war between strong comic opposites); magical or fantasy powers (clash of context and exaggeration help); ensemble comedy; slapstick (place comic characters with delusions of grandeur in situations designed to torment these delusions); satire (attack the substance of a social or cultural icon or phenomenon); parody (attack the style of an art form:

disparity between world as they present it and as the audience understands it to be).

The easiest way to write a humorous piece is to start with the punch line/resolution (unorthodox POV or unexpected denouement) then work backwards to create the situation and the development for it.

(Trisha Howell has published five books in just over a year. Her current humor book is The Pekinese Who Saved Civilization. Trisha read several books on comedy writing in preparation for writing this guide to 100+ important current topics from the dog point of view. Below you’ll find the tips she found most helpful in her research. Trisha’s writings have been published in books, newspapers, magazines, anthologies, and on several websites. She holds a BA and MA in Philosophy, an MA in Humanities, and an MA in Critical Film Studies. She’s taught at Montessori schools, Stanford University, and the University of Southern California and frequently offers educational programs at writing conferences, schools, libraries, bookstores, and other organizations. For more information or to purchase autographed copies of Trisha’s highly acclaimed books, including The Princess and the Pekinese, The Pekinese Who Saved Civilization, Living In A Glowing World, The Adventures of Melon and Turnip, and The Journeying Workbook: A Shamanic Guide to Accessing Your Inner Power, please call (888) 252-0411, or email You may also see our books and free bonus gifts as well as order online at and or order from your favorite book store. Also please see for more information about Trisha.)

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