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Laughing in the Face of Danger Pt. I

KEY PRINCIPLES OF COMEDY

“Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”

—Joss Whedon

Comedy, like romance, is an art form that is oft maligned. And while most comedy has the advantage of added elements like facial expression, voice intonation, timing, and body language, comedy in the written word has no such luxury. In other words, comedic writing is not for the faint of heart.

The cool thing about writing comedy, however, is that there are no rules. There are only key principles, or building blocks, that work in various combinations. Here are 14 elements of comedy from Scott Dikkers to help you get started.

THE FUNNY SITUATION

This is where the situation itself is funny. No dialogue or gag lines needed. For example, a woman’s car breaks down. She is dressed as a hooker for a Halloween party and is asking another motorist for help when a cop pulls up behind them.

DISTINCT CHARACTERS

Each character should be distinct and react uniquely to the same experience. For example, a crowd is looking on in horror at a dead body when a woman in the back says, “I wonder where she got those shoes.”

DIMENSION

Dimension comes from contradictions within the character. For example, Buffy kills vampires yet is in love with one.

LANGUAGE

Nothing is sacred, including the English language. Make up words and skew meaning as you go. Use it to create twists and freshen dialogue and exposition. An absolute master of this is Joss Whedon.

  • BUFFY:You know me, not much with the damseling.

Or

  • PROFESSOR WALSH: We thought you were a myth.

  • BUFFY: Well, you were mythtaken.

EXAGGERATION

Exaggerate a trait or situation for humor. For example, a woman standing in line at the airport has taken cold medicine. She falls asleep standing up and leans on the person in front of her. 

BREVITY

According to Shakespeare, brevity is the soul of wit. Short sentences work best, not only in comedy but in all fiction.

INVERSION

Flip-flopping expectations. For example, a group of elderly women rob a liquor store, traumatizing a thuggish looking clerk.

TRIVIALIZATION

Get humor by trivializing the exalted (Buffy slays vampire, is upset that she broke a nail), or exalting the trivial (a man structures his whole life around finding the perfect cup of coffee).

IMPERSONATION

Humor through characters pretending to be someone else. For example, Sandra Bullock’s characters in While you were Sleeping or Miss Congeniality.

REPETITION

Repeat something until it becomes completely absurd, then repeat it again. For example, Every child in one for or another: “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mommy, Mommy, Mother, Mom, Mom, Mom…” You get the idea.

PARODY

Show the absurdity of certain genres. For example, Airplane, Blazing Saddles, Scary Movie, Vampires Suck.

DOUBLE ENTENDRE

Humor through double meaning. For example, Character 1 thinks they are talking about one thing, the other character thinks they are talking about something else. (A man in a bathroom stall overhears two men at the urinals talking about how big and powerful “it” is. Unbeknownst to him, they are looking at a poster of a Dodge truck.)

RIFFING (OR RUNNING JOKE)

Continuing a gag line/theme throughout the work.

For example, From Airplane:

“Surely, you can’t be serious.”

“I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”

ROLE REVERSAL

Reversing roles for humor. I.e. A man is confused about the status of a relationship and calls his male buddy for feedback, in the same manner women call women.

PUTTING THE PRINCIPLES TO WORK FOR YOU

One way to practice and internalize these principles is to write them on notecards, one principle per card, then randomly choose one and figure out how to use that in the scene you are writing.

And don’t worry if you struggle with it. Writing comedy is hard, but I promise it gets easier with practice. You really will begin to internalize the elements of writing humor and start to use them without even consciously thinking about it.

THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND

  • They key to a good joke is the setup, NOT the punch line.

  • Make the punch word the last word of the sentence.

  • Comedy is all about the unexpected. Whatever your reader expects, do the opposite.

  • KNOW WHEN TO STOP. Remember the principle of brevity? Yeah, that. Keep it short and razor sharp, then move on. Never explain your joke.

  • Remember, as Steve Carrel from The Office said, “Funny people should never know they’re funny.” Words to live by. Don’t ever have your character laugh at her own joke. (Unless, of course, that IS the joke.)

HOMEWORK! 

Comment below with an example using any of the principles above. Bonus points for combining two or more! 

CHECK BACK FOR PART II

Until then, remember:

There are two rules to success.

  1. Never reveal everything you know.

14 responses to “Laughing in the Face of Danger Pt. I”

  1. Talk about a master class on comedy! I love this. Thank you for breaking it down – I’ll definitely be re-reading this one. My personal fave is when repetition escalates and deteriorates…

    “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”

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  2. Kim Law says:

    This is awesome. Thanks, Darynda!

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  3. Rita Henuber says:

    Thank you. I very much believe in this approach. I love writing and reading humor. Perhaps because I use use humor IRL to reduce the stress in difficult situations. In a WIP I have a humorous lead in for a serious emotional scene.

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    • I love it, Rita! That’s such a great way to open an emotional scene. Another thing that Joss Whedon likes to do is begin a scene on a positive note and end it on a negative one.

      And using humor as a coping mechanism is what keeps us sane.

      1+
  4. Jennifer Bray-Weber says:

    Excellent post, D. And so true. I love comedy in all forms. There are so many uses for levity and outright slapstick humor, no matter the overall theme of the form of entertainment.

    BTW…Airplane and Blazing Saddles are two of my favorite parodies. I also love Rat Race and Blades of Glory.

    Laughter is good for the soul.

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  5. Tamara Hogan says:

    Great post, Darynda!

    One of my favorite examples of setup/punch line, from one of my all-time favorite movies: Nigel plays piano, from This Is Spinal Tap. (YouTube, 1:06)

    Slightly NSFW. 🙂

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  6. Thanks Darynda. Great post. Looking forward to part II!

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  7. Love this, D! I really don’t think there could ever be enough romantic comedies. That’s for posting.

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