21 Comedy Writing Tips

21-comedy-writing-tips

In the third part of my “things learned studying comedy at Second City” series, I continue down the path of wisdom I learned during my introductory Writing For The Onion class. These comedy principals are building blocks for the rest of your comedy writing and no doubt will help increase the quality of your jokes and writing. Keep in mind that the Writing For The Onion class focused on satire, but the tips can be applied in many forms of comedy.

Here are 21 comedy writing tips, going from least important to most important. I took these straight from my class notes so apologies on the formatting.

  1. Proofreading
  2. Be specific
  3. Show, don’t tell
    1. there’s action going on with showing.
      1. ex. don’t say “this character is mean” instead show him hitting a person.
  4. Don’t fall in love with an idea
    1. that way you are easy to work with. you aren’t in love with anything since you create a lot of ideas.
    2. an idea is only great once it’s been tested and put in front of an audience.
  5. Put the funny part last
    1. you get more surprise this way.
  6. Made-up and real-life don’t mix
    1. people want to know “is this made up or is it real?”
    2. if it’s made up then it needs to be totally made up. don’t mix the two. like oil and water.
    3. the onion makes up news based on the news. present it like news.
  7. One impossible thing at a time
    1. when you write a joke you are creating a comedy reality. don’t try and add in another comedy world/impossible thing.
      1. one crazy thing at a time.
      2. ex. for Star Wars it was “the force.” everything else was normal (in that world).
  8. Use Verisimilitude
    1. people need to be able to relate to it. you want to create something that people recognize, and mimic what people recognize.
  9. Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable
    1. have the right target with your satire.
    2. satire is liberal (left leaning) and you can’t really prevent that.
  10. Ruffle some feathers
    1. if you aren’t offending someone then you are probably doing something wrong.
    2. sense of danger, like you are getting away with something. usually someone who deserves it.
  11. Avoid Straw Men
    1. in politics a straw man is a fake person (ex. “some people say we should stop growing corn.”)
    2. in comedy it’s about creating a fake comedic context.
  12. Omit Needless Words
    1. use only the words you need to get your point across
    2. check out the book – Elements of Style
  13. Escalate
    1. the onion style: headline is funny, article keeps getting funnier.
  14. Heighten Contrast
    1. ironic vs non ironic. make them polar opposites, it’s funnier that way (instead of 10-2 like driving.)
  15. Know what joke you’re telling, and make sure your reader knows what joke you’re telling
    1. you need to be able to control as much of the experience as possible (since we have no control over their experience). we need that to make them laugh. control their experience by knowing the joke you are telling, so there’s no mistaking what you want to accomplish, and you know they are getting what your joke is. don’t leave anything up to chance.
    2. know your subtext and funny filters you are using. finesse your joke so you can communicate your subtext so they are getting exactly the point you are looking to make.
  16. Let the reader add 2 and 2
    1. you want to tee up the subtext for the reader but make them do a little work to find it.
    2. don’t make the subtext too easy or else they won’t laugh. if it’s too hard to find then they won’t get it. you want to use just the right amount where they connect 2 and 2 and get it.
  17. The key to quality is quantity (big rule they use at The Onion)
    1. they don’t want 1 idea, they want 50 ideas. only by going through volume will you get the super funny ones. you may only have 8 good ones in 800.
    2. do this on your own. if you’re going to submit 10 then you should write 100. that’s how you get quality.
  18. Play it straight
    1. ex. humorous story is told gravely, as if the story teller telling it has no clue it’s hilarious.
    2. it’s only fun if it’s a game and you are pretending and you are putting on this facade of a straight face.
    3. taking something seriously that shouldn’t be taken seriously and not being aware that it’s funny.
  19. Avoid Cliches
    1. airline food, white people can’t dance, in-laws
    2. “am i right”
    3. did you ever notice…
    4. have you heard about this…
    5. that’s what she said
    6. we must avoid those. you are perceived as a worthless comedy writer that doesn’t have his own comedy ideas.
    7. a big thing that separates amateurs from pro’s is that pro’s come up with their own stuff, something new. don’t use someone else’s stuff.
  20. Make it accessible
    1. make sure any reader can read this and understand what you are talking about. welcome the reader into it. invite them to read it.
    2. ex. education level, age, etc.
  21. Concept is King
    1. readers have short attention span. most people aren’t intellectuals. they are just reading the headlines (85% of the onion readers).
    2. you have to have gettable, funny concepts.

Shout out to my Writing For The Onion teacher Scott Dikkers who’s depth of comedy writing knowledge is amazing. You can check out the different Writing For The Onion classes that Second City offers as part of their writing program here.

You can check out the previous “things I learned at Second City” lessons here.

ACTION ITEM: I want you to send me a piece of comedy writing that you’ve created that you are proud of. Tweet it to @HeyCressMedia or email me at rob@cressmedia.com. I want to support and encourage you in your creative writing process.

Sign up for the Cress Media email list as I’ll be dropping exclusive content about other tips I learned during my Writing From The Onion class.

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