Last year, I worked on a comedy pilot with a friend who’s a published author but who didn’t have any screenwriting experience. So I gave her a crash course in screenwriting as went along.
Trying to explain comedy to her made me want to better understand it myself, and this blog is the result.
Some comedy principles apply in many contexts — from mime, to circus clowns, to stand-up — but the focus here is on sitcoms.
Reversals go against expectations. Someone says or does something that’s a surprise.
If you expect the grandma with the walker to be frail, and the gang member to be tough, and the grandma kicks the gang member in the balls, that’s a reversal of expectations.
Reversals can also happen when things flip from good to bad or vice versa, especially when it happens in an unexpected way.
The fall of those on the top, and the rise of those on the bottom, is an ancient source of comedy. It can be especially funny and satisfying to see powerful jerks put in their place.
A subset of this is the “Gilligan Cut” or simply a “Gilligan” (dating back to to 60s’s sitcom Gilligan’s Island):
For instance: “Gilligan is fixing the boat right now.” CUT TO: Gilligan accidentally setting the boat on fire.
See another reversal example under “The Gap” below.
A reveal is when something or someone is exposed or appears, in a comical way. For example, someone comments on how hideous a bridesmaid’s dress is, and we do a quick cut to the actual hideous dress.
Someone might appear unexpectedly, or where they’re not supposed to be, as in the example from Community below.
It’s all about the timing. If you mention the ugly dress, and then the dress appears five minutes later, there’s not the same kind of comic punch. (But if the dress FINALLY appears after multiple comments on how hideous it is, it becomes the visual punchline to a running joke, and an example of appearance humor.)
A subset of this is the “ding dong“:
This is another comedy term, sort of like the Gilligan cut. The difference is with this one, the payoff to the joke is not the reverse of what we thought it would be, but the logical conclusion. The term dates back to Laverne and Shirley, where it might be used like: “Where are we going to find someone stupid enough to take the blame for setting the apartment on fire?” DING-DONG. Lenny and Squiggy show up at their door. Whenever a character or something else shows up right on time as a perfect solution to the protagonist’s problem, that’s a ding-dong.
Insults have been the basis for comedy pretty much forever. Shakespeare was really good at them.
Exaggeration can be verbal (“Yo Mama” jokes, which are also insults), situational (the WORST first day on the job), or physical (the MOST ridiculous outfit, the MOST muscle-bound bully).
Physical comedy includes things like pratfalls, fainting, spit takes, fights (especially silly ones, like with pies), slapstick, clowning, clumsiness, miming, stunts, slamming doors, collisions, injuries, and making funny faces. Basically, it’s humor based on actions rather than words, and often violence, pain, or destruction is involved.
The Marx Brothers were all about anarchy, chaos, defying social conventions, etc. The I Love Lucy chocolate factory scene is another classic example of things getting out of control. Often, anarchy is portrayed via physical comedy.
Various people (including Steven Spielberg) have been cited for this description of three-act dramatic structure: “In the first act you get him up a tree, in the second act you throw rocks at him, and in the third act you get him down from the tree.”
This applies to comedy as well as to serious drama. The disaster is when your characters are up a tree, having things thrown at them. Things are bad, and they keep getting worse.
The disasters don’t usually have life-or-death stakes, except in very dark comedies like Heathers or The Boys, but they’re important to the characters in the moment. In Silicon Valley, for example, the characters repeatedly face disasters that threaten the survival of their company.
Appearance humor can result from clothing, hair, makeup, casting, etc.
An outfit inappropriate to the occasion can be funny (like a wetsuit at a wedding), as can an outfit that’s ill-fitting, ripped, dirty, etc.
“Mad scientists” like Doc Brown in Back to the Future, traditionally have funny hair.
Some actors have faces that make you smile just to look at them, or (like Jim Carrey) can contort their features in funny ways.
Stupidity and Ignorance
Having a character say something stupid/ignorant lets other characters (and the audience) mock them. This also sets up the comedy trope of the “wise fool” who turns out to be right after all.
Embarrassment and Humiliation
Embarrassment and humiliation can result from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, saying the wrong thing, being caught in a lie, being seen undressed or doing something private in public, forgetting something important, wearing the wrong thing, acting inappropriately, displaying one’s ignorance, etc. The humor may also arise out of trying to avoid embarrassment.
“Fish out of water” comedies (like Ted Lasso) often involve a lot of embarrassment when characters struggle to understand, fit in, or survive their new environments.
Paradoxically, a character NOT being embarrassed when the average person WOULD be embarrassed is also funny.
In over Your Head
One foundation of a lot of good comedy is an ill-equipped character trying to cope with a situation she or he isn’t prepared to handle.
The person may be ill-equipped because they’re stupid or ignorant, or simply because they’re a “fish out of water.”
The comedy can come because you KNOW this isn’t going to go well — and it doesn’t (disaster/exaggeration). Or the comedy can come from the reversal — the character shouldn’t be able to cope, but somehow triumphs.
Jokes (Setups and Punchlines)
Jokes are the foundation of old-school sit-coms, with multiple laugh lines per page, but less of a staple in newer comedies like Ted Lasso. Comedies can vary a lot in the number of jokes per minute, as this article notes.
The basic structure of a joke is setup/punch. As Judy Carter’s Stand-Up Comedy: The Book explains:
The setup is the unfunny part of the joke. It is the informative part of the joke that introduces the subject matter…. The setup creates anticipation. A punch delivers the laugh.
Punch lines are often based on reversals of expectations, exaggeration, insults, self-deprecation, puns, plays on words, etc.
Here’s a list of 30 of the “Funniest Sitcom Jokes of All Time.” Even more here. See if you can figure out what makes them work.
Verbal humor is dialogue that doesn’t have the setup/punchline structure but is still funny.
Verbal humor can include odd ways of talking, accents, linguistic quirks, malapropisms, catchphrases (“That’s what she said”), etc.
Sex and Genitalia
Talking about sex and genitalia has been taboo in some periods of history, and breaking taboos can be funny.
Sex jokes may involve exaggeration or insults, as in this one from Sex and the City:
I was once with a guy the size of those little miniature golf pencils. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to fuck me or erase me.
Shakespeare’s works are full of bawdy jokes.
Like with sex and genitalia, talking about or portraying “private” bodily functions, fluids, and conditions (peeing, pooping, farting, burping, barfing, menstruating, rashes, etc.) has often been considered taboo in polite society, and (again) breaking taboos can be funny.
Coughing and sneezing aren’t usually funny, but hiccups almost always are. Go figure.
Yet again, it’s about the taboos. Simply saying “Fuck,” in the right way at the right time, can get a big laugh. Strings of profanity, twists on profanity, and words that substitute for profanity (“fudge” and “sugar”) can also be funny.
239not235 on reddit suggested:
John Vorhaus wrote a good book called The Comedy Toolbox … talks about “the gap,” the structure of a joke where a piece of vital information is left out so the audience can deduce it, and it changes the meaning of the information.
For example, here is a reversal joke from Jim Gaffigan’s standup:
I have five kids. I used to have more, but I ate them.
The joke is funny because you’re expecting him to have a reasonable explanation for what happened to his extra kids, and instead he surprises you with “I ate them.” It’s especially funny, because it’s a call-back to his previous material about him being fat and lacking self-control when it comes to eating.
It’s a surprise, but there’s no gap — he tells us everything, and the laugh comes from the surprise and the call-back.
Here’s a joke with a gap:
My dad taught me to swim when I was five by throwing me into the deep end of a lake. I learned to swim pretty quick, once I got out of the bag.
We are told that they were thrown into the lake to learn to swim, but when they mention getting out of the bag, our minds leap across the gap and draw the conclusion that the father was trying to drown them. The story is surprisingly recontextualized, but it all happens in our own minds. There is also extra comedy because we have superior knowledge to the comedian. They think their Dad was doing nice Dad things, but we know Dad had murderous intent. That juxtaposition is an additional level of comedy.
When an entire episode of a comedy parodies something else, or plays with the tropes of a genre, that can be a sort of meta-joke.
For example, both Ted Lasso and Silicon Valley had episodes structured like rom-coms and using rom-com tropes.
Ted Lasso had a stand-alone episode featuring Coach Beard that was a parody of the Scorsese film After Hours. (There’s also a Scorsese joke in an earlier episode, which is a pop culture reference.)
Pop Culture and Other References
These are tricky, because they can date so quickly, and because they’re highly dependent on what cultural worlds an audience member lives in. A joke might land for a Millenial, but go over the head of a Gen-X, or vice versa. Here are some examples from Community.
When a seemingly obscure joke/reference does land, it can be golden — because the viewer feels like the show “gets them.” I fell in love with Ted Lasso at the first “bird-by-bird” joke.
Now let’s look at the Ted Lasso pilot and see how the writers use these comedy tools.
I’m working off the 2/1/19 draft, which is the only one I found online. This draft is 39 pages, but I think the version broadcast is only about 24 pages. You can compare the script to a transcript of the dialogue as broadcast, and you can follow along in the script as you watch the show to see what changed.
(BTW, the concept of Ted Lasso originated with NBC Sports promos, and some of those bits ended up in the pilot.)
We open with the football (soccer) team training on the field and cut to the office, where REBECCA WELTON, the new owner, is moving in.
She stares at a painting on the wall. HIGGINS, the servile communications director, admires her taste and she offers to give it to him. (Reversal of expectations) When he points out that it’s worth a million pounds, she withdraws her offer. (Another reversal)
There’s a newspaper headline: “He gets the bimbos, she gets the bozos.” This does double duty as exposition (explaining that Rebecca got the team in her divorce) and comic insult.
In comes GEORGE, the current Manager, a fat guy wearing short-shorts. (Appearance humor.)
He pretends to flick Higgins in the balls. (Physical comedy)
He comments sarcastically on the redecoration. “Love what you’ve done with the place. You do it yourself or did ya have some poof help you?” (Insult)
Rebecca throws the “poof” slur back at him, insulting his hair.
He comments on her impressive chest and patronizes her for wasting his time.
She fires him. (Reversal)
He demands an explanation.
She tells him the brutal truth, including that it’s because he’s a misogynist, capping it with an insult: “I know, it’s a big word. Ask one of your daughters what it means.”
Rebecca continues to list George’s failings, including his wearing of tiny shorts that force her to see his testicle when he sits. (Sex and genitalia)
When he squirms, she notes, “And there’s the other one. Liam and Noel. Though perhaps not an oasis.” (Pop culture reference to the band Oasis, which was headed by brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher.)
She calls him a fat twat and tells him to piss off. (Insult, profanity)
At the bottom of the page, we start to learn about the new coach – Ted Lasso.
We see a video of Ted doing a crazy dance with his team. (Physical comedy)
We learn that this is an “in over your head” situation — Ted has never coached soccer or any pro team. The premise itself is funny.
We also meet TED himself, played by Jason Sudeikis.
As Collider suggests,
it could be argued that the real star of Ted Lasso, in the end, is the mustache on Ted’s face. At the very least, Sudeikis considers said ‘stache necessary to his performance. “It feels essential to me. It really does… Between the mustache and the shades, that really kicks it off for me. I mean, my joke has been that Audrey Hepburn used to say that she really would find a character through the wardrobe, through some Givenchy outfit. For me, it’s facial hair and the aviators and the visor.”
Ted’s look – including his almost-constant grin – is an example of appearance humor. His southern accent adds verbal humor. (In general, regional accents are funny.)
Now we meet Ted on the plane. A British teen takes an “us”-ie photo with him. (Verbal humor)
The teen joyfully tells Ted that he’s “mental” for taking a job coaching soccer. (Insult)
Ted asks his assistant, COACH BEARD, if they’re nuts for doing this. Beard says that they are.
Ted replies, “Hey, but taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.” (Verbal humor)
Then, as they prepare to sleep, Ted says to Beard, “If we see each other in our dreams, let’s goof around a little bit, pretend like we don’t know each other.” (more verbal humor)
These aren’t joke-jokes, but they establish Ted’s quirky worldview and manner of speaking. The joke is that Ted’s metaphors and aphorisms often don’t make a lot of sense – but they still seem to have an affect on people.
Anyway, you get the idea. For homework, go through the rest of the script/transcript and spot the different humor devices at work. (Don’t miss the lovely spit take on pg. 19.) Look for other devices you can add to the list.
How to Write Funny
People have different processes for writing comedy. Some start with jokes, bits, scenes, etc. and then build a plot around them. I build a plot first and then try to make it funny.
Also, a joke that will work for one character won’t (and often shouldn’t) work for another. If all the characters make all the same kinds of jokes, then they all sound the same and that’s boring.
However you prefer to work, you can use a comedy checklist like the one above to remind you of ways to punch up the humor in a scene or script.