The Power of Laughter

'Airplane' movie poster
‘Airplane’ movie poster

Here’s an entertaining way to pass the time at your next screenwriting seminar. When the lecture concludes and the presenter asks if there are any questions, raise your hand boldly into the air. When you are called on, ask the following question:

“How do I write comedy?”

The quick-witted lecturer would probably be best served by answering something along the lines of “Think of something funny. Then write it down.”

Pleas have been made to numerous writers a lot more famous and talented than myself to write an article or book stuffed with useful information about how to make comedy work on the page. People have asked what movies to watch, what scripts to read, and what books to peruse.

People ask for a lot more than they realize.

There’s a simple reason for this: Comedy is probably the world’s most subjective art form, and I’ll state right now that there’s no secret formula to writing it. What I find funny is not necessarily what you find funny.

There is, in fact, only one rule that applies to all comedy:

1. Only the truth is funny.

“National Lampoon’s Vacation” has been a lasting staple of cable and video because people know what it’s like to be on a family vacation.

Everyone feels uncomfortable the first time they meet their future in-laws (just meeting the parents of someone you’re dating can be awful enough, sometimes) and that’s what made “Meet the Parents” the huge hit that it was.

“Bridget Jones’ Diary” raked in cash because it was a romantic comedy about a 30s-ish woman looking for love in all the wrong places.

“Raising Arizona” is fantastic, strange, and contains the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse. But it continues to exist on each new film format because at its center, it’s a heartwarming story about love and family.

People know truth, they recognize it, and they will always reward it by putting it in the VCR or DVD player one more time.

2. Visual humor is nearly impossible to convey accurately on the page.

But it often gets the easiest laughs. Chris Farley referred to his comedic style as “Fat Guy Falls Down.” “Tommy Boy” is rife with this kind of humor: running into walls, snapping off car doors, getting hit in the face.

And how does it look when you write it out?

He RAMS into a steel girder.

Oh, that’s gonna leave a mark.

I once read a script containing a Kubrick-esque director with severe lactose intolerance. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get past the fact that it made me feel less like laughing and more like gagging.

The museum sequence in “When Harry Met Sally” contains the following amazing descriptor:

Harry talks in a FUNNY VOICE.

Here, of course, is where I’m supposed to tell you how to write that physical humor and make it funny. I have exactly one hint: subvert expectations.


3. All the best comedy is grounded in realism.

“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is not a movie so much as a series of sketches wrapped around a common theme and a few recurring characters. The film veers from very odd visual humor (killer bunnies?) all the way to this little gem of dialogue:

“You’re not riding a horse,” one character says to King Arthur, “you’ve got two coconuts and you’re banging them together.”

Which leads me to this painfully obvious observation – it’s funny because he should be riding a horse.

In the same movie, it’s also funny because the third question should be very difficult, the grail seekers should have been inside the Trojan Bunny, and no wizard is called Tim.

“Complete this line from “Airplane”:

I’m not joking, and don’t –

I saw your lips move on that one. Don’t you know people stare at you when you do that?

Believe it or not, in their (Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker) 14 rules of comedy, this rule actually has a name. That Can’t Happen. It works because people know what can. If you have a comedy that takes place in a Wonderlandesque world, after a while people will accept that eating a magic mushroom can cause you to grow two stories tall. It isn’t really funny.

However, in the middle of a film that takes place on a college campus, if a stoner tries a magic mushroom and grows two stories tall, humor is much more likely to ensue.

And furthermore –

4. When in doubt, use the word weasel.

For further information on this, read my new spec: “Weasel Weaselton & The Filthy Weasels.”

Yes, I’m kidding. This is actually an old Dave Barry bit (sub-lesson: don’t steal other people’s jokes). But if this wasn’t here I wouldn’t have a nice, rounded number of sections in this article.

Which reminds me –

5. Comedy is the world’s most subjective art form, and subsequently you can’t convince someone your spec is funny, even if it really, truly is.

You may have thought the weasel joke was funny. But there’s also a chance you thought it was a stupid joke, and considered not reading any further. And the awful truth is that can happen to your spec.

Always play your strengths. If you’re working on a spec (or, even better, someone wants to hire you and give you actual money for writing) and you’re trying to write Adam Sandler and what you feel is John Cusack, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Two examples, one of my life and one from “out there.”

Not long ago I was working on a comedy-for-hire. Sitting at my desk, I came up with a wordy intellectual script where people rarely damaged delicate bodily organs. Page after page of sharp, witty dialogue with the occasional humorous action.

The producer I was working with continually tried to inject physical humor into the script. It wasn’t a bad idea, really, but I’d constantly run into walls where I’d find myself thinking of an amusing pratfall and being unable to communicate it effectively without hours spent on a single joke. I could do it, but it physically exhausted me, and every time the producer opted to go back and cut that which I’d labored over for hours on end at her suggestion, I found myself far more upset than when we lost a pun or two.

Anything worth doing requires a lot of hard work, but why give yourself unnecessary high blood pressure?

As for out there, Kevin Smith is planning to start the “Fletch” series up again. Having recently read all eleven books in the series, and remembering how wide the chasm was between the types of humor in the books and in the original movies, I have high hopes for this go-round.

If you have read the books (and you should) you would know they are primarily dialogue. Whole pages will go by with “”’s starting and ending every paragraph. Kevin Smith loves dialogue. So hopefully this time the match will work out.

I like Kevin Smith’s work, and I have become a huge Fletch fan. I’ll be there, ticket in hand. But there’s no way I’ll be able to convince my Adam Sandler loving friend to go see it.


6. The secrets of the successful romantic comedy.

a) Female must be somewhere between twenty-five to thirty-five years old and suffer from one or more forms of neuroses.

b) At some point, she must sing karaoke. Poorly.

c) Most of the songs on the soundtrack must originate from a time period at least twenty years before the movie takes place, or at least sound like they did.

d) At the end of the movie, she’s got to end up in the arms of a man as music plays us out.

e) Gay best friend optional.

“Bridget Jones’ Diary,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” arguably the most successful romantic comedies of the last two decades, all contain these elements. I doubt that proves anything, but I thought I’d throw that out there for all of you who are trying your hand at this genre.

A final observation on this type of film – a failed romantic comedy is a chick flick.

7. Swearing isn’t nearly as funny as people think it is.

Not really a rule, perhaps, but something to think about.

“But that’s how people talk.”

Not all of them.

“But it’s more commercial.”

“Gone With the Wind.” “Home Alone.” “Star Wars.” “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “Titanic.” “Jurassic Park.” “The Sixth Sense.” “Ghost.” “Ghostbusters.”

The two straight comedies up there are both PG rated.

For that matter, pulling from AFI’s 100 funniest movies – “Harvey,” “Airplane,” “Horse Feathers,” “Beetlejuice,” “Singin’ In The Rain,” “The Producers,” “Raising Arizona,” “Groundhog Day,” “City Slickers,” “Big.”

If you have any writing skill at all you can think of a better way to put it. If you can’t, you’re probably in the wrong business. The easy jokes have been used up, and if you want to succeed you’ll have to try harder.

8. If you always go for the big laugh, people will get very, very bored.

Close your eyes. Actually, wait until I finish this next part, and then close your eyes (Or am I too late already? Hello?).

Picture your favorite comedy. You’ve just gotten the DVD. You’ve seen it a million times before – what parts do you skip to? And more importantly, how many parts do you skip to when your friend comes over and you say, “You have to watch this, this is the best part?”

Can you name more than seven? Five? Three?

“When Harry Met Sally” is easily my favorite romantic comedy ever. I’ve probably seen it ten times or more. DVD in hand, most people will jump to, yes, you guessed the scene right off, didn’t you?

When “Bridget Jones’ Diary” came out on DVD, I jumped right to the fistfight.

When “Shrek” came out, I jumped right to Shrek and Donkey walking into the castle.

These are the parts I love the best. They make me laugh, out loud, very hard. But the primary reason they have this affect on me is because I’m so very mesmerized by the story and characters. Because they make me smile. Really, really hard.

What makes the “big laugh” sequences work are the little laughs that surround them. In “BJD” the section leading up to the fistfight is a wonderful sequence that shows Mark Darcy really is a good man, and that Bridget’s friends truly love her.

“Scary Movie” didn’t have that. Both “American Pie” and “Road Trip” tried and failed, which is why I liked them but don’t own them. I never need to watch them again, and most of the people I know agree.

Last example: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Great movie. Loved it. When it was first screened, people laughed so hard at the movie that they couldn’t stomach the ending. The director removed several of the jokes. And I don’t think anyone can argue that it hurt the movie.

9. The best comedy is a short comedy.

Ninety to one hundred pages. If you’re working with a director, you’ll probably whittle it below ninety if you can.

“Weasel Weaselton & The Filthy Weasels” comes in at eighty-six pages.

And we’re at the final suggestion:

10. Try not to drive a joke into the ground.

Nine spit-takes in a movie is too much. “Scary Movie”’s oral fixation was just plain bothersome. And yes, we all make noises in the bathroom.

A good joke that can be used again and again is called a runner. A bad one is called the bargain bin at your local video store. Or worse, a script that still exists only on your shelf and not on film.

Are there more rules? Certainly. The Zuckers/Abrahams team managed to come up with fourteen. But that doesn’t make them any more right or me any more wrong.

In the end, there’s only one method. Think of something funny. Then write it down.

Happy (and humorous) writing.

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