Is That Really Funny?

On Writing Comedy

Writing comedy is difficult. Writing in general can be hard, of course (hell, I have a Dracula screenplay I really need to get back to one day), but writing good comedy can be incredibly difficult. It's like writing pornography (which, if you're ever tried to write that, maybe as a bodice ripper to make a little scratch on the side, can be incredibly difficult) in that you're trying to write with intent. You have to nail the tone just right or it'll all end up flat (or, in the case of porn, flaccid). To write good comedy you have to know just how to get there, to your stated goal (a joke, after a joke, after a joke) perfectly.

For this website I've watched a fair number of good comedies, but I've watched far more bad comedies. You can easily tell the difference between the two simply by how much you laugh. Was a movie trying to be funny? Did it succeed? Why? More often that not the reason a funny movie fails to be funny is because the writers thought they were on to something but just failed to actually nail what was actually funny in the moment. They tried to hard, or went with the easy jokes, and didn't actually get to the central core of what made a situation funny. They failed.

So let's actually take a moment to think about what actually drives good comedy and how, as writers, we can all nail the next funny script (or novel, or whatever) we want to make.

Step 1: Have a Story

I don't know if this is an obvious rule or not, but it certainly seems like a lot of films fail to nail this one. When you're writing a good film, whatever it may be, the first thing you have to nail down is your story. You have to have a plot, one that makes sense and doesn't fall apart under narrative contrivances. If the story isn't believable, the comedy isn't going to work. Why? Because the best comedy is grounded in some sense of reality. Reality establishes stakes, comedy suffuses those stakes and plays on expectations. Without some kind of grounded reality (whatever that may be) the comedy can't "go big" on top of that for laughs.

Think on one of the best parody films ever made: Airplane!. When people talk about how to do a parody right, they turn to the Zucker-Abrahms-Zucker master class from 1980. ZAZ (as they're known) didn't start with a bunch of jokes, they first found a story that was worthy of parody. In this case, they started with a real script, the 1957 disaster film Zero Hour, a movie so over-the-top in its self-serious nature that it automatically lent itself to comedy. It wasn't a parody, it was a dead serious drama, but it naturally lent itself to becoming a parody just by hanging jokes on its dramatic framework.

That, in itself, lent the movie towards humor. If you want, every actor in the movie plays their roles absolutely straight (with almost no fourth wall breaks to the camera). The humor works better because everyone in the film still treats the material as dead serious. They aren't "in on the joke" in character which only makes the humor funnier. But what's most important is that for all the jokes in the film, the constant barrage of weird comments, asides, cut-aways, and everyone else that ZA layered on, the core of Zero Hour still remains. Airplane! tells a story, one with stakes (somewhere under all the zaniness) and because of that the comedy hits harder.

Another great version of this? Hot Fuzz. The film is ridiculous, a parody of every action movie out there (which it frequently name checks). However, at its core it's actually a murder mystery, one with a clear-cut story and actual killers. The plot of the film is figuring out the sudden crime wave that hits a small town in Merry Old England. The joke of the film (and the place where all the other jokes are derived) is that crimes like this never happen in a small town in Merry Old England. The parody comes from placing these outlandish situations it a tiny cottage town instead of, say, New York or Los Angeles. It works because all the characters treat the material seriously even as jokes fly left and right under the radar. The characters don't react to them like jokes, but it happens all the same, and that only heightens the humor.

In short, a good story, played straight, is funnier than a zany story played for laughs.

Step 2: Layer Jokes Responsibly

There's an adage among comedy writers: "don't layer a joke on a joke". This is actually related to what we saw above where you don't want to heighten a situation and then raise it again. That's because when a reality gets too heightened things stop being funny. You can take things too far and suddenly nothing lands, ruining not only the original setup but also everything else you're trying to do as well.

As an example, think about the Austin Powers films. The movies started with Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery which wasn't a perfect movie but it was very funny. It's primary joke, the basis for much of what the film used to mine humor, was taking the idea of James BondThe world's most famous secret agent, James Bond has starred not only in dozens of books but also one of the most famous, and certainly the longest running, film franchises of all time., a smooth and sexy secret agent, and then making a character in the same vein who is neither smooth nor sexy. Austin is a 196s swinger with absolutely no real mojo, but the film still treats him like the greatest secret agent in the world. Of course, the film simply underlines the humor of Bond himself, a guy that really isn't that great a secret agent but still manages to act like one regardless. Austin Powers just plays it for laughs.

The first movie doesn't always mine the best humor from the situation; sometimes, especially in the case of Blofeld stand-in Dr. Evil, the film goes too far, layering too much absurdity onto itself such that the humor dies. But when it does the humor just right, letting the characters play things straight while the film goes absurd, it hits just the right beat. Contrast that with the next two movies, The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember, which each went more broad than the last, layering more and more absurdity onto itself such that the sense of reality was ruined. By the end of it you have a joke character, Fat Bastard, doing fart jokes on top of fat jokes on top of The Matrix references in scene after scene that simply isn't funny. It's tweaked sense of self, the core that made the original funny, was lost.

Failing to build a real sense of reality has dragged down many other comedy films. You can heighten your reality, such as in the case of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but still manages to find some sense of reality (and the stakes to go with it). Scott Pilgrim is a parody of gamer culture, in a way, but it also has a core story about a guy, a girl, and the romance between them. That kind of reality works because it's true to itself.

On the other hand you have all those awful parody movies from the early-to-mid 2000s. That boom was kicked off by Scary Movie and (to a lesser extent) Not Another Teen Movie, but as that parody boom ground on, the films that came out lost all sense of what they were doing. They didn't tell a story, and they didn't even have a cohesive sense of reality. Every scene was a collection of half-baked jokes layered on top, all shouted at high volume, with the mass explosion of nothingness taking the place of actual humor. They went so far around the bend they lost their sense of reality. They layered too much without enough substance in between.

Step 3: Don't Rely on Referential Humor

When people watch the movies to come out of the 2000s parody boom, especially the bad ones -- Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie, Vampires Suck, et al -- their biggest complaint is that the movies don't actually convey real jokes. Every bit of "humor" (and here we're using the term very loosely) is mined from references to other things. A dumb version of King Leonidas kicking some rando into a pit isn't a joke for its own sake, it's just a reference to that exact scene in 300. All too often these films simply took what already existed and stitched scenes together from those movies, just with people acting goofy, as if to say, "this is funny, right? You know what movie we're doing, right?" We do know, and it's not funny.

Just about every comedy film will, at some point, devolve into a reference to something else (especially if it goes on long enough). Some references work -- think the action movie nods in Hot Fuzz, or the video game sound effects in Scott Pilgrim -- but they have to be done sparingly and they can't be the whole point of the joke. If Hot Fuzz had just been scene after scene recreating everything from Point Break and Bad Boys II it wouldn't have worked. It winks and nods at those movies without just doing what they did and it works all the better for it.

Bear in mind, though, that a reference you make that seems to work in the moment may not work ten, twenty, thirty years later. One of the least funny sequences in Airplane! is a long disco sequence that parodies Saturday Night Fever. That probably seemed funny in 1980 but that disco film was only popular for a short period of time and then faded from everyone's memories. Now the sequence in Airplane! just seems silly and lacks any kind of grounded context. The reference, however funny it might have been at the time, isn't funny now. That's fate also befell all the references in the 200s parody films; not only were the jokes barely jokes at the time, but now, years removed from the source material, the references don't even work as references. Context was lost and the bad jokes are even less funny years on.

In short: it's better to find humor from situation than simply stealing situations from other, better films.

Now, I'm sure there are other rules one could use for writing humor, but a lot of that is gut instinct. "Is this joke funny because of the situation I setup? Could it be moves later, or earlier, to pay it off better? Does it need just the right person to sell the performance?" Some things, as a comedy writer, are out of your control. However, if you follow the proper rules for a real screenplay, and then find a way to stitch humor in that feels organic and doesn't just borrow material from other, better sequences (including other jokes in your own script) you'll come out ahead of most comedy writers working today.