Comedy writing has been long-hailed as one of the most difficult genres to master in writing. For many of us, there’s nothing scarier than taking a pen to the page and hoping to high hell that our words will—*GULP* make people laugh.
Our Writers Conference has played host to some of the genre’s leading voices in film and television and we’ve turned to them to provide you with a few of the key ingredients for writing a comedy that resonates.
Here are five tips for crafting comedy from AFF alums and the legends behind the laughs:
Find what you care about—and use it
Comedic situations are often ridiculous, but when you watch a comedy, any comedy, there’s the comedic situation which is nuts and then there’s what you’re asked to care about, which is not only not nuts…It is universal. ‘I am in love with this girl and she doesn’t love me.’ ‘I desperately want my kid to respect me.’ ‘I am alone and I have no friends.’ Any of these things. This is what comedies need. You ask yourself not so much ‘What have I done in my life?’. You ask, ‘What makes me angry?’ ‘What breaks my heart?’ ‘What makes me cry?’ ‘What makes me laugh?’ ‘What makes me feel awesome?’ Those are the things that make characters real, and those are the moments we care about in all of these movies. So much so, that we are willing to overlook the insanity.
– Craig Mazin (co-host Scriptnotes; writer Chernobyl, Identity Thief, The Hangover Parts II & III) AFF 2012
Stay true to your characters
You can have a joke, and it can be a great joke, but if it’s too crazy or it’s not right for the character…you have to not do it, and…that’s something that you have to get used to.
– Megan Amram (writer/producer The Good Place, Transparent, Silicon Valley, Parks & Recreation; writer The Simpsons; author Science…For Her!) AFF 2016
Keep it real
Invariably someone says, as if it’s the first time we’ve ever thought of trying this, ‘What would really happen?’… and then you’re going. So real life, that’s usually the savior and it’s a good place to start. The funny will probably come if you’re funny, so why not try real, at least, as a road to go on?
– Phil Rosenthal (creator/executive producer/host I’ll Have What Phil’s Having, Everybody Loves Raymond; writer/director Exporting Raymond) AFF 2013
Recognize your boundaries—and then push them
As long as you have heart and you’re really grounding these characters, then you can have scenes that can really push the boundaries and that are outrageous. The balance between the heart and the comedy really is the key. So, no matter where we are in the years to come or where we’ve been, that’s always been the success.
– Nancy Pimental (Writer/Executive Producer Shameless; Writer South Park, The Sweetest Thing; Showrunner The Most Popular Girls In School) AFF 2011
Write for YOU!
I start by thinking, how does this film feel? Who is this film for? And generally, it’s for me and everyone like me. If I don’t like it, why would I expect anyone else to like it? So first and foremost, I’m working for my own amusement, and to be consistent with my own values, goals, ideas, and intellect.
– Harold Ramis (writer National Lampoon’s Animal House, Stripes, Ghostbusters; writer/director Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, Analyze This) AFF 2005
Visit onstory.tv for a closer look inside the creative process from today’s leading writers and filmmakers.
Want to hear these tips first hand? Join us at this year’s Writers Conference (Oct. 24 – 27, 2019) for a weekend of insider tips and writing advice from the leading voices of film and television. For more information on how to attend, click here.