Comedy can be an intimidating—and often ruthless world to navigate. From sketch, to stand-up, to scripted films and TV series, there are countless styles of comedy, and finding the right format for your brand of humor can be tricky business.
So what does it take to craft a killer joke? How do you know which ideas to run with, or when you’re ready to take your material to an audience? Our roster of past panelists features the writers behind some of the biggest laughs in film and television, and we’re looking to them for the answers on crafting comedy that lands.
Here are six tips for writing jokes that will resonate from the stand-up stage to the screenplay page:
FIND THE HUMOR IN HEARTACHE
Comedy is a survival technique, you know. It is a way of being alive in a space…so that’s what we’re doing all the time. Taking tragic things that are sad and taking things that are unfortunate and putting a spin on it and making it into something that we can laugh at.
-Ali Leroi (writer/director/producer Everybody Hates Chris, Survivor’s Remorse, Are We There Yet? television series) at AFF 2018
PUT CHARACTER FIRST
A good lesson and very good to remind yourself whenever you’re writing is—you can’t make the crazy jokes until you’ve made the grounded ones, and built up the characters in that way.
-Megan Amram (writer/producer The Good Place, The Simpsons, Transparent, Silicon Valley, Parks & Recreation; actor/director/star An Emmy For Megan; author Science…For Her!) at AFF 2017
ALLOW FOR SMALLER STORYTELLING MOMENTS
You can make the argument with different movies that, there are these big whammo moments, which—god bless them, I want them, but…it’s worth keeping some things that don’t get big, huge responses, but maybe in ten years they’ll be the thing that people remember.
-Tim Herlihy (writer Saturday Night Live, Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, Pixels, The Ridiculous Six) at AFF 2016
BELIEVE IN YOUR IDEAS
If it sticks with you, if you have a passion for it, then you should definitely write it. There should be nothing to talk you out of your idea. Because if you feel it, you’ll put the passion in it and it’ll be great, and somebody’s going to enjoy it.
-Keenen Ivory Wayans (writer/creator In Living Color; co-writer Hollywood Shuffle; director Scary Movie) at AFF 2017
WRITE FROM THE INSIDE OUT
The problem with “marketable” and with show business per se, is that everything starts to become an external. You come from the outside in rather than inside out, so you’re like, “What are the hot subjects? What are people buying?” And the best writing that you’re going do is something that you feel something about, that is coming from your bones.
-Paula Pell (writer Sisters, Saturday Night Live) at AFF 2016
CREATE A SPACE FOR YOURSELF
When I jumped from performing to writing for television, it was in the interest of creating a space for myself, because I felt Hollywood wasn’t seeing me. That they couldn’t see what I had. They had their own view of what a black comic should be, and I just wasn’t that. So I thought, “Well, I’m going to have to take control of what I’m doing and write a space for myself.”
-Larry Wilmore (creator The Bernie Mac Show; co-creator Insecure; writer In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) at AFF 2018
Want to get first-hand advice on crafting jokes for the world of film and television?
Join us at Moontower Comedy Festival this Friday 4/26 and Saturday 4/27 for three live tapings of On Story, featuring conversations with Kevin McDonald (Kids in the Hall, The Martin Short Show), Dana Gould (The Simpsons, Stan Against Evil), and Sasheer Zamata (Inside Amy Schumer, Saturday Night Live) on the ins and outs of comedy writing and performing.
For more information on how to attend, click here.