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How your comedy script could be better.

I’ve read some comedy scripts on this branch and readmyscript and a lot of them could be improved by sorting out some basic issues.
I know some people will think that with this post I’m setting myself up as some kind of self-proclaimed comedy expert and those people would be absolutely right. The only thing I can say to mitigate that impression is that I also struggle, particularly with point 3, as everybody will.
One. What exactly am I writing?
Is this a spoof, an ensemble sitcom, a romantic comedy? You may like a bunch of different comedies but you can’t easily mix and match styles. If you mix moods, you’ll require some clear delineation. MASH has some serious moments around the operating table (and away from the studio audience) and some knockabout comedy over martinis in the guy’s tent. To mix styles and moods you’ll need skills on par with those crazy meatball surgeons however.
A comedy script is not just a bunch of jokes on a page or some kind of freestyle drumming workshop. You can’t can throw every ingredient you like into a pot and make something that other people will want to eat. There are tried and tested formats and for good reasons.
Two. Are these events actually funny?
The main character wets himself, someone falls down several flights of stairs, a valuable painting is ripped. These sound like funny events but do they actually work comedically in your script? Why does this guy piss himself? In fact, the better question is often why WOULD’NT he piss himself? He’s a stickler for having a smart appearance, he absolutely has to answer the door, the person knocking happens to be a woman he likes. Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. In a comedy, a lot of the laughs have been painstakingly set up in the scriptwriting process. They are dependent on plot, character, as well as a sense of moral justice, superiority or empathy on the part of the audience. This is why the class clown doesn’t usually end up becoming a comedy writer.
Three. Are there plenty of jokes on the page?
I know Friends is kind of a cheesy show but you have to admit the writers knew something about comedy. Watch an episode and listen to how often the audience laughs – it’s after almost every line. And those are real laughs from a real audience. Sometimes it’s just from the reaction shot: Joey nods happily for a beat then his smile fades as he realises Chandler was actually mocking him. That doesn’t exactly sound like a stroke of genius but if the audience likes your characters and are ready to laugh then they will at even simple stuff like this. They’ll enjoy your show and the millions of dollars you earn will make admitting you admire Friends a bit easier. Are there at least four laughs on every page of your script? I’ve read scripts on here where there will be a whole page with no possible laughs. The writer would probably even admit that and say “Oh, well I need to move the plot forward here.” John Cleese (Monty Python, A Fish Called Wanda, Fawlty Towers) said that when writing Fawlty Towers, he would try to make all the vital plot points as funny as possible so the audience wouldn’t realise they were even seeing plot unravel. Viewers want a sitcom to be funny the whole way through. To achieve that will be difficult.
While I’m here, below are some issues that crop up regularly
The obvious wisecrack.
The easiest way to make a joke is to look at the previous line you’ve written and then do some riff or word play on that. So character A says the kind of thing that normal people do, character B twists their words for the wisecrack. This happens in Modern Family every time Haley and Alex are together and it’s totally unrealistic and annoying. That’s not to say you should never write jokes like this. But ideally, the humour should not come from the fact that this is an objectively good joke but that it shows the joker’s character: they’re trying to show off, they haven’t quite understood what the other person meant, the joke half works but could’ve been better if they weren’t so impatient.
Trying to make everyone funny.
Not every character has to make actual jokes. Enter the straight man. Brooklyn 99 features a strong straight man character in the form of Captain Holt. Unfortunately, the writers can’t help but try to give him the odd jokey line, which never works. This is a schoolboy error. A good example of a straight man is Porridge’s Grouty, a psychotic gangster who is played so straight he’s actually mildly terrifying.
Featuring two close friends.
Generally speaking, two young, male, similar friends living or attending college together doesn’t have much comic potential.
In Friends, Joey and Chandler are roommates but they are actually quite opposed. Joey is a fool character who doesn’t really understand what’s going on. This makes the audience feel superior to him. Chandler on the other hand likes to crack wise at other people’s expense making him a superior character. Ross is an inferior character, a whining milquetoast and mind-changer. I doubt there’s five minutes in the whole oeuvre when Ross and Joey are together. Yes, I just talked about the Friends “oeuvre”.
High-emotion conflict
Continuing on from the point above, a group of friends is generally not the best situation for a comedy. Sitcoms have traditionally been either set in a workplace or family home so the characters have been forced together. The disagreements are often high-stakes – getting fired, getting arrested, breaking up a relationship. In a show such as The Office, the disagreements might be incredibly petty, but the characters behave as though it’s life or death. Two people arguing over which is the best Star Wars movie might be funny when you and your mates do it in a bar, but in a sitcom it’s unlikely to dazzle people.
Giving the less funny characters expositional lines.
I do this, and hate myself for it. This is what made S03 E01 of Episodes incredibly annoying for me. It’s hard to avoid because not every character can be hilarious and you don’t want to give the drier, expo lines to your best characters. I think the only way around this is to hide the exposition cleverly in your best characters’ lines (try and make the plot reveals funny as per above), and keep the more minor people on character. At least the audience knows what they’re getting and it’s not just some guy standing around waiting to say “And then they put the video on Youtube!” As a bald way of explaining to the over-40s how the internet works. Sometimes you need the confidence just to show something happening. Cut to two friends playing golf together. They’re friends, I guess they just decided to go play golf. No “Thanks for inviting me John. I didn’t even know you played golf!” Line required.
Being too whacky.
A character smokes weed and gets the munchies. Someone’s built a crazy invention in his room. An authority figure (doctor, policeman) behaves very irresponsibly – just the opposite of how they should! There ARE quite a few whacky comedies out there but unless they’re done very well (Anchor Man, Workaholics) they can come across as very contrived. There’s a reason nobody thinks clowns are actually funny. If a someone gets drunk or stoned its probably more satisfying to have them reveal their real personality, a part of themselves they usually keep hidden, rather than run through an old folks home naked. A lot of comedies are set in hospitals and prisons for an obvious reason – the bitter makes the sweet sweeter. And part of the whole reason we laugh is to deal with difficult situations. Is yours the kind of comedy where a main character’s mum gets sick and the audience can really believe she might die? For a minute or two? That’s probably more satisfying than anything that involves: nudity, a stuck-up character getting high, someone falling into a cake etc etc.
Pop culture references.
Be wary. In real life, people talk about what they just watched on TV, heard on the radio or saw on the internet. The temptation is there to write these candid conversations into your script. There are several problems however. Firstly, a reference may mean different things to different people. You might think that George W Bush is a shortcut for “worst president ever” but to other people he means “A puppet” or “A president who in retrospect wasn’t that bad” or any number of things. In a couple of years, these cultural shortcuts will mean something different. I’m also wary of very contemporary references. Perhaps they haven’t had time to “set” within popular culture. Most shows naturally avoid these and stick more to classics from the 80s and 90s. There can also be an inherent laziness on relying on cultural shortcuts and other people’s jokes rather than writing your own.
Milking the joke.
If you feel you’ve written a really great line, that’s wonderful. Now write some more. You don’t get a second squeeze of the lemon. This includes visual jokes too. You can’t have a pro wrestler lose a bet and dance across the gym floor wearing a tutu singing “I’m a little teapot” to then have people say later “Oh, this is almost as good as Overlord’s singing!” You’ve already squeezed that lemon. One of the many failings of Episodes is you can tell when the writers think they’ve written something funny because they drag it back out for a second or even third trip round the grandstand.
Secrets and lies
Comedy is a knowledge-based economy. Unlike drama, the audience usually knows everything that’s going on. Some of the characters don’t however. If you’ve written a scene that lacks punch or purpose it might be because all the characters are equipped with the same information. Is there room for deception, misdirection or misunderstanding? A sitcom subplot can be as minor as exploring who ate someone’s candy bar. In a prison, that would be currency and sitcoms are the same. This is a bunch of people who have been forced together. Even the slightest deception makes for a story.
I mentioned “moral justice” above and it’s quite possible that didn’t ring a bell for some people. In fact, comedies are often similar to fables in the inevitable unfolding of right and wrong. Pride comes before a fall. A lie entraps the liar. Straying from the usual path of righteousness leads to a lesson learned. I’m not entirely sure why this is but it’s certainly to do with human psychology. We laugh at what we feel is a justified statement.
Here are some common comic characters.
The idiot. Woody from Cheers, Baldrick from Blackadder, Joey from Friends and a million others. This character works because, as mentioned above, the audience feels superior to the character by understanding both what is happening in reality and the character’s own foolish misunderstanding. This is such an overused archetype that you’ll need a new spin. Andy from Parks and Rec is both an Idiot and a Child Comic.
The sex maniac. Sex is actually a pretty strange goal so this can potentially have a lot of comic results and bring in new and unusual characters.
The Weak Man. An alcoholic, a stoner, a gambling addict, a man-child. These are inferior characters, thought the audience will often see a little bit of themselves in the character. I specify a man because audiences tend not to accept women with these kinds of weaknesses. Liz Lemon is a food addict who doesn’t even get fat. That’s about as strong as you can go in a standard sitcom. Think of some sitcom women with severe weaknesses and you’ll realise that life hasn’t beaten them up for it.
The edgy character. These are popular nowadays. Ten years ago you probably could not have written a comedy with a sympathetic homophobic character. Now you can move into this territory – with caution. Community’s Pierce is racist though to very mild, family friendly degree. This is justified, however, because he’s from an older generation.
Social Justice Warrior. This comic type appears spectacularly underused today. The SJW cares about real issues in the world. Mostly, they will be hypocritical (which is where the laughs come from) but sometimes they will actually make a good point. In the 70s the US had All in the Family and the UK had Citizen Smith. What’s better than real topical issues to create both conflict and humour?
Nerds. Personally, I don’t find nerds funny at all. They are inferiosuperior characters. The “joke” is often that they wear glasses, like doing math and are bad at talking to women, which in no way makes me feel superior. Then occasionally they talk about things the audience doesn’t understand – such as algebraic topology. Which you can’t understand and therefore is in no way funny.
And there are many more. Feel free to list a few of your own.
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