Writing Comedy | StageMilk
Writing comedy

Writing Comedy

Written by on | How-To Guides for Actors

When it comes to the blank page: there’s nothing quite so exciting or challenging as comedy. It requires knowledge, experience, careful planning and excellent structuring—and yet, the desired result is often the exact opposite of these kinds of things: chaos, absurdity, silliness and the unexpected. You’ve got to consider form and style, how tastes and sensibilities change. Above all (and this is the hardest part): you’ve got to make your audience laugh. Every time. And no level of brilliant wordsmithery can guarantee that. So why throw yourself into this terrifying task? Because the rewards can be vast, and the process is often a lot fun. Writing comedy is a fascinating thing to do, and is also an excellent means of honing your skills as a writer and actor in general—it’s often said that if someone can do comedy, they can do anything. This article has been written to give you some very practical advice: it aims to break down the different considerations and processes that might not make this project easier, but at least help demystify the steps involved. Writing, as an art form, should belong to everyone. Comedy, especially so.

Format

One of the first things you’ll need to consider is the format your comedy will take. If you’re thinking of filming it, ask yourself if you’re writing a screenplay, or a pilot for a tv show, or a web series, or even a filmed sketch. If you imagine your comedy in front of a live audience, you can consider a play, a one-person show (or stand-up, if you’re feeling courageous) or a sketch/es to be performed live. Are any of these better than another? Are any of them easier or harder? That’s up to you to decide: what interests you the most and what do you think will suit your style or idea best? With each format, your writing and approach will need to be slightly different. If you worry that you may have picked the wrong format for an idea you’re developing, consider a switch of medium! There is no shame in writing a play that should be a film, or a monologue that should be a stand-up routine. It’s simply part of your drafting process as a writer.

A small addendum: don’t feel as though your writing or comedy needs to be relegated to more traditional forms of media. Look at what platforms like TikTok can do for comedy, not to mention the juggernaut market of podcasting. Sometimes, to find what works for you, you may need to look in areas previously untrodden by your own consumption…

Find Your Topic

This is never an easy task—in comedy or any style of writing. The best advice we can give on this subject—and it’s a lot less than we’d like to be able to give—is to look around you and look at yourself. Try to notice the absurdity in everyday life: the things we do or feel that are, objectively, strange or unexpected. What seems ridiculous to you in your life that others refuse to acknowledge?  Engage with what is called “observational comedy”. Observational comedy has been a dominant stylistic trend in the last fifty years of the genre; while the term might conjure up the thought of a particular nineties sitcom and the show’s eponymous star, it’s a more pliable style of writing than you might expect—audiences respond well to it, as it hinges upon them making a connection with the work (as opposed to, say, absurdism, which might try alienate viewers). If you’re stuck for inspiration, look to yourself and your own life. You can even try looking inward to your own pain and identity. But do be aware of how quickly that can read as self-indulgent, and wear you out artistically. As always, be safe when creating. 

Find Your Style

Satire. Parody. Workplace. Observational. Absurdist. Cringe. Different sub-genres, or ‘styles’, of comedy are numerous. Just as you need to find the format and topic that works for you, you’ll want to find a style of comedy that compliments your ideas and doesn’t fight them. That said, you should make every effort to experiment: comedy rewards bold choices and unexpected pairings of content and execution. A workplace comedy set in hell. A parody of fanatical social media influencers. A satire of modern politics: told through the lens of an over-seventies ballroom dancing club. As with format, feel free to experiment with what style suits you and your ideas best. This is often where the most fun of comedy writing can be had. Enjoy it!

The Toolbox

Once you have your format, topic and style, it’s time to start writing! This is it! The actual putting down of words! It is, more often than not, a hellish business. If you’re going to encounter a desire to stop working at any point in this process, it will be here. Push on! Keep going, and remember that all first drafts are terrible. Your goal, here, is not to write a masterpiece. Your goal is to get words on the page so you can start fixing and re-drafting and making it sing.

As you craft your piece, there are certain technical considerations that you’ll want to keep aware of: these are often the things that create the humour you’re hoping to bring out. As we said straight up in our introduction: you’ve got to make your audience laugh. No good idea or perfect stylistic/medium pairing will guarantee that. So here are some helpful tools to get that laughter happening:

  • Exaggeration. One of the most effective tools a comedy writer has: take something and blow it way out of proportion. An over-the-top reaction to a simple insult. A grisly injury as the result of a paper cut. Exaggeration is also the cornerstone of “parody”, in which you heighten the qualities of a person/thing/event to highlight its ridiculousness. NOTE: exaggeration doesn’t always have to mean bigger! Try a ridiculous downplaying of something that would usually be seen as dramatic (deadpan humour).
  • Pace. Think about “fast” and “slow” and speeds in between. Does one character always move and speak quickly, while another is so slow that they find it torturous? Often, a change of rhythm, or a contrast between rhythms in a piece is a great source of comedy. 
  • Rhythm. How does our understanding of underlying rhythm help build humour into a piece? Rhythm is a great way to build moments of unexpectedness into a scene: if we think something will happen based on a rhythm you’ve built into dialogue or action, what happens when you change that rhythm (pace) or disrupt it entirely?
  • Energy. In a similar vein to pace and rhythm, disparate or unusual levels of energy in a scene can be a great source of humour, especially when they play to the opposite of what an audience might expect: a bored funeral, a sleepy auctioneer, a nervous drill sergeant.
  • Status. Who has more or less power in a scene? How can this be subverted? How can one character lose or gain status over another throughout the course of an interaction?
  • Repetition. Repetition is funny. Let the audience in on the joke and watch them anticipate and enjoy when something keeps happening (usually at the expense or dismay of a character in a scene). See how you can push and subvert repetition: when does something get repeated so many times that it becomes unfunny? Or becomes funny again? Repetition is funny.
  • Surprise. The punchline. Keep your audience surprised, keep them guessing and then pull the rug out from under them. Just when things can’t get any sillier, what can you do that they weren’t expecting at all? Comedy is all about delightful, unexpected moments.

Humanise Your Characters, Ground the Situation

As you keep writing, drafting and adding everything you can to your work to make it funnier, remember to keep the piece grounded in some kind of reality. You’re going to lose your audience if they have no anchor in the world of your story—humanise your characters, and ground the situation. A good rule, when you’re starting out, is to think in a binary of extraordinary and ordinary: characters, situations and settings can be either, but at least something has to be grounded in the ordinary. For example: if you’re writing a workplace comedy, you might have OTT, exaggerated characters doing the world’s most boring job. Or, it might be regular characters doing the most interesting, important job in the world and finding it completely monotonous. The key word in this situation is logic: the world of your piece might be absurd, or fantastic, or ridiculous, or cruel … but it has to follow some set of rules that the audience can understand. 

The Punchline

There’s an old saying about horror films: “When the monster is dead, your movie is over.” The same can be said for comedy. Build to something big—build that tension as much as you can! But after the punchline, get out of there as quick as possible. Comedy, for all of its excesses and tensions and exaggerations, is about restraint: learn when to stick around for one more joke, learn when to go. Ideally, your story ends right before the laughs do. 

Conclusion

Our final piece of advice? The same for any article about writing: keep at it! Finish your piece and start on the next one. Explore different styles, try writing with others, try pushing your material into more unexpected places. Keep your work evolving. And keep your audience laughing. There is no greater sound on this earth.

 

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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