Screenwriting

What it Takes to Write Comedy

“Does it have to be funny?” While the answer may seem rather obvious, this is a question I am asked repeatedly. Each time, I am a little taken back. The word “sitcom” is actually a hybrid of two words: situational comedy. What this means at a core level is that sitcoms are about funny people in humorous situations. So yes, sitcoms must be funny — hilarious actually — and the people who write them must be amazingly quick-tongued and witty.

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While I can teach you how to find stories, format a script, and set up and pay-off jokes, I cannot, unfortunately, teach you a sense of humor. You are either born with one or you are not.

Think about the people in your life. Now, break them into two groups — those that are funny and those that are not. See how easy that was?

Now, it’s your turn. Let’s do a little soul searching…and let’s be painfully honest. The truth is, deep down, you know if you’re funny. You know because people tell you and they’ve probably been telling you all of your life. You know because they laugh at your jokes and they look forward to your stories. You know because you are the life of any party. In high school you were probably one of two people: class clown or smart aleck. (Either, by the way, is a perfect fit for a career in comedy writing.) You can find humor in nearly everything, unlike the more serious-minded people in your life who think topics like politics and religion must be avoided at all costs. Most likely the term “politically correct” is not part of your daily vocabulary, and this is a good thing. In addition to being funny, there are other traits you must possess in order to succeed in the comedy world. First, you must be bold and daring.

The comedy business is not for the shy or bashful. When writing jokes, you have to be willing to take chances. Once you get a staff writing job, part of what you will be paid for is to rewrite scripts. This is a group process. All of the staff writers lock themselves in the writing room and go through a script, line by line, punching it up. You will have to holler out jokes on the spot. Not to mention that often, in the middle of a taping, an executive producer will gather the writing staff around to come up with funnier jokes while the actors and audience wait. This can be nerve wracking to say the least. But again, it is part of what you are being paid the big bucks for. If you sit around like a shrinking violet without participating, I promise you won’t last long. You have to understand and be okay with the fact that many of your jokes will bomb and never see the light of day, while a few will get a huge laugh and be put into the script. If you are at all shy, you need to get over it quickly. A good way to do this is to take classes in acting or better yet, join an improv group. Anything to get you comfortable with thinking on your feet and sharing your ideas with others. In comedy — good, bad, or ugly — you have to be willing to put it out there.

You should know, too, that the writer’s room can be raunchy. When you get a bunch of comedy writers locked into a small space, you can’t expect the jokes to be clean and politically correct. Some people are offended by these kinds of jokes. That’s okay, but if you are one of them, then comedy writing probably isn’t for you. If you are going to sit there like somebody’s mother, with a disapproving scowl on your face every time someone makes a joke that you feel is inappropriate, you will be scowling all day and half of the night. This will only serve to make everyone around you uncomfortable. Soon, they will label you as someone who isn’t much fun, and you will be gone.

Photo by Vancouver Film School

You must also be a team player. Comedy writing is an extremely collaborative process; drama writing tends to be a little less so. Thus, you have to be willing to let go of some of your jokes — even the ones you thought were absolutely brilliant — if the writing staff deems them not funny. It’s not about your ego, but rather about what’s best for the script.

Another important quality you must have as a comedy writer is unlimited patience. Writing scripts that are funny from beginning to end takes an enormous amount of time and brainpower. I have seen skilled writers work from early evening until sun-up, punching up the jokes in a script. One of the notes I see on scripts (and actually write on scripts I am critiquing) is “funnier line,” which translates to “write a better joke.” Easier said than done. Nonetheless, a big part of writing is rewriting…and as a comedy writer, you have to push yourself — and I mean really push — in order to find the best possible jokes.

Checklist for Funny

  • Do people constantly tell me I am funny?
  • Does my sense of humor border on quirky or unusual?
  • Do I usually find humor in every situation?
  • Am I a risk taker?
  • Am I bold and daring?
  • Am I a team player?

If you answered “yes” to the above questions, then comedy writing is probably a good fit for you. If you answered “no” to some or to most of the questions, then I would caution you that you might have a difficult time writing comedy. It might be wiser for you to try your hand at a different kind of TV writing.

Excerpt from Write to TV: Out of Your Head and onto the Screen, 2nd Edition by Martie Cook © 2014 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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