Co-written by Tim McGovern
So, you want to be a comedy writer? That's a heck of a decision you've come to. In today's deprived sinkhole of an economy, many people are straying from the lucrative world of comedy and becoming useless things like doctors and parents.
The most important thing about writing comedy is making your humor accessible to everyone. Here are a couple of ironclad, steadfast rules that can get you a laugh out of even the most depressing scene. Roll up your sleeves, because we're about to get elbows' deep into the pregnant womb of comedy, and I should warn you, she's cresting something fierce: a baby of pure comedy gold.
Rule Number 1: Breaking the silence.
Breaking the silence is one of the oldest tricks in the comedy book. The following scene may not seem inherently funny, but see if you can spot where I "break the silence," taking the scene to a new comedic level...
INT. LIVING ROOM
JOHN AND DAVID STAND NEXT TO THE COFFIN OF DAVID'S RECENTLY DECEASED FATHER.
JOHN: It all happened so fast. I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye.
DAVID STARES BLANKLY AT JOHN. JOHN STARES BLANKLY BACK AT DAVID. DAVID CROSSES TO HIS FATHER'S COFFIN AND PULLS OUT A POCKET WATCH. HE RESTS THE WATCH ON THE COFFIN.
DAVID: I want you to know... I'll keep the time. I'll always keep the time.
DAVID SILENTLY WEEPS. JOHN CROSSES TO DAVID AND PUTS HIS ARM AROUND HIM. THE TWO STAND SILENTLY FOR SEVERAL BEATS. THE EMOTIONAL TENSION IS PALPABLE. THIS IS THE CREST OF THE TRAGEDY WAVE.
SFX: FART SOUND.
JOHN AND DAVID LOOK AT EACH OTHER, AND THEN DIRECTLY INTO CAMERA.
ROLL CREDITS. END SCENE.
It happened fast, but did you catch it? Hilarious, right? That joke took three months of work-shopping and rewrites. Joke: Accomplished.
Rule Number 2: Never leave them wanting more.
A great joke is hard to come by, so why not reward yourself by using it again and again? This is also referred to as the "catchphrase principle."
Please notice how the humor is elevated and advanced in the following scene.
BILL AND JEN GET READY FOR BED. BILL LEANS OVER AND STARTS TO KISS JEN. JEN MOANS A BIT. BILL STARTS GETTING INTO IT.
SFX: AUDIENCE LAUGHS UPROARIOUSLY.
JEN: Bill! I told you, you can't say that in the bedroom!
BILL LOOKS TO CAMERA AND SHRUGS. HE APOLOGETICALLY LOOKS BACK TO JEN.
BILL (APOLOGETICALLY): Blam-sauce?
SFX: AUDIENCE GOING, "AWWWWW."
JEN (SOFTENING): Oh, Bill...
BILL EXCITEDLY LOOKS TO CAMERA.
SFX: AUDIENCE LOSES THEIR MIND IN AN UNCONTROLLABLE CHEER-LAUGH.
ROLL CREDITS. END SCENE.
This technique will give your sitcom the chance to go for a hundred-plus episodes, easy. Frankly, the less new words you use, the better your writing will become. That's the definition of literature.
Rule Number 3: When possible, only cast one actor.
This is a tricky one. Very few TV shows and films have mastered the art of one-actor scenes, but not only is it hilarious, it's also cost-effective. Don't want to face a group of actors who frequently tell you that your writing is "a travesty of the English language," and "haunts their psyche?" Then just use one actor! The death of comedy begins with the actor. You find me an actor that recognizes nuance, and I'll show you a writer, posing as an actor. (Possibly in drag, if he understands comedy.)
Rule Number 4: Embracing the silence.
When you have a tension-filled scene, keep it quiet. As the writer, you've worked tirelessly to put emotion into a scene, and you're hinging it all on that unmolested silence. Sometimes, and I mean extremely rarely, a catchphrase or fart joke just isn't the answer. Once again, this is extremely rare. You need something juxtaposed to the silent tension that can pay it off. You need something big. You need something brilliant.
The following is an incredible scene that I've pitched in over three different un-aired sitcoms.
A CRAZY GUY AIMS A GUN AT A WOMAN AND HER SMALL DAUGHTER. HE HAS A CRAZY, COKED-OUT LOOK ABOUT HIM.
CRAZY GUY: And you're going to get down on your knees. Right here in this fucking park. And if you don't, that precious little daughter of yours is going to get a bullet to the brain.
WOMAN: Oh my God! Oh my God!
THE CRAZY GUY CROSSES TO THE WOMAN. HE STARES AT HER WILDLY FOR A BEAT, LICKING HIS SUNBURNT LIPS. THE WOMAN, TERRIFIED, STARES BACK AT HIM.
THEY HOLD THE SILENCE FOR SEVERAL BEATS. THE MAN SLOWLY UNZIPS HIS FLY. AS THE WOMAN, TURNING HER INNOCENT CHILD AWAY, LOWERS HER HEAD...
AN ALBATROSS FLIES DIRECTLY INTO THE MAN'S GROIN.
ROLL CREDITS. END SCENE.
Take the next 15 minutes to recover from that doozy.
Rule number 5: When in doubt, remove a dimension.
A lot of "successful" writers like to include characters with depth, complexity and you guessed it: dimension. Whoa there, James Cameron! Why don't you take it easy with the 3-D and switch it back to something we can all understand: cartoons. The more dimensionless the character, the less you'll need to use that laugh track like a cripple who needs to use his crutches to beg for spare change... the spare change of laughter, that is.
INT. POST OFFICE
A WOMAN APPROACHES A POSTMAN FOR STAMPS.
WOMAN: I'm a lady who doesn't know how mail works!
POSTMAN: Well, I'm a postman and I don't like dogs!
WOMAN: Well, it beats being afraid of losing a man! That fear consumes my entire existence! Because I'm a woman!
POSTMAN: Don't worry, you're not going to lose this... male!
THE POSTMAN POINTS TO HIMSELF, AS THE TWO OF THEM LAUGH FOR SEVERAL BEATS. AFTER THAT, THE TWO FURIOUSLY MAKE OUT.
SFX: AUDIENCE CATCALLING.
ROLL CREDITS. END SCENE.
Wow, right? Tony Shalhoub once read that and he couldn't help but shake his head repeatedly, muttering to himself, he was so impressed. Personally, I can't blame him. Man, we had some good times on Wings.
Rule number 6: Do cocaine.
This may be more of a lifestyle choice, but I've been the most satisfied with my writing, and how gaunt my body looks in the mirror, after doing cocaine. And we're talking like, a lot of cocaine. A lot, a lot. Like, "Let's take a hike on Cocaine Mountain" a lot. Look at this monologue I wrote when I was sober:
WALT: Man, I just had the worst day. A bird pooped on me, I got a ticket, and get this... another bird pooped on me!
Needless to say, I'm still getting the residuals from being a ghostwriter on that show about a pimp lawyer: "Hoe vs. Wade." Don't remember it? Well, my bank account does. Anyway, let's see that same monologue after some serious rewrites with a friend of mine. Maybe you've heard of him? His name is James. James Blow. Mr. James Blow the....it was blow. I was doing blow.
WALT: For the last time, will everyone shut their goddamn mouths?! I served in Viet-frickin'-nam! Huh, ever heard of it?! I wore a man's skin as a cape. Okay, as I was sayin'... this bird... or it might have been a plane...no, it was a bird. Ha, what if a fucking plane crapped on me. Shit. That would be fucking... Con Air was easily Nic Cage's shining -- will you god damn shut up? I'm trying to explain how the ratta-tat of my wellness -- my what? My nose is doing what? Holy fuck! Call an ambulance. I need one of those pulp fiction needles. Someone call Uma! I need a sandwich. No cheese. And another thing about fdsAShajskdhaksddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddd
Yes. The last part of the monologue was the result of my head landing on the keyboard during an overdose. That's typical of my work from the 1970s. It was my calling card. Comedy Calling Card. Trademark. Copyright. Roll Credits. End Scene.