Humor is hard. Even the best comedians have gotten crickets from time to time.
The act of actually writing jokes and words that guarantee a laugh? That’s not so easy. If a teacher were to ask me to write something funny for homework, I’d quiver in my boots. Sometimes you have to wait for a funny moment to write itself. But I can tell you a couple of ways to get there.
When a character does something so ridiculous and out of place, it can create a lot of laughs. The Office was notorious for this. Keep in the mind that the ridiculous things being done should make sense somewhat. For example, one of the above best cringeworthy episodes is Phyllis’ Wedding, where Michael constantly tries to helpfully steal the spotlight, including giving a long-winded roast and cheering for the newly married couple before the ceremony is finished. The actions technically make sense and are in character, but they come at the wrong times.
Writing prompt: Consider some moments in your life where you did something cringeworthy. Write one into a scene.
What happens that’s unexpected? Or what is the opposite of what you think might have happened?
Suppose your main character is pretending to be someone she’s not online. She discovers someone from her past on a discussion board, her friend Jimmy, and talks to them under the anonymous persona. She then learns that it’s not Jimmy; instead it’s someone pretending to be them. Or she believes it to be a stranger only to see that it is Jimmy later. Maybe the two try to one-up each other without the other realizing.
Writing prompt: Write a couple scenes of the above scenario from both characters’ POVs and see where things go.
This one sounds easy at first glance: have something go completely awry and see how characters respond. The power goes out, leaving a character and their annoying roommate together in the dark for a whole hour. The surprise party recipient is getting back sooner than planned. Situations here are endless, but don’t rely too much on them. An episode of The Office has Michael falling in a koi pond and it manages to create an episode full of jokes revolving around that moment.
Writing prompt: Think of something in the past year that went terribly wrong that wasn’t serious. Write about it from the perspective of a character.
Many hysterical moments come from characters’ misunderstandings. Winnie the Pooh uses this technique a LOT. For example, when Pooh and his friends drop a book of Owl’s into water, they fear they have washed the words away. The whole episode is spent with them trying to get the words back only to be revealed at the end that it’s a journal. To sum it up, misunderstandings can happen when:
*A character believes something that’s not true
*A character misinterprets something they see going on
*A character was told the wrong thing
Writing prompt: When did you misinterpret something? Write it into a scene.
Pretty descriptive. Have you ever laughed at someone slipping on a banana peel? Then you probably enjoy some physical humor. Granted, it’s not for everyone and works a little better on the screen. But it’s still an option. Back to Winnie the Pooh again; a favorite episode of mine came when someone trips at Thanksgiving dinner and it leads to a chain reaction of spills, falls, and who knows what else to ruin the whole setup. In The Office, it happens during a game of touch football, or during a cold open where some of the characters practice parkour.
Also consider your favorite moments in America’s Funniest Home Videos. Christmas trees falling over, a basketball hoop falling, hitting someone with a plastic baseball bat instead of the pinata…etc. Just don’t rely too heavily on these.
Writing prompt: Write a scene with a comic relief character starting an impromptu football game at a bad time.
In this case, I’m using the word as a figure of speech. Or not. Many a late-night comedian can tell you that a good way to cope with reality is to laugh. I’m typically talking about the ones who make fun of politicians in order to prove a point. But in our case, this category of humor can consist of “anything that’s funny because it’s true.”
Writing prompt: Write some captions for a political cartoon.
Characters can engage in a battle of the spoken words. Here are a few examples of wordplay at work:
*Comebacks and witty comments. Massie in the Clique series is notorious for these. “Did I invite you to my barbecue? No? Then why are you all up in my grill?”
*Characters being overly honest.
*Characters saying something ridiculous.
*Characters responding or using sarcasm. A favorite Big Bang Theory example is when Sheldon asks Indian friend Raj for an obscure spice and Raj says with sarcasm, “Sorry, I left it in my turban.”
Writing prompt: Brainstorm some puns. Think of words that have double meanings, or figures of speech, or literal/figurative combinations (i.e. a bar of soap singing an aria for “soap opera”). Think of some comebacks, too. You know how the perfect comeback always comes to you hours or days later? Well, know you have some. Think of all the comebacks you’ve wish you’d said and save them for later. And if you ever write a snarky character, there you go.
When something happens that is completely unexpected, laughs can ensue. A group of kids messing around starts tossing rocks, seeing if they can hit a house. The house, however, clearly must be being built, because as soon as one kid hits the wall and starts celebrating…the entire structure falls down! (This is another one I really did see on AFV.) To keep this a comedy, the answer shouldn’t make or break anyone’s life. Maybe they worry the whole time about being caught only to find that they knocked over a play house, or a flimsy stage set.
Lots of unexpected things can happen. For a writing prompt, write about a time in your life when something out of the ordinary happened causing a change in plans.
BONUS STRATEGY: REACTIONS/REVEALS
Arguably this is a subcategory for the rest, but it has its place. Usually they come from something unexpected happening, and the way the characters react says it all. One of the best cold opens that Everybody Loves Raymond ever did featured the inciting mishap: a car plowing through the living room wall. For the next minute or two, nobody says a single word as the culprits get out of the car and characters process what’s just happened in each shot. It’s all slow-revealed reactions of the characters; horror, shock, surprise….all in maybe two minutes barely saying a word. And each one has a unique reaction to their character.
Reveals are great because they’re unexpected. They can truly add to the humor when done right.
Part of being funny is sometimes trying not to go over the top. Try one of these simple strategies. Or when all else fails, consider funny moments from your life, use them as inspiration, and see how it goes.