15 Comedy Hacks Every Young Writer Needs to Know
Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise
I was sweating like an expectant father at a trendy New York post house. It was the first session I’d ever produced, a small story MTV News wanted about a new Hall & Oates book that had just dropped. It was a little awkward for the editor, a nice man old enough to be my father, when I asked him to do exactly what I had been told not to do less than an hour before. He was standing right beside me when I was given crystal-clear instructions. Nevertheless, I went there.
There was an extra $125 an hour charge for special effects so I was told cuts only, absolutely no effects. But the story was about a book and there was this brand-spanking-new effect called page turns. Today, a page turn is totally cornball, but back then it made sense. So I slipped the editor $20 and told him we should keep it off the books. He declined. I pulled out my last $10. He looked at me like I was insane. I told him I’d bring him another $20 tomorrow. He scowled.
Now, you have to keep in mind, I was so broke back then that $50 was everything in the world to me. I was literally stealing food off the craft service trays in the HBO suites on another floor so I could afford rent. The cuts-only version of the story was approved and aired, and to no one’s surprise, not a soul in America jumped off their recliner after seeing the story and screamed, “Where are the page turns!”
But still, to this day, whenever I take a stroll down memory lane, dust off the old tape of the first thing I ever produced, all I ever see is … no page turns. In retrospect, I wish someone had offered me a little advice — like if you don’t have the money, find the money, talk someone into the money or pay for it yourself. And no one is ever gonna risk their job for 50 bucks.
So if you’re a young writer, here are a few things I wish someone had told me earlier in my career about writing comedy.
1. As a warm-up, Hunter S. Thompson used to write an entire novel by one of his favorite authors before starting his own novel. So what you’re gonna do is go to YouTube and find commercials you think are funny, and then write a script for those commercials. Do this over and over again. Describe the scene, the stage direction and the characters.
2. A strong comedic premise has both truth and pain. More truth equals more comedy. More pain equals more comedy. For example, a divorced man tries to fix up his best friend with his ex-wife so he can “keep tabs” on her.
3. Make the logo the punch line, like in this commercial from Axe.
4. Words with the letter K are funny. I direct you to the hard sounds of the letters K, C and Qu.
Candy Corn is funnier than Sweeties
Lamb Chop is funnier than Filet Mignon
In fact, many hard consonants can be funny, especially if you really overemphasize the consonant. The letters T, P, G, D and B are also considered hard, but less effective than the hard K sound.
Gum Drops is funnier than Lemonheads
Banana is funnier than Apple
5. Odd numbers are funnier than even numbers.
6. Drama does not tolerate coincidence. Comedy wraps its hairy meathooks around coincidence and squeezes it for every laugh it can wring out of it.
7. Ensure you make the brand memorable without making it the butt of the joke.
8. Be careful if you’re going to make fun of the competition. Creating a straw man to beat up is too easy. Work harder for your money.
9. Always try to find the funniest perspective. The situation might be funnier if a different character tells the story. For example, a housewife trying to kill a spider in the bathroom is funny, but imagine it from the spider’s point of view.
10. Never show blood, because it tells the audience that someone got hurt. If they’re reminded of the pain, most people won’t laugh.
11. Stereotypes can be used as shorthand, but clichés are considered lazy. A rich banker is a stereotype. A rich banker lighting a cigar with a $100 bill is a cliché. Spin clichés in an unexpected way to make them funny. For example, while trying to light a cigar with a $100 bill, a rich banker accidentally sets himself on fire. Now that’s funny.
12. A “joke-oide” is not a joke. It’s a potential joke, wordplay or a poorly written joke. Fix a joke-oide by evaluating whether there’s too much or too little information given away before the punch line, and adjust accordingly.
13. Small jokes should have short set-ups. A long set-up sets expectations high for the audience and will require a big laugh at the punch line for it to be satisfying.
14. Rewrites are all about reorganizing information for clarity and impact.
15. Always underwrite comedy. It takes longer to play out on screen than most writers account for in the script.
And one bonus point: Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re special because you can write comedy. Writing is a craft, not a gift. Don’t think of yourself as special. Think of yourself as someone willing to do the hard work that others don’t do.
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike
Want even more hacks? Read, "13 Tips Guaranteed to Make a Funny Script Hilarious."