5 Rules of Comedy: (Some of) The Science Behind the Well-told Joke


Funny doesn’t tend to happen by itself any more than muscles tend to tone themselves, guns tend to shoot themselves, or condoms tend to break themselves (although I’m told they all do from time to time).

The College of Comedy once defined laughter as an affirmative, involuntary reaction to something unexpected. Burgeoning comics may not be aware of it, but they are actually  amateur scientists performing reflex tests on their audience, learning through trial and error how to get this all-important, positive reaction of laughter every time they tell a joke.

And they usually suck at it for the first few years, especially if they’re dumb kids when they start, like I was.

That said, there are certain universal rules that are applicable to all writers everywhere, but especially comedy writers / performers, some of which are listed below:

  1. Don’t laugh at your own joke. Most strains of laughter aren’t that contagious. You don’t even have to wash your hands to keep from spreading them. Additionally, you look awful silly if, Gad forbid, you laugh your head off at a joke that falls flat. In doing so, you lead your audience to believe there’s pretty big payoff at the end, and if there isn’t you look like a jackass. The literary / multimedia equivalent of this is the writer who wants to funny up his scene. He writes what is supposed to be a snappy one-liner for Character A. It is not snappy. It is stupid. However, rather than erase his error and write a real joke for Character A, he makes Characters B – F laugh hysterically, smirk in attempt to control their laughter, giggle, chortle, and otherwise guffaw with Character A in hopes of convincing the audience that something funny was said (see fan fic, low quality fantasy, and absolutely any cartoon from the 1980s / 1990s). “Show, not tell, right?” thinks he, “I’m telling the reader it’s funny!” If you write dialogue in this manner, congratulations. You are a maniac holding helpless fictional characters hostage at pen point, forcing them to laugh at your unfunny jokes, less they be tortured and killed for the rest of your manuscript. I wasn’t smart enough to figure all of this out on my own. My dad clued me into it when I was something like eight years old and watching a red-headed force of nature named Eve Arden do her witty, incredible thing in a movie called Tea for Two. “Gee, Dad,” said eight-year-old me, “she’s saying funny things, but she’s not laughing. What gives?” Dad, of course knew just what Ms. Arden was up to. “Tell a joke with a straight face,” said he, “and let the audience decide for themselves if it’s funny.”
  2. If a joke falls flat, do not repeat it. In some lines of work, the customer is almost always wrong (I once had the curious honor of working in a jail, for example, where satisfying the customer is actively discouraged). Comedy is not one of those lines of work. If you have visions of entertainment as your living, your livelihood will exist for the pleasure of others. Should you repeat a punchline, should attempt to explain why the joke is funny, or should you do anything but move along quickly to the next joke / new random topic, you run the risk of insulting the person you are trying to entertain. Johnny Carson could’ve taught masters classes in how to recover after a joke bombs, and he rarely blamed the audience. He owned the joke, conceded it was rubbish, and moved on.
  3.  When possible, use brand names. Sound silly? I promise, it works. I don’t know why or what grant money-absorbing doctor will someday write his PHD thesis on the science of this phenomenon, but, “My old lady’s chili could strip the paint off a car,” is not as funny as, “My old lady’s chili could strip the paint off a Buick.” Best guess: “car” doesn’t conjure a specific enough image to resonate with the audience, whereas everyone’s had a grandma, uncle, or broke-ass friend in college with a Buick. By referencing a specific car, your audience can make a more complete picture in their minds of the scene you describe, and voila! You’ve given them a joke that is memorable enough to steal when they go back to work on Monday. Which brings us to…
  4. Don’t put your name on material that isn’t yours. I get it. Not everyone can write jokes, and it seems so easy to steal them, especially old ones, and pass them off as yours. But there are few things more humiliating than getting called out by your audience for stealing witticisms, childhood stories, or dating adventures from well-known sources. I’ve personally caught people stealing whole autobiographical  scenes from Jim Carey, Bill Cosby, Tim Allen, Dora the Explorer, and Mrs. Doubtfire. In fact, I’ve even had some Bozos quote me to, having forgotten from whom they stole their material. That’s always a little surreal. Anyway, if you’re not good at improvising your own stuff, either steal from sources that are twenty or more years old, or be able to site your sources. If you can do one or both of those two things, you’re not stealing any more. You’re “quoting,” and “quoting” helps us share the credit / blame, if the joke falls flat.
  5. Weakness is strength. If you are an artist of just about any medium, you will spend most of your career as a masochist playing to a crowd of sadists. They know other people’s pain is funny, and you know other people’s pain is funny, but no one in the audience wants the pain to which the comic points and laughs to be his own. To hurt the fewest people possible and still get laughs, one of the safest targets of your rancor, criticism, and loathing is… well, yourself. While mocking the audience is risky, and political, racial, or sexist humor will only keep people coming to your shows for so long, self-mockery makes you human and accessible both to the empathetic folks who laugh as if to say, “Ha! Been there kiddo. I totally get it,”  and to the bastardly folks who laugh as if to say, “Sucks to be you!”

So, that’s my list. I hope your reading about someone else’s missteps saves you some toild and trouble, and that the world is a funnier place henceforth.

Have the best day ever, or as near as you can come to it.

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