You — yes, you! — can definitely write a comedy. Think you're not funny, or that your sense of humor diverges so wildly from the mainstream that you couldn't possibly make a larger audience laugh? Think again. Everybody has a unique sense of humor, and no matter what yours is, there's a comedic genre to match.
Use this guide to discover what type of comedy best fits your personality, allowing you to connect with an audience that simply "gets you", and how to go about writing.
Comedy Basics: What Defines a Comedy?
"Comedy" can be defined in rather a few different ways, but we'll stick to the broadest possible definition here. The Cambridge English Dictionary says that a comedy is a "film, play, or book that is intentionally funny", while Encyclopedia Britannica's dictionary believes that comedy is any work designed to make people laugh. Both work for us. Some dictionaries additionally believe that comedy should be "light-hearted", but dark humor can be a powerful force for laughter and solace, so we don't agree.
"A comedy" is different from stand-up comedy or from jokes, in that works described as comedies — which can be delivered by way of a multitude of different mediums, including films, TV shows, theater plays, novels, or works of satire — have a defined and well-developed structure. A comedy isn't a series of one-liners, but a story with a setting, compelling characters, and a plot.
No matter what happens in the story, though, the underlying goal is clear from the get-go. Comedies are designed to make people laugh or at least enjoy themselves. That's the entire purpose in some cases, but some comedies also have an additional aim, namely to cause the audience to reflect on their life or on society or to help them deal with a difficult subject.
What Makes a Comedy Funny?
While humor is almost universally human, in that everyone can laugh about something, humor is also famously subjective. How do popular comedies make so many people laugh? How do they bring escapism and entertainment to the masses? That's a tricky question to answer, but there's a science behind humor. From the crudest one-liners to the deepest comedic novels, all good humor has a defined set of common threads. Understanding them better will help aspiring comedy writers craft good stories, so let's dive right in!
- Comedies contain elements that most people will be able to relate to. It's usually easier to laugh at something if you can imagine yourself, or someone in your life, doing the same thing.
- Comedies often explicitly address topics that are "not suited for polite company", meaning embarrassing accidents or taboo These are funny because everyone thinks about them, but most people generally avoid talking about them. A hairpiece that falls off to reveal the bald head someone was hiding, or a small child spoiling a surprise birthday party are both examples.
- Comedies can be packed with unexpected and bizarre twists, including those that defy the laws of nature — like someone saying they are thirsty (normal) only to begin drinking an entire swimming pool (definitely not normal).
- Comedies can also cause people to laugh at someone else, rather than with them — offering a sense of superiority. Satire, especially, is well-suited to this.
Despite these common elements, no comedy will be able to reach everyone. For everyone who bursts out in intense laughter, there will be another person who simply doesn't understand what's supposed to be so funny. That is OK. Every writing has an audience, and comedy writers aim to bring entertainment to those who do get their sense of humor.
Common Types of Comedy
So, you're considering writing "a comedy"? Your options remain wide open — so many types of comedy exist that it would be impossible to even cover them all! Here's a look at some of the most well-known types of comedy to get you started. Almost all of them can be translated to every possible medium, from film and TV to YouTube videos, and from novels to theater plays.
1. Romantic Comedy
This sub-genre combines two or the most beloved themes of all time — laughter and love. In their modern form, romantic comedies can bring laughter and entertainment to the masses through novels, TV shows, films, and theater plays. This style of comedy is typically sweet and light, and while it features plenty of (comedic) obstacles, it almost always has a happy ending.
Many people have come to think of romantic comedies as guilty pleasures; the kind of thing you may read at the airport, or watch after a long day's work. However, some romantic comedies are extremely serious literary works, and much of Shakespeare, including The Merchant of Venice, can serve as a testament to that.
2. Situational Comedy
Also, of course, called "sitcom", situational comedy is an extremely popular form of comedy that works well on TV. Sitcoms aim to see the humor in everyday situations that almost everybody can relate to, and they feature an established cast that the audience can get to know and love. Sitcoms usually feature romantic elements, but their broader focus is daily life and relationships between friends, neighbors, coworkers, and other members of the community.
Tragicomedy contrasts humor and profoundly meaningful, serious, and tragic elements of the human experience. This form of comedy can inspire laughter, but its underlying purpose is deeper than that. Tragicomedy seeks not to entertain, but to inspire reflection, and sometimes even lasting societal change.
4. Dark Comedy
Dark comedy fills a similar space, it that it combines humor with dark subjects such as death, disease, war, suffering, job loss, homelessness, or racism. This form of comedy, too, can inspire reflection. It differs from tragicomedy in one important way, however — dark comedy, which is often filled with gallows humor, can help people deal with difficult human experiences through the healing power of humor. The popular British sitcom 'Allo 'Allo! is a wonderful example of dark comedy in action, as people were still healing from the trauma of World War Two when the series was first released.
5. Parody and Satire
Parodies poke fun at well-known novels, TV shows, films, people, or situations, by exaggerating them to the point of caricature in order to inspire laughter or entertainment. Scary Movie, for instance, parodies an entire genre of badly-written horrors, including by breaking the fourth wall.
Satire is a much more serious form of humor that ultimately serves a similar purpose — to ridicule or shed light on a problem by means of exaggeration. While comedic, satire does not aim to make people laugh, and instead tries to get them to effect change or at least to become aware of an important issue. Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal is a prime example of this, but many schoolchildren who are assigned the task of reading Gulliver's Travels, by the same author, may not realize that this novel aims to satirize the travel guides of the time, as well.
Parody and satire can both be delivered by means of books (fiction or non-fiction), as well as through TV and film.
6. Surreal Comedy
The final type of comedy is simply too much fun to pass up — surreal comedy aims to make people laugh by creating bizarre situations that don't make any logical sense at all. They're light, in that they often play with physics or human relationships in a way that couldn't possibly offend anyone. Monty Python's Argument Clinic is a great example of this type of comedy.
How to Write a Comedy: A Step-by-Step Guide
Are you ready to get started? To take your first steps in comedy writing, you'll have to develop a framework. Although not everyone will want to follow this same order, including all of these points in your writing process will help you craft a coherent comedy that has the power to bring laughter to the world (or at least to your friends).
1. Keeping a Comedy Journal
A significant percentage of the comedic situations you'll encounter in novels, films, plays, and on TV was inspired by real life corollaries. All aspiring comedy writers need to get inspiration from somewhere, and your daily life is a great place to start. Keeping a comedy journal, and taking it everywhere you go, will allow you to write any especially gripping material you come across down — so you can use it later.
To protect the privacy of the people who inspire your comedy, you'll want to change key details, of course!
2. Deciding on Your Medium
Novels, TV shows, and satirical policy briefs can all serve as comedy mediums — and yet, writing each of these requires an entirely different process. Aspiring comedy writers may have a great plot idea for a romantic comedy, for instance, and their idea could come to life in a novel or through TV.
Writing a novel forces the author to create an immersive experience through the written word alone, however, while a writing a TV script calls on script writers to describe their vision in a way that will later allow producers to translate the script to the screen. Before you start writing, decide what you're writing!
3. Picking a Sub-Genre and a Target Audience
This crucial step allows comedy writers to determine who they are writing for. That will be important in determining what kinds of humor are going to work within the comedy, and narrowing the audience down will further serve to keep writers on track through the hard process of finalizing their novel or script.
4. Crafting the Plot
Comedy writers will need to develop a compelling plot, which features the same basic elements as any other novel or TV show — a hook or lead-up to get people interested, some sort of conflict or tension, and a resolution.
You are aiming to write a comedy, so your entire story will be infused with humor. Comedy writers can use all the basic elements of a story to achieve this goal.
- The characters that feature in a comedy make up one of the most important elements of the story. The characters you create can be friendly and likeable with a sense of humor — the kind of person who makes the audience laugh by being funny. They can also be ridiculously despicable, creating a character to laugh at. Or they can simply be bizarre. Depending on the sub-genre, characters may be complex and three-dimensional, or shallow.
- The situations in a comedy offer a lot of comedic potential, too. They may be funny in and of themselves, often because they are absurd or embarrassing, or they may only become funny because of the way the characters deal with the situations they are faced with.
- Dialogue between two or more characters is one of the most common ways to make the audience laugh, and the conversations your characters have allow you to include plenty of jokes and funny one-liners in your comedy.
5. Choosing Where and How You're Going to Write Your Comedy
Writing is hard — and making people laugh is even harder. To set themselves up for success, budding comedy writers should strongly consider creating a helpful framework that essentially challenges them to keep writing until their comedy is finished and they're happy with it.
The good news? Your comedy writing toolkit only needs to contain three tools:
- You — your inspiration, ideas, mind, and motivation to keep going are absolutely indispensable if you're going to see this through! You've got this one covered, right?
- Time — no matter how many wonderful ideas you have, they won't come to fruition unless you carve out the time you need to actually sit down and write what you have to say.
- A place to write — and yes, this could include a nice desk and a comfortable chair, but also the medium to which you'll commit your words. In most cases, that means software.
Time-wise, you can commit to spending an hour a day writing your comedy, or however much you can offer. If you don't set aside the time you need, you risk pushing this project to the back burner. That would be a shame, because it could mean that a hilarious comedy never gets written.
In terms of software, it is certainly possible to use trusted word-processing tools like Microsoft Word or Google Documents. If, however, you are writing a long script or a comedic novel, and you are hoping to get your comedy published, you may want to consider investing in specialized writing software.
Tools like Evernote can help you keep your ideas organized, while book writing software like Scrivener or Ulysses help you outline and write your comedy.
6. Seeking Feedback
Comedies should be funny. Not everyone will laugh or chuckle, but your comedy does need to be able to offer entertainment to your target audience. Feedback and beta readers play a crucial role in just about any writing, but comedy writing depends on them especially heavily. Share your work with people who are willing to offer brutally honest feedback to get a better view of the elements you may still need to pour more work into.
7. Editing Your Comedy
Nobody gets everything right immediately. Your work will be full of mistakes, and they will range from plot holes to loose ends, and from horrific typos to truly unfortunate word choices. Comedy is just like any other kind of writing, in that aspiring comedy writers will need to go through multiple stages of editing to get as close to perfection as they can.
Don't be afraid to cut out elements that simply don't work and to replace them with something better, and always assess your writing to see how it can be even funnier!
How Not to Write a Comedy: Common Mistakes Comedy Writers Should Steer Clear Of
Now that we've looked at the steps writers can take to pen a wonderful comedy, it's time to touch on common mistakes that are better to avoid. Your comedy will be stronger and funnier if you can steer clear of as many of these rookie missteps as possible.
- Comedy writers who are aiming to pen a deep comedy should try to avoid filling their work with jokes and one-liners that do not serve a clear purpose within the plot. It's a comedy, yes, but not everything needs to be funny. Give your audience a break.
- Never try to please everyone — comedy often tackles embarrassing or taboo topics, and if you're trying to write a comedy that nobody will experience as offensive, it likely won't make anyone laugh or think, either.
- Don't try to follow a formulaic approach with the goal of making people laugh. Don't write for other people at all, in fact. You, yourself, have to be able to find meaning and laughter in the comedy you write, because if you can't connect with your work, you won't be able to be your most creative self.
Congratulations — you're about ready to start writing, now! Find your authentic voice, and you're guaranteed to make at least some people laugh so hard their belly hurts.