Contents

Comedy

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Comedy


Comedy image - laughter

In this chapter we’ll look at:

Quickies and sketches
Comedy categories
Red Herrings
Reversals
Switches
Exaggeration
Coming up with ideas
Tips on sketch writing
Writing gags
Thinking up gags
Writing for shows
Finding shows

Quickies and sketches

A quickie consists of dialogue and/or action leading to a single gag — the punchline. As the name suggests, quickies are usually short. One quickie from the BBC sketch show Big Train has a monk taking a contemplative walk in a peaceful garden. The monk passes a statue of a naked woman and, seeing no-one around, he surreptitiously reaches out to touch one of the statue’s boobs — and an alarm goes off.

Sketches are longer and consist of a string of action and/or dialogue that extracts humour from a specific situation; the classic sketch then ends on a visual/verbal punchline to wrap everything up.

Take Monty Python’s Restaurant Sketch. A couple in a restaurant are about to order their meal when the man mentions to the waiter that he has a dirty fork. The waiter is horrified and fetches the head waiter. The head waiter is also horrified and fetches the manager. The manager is so upset by the dirty fork that he kills himself with it. The chef then bursts in, blames the man for the manager’s death and tries to kill him. The chef is tackled by the two waiters and all three die in the ensuing fight. The humour comes from the exaggerated way in which the restaurant staff over-react to the discovery of the dirty fork, but the final joke is provided by the customer: he looks at the carnage around him, turns to the camera, and says, “A good job I didn’t tell them about the dirty knife!”

Comedy categories

Most comedy ideas can be put it into one of the following categories. 

Red Herrings
We’re fooled into thinking the situation is one thing — then the punchline reveals it’s completely different. Take another quickie example from Big Train where we see a woman in a white coat using a brush to clean the face of a blackened corpse. This is obviously a forensic pathologist preparing a body for examination. A phone rings. The woman answers it and her conversation reveals she’s a beautician in a health spa trying to apply blusher to a customer who’s spent way too long under a sun bed.

Reversals
People or things acting contrary to expectations. The main characters in Father Ted are all reversals. You’d hope that priests are intelligent, principled men; not thick (like Father Dougal), dishonest (like Father Ted) and drunk (like Father Jack). The sitcom Absolutely Fabulous is based on a reversal: the mother, Eddie, acting like a teenager and the daughter, Saffie, acting like a grown up.

Switches
The right person or thing in the wrong situation. One Goodness Gracious Me sketch features a Hindu man trying to keep a cow as a pet. Here the switch is between a cow and a dog or cat. The sketch looks at the problems the man faces trying to keep a cow in a suburban home. Chief amongst these is the enormous cow-flap in the kitchen door — it’s so large burglars keep using it to sneak into the house.

Exaggeration
Where things go completely over the top, such as in the Restaurant Sketch above. In another example, a sketch from Smith and Jones, we see two men admiring a stereo system that’s a miracle of modernisation — it’s absolutely tiny, virtually the size of a matchbox. We then discover the system has so many features it can be worked only with a huge remote control that’s the size of a door.

Coming up with ideas

Not all comedy ideas fit neatly into one of the above categories, but most will. Have a go yourself. Take something ordinary like a high-street bank and see how it might respond to a reversal, switch etc. Once you’ve established an idea ask yourself a few questions as to how and why the situation arose and it’s likely implications. The answers will often provide more opportunities for humour.

How can we apply a Reversal to the bank?

Banks are traditionally difficult to borrow money from, so a reversal of the normal situation would be a bank that’s desperate to get rid of its cash. Perhaps the money has become contaminated in some way and the bank staff want to get rid of it. If so, how was the money contaminated in the first place? What’s it contaminated with? What will it do to anyone who touches it?

How can we apply a Switch to the bank?

Who’s an unlikely person to put in charge of a bank? How about an Apache chief. How did he end up running a bank? Are all the staff Apaches? Does the manager stable his horse in the walk-in safe and scalp mortgage defaulters?

How can we apply Exaggeration to the bank?

Banks are secure buildings, so could the security aspect be exaggerated? Perhaps the manger has bricked up all the doors and windows. Why the extra security? Are the staff trying to stop anyone discovering they’ve run out of money? Is the manager on medication that’s made him paranoid?

How can we apply a Red Herring to the bank?

We see a gunman frisking the customers in a bank queue. We then find out he’s not a crook, he’s one of the cashiers collecting overdue bank charges.

Tips on sketch writing

If you’re writing with a particular show in mind make sure your material is appropriate to its audience. Be guided by past material. If it’s a new show, or one you’re not familiar with, contact the production team and find out what they want.

Keep the dialogue to a bare minimum. Look at every word and make sure it serves a purpose. If you can do without a word, cut it.

Don’t forget the pictures. Many writers concentrate on dialogue and overlook the visual element. In the Cow sketch mentioned above we don’t just hear about the cow-flap in the door, we see it too.

Avoid clichés. Avoid sketches that involve well-worn characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, the Godfather. These characters have been favourites of sketch writers for years and people are tired of them. In the same way avoid sketches involving doctors and policemen. Uniformed professionals are another sketch show staple and it’s hard to come up with a police/doctor gag that hasn’t been done before.

Writing gags

Most gags comprise a factual statement followed by a punchline that conjures up a funny visual image or twists the meaning of words — some do both like this one by Groucho Marx:

One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas.
How he got in my pyjamas I’ll never know.

This plays on the meaning of ‘in my pyjamas’ and presents us with a mental image of an elephant squeezed into a pair of jammies.

The following are ‘Yo mama’ jokes (also called Snaps). These gags are stylised but almost every joke you can think of works on the same principles.

Yo Mama’s…

…armpits are so hairy it looks like she’s got Don King in a headlock!

…breath smells so bad when she yawns her teeth duck!

…so poor she married just to get the rice!

…so dumb she think a hot meal is stolen food!

…so fat she went to the movies and sat next to everyone!

…so poor she goes to KFC to lick other people’s fingers!

…so stupid she saw a sign that said Wet Floor and did!

…so ugly she looked out the window and got arrested for mooning!

…so hairy she went out in the woods and Big Foot took pictures of her!

…so ugly they filmed Gorillas in the Mist in her shower!

Thinking up gags

The best way to develop your gag-writing skills is to practice. Can you think of a punchlines that might follow each of the following statements?

Their house is so cold…
My friend is so lazy…
Her dog is so stupid…
His cooking is so bad…

Tricky isn’t it? Get your brain into gear by making notes. Pick a topic, in this case bad cooking, and write down a list of:

• Who’s connected with cooking.
• Where cooking takes place.
• What things involve cooking.
• When you cook.
• Words or phrases you associate with cooking.

(If you’ve read the chapter Coming up with ideas you’ll see these questions feature a selection of Rudyard Kipling’s six honest serving men.)

Answers to the above might include:

Who?
Chef / Cook / Gourmet / Critic / Gordon Ramsay / Restauranteur…

Where?
Kitchens / Grocers / Butchers / Restaurants / Hotels / Cafes / Diners / Markets / France…

What?
Food / Pots / Pans / Stoves / Ovens / Spices / Meat / Fish / Vegetables / Fruit / Cans / Knives…

When?
Evening out / Shopping trip / Barbecue / Breakfast / Lunch / Dinner / Brunch…

Words/Phrases?
Michelin stars / Flavour / Aroma / Greasy spoon / Snack / Obesity / Yummy / Cookery book / Recipes / Obese…

Next write down a list for opposites. This might seem odd, but many gags work by combining things that are normally opposed to each other. Your cooking opposites might read like this:

Who?
Dieters / Health inspectors / Trainers / Thin people / Skeletons / People with food allergies…

Where?
Health spa / Weight loss camp / Deserts / Empty food store / Prisons…

What?
Empty fridge / Broken can-opener / Empty cupboard / Empty plate / Rumbling stomach…

When?
Lent / Diet / Illness / Famine / Disaster / Poverty…

Words/Phrases?
Starving / Hunger / Raw /Appetite loss / Tasteless / Full / Puke / Poison…

Try to include as many entries as possible under each category.

If you’ve read Coming up with ideas you’ll see that you’ve just completed your Research phase. Next comes the Thinking — you have a list of words and phrases, now mull them over looking for connections. Inspiration might strike quickly, if not, put some real effort into it for a half-hour, take a break, and come back to it. How about..? 

His cooking is so bad, Michelin have put a contract out on him.

His cooking is so bad, his last barbecue was declared a crime scene.

His cooking is so bad, the local prison saves on a gas chamber by having him make the last meals.

You can probably think up some better ones yourself!

Gag writing tips


Like sketches, keep them as short as possible. Take any opportunity to reduce the word count.

Give it time. Once you’ve brainstormed a list of gags put them away and take a fresh look the next day. Some of your creations might not look so good now that you’ve slept on them but you should find new, better ones bubbling up.

Don’t be too direct. Some gags work best if you approach the subject matter sideways. Take ‘Yo mama’s so hairy she went out in the woods and Big Foot took pictures of her!’ A shorter version would be ‘Yo mama’s so hairy she looks like Big Foot!’. The second version might raise a smile, but it’s a direct comparison that’s too blunt to do more than that. The original version delivers the same message but conjures up a funnier mental image ie Big Foot excitedly snapping a picture of yo mama to show to his Big Foot friends.

Keep a comedy notebook. Make lists of notorious celebrities, dumb adverts, movies, politicians, current events, odd street signs, strange newspaper headlines etc. The next time you’re stuck for an idea flick through your notebook and let it inspire you. Think up captions for the cartoons and pictures you find there.

Join the dots. Look for ways to make new connections between current trends, celebrities, news events etc. To create topical gags brainstorm equal and opposite word lists for a selection of current news-stories and see what crops up (see Thinking up gags above). For examples of this kind of topical cross-cutting humour look at the daily column of US comedian Argus Hamilton (http://argushamilton.com/today.htm).

Multiple meanings. Keep a look out for double-meanings and list in your notebook:

Reservation: Indian/Restaurant/Doubt…
Fire: Flame/Sack/Shoot…
Swing: Toy/Music/Sex…

Playing on different interpretations of the same word can lead to a great gag. The Groucho Marks gag quoted above is a good example of a double meaning. The following example is from Tim Vine:

I phoned the local gym and I asked if they could teach me how to do the splits.
They said, “How flexible are you?”
I said, “I can’t make Tuesdays.”

Writing for shows

Comedy writing is either speculative (spec) or commissioned. Spec writers submit material to a show and get paid by the minute if any is used. Commissioned writers are paid to write a specific amount of material. Most writers start out as spec contributors and, assuming they’re any good, are given commissions to encourage them to come up with more.

Script editors

Script editors read submitted material and manage the output of the commissioned writers; most will also have a hand in rewriting material that needs polishing. Most comedy script editors start out as writers and are usually sympathetic to the beginner.

Finding shows

At any one time there’ll usually be at least one television or radio comedy show in production; the trouble is finding out about them — quite often the first you’ll hear of a new show is when it’s broadcast. Topical shows are recorded in the same week they’re broadcast, giving you a chance to send in your own submissions, but most non-topical sketch shows are recorded months beforehand, meaning you’ll have to bide your time.

Writing for established shows

If you see a show you’d like to write for, contact the production company and ask if it’s coming back for another series and if they’d be interested in receiving material. If the show accepts spec material they should have guidelines telling you what they’re after.

Writing for new shows

Getting involved in a new project is impossible unless you have inside information, but there are ways of finding out about new shows in the pipeline:

Trade press. Media periodicals often carry news items about new comedy projects and sometimes a producer starting a new show will place an advert asking for submissions. Three popular UK periodicals are: 

The Stage (http://www.thestage.co.uk/) a weekly newspaper for theatre, television and radio professionals.

Broadcast (http://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/) a weekly newspaper for the television industry.

Televisual (http://www.televisual.com/) a monthly business magazine aimed at broadcasters and production companies.

Cold calling. Some production companies specialise in comedy. Write in and ask if they have any new projects in the pipeline. Some producers also specialise in comedy projects. Try writing to them (via a production company) and see if they’re involved in anything that might require freelance material. No one should object to a short, polite letter or email, but don’t send in reams of material.

The internet. Many comedy fans work in media (or know someone who does) and might be privy to inside information. Keep an eye on the comedy sites and forums; occasionally they’ll feature a post about a new show starting production. In the UK the British Comedy Guide website (http://www.comedy.co.uk/) is a good place to start.

To see other titles dealing with the themes in this chapter visit The Writers’ Guide website (http://www.thewritersguide.co.uk/comedy.html).


Main image: Everett Collection c/o Shutterstock

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