(L-r) ZACH GALIFIANAKIS as Alan holds Baby Tyler, BRADLEY COOPER as Phil and ED HELMS as Stu in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ comedy “The Hangover,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE USED SOLELY FOR ADVERTISING, PROMOTION, PUBLICITY OR REVIEWS OF THIS SPECIFIC MOTION PICTURE AND TO REMAIN THE PROPERTY OF THE STUDIO. NOT FOR SALE OR REDISTRIBUTION.
1. Keep your characters on the opposite end of the punchline – To increase the humor in your comedy script, have your characters anticipate the exact opposite of what’s about to occur next. When you widen the gap between your character’s expectations (and therefore the audience’s) and what happens, you broaden the scope of the reversal – hopefully producing bigger laughs.
2. Remember irony – According to Wikipedia, the definition of irony is having a disparity or incongruity between intention and expression or intention and results. Since irony is just a specialized reversal, it makes sense that it’s going to be a strong weapon in your comedy arsenal. The beautiful thing about irony is that it can be applied in a variety of situations–at both the micro and macro levels when writing a comedy script.
3. Make yourself laugh – Comedy is so subjective. Trying too hard to tap into what’s trending, what you THINK today’s crowds will laugh at, or what you know yesterday’s crowd enjoyed, is a recipe for angst. It also risks coming off as inauthentic and forced. Your primary goal with your writing is to make yourself laugh. If you’re cracking up (or at least grinning) as you write, then you’ve done your job. Don’t write what you think people will find funny. Write what makes you laugh.
4. Use characters wisely – Comedies can be tricky to navigate because you’re trying to tell a compelling and unique story, but also want to keep the audience cracking up along the way. First, accept that there will be quiet points in the script. Yes, some performances are “laugh a minute,” but it can be hard to convey a substantial plot that way. I like to add a comic-relief character or two. They bring most of the laughs and provide relief from the more straightforward protagonist, and lighten up serious moments in the script.
5. Write with someone who makes you laugh – It’s hard to write a script by yourself, but it’s equally hard to find the right person with whom to write. Find a fellow writer (friend, coworker, relative, etc.) who shares your sense of humor and writing ambition, and build your story from there. But first, make sure you work out who’s the “all-powerful head writer” and who’s the “lowly co-head writer” – it’s the source of 99% of fights between co-writers of a script.
6. It’s OK that you have no idea what you’re doing – Any screenwriter can tell you that nobody is confident; nobody thinks they’re doing well and nobody believes they can write a good script. We believe that it’s OK to remind yourself that you’re new and it’s hard. Just completing a script (whether it becomes a movie in the future or not) shows you’re doing well.
7. Don’t be a baby about your jokes – When it comes to jokes, it’s an exercise in constant vigilance to keep our egos from puffing up past a manageable size. There’s an unwritten rule amongst comedy writers that whoever feels most passionately about a line or a joke or an idea, wins. But it only works if you give up feeling overly proud of whatever joke you’re convinced is uncuttable – it definitely isn’t.
8. Have Fun – Urban legend claims that actor Edmund Kean uttered the following on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” It doesn’t matter whether the tale is fact or fiction—the quote is accurate. Comedy is hard, and it takes years of practice, dedication, and rejection to be a successful humor writer. Yet, life is brief, and you might as well enjoy the journey. Think funny, write funny, and have fun.
9. The audience won’t care if the characters don’t – A good comedy is not about silly people doing silly things. Comedy has to be about something important – important to the characters, and important values to its society. It is about serious characters doing desperate things because they have left themselves no choice.
10. The audience laughs because it recognizes something truthful – British playwright/screenwriter Tom Stoppard called laughter “the sound of comprehension”. We laugh when we see something on the stage or screen that rings true. With their laughter, the audience is agreeing to accept the truth you are telling. So while you may be writing with the determination to make the audience fall off their seats in laughter, don’t be afraid to express some truth within your comedy screenplay.