Some rules of joke writing

There are no simple rules in comedy writing. If there were there would already be an iPhone app that cranked out award winning sitcom scripts and whole Michael McIntyre Comedy Roadshows.

There are no simple rules, but there are things that have proved to help make scripts better and jokes funnier. Here a few I have picked up. I don’t claim any of these to be original. You should worry if I did.

  1. Fewer words is funnier. Reduce the number of words between the laughs. Get rid of anything which is not either setting up a laugh, or the laugh line itself. See if you can do any of those things with fewer words. I often surprise myself with how much I can cut without losing anything.
  2. Put the “punch word” at the end of the sentence. The word that surprises the audience and springs the laugh should be the last word otherwise the following words will be cutting across the laugh. The pause at the end of the sentence is also a cue to the audience – laugh now! Leave out words or reorder the sentence as needed. So long as it works. Want like Yoda too much to sound you do not. (Unless you are doing a Star Wars parody. Don’t do a Star Wars parody.)
  3. Use visual images. Use concrete words that paint a picture rather than abstractions. Jokes are about chickens and roads, An Englishmen, a Scotsman, and an Irishman in a pub, a funny thing that happened to me tonight on the way here. How many classic jokes or comedy “bits” involve abstract words like justice, gluttony or expectation? Not many. There is a reason for that.
  4. Break any of these rules if it makes it funnier.

This only scratches the surface of everything you could think about when writing and editing comedy (and I make no claim to know all or even most of what there is to know). But I find these rules indispensable whenever I give my work a first or even a second edit. Is there anything else I should add? Tell me in the comments below.

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