Best comedy writing tip I’ve ever got: Put the funny bit at the end

Now, I haven’t yet scaled to the thin, slippery branches at the top of the comedy writing tree – so I am willing to believe there are other principles of the comedy writing craft I have yet to discover. But of all the tricks I’ve picked up so far this is the one I use the most: Put the funny bit at the end.

Not original advice, I know. But you should worry if someone tries to convince you that they have invented the new alchemical secret of comedy (perhaps a comedy wig to wear while writing) which no one has ever used before. Doesn’t work like that. The only secret of comedy I’ve found is that it’s bloody hard.

Anyway, there are good practical reasons for putting the funny at the end. First of all you don’t want to carry on talking once the audience is laughing. They might not hear the rest of your exquisitely polished prose and so miss out on the aesthetic experience of a lifetime. And if you keep talking it might stop them laughing. Which (as a comedy writer) should be the opposite of what you want.

But more than that, audiences have been trained over a lifetime of watching comedy and hearing jokes to expect the funny bit at the end. I mean, that’s where the punchline goes, right? You don’t expect to then have a five minute itemised list of everything else the chicken did that day. It crossed the road. That’s enough.

Good performers will also use pauses and body language to subconsciously cue the audience: This is where you laugh. Make it easy for the performers to make your script shine (especially if the performer is you).

How do we actually do this?

At the risk of stating the stupidly obvious, you need to, um, find the funny bit. And find the end. And put the funny but there. Obvious. But actually, in practice, it isn’t always obvious.

The first thing to do is the “the funny bit” – the word or phrase that lets the audience get the joke. This is sometimes called the “punch word”.

Then rewrite your joke or funny line so that the punch word happens, naturally and fluently at the end. Note the “naturally and fluently” bit. It’s not always as easy as it sounds.

Sometimes you can put the the funny bit at the end by  stopping mid way through what the full grammatical sentence. This works so long as the audience has already understood all they need to from the set-up.

Take a look at this years funniest joke from the Edinburgh Fringe (according to the judges of Dave Award for the Funniest Joke of the Fringe): “You know who really gives kids a bad name? Posh and Becks.”

He didn’t say: “those Beckham’s, they really give kids bad names” because that makes the joke too obvious and so not funny. He also didn’t say You know who really gives kids a bad name? Posh and Becks, I mean call a kid Romeo? Sheesh.” – too much talking after the joke is done.

Those two version still look like jokes, but Stewart Francis’ version is funnier.

It works on other levels too

Putting the funny bit at the end can be good advice in other ways:

  • End up a stand up set with the funniest, most guaranteed-to-get-a-laugh joke.
  • End a sketch with a big, satisfying laugh line.
  • End a sitcom episode with a climactic funny scene (I always think of Basil Fawlty offering the rat-infested box of biscuits to the hygiene inspector: “Would you care for a rat?”)

Like all rules for writing comedy, there are times this one can and should be broken – but only if you know what you are doing and why. As always in comedy writing there is no guarantee that any particular joke, sketch or sitcom or whatever will work, but using this technique will improve your odds. And that is as close to a comedy secret formula as you can get.