Make ’em Laugh: Comedic Writing (Part One)

Last week I left off with a few subcategories from the NYC Flash Fiction contest that deserve an in-depth look.  Today we’re going to be discussing the comedic genres, particularly these three:

  • Comedy
  • Political Satire
  • Romantic Comedy

So, what’s the difference between these?  Way back when we only had two dramas (Comedy and Drama) a Comedy meant it had a happy ending, usually a wedding, while Drama ended with a tragic death of some kind.  These days we use Comedy to mean that which makes you laugh.  The differences between the comedic genres come from how it makes you laugh and why.

Comedy

In a broad sense, comedy covers all the sub-genres but in general, let’s talk about Classic comedies, aka comedies that are not making fun of something in particular but are their own self-contained stories.  Early examples include Commedia dell’Arte with stock characters and improvised situations, and Shakespeare’s comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It.

Some common tropes of comedic genres:

  • Mistaken/Hidden Identities
    • Twins
    • Long lost relatives
    • Disguises
  • Trickery of some kind
  • Stock Characters (i.e. the Lovers, the Servants, the cuckolded buffoon, the greedy miser, the doddering professor.  Since you’re meant to laugh, flat caricatures do well here even though they can be hallmarks of bad writing in other genres.)
  • Gender bending (A classic trope from Shakespeare to Bug Bunny.  Beware of distasteful humor regarding transfolk here, the same way you’d do well to avoid racial/ethnic humor in your stock characters.*)
  • Differing personalities having to work together  (Buddy Cop movies)
  • Mad cap adventures
    • Babies
    • Animals
    • Cross-country races for fabulous sums of money

For a more complete list, and/or if you’re out of ideas and forced to write something comedic, start clicking through this page until inspiration hits you.  (Be forewarned, lots of TV Tropes links are coming, set yourself a timer so you don’t fall down the rabbit hole.)

*Before anyone starts arguing about political correctness and its place in modern comedy, I want to first say that you can of course write whatever you want.  But if you’re a novice comic I would advise you to avoid polarizing tropes.  If you’re trying to make a point about race it takes a lot of skill, and even then people may not get the joke. And if you’re not, it’s just lazy writing to rely on outdated tropes.

Romantic Comedies

I’m not going to go into too much depth on this because it essentially has a combination of the above tropes, with the added emphasis on one or more couples and a focus on their romantic relationship.  In dated works it meant the couples got married at the end, in modern takes it means the couples either “get together” or maybe even rekindle a fading romance.  Unlike the other Romance genre, this one should have a happy ending, regardless of how unrealistic it may be. Indulge in a little wish fulfillment.

For flash fiction you should probably stick to the relationship itself, but it should be noted that Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, one of the earliest examples of the RomCom, has its dramatic moments, so don’t feel limited if you want to include some heavier plot elements.  It’ll flesh out the story and add depth to your characters.


Sitcoms are good modern examples of short-form stories, but if you’re looking for novels most of the greats tend to parody certain genres (Terry Pratchett: Fantasy, Douglas Adams: SciFi, Christopher Moore: everything from the Bible to Shakespeare to Vampires.)

This is as good a place as any to talk about the difference between Parody and Satire.

Parody

Parody is the practice of copying the mannerisms, style or appearance of a work or its author’s voice to make a point about that work (or sometimes unrelated other works)…it is often good-natured or affectionate. It only attacks the style and content of a fictional work and not real-life events. -TV Tropes

Remember when we talked about what fell under Fair Use?  That’s parody: “Something you’ve seen before in a different form.”  You’re making fun of someone else’s concept or intellectual property or a genre or whatever.  You’re joking about a concept that you yourself did not invent.  (Side note: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sounds like it ought to be a parody, but it’s actually played straight and gets away with it because the Jane Austen work is in the Public Domain, same as the Wizard of Oz and Wicked.)

While Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is original content, it’s a parody of the SciFi genre in much the same way Galaxy Quest is a Star Trek specific parody.  What do I mean by that?

The protagonist, Arthur Dent, rejects his call to adventure and spends most of the novels as a reluctant hero.  He and the main love interest never really get together.  The climax of the novel, leading up to Arthur being the chosen one for having the ultimate answer question to Life the Universe and Everything is never actually resolved.

A parody can be funny without having any real jokes in it.  For example, the episode Pillows vs. Blankets on Community is funny precisely because it’s played straight – a pillow fight documented in such a way that it parodies the Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary.  It’s the absurd situation that makes the comedy, and it’s not quite as funny if you don’t get what they’re parodying.

As for Satire… I’ll be honest, this post is much longer than I expected it to be, and I don’t want to rush that one, so we’ll have to get into it on Friday instead.  But before we go, I want to leave you with this:

General Pointers

Everything I’ve listed above are plot-related comedic tropes.  You should note that when it comes to comedic writing there are other ways to tell a joke that have nothing to do with the plot.  They include but are not limited to:

  • Timing
  • Sarcasm
  • Hyperbole
  • The Unexpected

The last one is my favorite.  There’s just something about the unexpected that makes me laugh, and I love that good comedic writing will work jokes into the description as well as the dialogue and situations. Like the quote below:

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t. – Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Comedy is an art, and I can’t really go into what’s funny or why.  I can’t teach you how to tell a joke; it would take far too long and I’m out of time as it is.  But check out the following resources to unlock your inner comic:

Got any tips and tricks for comedic writing?  Authors/novels you love?  Share them below!

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One thought on “Make ’em Laugh: Comedic Writing (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Publisher’s Spotlight: UFO Publishing – Liz Schriftsteller

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