Writing Funny

Here are a few notes on pointers received during the Listowel Writers’ Week course on ‘Writing Funny’, given by Gerard Stembridge.

When writing comedic prose the most important thing to convey to the reader is the comic idea. What is the comedic idea of the piece of writing? Can you readily define it for yourself?

Another important consideration is – What is the comedic idea worth? Does what you want to write merit a three line joke, a paragraph, or a short piece or does it have the “legs” to carry a novel without losing its effect and impetus? Would there be enough laughs and amusement for the reader to want to read it through to the end? This is an important consideration, as there is no point in “flogging a dead horse” for the sake of lengthening a piece of writing, that would not be funny.

You should find that your writing leads itself to the following analysis:

Do you tend to involve yourself in your writing or is your writing focused on ‘they’ e.g. spitting image characters, political satire etc.

If your writing tends toward the ‘I’, does the ‘I’ character have an idiosyncratic point of view, and, is it of itself sufficiently funny to be the basis for a successful piece of comedic writing?

Are you more interested in the stuff you create in your head? Does your interior monologue have “the legs” to keep the reader amused or even render the reader “legless” with laughter. Myles na Gopaleen was a successful writer of this type. Are you creating stuff just purely for your own amusement; would others find it funny too? This is a very important consideration.

So – does the action take place outside your head i.e. in the everyday world and would others be easily able to identify with it/find it funny?

Is your writing affectionate? Does it involve self-deprecation or does it tend toward the cold, leaning towards satire? It is important to maintain the “feel” and tone of your writing thoughout the piece, as the reader will feel less ambiguous about the piece and get greater satisfaction and enjoyment if the writer ‘sets out their stall’ – be it warm or cold.

If your writing tends toward the cold, don’t be afraid of that, you can carry the tone right through to icy cold to get across your point of view but be aware that you may not be liked!

Is the idea or incident you want to convey funny in itself or are you using comedy for some higher purpose – like lampooning society, or making a political point?

When writing situation comedy one of the cardinal rules of creating sufficient comedic tension and possibilities is that the characters cannot escape the situation. Think of Porridge or Father Ted – prison and the priesthood mean the characters are stuck in their ‘situation.

Think of a ‘situation’. Ask yourself why the characters cannot escape. For example, in ‘Friends’, the single friends need to share to pay the rent. In ‘The Office’, they work there. In ‘Golden Girls’ they are old, so naturally it is set in Florida.

Next choose your characters and write a short description of each character. Limit your characters to 6.

Next describe what they each want and show what conflict arises between them as a result. What is the comedic idea? Try to put the idea into one sentence. For instance: An incompetent hotelier with big ideas runs a small hotel with the ‘help’ of his wife, a Spanish waiter and an alcoholic chef. Does it have legs – i.e. would it last a season, or would it die after the first couple of episodes?

If the answer is yes – write the opening scene of your first episode.

With thanks to Gerry Stembridge for a great ‘writing funny’ course and to Listowel for a really great festival 2007.

Bernie McCormick