What makes something funny? While extremely subjective, theorists and comedians alike have established some guidelines that could bring you closer to writing a guaranteed knee-slapper. Between our interview with a comedian who literally made me laugh out loud on set, combined with more scientific advice (yes, there are people who study comedy!), today we’re going to help you find the funny in your next screenplay.
Monica Piper is an Emmy-winning writer, comedian, and producer whose name you may recognize from hit shows such as “Roseanne,” “Rugrats,” “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters,” and “Mad About You.” She is naturally funny, but she says most anyone can be.
“Funny is all around you,” she said. “Your antenna has to be aware of where it is,” because then you don’t even have to find the funny, and as Monica told us, “the funny finds you.”
Most things that are humorous, across cultures, fit into one of many theories of comedy, according to Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. They wrote this Slate article on a recent attempt at a unified, global theory on comedy.
The Superiority Theory says that people will laugh at another’s misfortune – take slapstick or teasing, for example. The Relief Theory says that people will laugh as a means to relieve their own psychological tension, overcome their inhibitions, and reveal suppressed fears or desires, which is why some people find dirty jokes hilarious. The Benign Violation Theory says that something is funny when it strikes the precious balance of being wrong or threatening, while still being okay or safe. Of course, the person you’re telling the joke to matters almost as much as the joke itself.
“Jokes that are funniest come from twisted expectations,” Monica told me, which is at the root of the Incongruity Theory – when there’s an inconsistency between what you expect to happen and what actually does.
But theories aside, Monica said the funniest moments, especially in TV and film, are ultimately derived from character.
Her tips for writing hilarious scripts are rooted in story:
Comedy should be based on some element of truth
Comedy should have a point of view
Comedy cannot be emotionally neutral
“How do I feel? What do I hate? What do I love? What confuses me? The idea is to exaggerate,” she said.
If you’re having trouble writing a joke, try working backward. What’s not funny? According to theorists, a joke that’s too extreme on either side of a sliding scale, between benign and a violation, probably won’t hit the right notes with your audience. The key is finding the sweet spot.
“Look at the story as the bracelet,” Monica said. “You need the bracelet before you can put the charms on it, and the jokes are the charms.”