Joke Writing: What do you do when the laugh won’t land?
by Tom Crowley
Let’s address the inherent arrogance of my daring to write this article. By adopting the role of Humour Expert, I’m asking you to believe that I am funny. I can’t make you believe that. If you met me in person, you might think you’ve just met the most unfunny person in the world. Alternately, you might drop to one knee and propose on the spot because I made your heart sing and your spirits dance with my funny, funny jokes. Whether a joke is funny varies wildly from one person’s perspective to the next. Even worse, a joke’s fortunes can depend on outside factors: be they an audience’s disposition, someone coughing over a crucial set-up line or perhaps the alignment of the stars in the sky. So I could never say with any degree of scientific prudence that I am definitively ‘funny’. Incidentally, I was once in love with Scientific Prudence and she left me for the Large Hadron Collider, so I’ll thank you very much not to mention her again. This is not a guide to what is funny and what isn’t. This is simply a list of some proposals you might like to apply to a case of joke block. They’re all lessons I’ve learned through years of making comedy in a number of forms , and which I still fire subliminally at everything I write. I very much hope they’re of some use! Otherwise I’m just wasting everybody’s time.
REASONS YOUR JOKE MAY NOT BE WORKING:
1. YOU’VE LOST THE CHARACTER
“No, Dougal — it’s not morning” — Father Ted
Ted and Dougal put on their pyjamas and go to bed. Ted switches off the light. Moments later, he says: “Ah damn,” having forgotten to wind the clock, and switches the light back on. Dougal immediately leaps out of bed, stretches, and goes to get dressed. An amazing moment, perfectly designed to provoke a steadily rising laugh of realisation from the audience as we twig to what’s going on. The moment succeeds because despite how utterly extreme the concept is (as co-creator and writer Graham Linehan put it: “A character so stupid he doesn’t know he hasn’t slept”), we believe that Dougal could be capable of this thought process:
I have gone to bed.
The lights have gone off as usual.
The lights have now come back on.
Ergo: it is morning.
It wouldn’t be funny if the roles had been reversed and Ted had made that mistake. It wouldn’t make any sense. Of course Ted would know it wasn’t morning, he’s too intelligent. It could conceivably work if Father Jack did it as his core character trait is: drunk. Inserting Jack into the situation still doesn’t work as well as Dougal, however, because beyond the similarity of ‘failing to make simple logical connections’, they are otherwise entirely different. Jack is uncaring, insensitive and belligerent in his ignorance. Insert Jack into this situation and he might conceivably believe that morning had broken, but would likely sleep on regardless or hurl abuse at whoever had turned on the light. Dougal is oblivious, innocent and well-meaning, and that’s why it’s funny. Having made his logical misstep (‘it is morning’), he immediately springs out of bed like a well-behaved child, ready to get on with his day, even though he hasn’t had a moment’s rest. He doesn’t realise his mistake, nor does he question what he’s meant to do. That’s why it’s funny. The joke tests the limits of the plausibility of Dougal’s stupidity and suggestibility, as we’ve had established in every previous episode and in this episode so far, but it stays just within them. It’s a fantastic character joke.
This might sound like it’s limited to scripts containing multiple characters, or a character adopted by a performer, but it applies to stand-up comedy as well. Who are you when you’re on-stage? Who are you in real life, for that matter? Does it make sense for you to speak angrily about a subject? To be sentimental about it? To get defensive about it? If it doesn’t, it’s going to jar. Approach the gag from an angle that makes sense in your voice, or in the right character’s voice — if you can’t find any way for it to fit, or if it communicates something different to what you wanted, then you might want to give the joke to a different character or maybe even find another joke.
Would this person say or do this thing? If they did, what would that mean? Would it surprise them? Would it surprise the people around them? These are important questions.
2. YOU’VE FORGOTTEN THE CONTEXT
“He could turn up anywhere at any time, just like really inappropriate, funny, inappropriate situations… like a funeral.” — Limmy’s Show
A companion piece to the previous test. Similarly to whether the character would do or say something, and whether it would a) make sense and b) be funny, what would it mean if they said it in their bedroom at home? Or at work, in front of their boss? This goes beyond simple questions of where the character is and who’s around them (ie. the politician goes into the living room and tells his wife that he’s got an election coming up, and it’s much bigger and harder than he thought it would be, causing the unnoticed vicar to spit out his tea in shock). This asks fundamental questions of your scene and your story.
Firstly, where is your character in their journey? What is their super-objective, how close are they to getting it, and what have they gone through in their quest to get it so far? Someone saying “I just came in for a biscuit” isn’t necessarily funny if they’ve just walked into the kitchen, but said in the eighteenth hour of a grueling hostage situation, it could be hilarious.
Secondly, what do the character’s environment, the people around them and the time of day mean to them? There’s a very useful question which I often ask myself during the writing process, especially when I’m having difficulty keeping a scene moving, which is:
What did these people think was going to happen when they walked in here?
This in turn leads you to ask:
What would they be doing on a normal day? What would they expect to see? And in turn, why did they expect that? And why is this day different? And then, what effect does that change have on them?
And so on. This line of thinking is a sure-fire scene-unblocker and should also help to unpick the logic and/or the illogic of any joke.
3. YOU’VE PUSHED IT TOO FAR
“I really feel if I’m eating turkey, you should eat some turkey.” — Peep Show
This is a bit of a contentious one. I’m not even sure if I agree with my own case study. Many people have told me that the above moment from Series 4 ofPeep Show — where our mortification-prone heroes have accidentally killed a beloved pet dog, tried to burn the body and end up having to eat some of it in an effort to pass it off as barbecue leftovers — was the exact point when the series jumped the shark. For them, and for many people, eating the charred remains of an innocent domesticated animal pushed the series beyond its usual terrain of relatable — if extreme — social awkwardness into the realm of the grotesque and absurd. Personally, I think it was pretty funny. But I can see their point.
Peep Show in its early days seemed almost untouchable as a sitcom, thanks to writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s juggling of the relationships between the core cast, the fantastic use of audible inner monologue, and their razor-keen powers of observation. Much as we despised Mark and Jeremy as we howled and cringed at their terrible decisions, we sympathised with them, even in their worst moments. Even if we could never imagine doing — or even thinking — anything they did, we understood their frustration, their fear, their embittered determination to get one over on the world, just once. They’re our reckless friends who we can’t vouch for, but who we’re nonetheless fond of. That friend might smoke drugs in a public toilet or steal your fantasy modelling magazines for onanistic purposes, but he probably wouldn’t eat a dog after accidentally killing it. Not even on a bad day.
Of course, the counter-argument (closer to my own opinion) is that Bain and Armstrong spent four seasons of Peep Show making things worse and worse for Mark and Jeremy, intensifying the awkwardness of their predicaments and the consequences of their actions episode-by-episode so that by Series 4 nothing less than eating a barbecued dog would do.
However you feel about the Peep Show example, this isn’t a question of good taste or offence. This is a question of the world you’re building. What are its parameters? What is permitted to happen there, and what is so extreme that it would totally derail events in the story, or else seem totally incongruous? If Tom Good ate a cooked dog, depicted in full, visceral, burnt detail, Barbara would call the police and you the viewer would be horrified. If Sterling Archer did it, nobody would bat an eyelid.
Those are purposefully extreme examples, of course, but not because one of them is a cartoon — that doesn’t matter. What matters is the expectations you have of these characters and the practicalities of the world they live in. Your world has rules too, and you probably know instinctively what they are but trying to define them can help a great deal.
4. YOU HAVEN’T PUSHED IT FAR ENOUGH
“Others call me Captain Margaret.” — The Mighty Boosh
I once heard a definition of comedy as: “The absurd occurring in a mundane world, or conversely, the mundane happening in an absurd world”. So, a chimpanzee throwing its faeces at horrified patrons in a branch of Nando’s, or conversely, a chimpanzee filing its tax return in the Congo. This test is fairly simple, but hard to remedy. If your jokes aren’t unexpected enough, or don’t involve enough surprise for either your characters or your audience, they won’t be interesting. Training yourself to make those mental leaps to new and undiscovered places takes time, a sense of creative freedom and a lot of trust in yourself. I’ve included a clip of the no-idea-unexplored Mighty Boosh as encouragement, to show just how far in the other direction you can go. If a flattened Jimi Hendrix can hand Noel Fielding a magic pipe through a door in his hair, then you can stand to let your imagination run just a little bit wilder.
I’m hesitant to offer any negative examples because it’s a bit reductive to describe comedy as boring. It might be written to be slow and quiet in the service of mood or world-building or it might just be a gentle style of humour which isn’t to your taste. Conversely, shows or comedy acts that aim to be absurd above all else may well lose the grounding which is needed to connect their characters and stories, and hence their jokes, to an audience. It’s a bit of a balancing act, really.
What I will say is that if you’ve ever criticised Miranda for consisting mostly of a woman falling over, or Citizen Khan for relying on tired clichés and cheap stereotypes, then you’d better not let yourself down when it comes to making your own creative decisions. Does your joke sound like it has a structure or a logic which you’ve heard a hundred times before? Does it depend on broad generalisations, or hack altruisms? Then scrap it and find something new.
5. YOU STOLE IT
“To start, press any key… there doesn’t seem to be any Any key!” — The Simpsons
You know what you did. Don’t do that. Not just for pride, or common decency, or copyright issues, but because you are the best person for the job and you need to live up to that responsibility. You’ve made a series of conscious and unconscious interlocking decisions, big and small, which make your material utterly unique to you. Only you can write it. No joke which you’ve heard, no matter how good, will fit into your work as well as something you created yourself. You owe it to yourself and your audience to finish what you started.
6. YOU’RE WORRIED YOU STOLE IT
“Simpsons did it! Simpsons did it!” — South Park
Now, this is an entirely different matter. You know the feeling. You write an inspired one-liner and suddenly freeze — it sounds familiar. Perhaps you can’t put your finger on it, or perhaps you have a hazy memory of hearing something like it on telly, or maybe it was that stand-up you like, or maybe your friend said something like it. Perhaps you remember the exact phrase and where you heard it, but the wording is slightly different, or it’s being used in a different context, or the joke comes in somewhere else.
No thought is completely original. We are all products of our influences, the people around us and more-or-less every image, sound and idle thought that’s breezed through our huge cavernous minds since the day we could form memories. As such, it’s entirely possible that you might inadvertently parrot back a phrase which someone else once thought of. It’s also entirely possible that the person you heard it from picked it up somewhere else first without realising. The most likely scenario is that every bit of “new” material we hear today was first spoken out loud at the Palaeolithic Era’s hottest alternative comedy night by a caveman stand-up called Guh.
If you can’t place where the idea came from, either Google it (where you’ll likely discover that a thousand other people worldwide have had the same idea at some point, and then you won’t know what to think — I don’t recommend this) or just accept that you’re being silly and use the joke. If you’ve subliminally ripped off someone else’s work, someone will say something, andthen you’ll have your answer. If nobody ever says anything, congratulations! Either you came up with a new joke or you got away with grand larceny!
If you can place the source very directly — ie. you suddenly realise you’ve accidentally written out the entire screenplay to Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail even though you started out trying to write a heartwarming rom-com set in a betting shop — it’s a question for your own code of ethics. If it’s only a matter of similar phrasing, the wording of a joke conceivably inspired by something you heard elsewhere, for example, then you’re probably okay. In the Holy Grail example, maybe better bin the project and take it as a lesson in the importance of proofreading. Ultimately, it’s whether, on analysing the thought process that led you to this joke, you can honestly tell yourself:
The invention I have put into this line outweighs its influences.
If you can look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself this without any major pangs of conscience, you’re probably in the clear.
Most importantly — don’t let this worry paralyse you. Get it over and done with quickly. Trust your instincts. Keep it or scrap it. Get on with it. You can always write another joke if you have to. You’re smart.
7. YOU FORGOT WHY YOU STARTED
“I just want my kids back.” — Arrested Development
If the whole darned thing just doesn’t seem to be coming alive, then maybe it’s time you went back to basics. The specific characters involved don’t have the answer and nor do the details of the scene — or, in stand-up terms, neither your persona nor the subject matter — but perhaps you do. It might be helpful to take a step back and look at why you started writing this episode, or this bit, or this series in the first place. What made you first get up on a stage and start cracking wise? Like the thesis statement of an academic essay that you staple to your forehead before you start working — written backwards, so you can read it in the mirror — there must be a germ of inspiration which provoked every single line you’ve written so far. This doesn’t even need to have been an intentional decision but something inside you has pushed you this far and it might well help to remember what it is.
I don’t know whether Mitchell Hurwitz first set out creating Arrested Development because he wanted to create a show with a labyrinthine set of in-jokes and internal logic, or because he just liked the idea of a sitcom about trying to unite a totally disparate family unit. But there was some image or moment of inspiration which made him go through the fuss of assembling a team and writing, re-writing, pitching and eventually making the show. And once the ball started rolling and they found themselves with more and more of it to write, it must have come back to them in those long, lonely nights in the office, racing to meet draft deadlines.
If you’re stuck, take a second, think back to what it was that made you start — was it a character? What was it about them? Was it the setting? Or a theme? The odds are that you know what it is already and the mission statement itself won’t lead to some kind of sudden epiphany but just the act of thinking back might inject you with the kick up the backside you’ve been looking for.
8. YOU’RE SHORT OF INSPIRATION
“Better ourselves? Mister, when you’re from Skid Row, there ain’t no such thing!” — Little Shop of Horrors
When you’ve been writing for a while, it’s easy to think of yourself as a finished product. Everything you took in when you were younger defined your sense of humour and nothing could ever replace those crucial touchstones. This is true to some extent — it’s hard to unseat those early reference points. But like any creative person, you never stop being inspired by your contemporaries — or people who would have been your contemporaries had you been born ten or thirty or four hundred years ago. Take things in regularly. It’s the old adage:
If you want to write, read.
So read! Watch films, binge on sitcoms, listen to podcasts. Take in everything you can. It’s probably helpful if it’s a heady mix. A broad range of artists, writers and performers from different times, different countries — everything! Every now and again it’s a good idea to watch something which you assume you’ll probably hate. Either you were right, and the painful experience will serve as an object-lesson in what not to do, or you were dead wrong and you’ve just found a new favourite thing which will inspire you for the rest of your days. Thank God you finally took that gamble and watched Sex Lives of the Potato Men, right? Well, maybe not. You’ll probably end up in the middle — well that was pretty wretched, but that one actor was good, or that one line was funny.
I’ve used a clip from Frank Oz’s 1986 Little Shop of Horrors because, to my shame, I’ve known I’d love it for years and never bothered. I think, on some level, I was saving it up — or perhaps I was worried it wouldn’t be all I’d hoped for? In the end I absolutely lapped it up. I loved everything about it — the songs, the writing, the performances, the way it adapted the original Corman film — and I’ve had it in my head ever since like a crackling live wire saying ‘this sort of thing is possible if you really work hard’. That’s what you want!
9. YOU READ AN ENTIRE ARTICLE BY SOME IDIOT ON THE INTERNET WHEN YOU ALMOST CERTAINLY KNOW BETTER
“God — why are you keeping me from writing!?” — Bojack Horseman
Come on, mate, what do I know? You’ve been working on this thing for ages, you know what it needs! You’ve made your bed, now lie in it, for goodness sake! Open up the document, or your notebook — just get it open for starters — that’s it — and just bloody well start writing something. It can’t hurt you, and you can always change it later. Great. Now keep going. The world needs jokes, and for your sins, you have to be the person to write them. Yeah, you. So make me laugh! Right now! God knows I need it!
Follow Tom on @crowleeey
Tom Crowley has produced six Edinburgh Fringe shows with the group Sad Faces, adapted Shock Treatment (the Rocky Horror sequel) for the stage, written for The Amazing World of Gumball (Cartoon Network), The News Quiz and The Now Show (BBC Radio 4) and writes for the hit podcast sitcom Wooden Overcoats. At some point or another, somebody somewhere has said that these things were funny.
Wooden Overcoats Series 2 is currently crowdfunding. If you’ve enjoyed this article, or found it helpful in any way, you are commanded to check out their Kickstarter and throw in a few quid.