What’s So Funny — The Book

No, I didn’t forget the question mark. The book explains what’s funny. If you want to write humor — whether for standup comedy, sketch comedy, stories or speeches — this is the step-by-step guide you’ve probably looked for and couldn’t find. I’ll be publishing it soon, but in the meantime, here are a couple of sample chapters.

Chapter One
Can Comedy Writing Be Taught?

No. Comedy is a form of magic, and if you’re not one of the wizards lucky enough to be born already possessing the magical gift, it’s hopeless. Thanks for the money, but you should throw this book away.


Chapter Two
Comedy Is An Art

Ah, glad you’re still here.

Yes, comedy writing can be taught. Comedy is an art, and like every other art, it’s a combination of form and content. Once you understand both the form and the content, you’ll find it easier to put the funny in your writing – that is, as long you have at least some degree of natural talent.

As I explained earlier, I’m a musician as well as a (retired) comedian, so I often notice parallels between music and comedy. Here’s perhaps the most significant one:

If you don’t have a musical ear, you can study music theory from childhood until your first Social Security check arrives, but you’ll probably never write catchy songs. To write good songs, you need to have music in your soul. You need the ear.

On the other hand, there are lots of people blessed with a musical ear who write catchy songs without knowing much theory. I wrote songs for years by relying on my ears. I’d hear a melody in my head, find the chords that fit the melody on my guitar, then add bass lines, vocal harmonies and lead instruments, all by using the “that sounds good” method.

Later in life I began to learn music theory, mostly by watching good teachers explain it on YouTube. When I put their lessons into practice, writing songs became easier. I found my way to “that sounds good” faster because I could use music theory as a roadmap instead of randomly running around on a keyboard or fretboard hoping to stumble across it.

My songs also became better and more varied because I was reaching into a bigger musical toolbox. When I was relying strictly on “that sounds good,” I tended to drift into the same handful of chord progressions. But after learning more about chords, scales and alternate scales, I began breaking away from my usual patterns. “That sounds good” often became “that sounds great” after trying new chords and progressions.

It’s the same with comedy. If you don’t have an ear for what’s funny, you’re never going to write scenes or jokes that crack up an audience full of strangers. But if you’re reading this, you probably know you have the ear. Have you ever come up with a smart-ass comment or reply that made people around you burst into laughter? Okay then, you have the ear for what’s funny.

Based on years of working with other standup comedians and comedy writers, I’d say most of us rely more on our natural talent and comedic ears than on any kind of theory. I certainly did. But that changed when I was asked to lead a comedy-writing workshop for a small theater group in Los Angeles. Shortly after I said, “Sure, I’ll lead the workshop,” I was hit with a thought that induced a mild state of panic:

Uh … uh … sure, I’ve written plenty of standup routines and comedy skits that drew big laughs, but I don’t actually know how I do it. How the %$#@ am I supposed to teach other people how to do it?! The best advice I can come up with right now is “Make sure your father is as funny as mine, and then be sure to inherit his sense of humor.”

I needed to find the comedic equivalent of music theory. I needed to be able to explain what’s so funny.

I went to a bookstore (yes, an actual brick-and-mortar store, which should give you some idea of how old I am) and bought the very few books that existed on writing comedy. Those helped, but not enough. I certainly picked up some useful tips I could pass along, such as: comedy requires surprising the audience, comedy creates a gap between true reality and comedic reality, put your characters in jeopardy to generate comedic situations, etc.

But the fattest chapters in those books weren’t about how to actually create humor; they were about sitcom structure, or the typical story arc in a comedy movie, or how to write and submit a spec script. As far as step-by-step guidelines on how to write something that makes people laugh, there just wasn’t enough. One of the books even offered this gem: Just Be Funny. I was pretty sure that wasn’t the kind of advice that would bring people back to a comedy-writing workshop.

“Welcome to the workshop. Here’s today’s lesson: Just be funny. See you next week, when I’ll once again tell you to just be funny.”

How do I teach others to take an idea and turn it into something funny? It seems as if funny bits just kind of pop into my brain, but I know there’s more to it than that. There’s some kind of mental process at work. Okay, come on, think … Comedy is an art form. Other art forms employ theories. Artists learn color theory. Musicians learn music theory. It’s got to be the same with comedy. You just need to figure out the theory.

It was a challenge, but after the momentary panic subsided, I welcomed it. I like delving into a subject and analyzing, looking for patterns, thinking through concepts, and picking them apart. One of my favorite mental states is clarity – when my brain is energized by the realization I get it! I understand it now!

So I started analyzing. I analyzed the sure-fire-laugh bits from my own standup act, then from other comedians’ acts. I pulled out the scripts from sketch-comedy shows where I’d been a writer/performer and highlighted the bits that drew big laughs. Whenever a scene from a sitcom or movie made me laugh, I analyzed it over and over. I did the same if I read something in a book or essay that made me laugh. I kept asking the same questions: Why is this funny? What about it makes people laugh? What’s the content? What’s the structure?

Sure enough, I started seeing commonalities and patterns in almost everything that made me laugh. I saw the same themes over and over in comedy, just as the same themes appear over and over in popular music. (Imagine how drastically your music collection would shrink if you had to remove every song about love and/or a broken heart.) I also recognized the same structures over and over in comedy, just as certain chord progressions are used over and over in popular music.

I’ll say it again: comedy and music are similar in many ways. They’re both arts, and they’re both a combination of form and content.

In a song, the content is the melody and the lyrics. The form is the structure or vehicle that delivers the content — and boy, does form ever matter. You’ve probably heard pop songs redone as country songs, or as hip-hop songs. The melody and lyrics are (probably) the same, but perhaps you loved one version and couldn’t stand the other.

On the other hand, your favorite form of music may be Rock ‘N’ Roll, but there are almost certainly Rock ‘N’ Roll songs you love and others you’d prefer to never hear again. Content matters too.

In comedy, the content is what’s funny. The form is the vehicle that delivers and enhances the funny. You need both to draw a laugh from your audience, and we’ll cover both soon enough. But just as learning music theory won’t make you songwriter if you don’t have ideas for songs, learning comedy theory won’t make you a comedy writer if you don’t have ideas for routines or scenes. So before we jump into form and content, let’s take a brief detour and look at what I consider the most effective technique for generating ideas you can shape into funny stuff.


Chapter Four
The Content in Comedy

One of the books I read on comedy writing stated that comedy is truth and pain. That’s useful information – there is often truth and pain in comedy – but it doesn’t really define what makes us laugh. If I told you about the time I tore the ligaments in my left knee playing backyard football, there would be truth and pain in the story, but you wouldn’t laugh. (At least I hope you wouldn’t laugh.)

Another book stated that the main ingredient in comedy is surprise. Again, that’s useful information, because surprise is an important ingredient in comedy. When we start looking at comedy forms, you’ll see that most of them help to create surprise. But surprise alone doesn’t make us laugh.

Suppose you’re standing in a long, slow-moving grocery line, and there’s a woman in front of you who has a toddler sitting in the grocery cart. Now suppose the toddler suddenly shrieks at the top of her lungs, “I want to go hooooooome! I hate you, Mommy!”

Would you be surprised? Yes, but you probably wouldn’t laugh. More than likely, you’d feel sorry for the mother and look away, pretending you hadn’t heard anything.

But suppose instead of shrieking, the toddler opens her mouth and, in a perfect Elvis Presley baritone voice, sings “Please, pretty momma, take me home-home-home. I’m stuck in this cart, I wanna roam-roam-roam. Thank you very much.” There’s a good chance you’d laugh.

Both scenarios would be surprising. What’s the difference? The second scenario contains the actual main ingredient in comedy: incongruity. Let’s check the Merriam-Webster definition of incongruity:

The quality or state of being incongruous.

Wow, that’s a huuuuge help. Do these people define nouns by referring to their related adjectives and adjectives by referring to their related nouns? Let’s check serendipitous:

Characterized by serendipity.

Okay, forget the dictionary people. We’ll go with my definition: Incongruity is a narrower category of surprise. It’s what happens when something is out of place, doesn’t fit, shouldn’t occur, is wildly inconsistent, or is inappropriate. Incongruity is the magic gap between expectation and reality that tickles the human brain and often makes us laugh.

If a toddler sings like Elvis Presley, that’s incongruity. If a little old nun is accosted by a mugger and kicks the crap out of him with kung-fu moves worthy of Bruce Lee, that’s incongruity. If you’ve been attending AA meetings every day for a month, then walk into a job interview and accidentally introduce yourself as “Hi, I’m John, I’m alcoholic,” that’s incongruity. (That one happened to a friend of mine.)

One book on writing comedy suggested that some things are funny just because they’re true! Let’s test that theory. Rank these true statements on the Chuckle Meter:

  • There are 100 senators in the United States Senate.
  • Table salt is made from sodium and chloride.
  • There are 32 teams in the NFL, with eight divisions of four teams each.

What, you didn’t laugh? Of course not. Things aren’t funny because they’re true, but what’s true can certainly be funny – largely because human beings, with all our foibles, are often incongruous. Here’s a bit from my standup days:

I’m trying to get healthier as I get older. Every week now, I go the grocery store, stock up on fruits and vegetables … every other week, go to my fridge, throw out the rotten fruits and vegetables. Have you noticed that only happens with foods that are good for you? You never have to throw away the Doritos ‘cuz they sat around got stale, do you?

The gap between my lofty health ambitions and my actual behavior is incongruous – and lots of people share that incongruity, which is why that bit drew a laugh of recognition. The bit is true and funny, but it isn’t funny because it’s true. It’s funny because of incongruity.

Whenever something makes you laugh – standup bits, movie and sitcom scenes, comedy skits, humorous essays, witty comments by family and friends – there’s nearly always some form of incongruity being served up. As I kept analyzing what made me laugh to prepare for the comedy-writing workshop, I noticed the incongruity usually fell into one of three categories:

  • Inappropriate Behavior
  • Inferiority
  • Jeopardy

Those are the most common ingredients – the content – in comedy. They’re not mutually exclusive ingredients by any means. Sometimes a character is inferior (as in not very smart), which causes him to say or do inappropriate things that put him in jeopardy. Here’s an example from my standup act that contains elements of all three.

Talking to my idiot cousins, I have conversations like, “Billy, I hear the factory near your house blew up.” He’s like, “Well … they can’t prove anything.” 

Let’s return to some standup bits we saw earlier and identify the category of incongruity:

I want to lose weight, so I’m on the grapefruit diet. I eat 15 grapefruits a day. It’s working, but every time I pee, I squirt myself in the eye. 

Squirting yourself in the eye while peeing puts you in jeopardy. 

Our high school was so small, they taught driver’s ed and sex ed in the same car. 

Teenagers have sex in cars, which is inappropriate behavior – as is teaching sex-ed in car. 

What’s the advantage of having a baby when you’re 49 – so you can both be in diapers at the same time? 

Some older people can’t control their bladders and need diapers – which is inferior.

Now let’s look at each category of incongruity in more detail.


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