Write Funny: 3 Timeless Rules of Comedy That Every Writer Should Learn

by Meryl Evans | Category: Language, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 22 comments

Our guest blogger is Jamie Grove of How Not to Write. However, he means the opposite… he knows how to write and does it well as you can tell from this entry. Thank you, Jamie. We’ve known each other a short time, but it feels longer as he’s easy to talk to and get to know.

Write Funny: 3 Timeless Rules of Comedy That Every Writer Should Learn

“The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.”
– Mark Twain

When people say I’m funny they generally mean one of two things…

“You should read some of his work. It will make you laugh.”

– or –

“You should watch him get out of the shower. It will make you laugh.”

This poor example demonstrates that deliberately trying to be funny is often the surest route to not being funny. However, the point was to provide a basis for a relatively simple example of the three timeless principles of comedic writing: Inversion, Repetition, and Reciprocal Interference. While learning the fundamentals of these these principles, you will also learn that in trying to describe comedy by disassembling a joke we often render it completely unfunny.

Henri BergsonHenri Bergson (1859-1941) Author, Philosopher, Nobel Laureate… Decidedly not funny, though perhaps he plays better in Swedish. From the 1927 Nobel Prize in Literature: “In recognition of his rich and vitalizing ideas and the brilliant skill with which they have been presented.”

In 1900, French philosopher Henri Bergson published the unfunniest book ever written on the nature of comedy and the human condition, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Here’s a rather impenetrable sample typical of Bergson:

“Life presents itself to us as evolution in time and complexity in space. Regarded in time, it is the continuous evolution of a being ever growing older; it never goes backwards and never repeats anything. Considered in space, it exhibits certain coexisting elements so closely interdependent, so exclusively made for one another, that not one of them could, at the same time, belong to two different organisms: each living being is a closed system of phenomena, incapable of interfering with other systems. A continual change of aspect, the irreversibility of the order of phenomena, the perfect individuality of a perfectly self-contained series: such, then, are the outward characteristics–whether real or apparent is of little moment–which distinguish the living from the merely mechanical. Let us take the counterpart of each of these: we shall obtain three processes which might be called REPETITION, INVERSION, and RECIPROCAL INTERFERENCE OF SERIES. Now, it is easy to see that these are also the methods of light comedy, and that no others are possible.”

I tried my best to find a shorter sample, but Bergson goes on like this for about 42,000 words. If he hadn’t been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927, you’d swear his book was a parody. In any case, I’ll spare you further pain of trying to figure out what “reciprocal interference of series” means and simply call it comedic paradox.

According to Bergson, a comedic paradox is any situation which exists simultaneously within two independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time. While according to my wife, there is no question that my second example is far superior to the first, because it is obvious to her that a body like mine was designed by someone with a fine sense of humor.

(Note: That was a demonstration of Comedic Paradox.)

In the paragraph above, I reintroduced the opening joke and bolted it onto the intellectual discourse of Henri Bergson. Bergson would probably argue that this isn’t truly comedic paradox, but I disagree. Comedic paradox makes us laugh because our brains fail to sort out the confusion inherent in the change of context. Eventually, there is little choice but give up and laugh.

Stand-up comedians also leverage comedic paradox. During a set, the same joke will appear several times but worked into different situations. Comedians do this because it’s easy to make an audience laugh at the same joke twice. I prove this to the world every morning when I get out of the shower.

(Note: That was a demonstration of Repetition.)

Of course, the key to creating the joke in the first place is inversion. Inversion is the reversal of expected roles. For example, the quote from Mark Twain at the start of this article is funny because he reverses the first half of the phrase in the second half. Unfortunately, when applied to my running joke, I do find that inversion is what put me in this awkward situation in the first place.

(Note: That was a demonstration of Inversion, Repetition and a stretch for Comedic Paradox.)

Speaking of repetition, here are the basic rules in non-Bergson speak:

  1. Inversion – To find the funny, flip the idea backwards. It’s easy once you practice.
  2. Repetition – Once you find the funny, make with it again and again until it is no longer funny. You’ll be surprised how long you can go if you apply inversion.
  3. Comedic Paradox – Mash up the funny with the not so funny to create a third funny, which technically should not exist. Sometimes this works and sometimes not. Paradoxes are like that.

Best of luck! Be sure to show me the funny!

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