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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  • Posted by Mathew Patterson on June 4th, 2008, 12:51 AM

    Things I wish I did not know:

    • How sausages are made
    • Alternate uses for cigars practiced by American presidents
    • How the phrase “REPETITION, INVERSION, and RECIPROCAL INTERFERENCE OF SERIES” could be applied to comedy

    I appreciate that somebody is out there investigating these things, and I appreciate even more that the person is not me.

    Here’s a question: Is it possible for someone to become funnier by reading the referenced work?

    What is the most effective way for people to be funnier?

    Mathew Pattersons last blog post..Designers Inhouse

  • Posted by Ron C. de Weijze on June 4th, 2008, 4:07 AM

    Suppose being funny is un-stressing, like a detonation of a ‘tonation’ (Bergson’s terms). Then what we must do as living beings, to irreversibly deal with the perfectly organized (biological) reality, as an order given to the mind, now can for a moment relax, just becรกuse that reality itself asks for it or allows it. And we need it too, again as I understand Bergson: our intuitions constantly seek the best match of what we sense and what we know. This constant calibration can at times be tiring so that we like to be loosened up.

  • Posted by rockandrollguru on June 4th, 2008, 6:27 AM

    Macho: a guy who jogs home from a vasectomy.

    Regret: making the final payment on the engagement ring six months after the divorce becomes final.

    Thanksgiving: a holiday that always falls on Thursday because the Pilgrims came here in search of a four-day weekend.

    Psychiatrists: the Wal-Mart greeters of the medical community.

    Ten: the number of disciples Jesus would have had if God really wanted us to use the metric system.

    rockandrollgurus last blog post..Inertia: Rock & Roll Dictionary

  • Posted by jeff on June 4th, 2008, 6:53 AM

    The best tips I could give about writing humor are:

    1) Be funny naturally. If you’re not funny, don’t try to be because your “Jokes” just become irritating to your readers.

    2) Use funny, descriptive names for your characters. I get this from guys like Patrick McManus and Joseph Heller, two guys that know how to use names for comedic effect.

    3) Be true. It’s funny cuz it’s so true. Use stuff that people understand and have experience with, then flip it or relate it to something completely unrelated.

    Jamie did a much better job than I but that’s all I got! Next time I’ll try getting out of the shower while writing.

    jeffs last blog post..Might as well give up

  • Posted by Jamie Grove - How Not To Write on June 4th, 2008, 7:04 AM

    @Mathew I think that’s the most ironic thing about Bergson. It is basically impossible to acquire funny by reading his work.

    @Ron basically sums up what funny is in his comment: the release of tension. This is why so many comedians/funny people live rather tortured lives.

    I’m actually wondering at this point whether I could possibly make funny sound more depressing. I’m mean, it’s raining here at the moment and I suppose I could put up a picture of me being mauled by ferrets.

  • Posted by Jamie Grove - How Not To Write on June 4th, 2008, 7:09 AM

    @Jeff Great list. I couldn’t agree more, even if I didn’t have soap in my eye.

    P.S LOVE the tagline on your website:

    “An inept writer trying to become more epter”

    Jamie Grove – How Not To Writes last blog post..Write Funny: My Guest Post and Your Chance to Win a Free Book!

  • Posted by Meryl on June 4th, 2008, 8:17 AM

    @Matthew, I have the same question. Maybe someone will answer.

    @Ron, love that…like a detonation of a ‘tonation'”

    @rocknroll, thanks for the rolling on the floor laughs.

    @Jeff, agreed. I am funnier on the spur of the moment than when I am trying. Great tips. Thank you. I second Jamie’s comment on your hilarious tagline!

    @Jamie — thanks for making this great discussion possible!

  • Posted by RhodesTer on June 4th, 2008, 4:20 PM

    Good stuff, Bob.

    I used to do shows as a professional mime, tormenting the audience with improvisational bits.. that’s one of the hardest jobs in the world. It helped when our show producer, a former Ringling Bros clown, advised me one time, “always look the crowd over and ask yourself, what’s wrong with this picture?”

    Worked like a charm.. every time.

    RhodesTers last blog post..The Angry Mexican Finger Dance

  • Posted by Rhodester on June 4th, 2008, 8:08 PM

    oops, I meant, GOOD STUFF, JAMIE.

    I get Bob Younce and Jamie Grove mixed up all the time. I have Blog Writer’s Dyslexia. Sorry to both parties, tho they’re both terrific, and I would personally think that to confuse one with the other would be a compliment.

    Er.. condiment. No, wait..

    Rhodesters last blog post..The Angry Mexican Finger Dance

  • Posted by Jamie Grove - How Not To Write on June 4th, 2008, 8:23 PM

    @RhodesTer I’ve been waiting patiently for Bob to come and make his comment that you so obviously read after taking Copyblogger’s time traveling class… Now I find out he isn’t coming or that I am him, or… is he me? I’m supposed to be writing his Ode right now and this is turning out to be like my first novel where the main character had a split personality and every reader I had knew it on the first page an groaned through 250 more while I thought was being sneaky and clever.

    Actually, it’s quite a compliment to get confused with Bob. We do it on Twitter all the time. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Jamie Grove – How Not To Writes last blog post..Write Funny: My Guest Post and Your Chance to Win a Free Book!

  • Posted by Meryl on June 4th, 2008, 9:23 PM

    @Jamie and @Rhodester — Sometimes I have to think about the real names. One advantage of an unusual first name and URL with my name in it! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Posted by Daniel Smith on June 5th, 2008, 10:31 AM


    Great post! I have to agree that funny cannot be acquired by astute study, but that doesn’t mean you can’t win a Nobel prize for trying. That’s the key to effective intellectualism after all, finding a subject no one else wants to study, then mastering it (preferably in Swedish.)

    Now I’m just waiting to see your funny in action over in my Twit-Wit competition…
    I want to see inversion, comic paradox and repetition in 140 characters or less, Jamie.

    Daniel Smith

    Daniel Smiths last blog post..Can You Put the Wit in Twitter? [Now Updated with Examples and Extra Awesome]

  • Posted by Jamie Grove - How Not To Write on June 5th, 2008, 12:27 PM

    “I want to see inversion, comic paradox and repetition in 140 characters or less”

    I can do it, but only in Swedish. Just ask my Swedish fans!

    [As a side note, I should mention that Daniel’s Twit-Wit competition also features a prize by yours truly. It’s not an autographed picture of me getting out of the shower, but it’s a close second. ;)]

    Jamie Grove – How Not To Writes last blog post..Write Funny: My Guest Post and Your Chance to Win a Free Book!

  • Posted by Bob Younce at the Writing Journey on June 5th, 2008, 2:11 PM

    Do I hear my name being taken in vain?

    See, and I’m always confusing @RhodesTer with @eMom…

    Awesome post, Jamie.

    Bob Younce at the Writing Journeys last blog post..Meme Week Continues: Eight Random Facts About Me

  • Posted by isle on June 5th, 2008, 3:50 PM

    I had such a wonderful yet thought provoking comment developed, on the psycho-social cause and effect of the afore mentioned verbal applications as related to spontaneous hilarity, then I read ‘mauled by ferrets’ and snorted wine cooler upon my keyboard.

    This caused me to (try to)analyse exactly what it was about ferret mauling that struck me as instantly funny. Comedic Paradox, partially. I think that occasionally, the words themselves just sound funny.
    Mauled by ferrets. Unexpected, slightly violent, (and non-lethal) bringing visions of face-grabbing, floor rolling yells and frantic ferret face-peeling/flinging, yeah, works for me.

    Additional comment…great post. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Posted by Jamie Grove - How Not To Write on June 5th, 2008, 4:52 PM

    @Bob and Isle Thanks so much for the kind words. I really appreciate it.

    I guess I can take off the ferrets now.


    Jamie Grove – How Not To Writes last blog post..Funny Writers: Twit-Wit Contest Win a Poem from Me!

  • Posted by Meryl on June 6th, 2008, 12:24 PM

    @isle, thanks for the laugh. Gosh, I can’t believe that the wine cooler had the nerve to soak up your thought-provoking comment and not share it with the world.

  • Posted by dialecticyou on September 11th, 2009, 3:39 PM

    Kierkegaard explained humor in a better way I imagine.

  • Posted by Brett Davies on August 24th, 2011, 7:30 AM

    A man walked into a bar on his hands and said “I don’t want a drink, thankyou. I don’t want a drink, thankyou. I don’t want a drink…

    inversion, comic paradox and repetition

  • Posted by lightenup on October 4th, 2011, 5:36 PM

    I may never get any funnier after reading the entertaining post and comments, but thanks to Brett, I’ll always remember what to try…

    inversion, comic paradox and repetition!

  • Posted by Stuart Marshall on October 18th, 2011, 3:43 AM

    Ok, I read the first part, and I thought it was very well explained.
    I don’t want to use this as a workshop, but I’ve got no other way (right now) to pose the following:

    Just recently I’ve tried to construct some jokes from thoughts I have.
    To prove to myself that I understood what Jamie explained (and I will read the rest now – and give some feedback!), then I thought I’d have a crack at a joke based on the Comedic Paradox.
    Can someone tell me if this joke I’ve just constructed, could be funny –
    not if it is funny, but does it work:
    if not, how do I make it work.

    Here’s my effort:
    My younger sister is a scientist, but is a bit of a show off about her knowledge
    She and wanted to prove correct the Birthday Paradox / Birthday problem
    So we tried it out at a party.
    She’s the prettiest of all our family, but everyone said they’d never met another triplet with such an ugly temper.

    It’s obscure, about the Birhtday Paradox, I know –
    so if you don’t find it funny, please tell me why rather than, ‘Stop writing rubbish and get on with your job’ (luckily my job involves a lot of time wasting anyway – so I know that already)
    ie – I’m a bit nervous about any response,
    thanks, Stu

  • Posted by Tim White on November 28th, 2011, 7:48 PM

    Stu – for a joke to work the set-up has to give pertinent information a listener needs later when the punch line is introduced. For me this joke needs to give information about the Birthday paradox at the start for it to work. Also, you need to weigh up whether the set-up justifies the pay off. Is the joke worth an audience sitting through to get to the laugh? Once you begin to get a sense of balance about this you’ll find the laughs come easier. All the best with your writing. Tim

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