Comedy writing is about discipline...here's some of mine that didn't land and why

in Comedy Open Mic11 months ago (edited)

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Just WTF I've been, I'll get into next time, and once I do it'll make more sense why I seem to be giving away some tricks of the trade.

At Comic-Con International I was talking to friend of mine https://www.instagram.com/p/CvD5oQBJtGU/?img_index=1 who's got a comedy comic book out. I don't remember how, exactly, but I got onto to a tangent about writing comedy. But he seemed to think it was an important tangent to hear. So, I'll repeat it here and break down some of my own failures.

What my point was- the term "comedy" is given to way too many things that aren't actually funny. They may be clever, well done...they may be something we understand as funny, but they don't actually produce laugher. They may produce a smile, we may understand that it is comedic, we may appreciate for that....but the gauge that needs to be used is this- if it makes you laugh it is funny and if it doesn't make you laugh, it isn't funny. I told him "I don't try to write comedy, I try to make people laugh."

Whenever I am asked about writing comedy or asked for tips on it, my first reply is this " Go to am open mic night at a comedy club, where no one knows who you are and no ones gives a damn, and find out the difference between clever and funny." Being on stage and having some things work and some things fail gives you a comedic compass that points true north, that you can NOT get any other way.

A quick example of what I mean, and then I'll get into the crafting of a joke to give it the chance to make someone laugh. Ghostbusters and The Burbs, are in my opinion two of the most competently and ingenious comedy movies ever made. Great premises, great casts, well executed. However, I can't say either one really "made" me laugh. Opposite of that would be "Observe and Report" a forgotten Seth Rogan movie that no one in their right mind would put in the same league as those other two. But Observe and Report had a handful of scenes that made me laugh so hard I could not stop. Ribs hurting, tears rolling down my face, the whole nine yards. It is still an open question in my mind, if the entire mediocrity of that movie overall was a needed backdrop to make those scenes as funny as they were...because catching the audience flat footed is probably the most important element to making them laugh.

With that in mind, let's dive into a little of what I do in A.L. to get a laugh, and what I did wrong when it didn't work.

Let's start with some "types" of jokes. There is the standard - set up and punchline type joke, like this one.

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You got your set up- there's a knife throwing act that is beyond the norm, and your punchline - A Rabbi throwing a knife to circumcize a baby. Essentially, the last panel is the joke, but I load up the front end with things to get the audience focusing on Duranti's ego, his indignance and pride in his showmanship...directing the beginning down the road of - is this act actually better?- and keeping that question grounded in a fairly normal world...then...pow. Keeping in mind that it'll be funnier if people are accepting a standard professional problem is going on, Duranti is in costume and looking sharp, his gear is visible, he and his assistant look like pros who take themselves seriously. The club owner too looks legit, has the appearance of a guy busy trying to run a club. I am careful to not go for any cheap gag here with how any of them look or have anything weird or silly about Duranti's equipment or props. It's all just a personality conflict until the kapow ending. It's a good premise aided by some misdirection. There's comedic craftsmanship, but it does breakdown to a standard set up - punchline.

I try to avoid those type of jokes when I can, and prefer jokes like this.

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Less a set up-punchline, than just a very dark/weird scene that blindsides you. It lives or dies on premise, on how well you get the audience to accept the premise and how well you make that premise feel real. Crucial here is conveying his slow coming to terms with what he heard and how hard it hits him. The eyes, the slumped posture, the long drag off the cigarette all serve that purpose. It's less a set up-punchline that you need to hit correctly, than something that works by getting it absorbed/accepted by the readers imagination.

I don't know if I'm just better at those or what, but they give me less trouble. Usually when I have a good gag in my head and don't quite nail it, it's a set up-punchline type joke.

I have a handful here that when I came up with them I was really stoked...but...I didn't get them to really hit as well as they could have...or in some cases just didn't work.

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The gag here being that they see body parts laying around, assume the people were chopped up by Huns but really the parts fell off because of leprosie. There is some over explaining going on here on the back end. The reveal might have been better as just a warning sign that the solders don't notice.

Also, we have "two jokes on a joke" here, which is a cardinal sin if you want an actual laugh. Whatever funny would be from the reveal, is going at the same time whatever funny would be from the solders hugging the lepers. I think maybe the sign, and then them hugging would have been a better way to go. Maybe a panel more focused on the horror the solders feel upon seeing the body parts and thinking it was from people being cut up. Yeah...the solders horror, then jubilation that there's survivors, then the sign, then hugging. Even then it might not have landed...it could just be a premise that's too esoteric.

Let's look at one that did work for a second so I can explain something...

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Nice clean punchline. Now IF, for some reason I decided to make the amputees look silly or tried to get some comedic mileage out of how they look or by hinting at how they lost thier legs specifically, that would have been -two jokes on a joke. Instead of the clean punch of the audience all having had legs amputated, it would have been two concepts competing for recognition at the same time. It might have been appreciated, but it would not have produced a laugh.

Here's a Gary Larson quote that might help...

"our brain is suddenly jolted into accepting the unacceptable. The punchline of a joke is the part that conflicts with the first part, thereby surprising us and throwing our synapses into some kind of fire drill"

To that end, two jokes on a joke is no good, they just end up diminishing the reaction to each other.

Or, more succinctly

"You never do two jokes on a joke"
Richard Lewis

This next failure vexes me to this day. Because it is brilliantly dark premise that should have been a 9 out of 10, but I forgot my training. My training comes not from any comic book pro past, present, or future, or trails and errors in comic books at all. It comes from doing Stand Up comedy. You are on stage, alone, and you get laughs or every second feels like an eternity. Thus you learn real fast the difference between "clever" and "making people laugh" and how to streamline what's not needed and enhance what is. So here's the subpar execution...

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What neuters what could have been one of my greatest pages ever was, once again, over explaining and also being too smart by half. The gag is more simple than I made it- Terrorists from overseas grab guy to behead, with the thought that it will be more horrific than anything Americans are used to on their own soil...and the head get's stolen by a headless horseman, who'd been doing this for centuries. That they think this is horror that the U.S. has never see is all that needs to be gotten across with thier dialogue. That could have been done in three or four panels, with a panel of the head getting chopped, maybe a panel of how satisfied he is with his horrific act. Instead I had it linger on for 8 panels. AND, I was so concerned with a reader seeing the headless horseman at the end and ruining it for themselves, that I drew him small and inconspicuous in the last panel. That's always a concern, the reader spoiling it for themselves...but in this case, in trying to prevent that, I sacrificed any comedic impact of seeing the headless horseman.

We also have a bit of two jokes on a joke again. That the horseman, who is a story told to children, was chopping off heads for 200 years is gag, but that the terrorists get their head stolen is also a gag by itself. Maybe a panel of terrorist lamenting that "he stole our head" before or after the reveal of the horseman? Perhaps a "give me that!" instead of the "yoink" would have been the way to go. "Give me that" being more serious and less silly...and then him saying "thanks for the head, jerks!" would have gelled better with the reveal? I don't know...but this turned too complicated to really land as well as it should have.

It is EXTREMELY important to understand what is the point of the gag...what elements are needed to guide the audience and WHAT...EXACTLY...is funny about it. Every time a gag goes astray it is because I forgot to keep that in mind, and when a gag works, it's because I did keep it in mind.

Here's a gag that works, even though I am technically doing a lot of things wrong...but they are wrong in service of getting the laugh...

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This is heavy on the dialogue on the front end, to heavy for most cases, and it is putting the readers mind into a state where they are no doubt arguing against one side or the other...which is also something I try to avoid. In most cases, once the reader is up in their brains in a political argument, they are going to miss any joy that a punchline might deliver, because they ARE off in thier own heads. But in this specific case, that is just where I want them to be. I want them every bit as myopically focusing on thier own view of the issue as the guy and the doctor. so that they to are completely blindsided by what is actually going on. To that end, they are both making points that could be argued against and neither is coming across as a nut or overly insightful. They are both rolling out opinions we've all heard before and no doubt have an answer to being brought to our minds when we see the alien burst out.

The second thing I did here that is usually a handicap is being a bit too close to -two jokes on a joke. The reveal of it having been a xenomorph and the dad xenomorph being pissed, are pretty damn close timing wise. But it is such a left turn out of the argument to a sci fi juxtaposition that the final punch being the Xenomorph Dad hits just right and the child reaching up is noticed only after any laugh the reveal of the dad produces.

Sometimes, I think, a premise is just doomed to not be able to be mined properly. This next one...I think it's dark and ingenious, but it just doesn't hit. Years later I still honestly don' know what could be done...

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That last panel is what came to me first, and the concept of some guy who's world is coming to a horrific end being aware that it is just fodder for some kid in another galaxy to wish for a toy, is gold. But how does he become aware of that, how do I get that across? I still don't know. Probably an instance of a premise that's just always going to over extend itself.

For the sake of my own ego, I'll end with one that works and is technically sound on every level. Good premise, well executed set up/punchline but is also just a weird and funny scene, and looking at the las panel will be confusing instead of being a spoiler.

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A little extra insight into hiding the punchline with this one...the box/stars are the same color as the puddle of blood/fetus, to keep that from standing out visually. If the box was blue with yellow stars the puddle and fetus might be easily noticed on first glance at the page.

Anyways...never do two jokes on a joke. Always make sure you are keeping in mind what is supposed to get the laugh and why and how best to aid that. There's more to it all, but it's not exactly in my best interest to tell you everything I know.

Later

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I'll dabble in humor from time to time. Surprised it hasn't killed me yet. Especially publishing here. Can't hear the laughs. Luckily some will describe their experience to me in the comments. Apparently I don't always bomb.

Humour is a delicate balance, especially when it's 'edgy' stuff. Get that wrong and you could just make the audience angry rather than disappointed. Not that I have much experience of it, but I have written songs that made people laugh and that's a good feeling.