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7 Laws of Comedy Writing

Handing Down The 7 Laws of Comedy 'Thanks God.'


7 Laws of Comedy Writing (Let’s Make it 10)

This list of ‘The Seven Laws of Comedy Writing’ is by Dave Evans an Emmy Award winning writer for shows like ‘The Cosby Show.’ We’ve added 3 bonus Laws to help anyone wanting to write comedy.

1. Be able to throw away your best joke

Compare this with William Faulkner’s comment ‘We have to kill our favourite ‘children.’

You’ve written a great line but does it fit? Best to lose that line for the sake of the whole piece.

What to do?

I get attached to lines and I know they don’t work so I put them away for another day. I might use them for a starting point for another piece.

2. If YOU don’t laugh no one else will.

I don’t think this is quite true. I never get it right. I’ve written lines that I thought quite tame and they’ve had a big reaction and of course the other way around. ‘This will get a giggle,’ and not a titter.

What to do?

Read your work out loud and to other people or get friends together for a read through. You won’t learn much from giving a script to people to read, unless the reader is a professional.

3. Character is 98% of Comedy

Everyone knows this don’t they? Sitcom is character comedy, situation is meaningless without real character.

What to do?

A writer can learn a lot about character from real people but the best and most intense way is to take some acting classes. Look for workshops in your area. I’ve learnt a lot about character development from Physical Theatre but any workshop with a good teacher will give you insight and short cuts to developing believable characters.

4. …and timing is the other 98%

Timing is really for performers but when you read your work out loud you will notice places where you can ‘dictate a beat.’ A beat is just a pause.

What to do?

If you want to learn how to go to extremes go to a Harold Pinter play or view some classic comedy like Jack Benny.

5. The Power of the Step Sheet

A Step Sheet is a condensed version of the script. You simply write down what happens in each scene. You can use this ‘mapping out’ process before you write the dialogue. You then have more control and less dead ends as you have to attend to what ‘happens’ in each scene and what each character is doing.

What to do?

Index cards are a great way of making a ‘Step Sheet’ as you can write on one side what happens (it doesn’t have to be funny) and on the other side of the card ideas, character notes, stuff to look at when you write.


6. Hold the jokes and make the story funny

Laughter doesn’t come just from one liners. A lot of laughter comes from how the character will react (audience anticipation) and how the story builds, the complications (driven by the actions of the central character).

What to do?

Read your ‘Step Sheet’ and look for alternatives to your scene. The ‘Step Sheet’ contains the actions only. Where in your story can you build laughs that comes only from what happens?

7. Turn off your telly and keep it turned off.

Watch people, mull over things you see every day, silly signs in shops, the things children say, a stupid newspaper story etc. It’s out there…

What to do?

Turn it off and keep it off.


8. Reincorporation

This is about taking a banal line and reusing it.

What to do?

Watch Eddie Izzard and see how he uses this wonderful technique to raise laughs. Lines he uses at the start of a set are reused in different contexts later on. Why is it funny? Perhaps because the audience is made familiar with the line. ‘Watch Mock The Week’ and listen to a line or image being reused in lots of different ways.

9. Denying the main character’s intent

What is the active question ie what does the main character want? Then go about denying it…

What to do?

The denial of intent could come about by making the wrong decision or a character flaw. How is your character denied? Is it his/her vanity or did they forget to post a letter?

10. Raise the Stakes

What does the main character want? If you deny the intent then what can you add to make that intent more important.

What to do?

Look at the turning points in your script. How can you make the next action more important for the main character?