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Story Design Tips: Writing Comedy, Part I

Writing comedy is hard. Here’s a trick that will help you.

A few months ago I began this Story Design Tips column because I thought game designers and game design companies were not paying enough attention to stories and their full potential.

Game companies seek out wonderful artists, but hardly anyone pays attention to the design of a good story and what it has to offer; people who shouldn’t design stories tell story designers what to do; and few people in the industry (including story designers) have deep knowledge of the various techniques needed to create good stories. Stories are intrinsic to who we are as humans. Ignoring the art of story design means ignoring your players. This weekly column was meant to change that.

Five weeks ago, I started a five-part series about the art of dialogue. Most of the theory of dialogue comes from the theater, a craft that’s been tested for 2,500 years and where dialogue is visual and not read on paper. In covering the basics of advanced dialogue theory, I wanted to bring awareness that there is knowledge out there and complex theory to things we may take for granted, like dialogue.

Now we’re going to talk about another subject most people in the industry know very little about: comedy. This is going to be a six part series about comedy. Comedy has five elements without which it does not exist. We’re going to devote an article to each of those elements. But in this first article, I’m going to give you a shortcut through all the theory. It’s going to work for almost all your comic needs.

Before we begin, I’ll give you my comedy bona fides. One of the grandmasters of comedy, Jacques Lecoq, had a school in which he taught, among other things, the principles of comedy. His students came from across the world and usually taught their own students the principles of comedy, spreading his teachings.

I was fortunate enough to learn comedy under one of his students. At the same time, I studied under one of the great comedy directors in my country. She was self-taught, but had figured it all out by herself. After two years under her tutelage, I went on to write and direct for the theater.

Five of my six shows were comedies. In addition, I wrote for one of the top comediennes in my country of origin for two of her shows and I had a stand-up comedy blog called The Voice of God.

Comedy Fallacies

Let’s get a couple of fallacies out of the way. Many people will tell you that comedy comes from repetition. Now, it’s true that under some circumstances repetition is funny. However, not all repetition is funny, and certainly most of that which is funny is not achieved through repetition.

The second thing most people will tell you about comedy is that comedy stems from surprise. Again, this is a principle that’s hard to follow if you try to duplicate it, because most surprises are not funny, and many things that are funny are not surprising (funny repetition, for example, is not surprising).

Put aside surprise and repetition. Forget about them as rules, because as rules they’re hard to follow and they’ll serve you badly.

The Comic Element: The Shortcut to Comedy

As I promised – before we delve into deep theory, here’s the shortcut.  Say you have a scene, an interaction, with something in it you feel is funny or should be funny. Maybe you have a grain of an idea that’s funny, or a beginning that’s funny, and you don’t know how to make the entire scene (or situation) funny and write it well.

Here’s what you do. The reason you think there’s something funny in the scene or situation is that there is some sort of comic element in it. You need to find out exactly what it is and define it as sharply as you can.

Different comic scenes have different comic elements. It could be a visual one, a verbal one, one that comes from a silly character, one that comes from a misunderstanding, one that comes from a funny voice, and so on ad infinitum. You need to find out exactly what yours is for that particular situation and to clearly define what makes it funny for you.

Once you’ve done that, treat the rest of the scene as an intellectual puzzle: All right, so I’ve got A in the beginning of the scene. How do I do 2A (something that’s even bigger than the original funny event, but that’s funny for the same reason). How do I then go up to 3A (even bigger than before, and another variation on the original A). And so on.

Comedy doesn’t do well if it stands in place. If you have something funny in the beginning, you want to be even funnier as the scene progresses, and very funny when the scene ends. That’s why we don’t have a scene with A, then another sort of A, then another sort of A. That’s why we need a scene with A, followed by 2A, followed by 3A, until your imagination can’t make up something bigger.

This is why the roadrunner cartoons (which are structured A, A, A, A), as great as they are, would have been much funnier if, with each attempt, the coyote would have a more complex and far crazier scheme than the previous one (‘a more complex and far crazier scheme’ is the comic element in this case), or if each time the road runner would escape the coyote’s evil machinations through more elaborate and highly-unlikely scenarios (in this case, ‘escaping through elaborate and highly unlikely scenarios’ would be the comic element).

More examples you may recognize:

  • In Three’s Company, Jack Tripper has make Mr. Furley believe that both he (Jack) and Jack’s twin brother are in the same room talking to him. The comic element is Mr. Furley setting higher and higher (impossible) standards for Jack, and then Jack finds a way to keep the charade going. So the comic element would be: setting up a more and more impossible situation for Jack (For example, Mr. Furley wants Jack and his brother to sit on both side of him on the sofa), and still Jack finds a way to get out of it.
  • In Friends, Joey knows Monica and Chandler are seeing each other, but must keep it a secret. Whenever a new person finds out about the couple, they swear Joey to secrecy, making it harder for him to keep track of all the secrets. Joey’s distress is the comic element. Therefore, the more complicated you make Joey’s life with each person that learns the secret, the funnier it will be.
  • In Airplane!’s cockpit you’ve got Roger, a Victor, and a Captain Oveur (pronounced ‘over’), while in the tower you’ve got a guy called Clarence. The comic element is that their names are the same as the things they need to say. The more they say those two together, the funnier the scene will be. (Clarence: You are clear for takeoff./Oveur: Roger./Roger: Huh?/Victor: Request vector, over./Oveur: Huh?/ Clarence: Flight Two Zero Niner, clear for a vector of 324./Roger: We have clearance, Clarence./ Oveur: Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor? – and on it goes. By the way, note that it builds.)
  • In Star Wars (the original trilogy, chapters four through six), you’ve got two robot buddies, one of which is whiny, snobbish, and highly childish. The comic element is that a robot, which we believe should be by definition far more perfect than us, is whiny and snobbish and acts like a child. Therefore, the more he acts in a whiny, snobbish, and childish, the more we’ll find it funny.

This shortcut doesn’t cover all comedy, but it covers most of the scenes you may come up with. You don’t have to know comedy theory to do it. You have to be sharp enough to find the comic element and define it as precisely as possibly. And then you have to be imaginative enough to find further examples of the same thing, which are more extreme than your first example. And, with that, you’ve got a comedy scene.

That’s it for today.

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