Be the Funny! A Brief Primer on Writing Comedy
I’m not funny. Witty rejoinders, jokes, double entendres — or single entendres, for that matter — are not my forte. In person, I’m a serious, earnest sort. But on paper, I’ve managed to create some very funny characters.
When the middle-aged mom in Fast Girls asks Abigail, the neurotic single girl, why she has turned down marriage proposals, Abigail replies, “That was before I knew that high standards and loneliness are one and the same thing.”
Writing frees up your funny. You the writer have all the time in the world to think of funny lines, witty repartee, acid put-downs, and ridiculous toilet humor that your audience’s inner infant adores. By the second act, Fast Girls reduces the audience to giddy hysteria. I’m proud of that!
Especially today, we need some time off — time when the belly goes to jelly and the glasses come off because your eyes are streaming. What is funny? Desperation. Desperation is a riot-fest. People do and say crazy, stupid things when we’re desperate. Put that in a play, and it’s shared. That’s cathartic.
Recently, I attended opening night of a production of Fast Girls directed by Sarah Labov at Old Academy Players in Philadelphia. I reveled in the giddy, out-of-control laughter of the audience, reacting together in what we call a “house laugh.”
I didn’t always feel this proud of Fast Girls. When I first wrote it, I considered the play a trifle. In my estimation, this timeless bedroom farce was light and airy compared to some of my serious, “important” plays. Over time, as I see the popularity of this piece of mine, and how much people want it, I realize there is great value in comedy. I as a writer can help change the world for the better, one laugh at a time.
I learned to write comedy in the writing of Fast Girls, which was my first play. I learned that comic timing is everything. The comic line arrives fast — and has the payoff built right in. For example, when Mitzi asks Abigail where Lucy (the eponymous fast girl) keeps her dishes, Abigail answers, “In the sink.” This line always gets a laugh. Look how this works as dialogue:
MITZI: (looking through kitchen cabinets) Tell me, dear, where does Lucy keep her dishes?
ABIGAIL: In the sink.
You can see that this payoff line is as short as possible, and ends on a “k” sound. “K” sounds are funny — a truth articulated by Neil Simon, who has written extensively on how to write comedy. For example, “ketchup” is a funnier word than “mustard,” and “cockeyed” is funnier than “imbalanced.” Once you get an audience laughing at a particular sound, keep working it. Look at the following ridiculous dialogue:
MAN: (refers to a purse on the floor) What do you want me to do with it?
WOMAN: Kick it, kick it outta here, I don’t want to see it!
MAN: You want me to kick it? Kick it outta here?
WOMAN: Yes fachrissake, kick it, kick it!
MAN: Really, kick it?
WOMAN: Walk over lift your foot and kick it! Kickkkkk it!
MAN: Are you saying Kick it?
By now, the audience will be getting giddy at the sound of the words — funny bones will be snapping all over the place. In Fast Girls, there is a sequence where the word “sex” is shouted over and over. This reduces the audience to tears not only because it’s funny to hear “sex” shouted, but also because sex has that “k” sound.
There are other funny sounds. For example, did Sydney Pollack name his movie Honey? No, he named it Tootsie because that’s a funny sound. People all over the world will laugh more at Tootsie than at Honey whether or not they know the meaning.
Comedy is about tapping what we all know, and revealing its universal humor. For example, in Fast Girls, Mitzi in NYC calls her husband, a surgeon, back home in Florida. This phone call has been excerpted for anthologies numerous times. Here is Mitzi’s phone call:
MITZI: (Dials telephone. Into phone.) Henry? Hello, Henry, how are you? T-t-t-t-t-t. T-t-t-t-t-t. T-t. I’m still in New York. No, No, she won’t. I don’t know, Henry, I’m trying. I called Max’s. They’re delivering. Rare. Baked. Cake. I left you four teacups with the tea bags, all you have to do is add the water. Yes, boiled, of course. The sugar? The sugar is in the cupboard. The cupboard? The cupboard is next to the sink. The sink. In the kitchen. The white room. Look now. (Beat.) Can you believe the man can heal hairline fractures with lasers but he can’t find the fucking sugar? Hello? You what? You cut yourself? How did you manage to cut yourself on a sugar box? On the salt? Wash it out. Go wash it out, Henry for God’s sake, you’re a doctor, wash it, put a band-aid. In the medicine cabinet. In the bathroom. The other white room. (Hangs up.) Men!
When Mitzi delivers this speech (which actresses love), every woman in the house is cracking up. Men get a little ruffled but they like it, too. Shared experience.
Mitzi’s monologue reveals other rules for writing comedy. When giving examples, employ the Rule of Three. For example, see the use of “rare, baked, cake” above. Three examples are easy to follow, and help an audience build to a laugh. Never go to four!
Laughs happen when you insert something incongruous. Mitzi is a woman in her late fifties. When she says “fucking sugar,” that gets a laugh. A woman of her age and dignified bearing is not expected to curse. Also, the word “fucking” is funny because it contains that “k” sound.
If you can make a character funny, you can get away with creating evil characters that an audience will nonetheless love. Conversely, if you can make a character likable, audiences will be more likely to laugh at his or her lines. Flawed, confused, insecure; all can add to the humor, provided a character is real and relatable.
And finally, work the house laugh. The house laugh is a shared experience set up by you, the writer. It’s an inside joke that is part and parcel of the fabric of the play. For example, Lucy has a one-night stand with a guy named Joe. Every time that name is mentioned, the character who hears it says, “Joe? That’s his name? And you expect me to believe that?” By the end of the second act, when this same exchange happens one more time, the entire audience laughs out loud. You the playwright can sit back and enjoy the shared ripple of laughter. It feels good to be funny.