My Principles of Comedy
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By MrEnter   |   Watch
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Published: October 11, 2018
So, it's been awhile since I've updated or giving any kind of writing tips on here. It's actually been a really long time since the latter, so I thought that I'd do something kind of like this. Now, this isn't a typical Writing Tips because this is more of a "my opinion" or "my formula" kind of thing, rather than the objective way of doing things. I wanted to write this down because I've been writing, or at least trying to write down some comedic work as of late. 

They say that "comedy is subjective" but that's not entirely true. What you find funny is subjective, but there are actually established rules and such when it comes to comedy. There are objective timings to getting things right, and there are decidedly wrong ways to do a joke. So, here's the logic that I use when I write comedy - for my scripts, for my reviews, for just about everything.

Principle 1: Misdirection
This is the first principle because it is the most important. The key to comedy is "surprise." Laughter is a natural reaction that we basically have when things don't make sense, when we don't know what to make of things, etc. Misdirection is the most direct way to get that target. What you essentially are trying to do is get the "that's not supposed to be that way" feeling.

However, it's not as simple as just constantly writing the last thing that the audience expects, or utter nonsense. It's important to establish a baseline of reality. You cannot violate an audience's expectations if they do not have expectations.  Role reversals are a very good way of establishing this. In my series, Growing Around, one of the very first jokes is this in its purest. A kid is asking "are we there yet" repeatedly in a car, with everyone bored with her. However, the punchline is that she's the one driving the car. 

Keep in mind, this is... difficult to do continually. You need to be aware of your audience's expectations of your own work. Eventually they'll start to expect the unexpected, and if you're constantly throwing in the same joke over and over again, they will grow numb to it. This is actually why the running gag works. The first few times, it establishes "the way things are supposed to go" and then when you end up violating it again, it gives that feeling of surprise.

This is also where the nonpunchline comes from. You set up a joke, but then you deliver basic reality. Sometimes it can be funnier to give the truth than a fanciful lie.

Principle 2: Establish a Baseline (and subvert it)
It's very important to control your audience's expectations. Before you tell any jokes, you need to tell the audience exactly what to expect. This will be a lie, if you're telling jokes right. In most cases, your baseline will be reality, But not always. In something like SpongeBob, for most of the jokes to work, we need to establish the relationship between SpongeBob and Squidward, for instance. The overall tone of the episode, and how things are going to go.

Principle 3: Exaggeration
A character that likes chocolate is not funny. A character that loves chocolate can be funny. A character dedicating their life and swearing fealty to a bar of chocolate because they love it so much is funny. Bigger jokes lead to bigger laughs. Just remember to keep it in character. You can push boundaries, but only that. Remember, if your audience has no expectations, they cannot be defied. Also, be acutely aware of the risk of flanderization. Use this sparingly. Don't keep trying to hit the next peak of the same character trait.

Principle 4: Folly & Catharsis
Seeing bad people get their comeuppance is deeply satisfying. At least in the states, we don't take too kindly to innocent people getting beaten up by life on screen. Characters should have flaws, and it can be very satisfying when they fall victim to their own flaws. However, take careful note of what you consider a "folly." The seven deadly sins are usually safe to use - arrogance, greed, lust, etc. However, some, like stupidity - might illicit different reactions among different audiences because they may not see them as a "folly." This is largely the reason why what people find funny is different.

Principle 5: Mockery & Parody
Whatever you target as a joke - character, piece of media, etc - you should make it your goal to make it look ridiculous. Emphasize its flaws, and shoot it with the spear of criticism. 

Principle 6: Karma & Irony
While it is funny if someone who does a bad thing gets comeuppance for it, the funniest thing that could happen is when their punishment walks toe-in-toe with their crime. It feels the most justified. Someone who mistreats their dog for instance, ends up swapping minds with a dog could end up being a very funny premise.

Principle 7: Truthful Observation
I do not mean "It's funny because it's true." When you're satirizing someone or something, putting truthful observations about them on display will always be funnier, and more powerful than just making them look or sound ridiculous. What you mock should mirror reality.

An example of this is having one character say "you're really quick to anger" and then the character they talk to explode into a fiery rage, saying "no I am NOT!"

Principle 8: Metaphor & Simile
If a character acts wild, have them literally act like an animal. Make things literal. Compare their qualities, their flaws to the world around them and make connections with their actions and intentions. Have how they naturally would act look ridiculous.

Principle 9: You can have it, but/However
A character that never achieves their goal can get quite boring, but we don't necessarily want a comedic character to obtain that selected thing. A comedy protagonist can have the thing, but it should always come with the price tag of "however." You can have this money that you've been looking for, but it's counterfeit and now you're on the run from the police. You can have a day off from work, but it's not going to be enjoyable in the least. 

The one exception is the end of the story. If the character would have/should have learned their lesson, then you can let them have it with no price tag.

Principle 10: Absurdity
Sometimes the best way to violate your audience's expectation is to completely violate the rules of reality or common sense. Do something so outrageous or over-the-top but it can't help but get an audience reaction. Use this very sparingly, and NEVER use 100% absurdity (defiance of all reality) as the first joke in an episode. You can have a character in an absurd, but realistic position at the start of an episode.

Principle 11: Intertwine/Splice
Take a look at any joke you have. I can guarantee that it can be made funnier. You can do it by intertwining more jokes with it, or splicing big jokes into a bunch of smaller jokes. The Simpsons' famous "Aurora Borealis" scene isn't just one joke. It is many jokes.
      1. The house is bursting into flames, but Skinner doesn't seem to care, or at least has a major underreaction.
      2. Skinner makes up a ridiculous lie that couldn't possibly be true.
      3. Chalmers goes on and on about how ridiculous it is.
      4. Chalmers ends up believing the lie.
      5. The two of them walk out of the house, with Skinner nonchalantly telling his mother that the burning house is "just the northern lights."

If you've only told one joke at a time, you haven't told enough. Take the machine gun or shotgun approach, rather than the the pistol approach. Make things funny on multiple levels, for multiple reasons. Bury hidden little jokes in the big jokes, etc.

However, make sure that these are different jokes and that you're not telling the same joke over and over again with the same set up or set piece.

Principle 12: Hide the Setup
The best kind of jokes come up when you weren't even expecting a joke. You can get the best results by putting the pieces of a joke in a nice, reasonable area - somewhere where people expect these pieces to be. Don't draw attention to your setup. Draw attention to the punchline. If surprise is the most potent tool for comedy, the funniest jokes come from when people weren't expecting them.

Imagine a character at a funeral scene, and for the past few minutes things have been really somber. They're about to talk about what this person meant to them. They walk up to the microphone, set it off, and just let loose a long, lingering fart. If you weren't trying to make a somber piece, then you've probably succeeded in making everyone laugh.

And that's all I got.
anonymous's avatar
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spacebreakdown's avatar
spacebreakdownHobbyist General Artist
It's clearly called the "Steamed Hams" scene, but I like scrolling through this journal because it's interesting. So have it your way.
ShinyPiece's avatar
ShinyPieceHobbyist Digital Artist
Your journals are just as enticing as your vids. :^)
Taz2300's avatar
This is a great read Mr. Enter. Just curious, what cartoon or anime moment would you consider one of your favorite examples of each of these Principles of Comedy? 
Christhehedgehog3599's avatar
Great advice! I'll try to keep that in mind whenever I write comedic narratives.
thelad1985's avatar
Your overthinking it lad - if it makes the audience laugh t works - family guy prove that at the end of the day
Taz2300's avatar
Not really. Did you even listen to this? Also going by family guy now, they go against many of these princi
NovemberBlues-NB's avatar
Just because Mr. Enter wrote it, doesn't make it law, a lot of the things he writes are very flawed and you probably should take it with a grain of salt.
Taz2300's avatar
“I don’t like this guy therefore I refuse to even accept that he may have a point”
Sharkboyyyy's avatar
Please take off the fanboy glasses and read through Mr Enter's scripts and then his idea of good writing. l see then why he's truly an atrocious writer.
Starting with also the fact that he told a former fan to go fuck themselves over a few simple inoffensive questions
Taz2300's avatar
As usual you’re too pathetic to the point of continuously bashing him
Jediuser's avatar
Watch Bob's Burgers, it's comedy gold! (Also, the animation is better than most adult cartoons). 
BaffleBlend's avatar
BaffleBlendHobbyist Digital Artist
What I've always been curious about is; what makes something still funny on the second viewing, which inherently means the audience knows what's coming?
AzureAceStarburst's avatar
AzureAceStarburstProfessional Digital Artist
Good stuff, lad!
InfiniteGears's avatar
InfiniteGearsHobbyist Digital Artist
A y thanks for the advice, definitely will be useful for personal projects!
Willfire-Z-Tiger's avatar
Willfire-Z-TigerHobbyist General Artist
You should do writing tips more. These tips are great.
J-555ART's avatar
Nice tips!
AvikaW's avatar
Don't underestimate the appeal of well-placed anti-humor. Take the famous "Why did the chicken cross the road?" joke. Contrary to what many believe, it's not dark humor. The punchline is meant to be taken as literally as possible. It crossed the road because it wanted to cross it. The humor comes from the way the "punchline" subverts expectations. The listener expects a clever pun or some other form of standard humor. What they don't expect is for it to basically build up to something intentionally obvious and unfunny. One of these anti-jokes might be hilarious if they're strategically placed after a series of regular jokes. Expect another joke, build up to another joke, then deliver the anti-joke's "punchline".

Fun fact: The oldest known joke is this Sumerian fart (and possibly adult, depending on your interpretation) joke from around 1900 BC: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."
Jediuser's avatar
The Simpsons' famous "Aurora Borealis" scene isn't just one joke.

Yeah, that's from '22 Short Films About Springfield,' right?
Macgyver644200's avatar
Macgyver644200Hobbyist Writer
These make sense, though I have a principle of my own: frugality.  Basically, don't spend more than you have to on a joke.  Don't spend five words on a joke when one will do just as well and don't emphasize a joke more than you have to.
lunchymunchies's avatar
Family Guy and South Park could learn a lot from this.
CrookiNari's avatar
Really? I feel that South Park is pretty good in that regard. It says what it wants to and then immediately cuts to the next scene.
lunchymunchies's avatar
Family Guy as people keep pointing out has their jokes go on way too long. Almost every modern (season 9+) South Park episode has this running joke that they keep trying to shove down your throat. Like how in the Cock Magic episode, they keep making puns where they refer to roosters as cocks, and it's like "Okay, we get it." Or the Nascar episode where Whatshisname keeps referring to his wife as has muse and his flame, or the episodes after they started doing season arcs where Cartman keeps saying his girlfriend and all women are funny and smart, or the drone episode where people keep talking about how it's weird for women to not shave down there, and then saying but they never saw Whatshername's public hair, and then that woman saying it's perfectly fine for women to not shave down there, or the Scientology episode where they have people get stuck in closets and keep saying they won't come out of the closet, and I could go on and on, and it feels like the writers are masturbating themselves, and it's like "OKAY! WE GET IT! I GET IT, TREY PARKER!"
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