Scriptwriting is a completely different ball game when it comes to comedy, one that is often mistaken as easy, particularly if the gags are simple. But writing funny is different from speaking funny. Just because you’re good at cracking jokes or sprouting wisecrack comments, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have that same knack when it comes to transferring these onto paper. At least, not without practice.
The comedy genre is one of the hardest to crack, without even taking into account the fact that within the school itself, lie a whole network of subcategories. There’s black comedy, cringe comedy (an example which springs to mind is Borat), situational comedy, mockumentaries, spoofs, rom-coms, sketches… well, you get the point. Listed below, you’ll find a few rules, a list of do’s and don’ts if you will, to consider if you’re focusing your script in one of these areas.
Defined as a sub-genre of comedy and satire, black comedy gravitates towards the taboo head on, covering subjects that are considered too dark for normal conversation in a fearless, humorous way. Needless to say, it’s not for everyone, as it can often make light of serious topics which, in turn, can be a lightning rod for criticism. Get it right, however, and you’ve got some high-quality entertainment.
Don’t be dark for the sake of it. Don’t try to shock your audience with your edgy appeal just to gauge a reaction. A great storyline is above all, the most important aspect of any script, comedy or not. The comedic appeal or risqué aspects can always be inserted later, but don’t revolve your entire script around dark jokes.
Do collaborate. It takes a long time to get the punchline of any joke right, and it helps to have someone else scratching their head besides you to bounce good ideas off one another. Classic examples of black comedy include the Coen brothers’ Fargo or Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Then you’ve got modern versions, like Edgar Wright’s Hotfuzz. Speaking of collaborations, Hotfuzz was a product of combined genius between Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, who wrote the script together.
You can really tell that their combined senses of humour, the insertion of red herrings, the Agatha Christie mystery style and dark comedy really come into full excellence as a result of their collaboration.
One of the most popular comedy genres ever, romantic films focus on the development of a relationship between two main characters in a light and humorous way, with plenty of humorous situations thrown in to disrupt the hero’s ultimate goal of finding love. There are a lot of rules to take into account when writing rom-coms, as these comedies are very structured.
Do your research beforehand. Look at plenty of rom-com aspects like the meet-cute, the embarrassing gesture or other narrative patterns that define the romantic comedy genre, as inserting these naturally will increase the quality of your film.
Do repeat yourself. Comedy elements are usually repeated three times to get the most laughs – it’s the rule of three- You set up an expectation, you reinforce it, then you break it down to get the most out of a punchline.
Don’t lose your audience (execs, producers, agents etc) by taking too long to start incorporating jokes into your script. It generally takes only one page – that’s one minute, folks – of screen time, so by the time they reach the end of the page they need to know whether or not they’re going to turn to page two.
Do consider misdirection as a feature in your storyline. Subterfuge and deceit might not get you far in real life, but they’re the backbone of rom coms. Deception, usually caused by the characters themselves, plays a big part in these types of films. The hero usually hides his or her secret from the other main character, either to protect themselves and this leads the climax. In the Silver Linings Playbook, Pat deceives Tiffany into thinking that by the very end, he still wants to get back with his ex-wife, when in reality he’s fallen for her too. Vice versa, she deceives him by forging a letter from his ex-wife.
Sitcoms, otherwise known as situational comedy, aren’t written as films, but for TV. They are the defining and most enduring forms of entertainment, and now, what with the rise in popularity of Netflix, they’re all the rage with everyone. And also extremely hard to get right, as sitcoms are built on a number of unbreakable rules.
Do be familiar. Familiarity is your friend. The running gag definitely belongs to the sitcom comedy. Take Barney’s actual job position never being defined in How I met your Mother, or Rachel and Ross’s “we were on a break” gag in Friends, to Leslie Knope’s inexplicable lifelong hatred of libraries in Parks & Recreation, running gags are hilarious ways to make your script stand out.
Don’t think comedy scripts are the same as stand-up comedy. Your script won’t get very far if it’s a long line up of running gags and joke after joke without any plot line. Every successful comedy has at its core a deep and meaningful story, a high concept, one that is interesting and intricately thought out. Take Gavin and Stacey, or Red Dwarf even, they’re both hilarious and the jokes are what seem to make the shows stand out, but really, both the plots are extremely detailed. One is profound and family-focused, the other is a high-concept sci-fi, a unique idea.
Don’t be scared. Writing sitcoms is no time to be shy. Programmes nowadays are edgy, a lot of risqué topics are covered: narcissism, murder, alcoholism, sex. The 21st century is definitely not a time to hold back.
Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.