In 2005, I began a play titled crooked with deep sincerity and serious dramatic purpose. The first draft tackled mental illness, religious fanaticism, and ended in a rather literal suicide attempt. Imagine my surprise when a couple of drafts and read-throughs later, the audience began to laugh rather robustly in parts. And I don’t mean in a it’s-so-bad-it’s-funny way. I mean, in a genuinely, this-is-some-funny-shit way.
I had no idea when writing the script that I was writing not a drama but a comic one. In following projects, I would repeat this pattern. I’d write a drama with serious intent and deep thematic concerns, put it up in front of an audience, and discover that it was unexpectedly funny.
Paradoxically, when years later I finally decided to write a comedy as such, I had no idea how to begin. The funny had come to me unconsciously, and dragging it into the conscious self took some study. I read plays, I watched TV shows, I diagrammed jokes. And while I’ll never be a true comedy writer—I’m most natural with the serio-comic—I learned quite a bit. So if you’re like me and want to articulate your funny bone but don’t quite know how, here are three principles to get you started.
Comedy is often found in the gap between how a character perceives himself and how we perceive him. For example, consider Valere in David Hirson’s La Bete. He is a buffoon who believes himself to be an inspired playwright, much to the chagrin of the acting troupe who’s stuck with him. He’s a close cousin to Corky St. Clair in Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman. Both of these men believe they possess theatrical genius, but this is nonsense, and we know it.
Lena Dunham’s character in Girls, Hannah Horvath, comes from a similar, although more subtle, mold. In that show, comedy often arises when Hannah perceives herself to be a more talented writer, a more loyal friend, or even better dressed than we perceive her.
When writing a comic character, ask yourself: Where is the gap between how this character perceives herself and how the audience receives her? Is it talent? Goodness? Bravery? The more varied and specific you can get, the more original your portrait will be.
Comedy is, of course, ultimately subjective. I admit, I have a weakness for the crusty and British, and there’s no better role model for crusty and British than Alan Ayckbourn. One of the many things I find delightful about Ayckbourn is that his characters turn on a dime. Consider this short exchange from Absent Friends:
DIANA: Does John play squash?
EVENLYN: He doesn’t play anything.
DIANA: Oh, well. He probably doesn’t need it. Exercise. Some men don’t. My father never took a stroke of exercise. Til he died. He seemed fit enough. He managed to do what he wanted to do. Mind you, he never did much. He just used to sit and shout at we girls. Most of the time. He got calmer though when he got older. After my mother left him.
In Diana’s short monologue, each sentence upturns the one before until the claim which begins the passage (which essentially amounts to, “it’s perfectly fine for men not to exercise”) is completely upended by the portrait of a man who lived a miserable and lonely life until he died.
Likewise, the entire plot of Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests depends upon the unlikelihood of an assistant librarian “with a rather aimless sort of beard” possessing the ability to seduce any and everyone.
When writing comedy, it’s helpful to think about contradiction on both the micro and macro level. What is contradictory in a character at large? And where is the contradiction line by line? Does this monologue or exchange end up in an entirely different place than it began?
Like contradiction, incongruity depends upon difference and friction; however, incongruity refers more particularly to a state of being, rather than a personality characteristic. The baby speaking with an adult voice we often see in commercials is a very basic example. The disconnect in our mind between the image and the voice creates humor.
In the theater, I think immediately of Dido and Minnie in Brandon Jacob-Jenkin’s An Octoroon, a play which simultaneously straddles genres and has brilliant flashes of humor. Dido and Minnie assess their place in the institution of slavery as casually as two girlfriends at the nail salon.
DIDO: I ain't growed up here.
MINNIE: You didn't?
DIDO: No, girl. I grew up at the Sunnyside place on the other side of the mountain. Mas'r Peyton won me in a poker game like ten years ago.
MINNIE: Ohhhhh. Okay. So you know Chris and Darnell and 'nem?
DIDO: Yeeuh. How you know Chris and Darnell, girl?
MINNIE: Oh, you know, Chris was messin' with Trisha over in the sugar mill for a li'l bit an' I met him and Darnell through her at a slave mixer over by the river before she dumped him because, you know, she couldn't deal with the long-distance.
DIDO: Okay, okay.
Here the use of modern dialect in a nineteenth century setting creates dissonance, humor and of course, discomfort.
While anachronism creates humor through incongruity, more quotidian settings can work equally well. The opening of Annie Baker’s Body Awareness begins with two middle aged women sitting across the table from their twenty one year old son.
Joyce and Phillis’s kitchen. Joyce and Jared sit at the table. Jared wears his McDonald’s uniform. After a long silence:
JOYCE: We’re fine with you masturbating, Jared.
Jared does not respond.
JOYCE: This is not about the fact that you masturbate.
JOYCE: The thing is… you can’t rack up those charges. We see them on the bill.
Here the humor arises from the friction between banality of the family mise en scène and the explicit subject matter. Put more simply, nobody wants to hear their mama talk about masturbation, especially at the dinner table.
When thinking about where to set your play, consider places that create dissonance with the dialogue and action. A porno being filmed in your grandmother’s living room in Akron, Ohio, for example, is funnier than one filmed in a studio in the San Fernando Valley.