MAKE YOUR COMEDY WRITING EASY AND FUN 4-EVER!
Like all of John Vorhaus’s books on writing (The Comic Toolbox, Creativity Rules; that list goes on), Comedy Writing 4 Life makes the creative process easy, fun and accessible to absolutely everyone. Whether you’re into stand-up, sketch or improv, situation comedies or comic screenplays, cartoons, video, blogging, whatever, you’re going to find so much value in this slim volume that your head will literally explode. Literally. Pieces of it will be found for miles around. You’ll learn the fundamental secret of comedy (no secret; comedy is cruelty), how to use filters to create comic characters, simple storytelling shortcuts, and just tons more. With pithy advice like, “Fail big!” and plenty of entertaining exercises that you can do as you go, CW4L presents a simple, effective guide to success in comedy writing and beyond. If you’re serious about being frivolous, this little book will change your comedy writing for life.
ONE: WHEN I WROTE THE COMIC TOOLBOX
When I wrote The Comic Toolbox: How to be Funny Even if You’re Not, I had no idea that it would become the best selling book of my career, but it did, and it has, and it is. And in a sense that’s kind of dismaying. After all, it was my first book – I’d hate to think that I shot my wad right out of the gate. I always had in mind to make my name as the author of The Great American Novel and its sequels, The Better American Novel and The American Novel So Freaking Awesome That You Will Spontaneously Human Combust Just By Picking It Up.
We’ll get back to the story of The Comic Toolbox in a second, but first let’s look at the joke just there. The structure of it is ridiculously simple:
It’s the sort of joke you can write all day once you know the formula, and hey, guess what? Now you do. Just follow these three steps.
- Take a cliché.
- Add a related cliché.
- Then hit the thing hard with a flabbergasting exaggeration.
That’s called a rule of three joke. You can also think of it in terms of defeat of expectation because in three steps it creates, then reinforces, then defeats an expectation in the reader’s or listener’s mind. The math of that is this: the first cliché (or whatever) creates an expectation about where the joke is going. The second cliché (or whatever) confirms that expectation in exactly the same sense that two points define a line. The third cliché (or whatever), by moving the joke in a radically different direction, defeats the expectation created by the first two.
Try a couple of those right now and see how it feels. If you know anything about baseball, you can think of this as batting practice. If you know anything about any other sport, you can think in those terms instead.
But look what just happened. Without even knowing it, you’ve already arrived at the workbook part of this book, and that’s the place where, for my money at least (and at least five dollars of yours), the fun really starts. Because it’s not work, really. It’s play. And the more you play at writing comedy, the better you’re going to get. That’s a promise from me. Like the sign says,
“You must be one hundred percent satisfied with the content of this book or your money cheerfully retained.”
You, careful reader, no doubt recognize this as another, slightly different, type of defeat-of-expectation joke, where you take a commonly understood phrase and bend it at the end. The phrase creates its own expectation by being something that the audience is already familiar with, so the bend at the end is all it really takes to make a joke transpire.
Now you have two ways to tell jokes using this thing called defeat of expectation. So play a little more right now. Take this tool out for a spin and see how it performs.
If you’re feeling self-conscious about the quality of your work, now is a great time to let go of that. Right now you’re just warming up, playing, having fun. And since you’re just having fun, you don’t have to care about the outcome.
It’s hard not to care about outcomes. Here’s something that will make it much easier. Over the course of your career…
Most of your work won’t work.
That may seem like bad news, but it’s not. It just means that quality comes from quantity and you have to work really hard to get good. But right now, that’s beside the point. Right now – folks, I just can’t stress this enough – right now you don’t have to be good.
In general don’t worry about outcomes. You’ll hear me say this again. You’ll also here me say, “Do plan on writing much more than you ever thought you would.” In fact, I’m saying it right now. For long-term success, plan on writing much more. More jokes. More exercises. Ad copy. Sketches. Plays. Scripts. Screenplays. Short stories. Novels. Graphic novels. Blogs. Sitcom. Standup. Whatever you’re going after, comically or creatively, you’ll be going after it for a good long time. The rest of your life, yeah? You will find over time that the quality outcome you seek always costs you the same thing: more time, more words, more rewrites.
Again, that’s not bad news, it’s good news. The best news. Because that’s where liberation lies. Once you know that everything you write will likely need rewriting, you’re free to write without judgment. And when you write without judgment you can write without fear.
Notice I said can write without fear. That doesn’t mean you will write without fear, at least not at first. Fear is hard to beat sometimes. I understand that. That’s why we’re going to lower our expectations, forget about outcomes, and focus on using new tools.
One of our big tools is repetition. We solve the same problem ten times because that’s how we get good, and also how we get abundant good stuff to choose from. By solving the same problem over and over again, we work on our craft. We move from people who wish they could find the joke to people who always can find the joke, which personally, me, I think is pretty great.
So here in this book you can totally relax. You won’t be graded. No one is checking your work.
Anyway, the whole JD Salinger of his time thing didn’t happen; well, it hasn’t happened yet. I mean, yes, I’ve written some terrific novels, even funny ones, and you should definitely run out right away and buy [insert title of latest JV novel here]. That said, The Comic Toolbox is my legacy. It has been translated into three languages (four if you count the bootleg Russian version), and still sells its fuzzy pink butt off all day long online. It will outlive me. I’m excited about that.
But it’s only available in print form – good ol’ dead tree, yeah? – and not as an ebook. Why have I never converted it? Here’s why: that Toolbox is a little long in the tooth. After twenty years, the references are quite dated, some even arcane. To do a respectable digital version, one that didn’t make me feel like I was just pouring old wine in new bottles, I’d have to do a right and proper update, and that just didn’t seem like the sort of fun I wanted to have right now.
On the other hand, I do want you to know about writing comedy. Wherever in the world you are, and whatever your creative ambitions, I want to help you become the writer you want to be, today, tomorrow, and for the rest of your life. You can speed that process by investing a lot of your creative energy in this book – playing along at home, as it were.
So let’s cut the preamble and play a little game of tombstone, shall we?
Here’s the situation: Unfortunately, you died. Which means that your tombstone is your last shot at cracking a good joke. What could you put there that would make your mourners snicker? I’m not afraid of outcomes; I’ll go first.
Now I’m really bored.
I wonder if this thing’s loaded.
As if life insurance worked.
Who turned out the lights?
Different jokes work with different groups. My friends in the ultimate frisbee community, for example, will wet their pants over “Slacker,” for they know how much I love that word, and how I cherish Slacker Wednesday, the mid-day, mid-week ultimate frisbee game I founded in Los Angeles and branded thus: “Slacker Wednesday: It works because you don’t!” Others will roll their eyes and wonder. They won’t have enough information to solve the puzzle of the joke.
Don’t expect any joke to work for every audience, ever. Your audience exists on a bell curve. Some people won’t laugh because they lack key information. Others won’t laugh because they have too much information – maybe they’ve heard the joke before. Your target is always the BFM, or Big Fat Middle.
Did you know that you can tune a joke? You can, just by adding or subtracting information. This is how you turn a joke that doesn’t work into one that does. And this is why it’s so great to write jokes that don’t work: They form a bridge to jokes that kill. In The Comic Toolbox, I called these things jokoids, a term that has stood the test of time but is still not recognized by my spellcheck as a real word.
Okay, kids, go play tombstone. I’ll wait here.
How did you go about solving this problem? Did you think about your attributes, things that your friends make fun of about you? That would be fertile ground for tombstone jokes. Did you just cast your mind about at random? Did you visualize? The reason I’m asking these questions is to help you look at your process.
As you grow your game you want to keep a good eye on your process. Ask yourself over and over again, How did I do that? How did I solve that problem? What tools did I use? That’s the heart of good creative practice. It works for jokes; it works for everything. So when you’re writing jokes, or writing everything, you should always be thinking about two things: your creative solutions; and how you arrived at them.
To write a successful joke is to solve a certain problem: How can I convey information in such a way as to make people laugh?
Sounds pretty dry when you put it that way. But that’s the stated problem, and it turns out that the better you get at stating your problem, the better you get at solving it.
The problem-solving goal here would seem to be self-evident: You want people to laugh at your tombstone. But there’s more to it than that, because what do you want them to laugh at? The frailty of human existence? The dumbass way you died? Some aspect of your personality that they know and understand? Some aspect of them that you’d like to make fun of? Those are four different targets you can hit, and you will hit all of them more easily when you see them more clearly.
So just be clear in your thinking. Know what problem you’re trying to solve, and then apply different strategies for solving it.
For instance, suppose I wanted to make a tombstone joke about my lifelong obsession with poker. That’s the target, now here comes a strategy: Use a comic filter. I’m going to call poker my comic filter for this joke and then I’m just going to look at my tombstone through it. What do I see? A discarded poker hand and the words, “I fold.”
Try that strategy. Pick a comic filter, something about you that is prominent and strong, and look at your tombstone through it.
Your head will explode. Once you start looking at the world through comic filters, your head will literally explode. Pieces of it will be found for miles around.
Here’s a strong comic filter: taboo. It’s strong because (this is me quoting me now), “Comedy begins where tolerance ends.” Find the place where people start to get edgy, and you’ll find the funny. Why? Because they’re all storing tension. They’re nervous about you being taboo. Where are you going with this? How far will you go? What if you go too far? They’re holding their breath. Your goal – here we go goal-setting again – is to release all that stored tension explosively, in the form of a laugh.
See how great this is? Instead of just randomly casting around for the funny (and all the time worrying we can’t find it), we can just ask the question, “What would be taboo right here?”
Well, right here on a tombstone, taboo would be just telling the truth: “You’re going to die, too.” Ah-ha, yes, taboo, but not yet funny. Right now it’s a jokoid (damn you spellcheck!) but if we make it less obvious, more oblique, we can tune this joke until it works.
I can’t think of a joke just yet, but I will. Let’s see… inevitability of death… death and taxes… let’s try a tax Form-1040 marked deceased, with the words, “I filed.” That joke could land. If it doesn’t, I’ll find one that does. One thing I know for sure, I’m not going to run out of places to look. And that’s where practice and strategy intersect. Practice gives you plenty of funny to choose from, strategy gives you tools for getting all you ever need.
When a joke doesn’t work because of too much information, we say it’s “on the nose.” Unless we’re Russian, then we say, “shliskom vlob,” which means “too much forehead.” In Spanish they say “demasiado obvio” – “too obvious” – which seems a little on the nose to me.
So then what you do is move it off the nose. If “You will die, too” is too obvious, hit them with, “Didn’t I see you at Starbucks?” That’s something to chew on; that’s a little puzzle to solve. When the punchline lands, they might or might not be thinking, I get it now! He was living, now he’s dead, and that’s going to happen to me, but that’s what they’re laughing at. The truth and pain of death, packed in a neat little packet by you and laid out like a laugh landmine.
I shall now model taboo in the modest form of the fart.
I used to blame my dog for my farts, but that didn’t seem fair. Now I blame my wife.
How different would the world be if farts could be seen?
You may never have been asked to write fart jokes before. You are being asked to do so now. If you’ve never have – if that’s just something a person like you wouldn’t do – the exercise will do you good. And if fart jokes aren’t a problem for you, well, what is? Religion? Abortion? Sex with kittens? What subjects would you never dare mock? Wouldn’t it be great if you could?
Well, guess what? By the power vested in me as the author of this book, I give you permission. Go where you never have gone before. Shock yourself on the page. Then ask yourself how that feels, because we always track our process, right?
Here’s a taboo that springs to my mind:
“I French kiss my dog.”
It’s taboo because it’s disgusting, but it’s funny ‘cause it’s true. As I think about my process, I worried that I would feel humiliated by admitting this, but I actually feel proud for telling the truth.
It won’t surprise me if you have some trouble at first working past your taboos. It’s really hard to think about things you can’t think about. (Super hard – try it and see!) Here we’re actually looking at two taboos: social taboo, stuff that’s rude to talk about; and emotional taboo, stuff that’s just plain hard to accept without going, in some sense, “Urk.”
Emotional taboo is all about fear. Fear of failure. If I try that joke, it won’t work. If it doesn’t work, they won’t like me. If they don’t like me, I can’t like myself. If I can’t like myself, then I must experience full-on ego death and pass away… That’s a heavy burden on your joke, and it can really slow your progress. Here’s one tool for beating it: If you must fail…
Be spectacular in your disasters. Be daring in your choices. Go too far. Learn to relish the view from beyond beyond. Love to crash and burn. That’s how you grow in your craft.
Am I asking you to be rude and crude? Objectionable? Unmentionable? Unacceptable? Sure, why not? What have you got to lose? You’re writing personal, private jokes here in your personal, private space. No one is going to see them unless you show them, but in the meantime, the rush you get from busting through both your social and emotional taboos will blow your little mind, as you will presently see if you try.
Go too far. Today, tomorrow, for the rest of your life, go too far. You can always pull yourself back if you have to, but if you never learn to go too far, you’ll never be of maximum use to you.
For your homework just now, try writing some tag lines for Viagra for Kids™. I’ll start you off.
Fun with Dick in Jane.