In April this year, during Frye, the popular annual literary festival in Moncton, New Brunswick, I attended a workshop called “Writing for Comedy.” The speaker was Randy Pearlstein, a Toronto native who now lives and works in New York City.
There were all types at this workshop: a high-school drama teacher and one of his star pupils, writing and editing professionals, young actors, dramatists and aspiring writers of stand-up comedy.
And I was there, too—a freelance business writer who dabbles in fiction and desperately wishes she could inject some humour into what she writes.
Only three hours long, the workshop with its writing exercises and brief discussions could easily have been stretched to a full-day session. Pearlstein talked very fast and hopped from subject to subject, using language that degraded quickly as he gauged the comfort level of the room.
Here are just a few of his tips for better comedy writing, in any of its forms:
1. Understand comedy as cliché. Cliché is not normally thought of in writing as a good thing, but Pearlstein spoke of it in terms of characters being consistent in personality: the politician does what politicians do, the teacher does what teachers do. It’s the situation in which you place that character that adds the potential for humour. Characters need to do everything we expect them to do—to be predictable. The caveat is that you can’t draw attention to something unless you’re going to carry the idea to completion: i.e. Giving a character socks and sandals…this tells something about the character, but it’s not necessarily funny. Don’t bring it up unless it’s going to pay off, Pearlstein warns. “Otherwise, it’s cliché, and not in a good way.”
2. Chase the melon. Carry one idea through your whole story, “because you can’t guarantee laughs if you hit it and quit,” Pearlstein says. “If you make a situation and the emotions it elicits clear, then you can build on it to make it worse.”
That’s why the writers of Seinfeld were so brilliant, he adds. “The reason why the sitcom is still popular 21 years after the first episode aired is that the writers were willing to go further with a gag and not give up on it too fast.” For example, three whole script pages were devoted to Kramer trying (unsuccessfully) to get his friends to sample some of the fantastic melon he was eating.
When more and more incidents are built on the same idea, it heightens the emotion. “This can be risky,” he says, “but the payoffs can be great.”
3. The same, just different. Make your characters similar in age, but give them distinctly different personality traits. The more specific you can be, Pearlstein noted, the better.
“You’re fired,” says employer.
“You can’t fire me, I have a family…” (Not specific enough.)
“You can’t fire me…I have a ferret.” (A little better.)
“You can’t fire me…I have a ferret in a wheelchair. Do you know how much physiotherapy for paraplegic ferrets cost?”
If you can be specific, he adds, nobody’s going to doubt your work is comedic. Whether they like it or not is another matter.
4. Round out your characters. To fully realize your characters, answer the following questions for each one. a) What does the character fight about? b) How does he handle adversity? and c) What is his style of humour? And aim for drama: if it doesn’t turn out to be funny, at least you’ll be taken seriously.
5. Be over the top. Most writers try to make their dialogue sound like real life, but Pearlstein says that’s not the goal. “Successful writers pack punches after punches. Drama is often considered two conscious wills in opposition. We’re conscious and aware of how we feel and what we’re doing.”
6. Does it hurt or doesn’t it? In comedy, pain doesn’t really hurt the character. In tragedy, it does. Personality flaws get in the character’s way. Another example: Drunk boy acts foolishly and vomits on his mother’s shoes. Mom rolls her eyes and says, “I wish you’d never been born.”
“That’s comedy,” Pearlstein explains. “But a sober boy whose mother stares him straight in the eyes and says, ‘I wish you’d never been born,’ –that’s tragedy.” The difference is the clarity of two people at odds.
7. A hero needs a handicap. The antagonist should always be stronger than the hero. The hero creates a problem and now he needs to fix it, despite his encumbrances. Who’s got all the power and who’s got none?
8. Communicate without words. This is one of the hardest things to do, but actions speak louder. (Think of the first five minutes of the Pixar movie “Up,” which beautifully communicates the entire history of the main character and sets up the premise of the next hour and a half with no dialogue at all.)
And the most important thing Pearlstein said?
9. Don’t take criticism personally. The aim is to make people care about your characters. “Don’t think it’s about you,” Pearlstein says, “it’s about this page in front of you. If the page doesn’t work, throw it away and start again. It’s never personal.”