Sometimes people ask me if I know of any good resources for comedy writers. My answer to this question has always been- “Yes. The Glass House Book (if you can get your hands on a copy) contains something called The Comedy Commandments.”
These pages summarise a lot of the things I’ve learnt about writing comedy. They give away many carefully guarded tricks. It is properly good advice, disguised as a way to make jokes about burning children.
And the good news? The Comedy Commandments are no longer contained to a book which is only available second-hand. Thanks to the kind permission of the authors, Adventures in TV-Land proudly presents- The Comedy Commandments.
Dear Comedy Writer. Now that you have been carefully selected to write for the Glass House, you are privy to the 10 Satirical Secrets. With a simple application of these techniques, you can make anything funny, from drowning puppies to busloads of children on fire. We’ll use this latter example as our case study.
1: THE RULE OF PUNS
The Pun is the simple recognition of the multiple meanings of words, and substituting the unexpected meaning for the expected one. In our case study, there are several pun angles we can take. One example of the pun in action might be, “Police believe the bus had been hotted up.” Similarly, one could focus on the multiple meanings of the phrase ‘on fire’: “the children were said to be on fire, playing fully sick lead guitar” or some such modern instrument.
2) THE RULE OF REVERSAL
This technique rarely fails to extract one or two gems from the most brown and steaming of articles. Simply reverse the entire situation, elements within the situation, or events surrounding the situation described in the article. One classic reversal of our case study would be to reverse the emotion of the piece from horror to joy. For example, “‘Still, it’s better than sitting through maths’, said one of the burning children”, or, “Luckily, everyone had packed their marshmallows”. Other reversals might include reversals of intention (“They had meant to set fire to the busload of nuns!”) or reversals of outcome (“The single survivor, a child who was sick home with the mumps, said ‘I guess I’ll be winning the spelling bee, then.’ ”)
3) THE RULE OF EXTENSION
Like the Rule of Reversal, this rarely fails, even with some of the terrible articles about ‘celebrity dog-washing services’ and ‘European surveys’ you are likely to be given. The technique is to place elements of the story into other situations, thus turning the latent comedic energy of the current contextual placement into kinetic comedic energy of juxtaposition. For example, the busload of children on fire could be Extended Up into a mobile delivery service for paedophilic arsonists, or could be Extended Down into a portable miniaturised burning-children cigarette lighter. The possibilities are only limited by your deadline!
4) THE RULE OF LISTS
4A) The Rule of Lists
Lists work via the power of cumulative effect. A list of many variations on the same theme allows a joke a “creep factor”; if everything sounds funny then eventually it will be. Audience members sometimes instinctively clap from exhaustion. A roll-call of the children on the bus: Ash, Blackwell, Burns, Burntman, Cinders, Cooks, Friedman, Grisly-Remains… all the way down to little Zachary Zippo. For another example of the Rule of Lists, see this article.
4B) The Rule of Threes
Setup. Confirmation. Twist. Can there be any more crystallised form of the Three Act Structure than the classic comedy Rule Of Threes? From Irish jokes, Fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes, to the Goodies, the Three Stooges, and the Three Ronnies, the noble Rule of Threes is undeniably powerful. In our case study, the Rule of Threes could be utilised with a humourous list of things the children needed to pack (“Torch, check. Undies, check. Ability to survive being trapped in a burning bus… I knew I forgot something!”), or what they will get out of the ill-fated bus excursion (“Your child will receive valuable bush skills, an appreciation for nature, and third-degree burns to the face and torso.”).
5) THE RULE OF ARCHETYPES
5A) General Archetypes
Warnie smokes and picks up women. Steven Hawkings talks like a robot. Amanda Vanstone is fat. Icons make up the majestic pantheon of true satire. For our case example, the correct Archetype to employ would be Michael Jackson.
Since the mid 1980’s, Michael Jackson has had something to do with most stories. If an article involves children, family, court, music, being black, having plastic surgery, chimpanzees, the Elephant Man, molestation, moonwalking, or women called Billy Jean, there is instant access to laughs-a-plenty. Our example in this case would be, “It turned out just to be Michael Jackson burning some evidence”.
69) THE RULE OF INNUENDO
This tool will get you far, as the bishop said to the actress. The Arse House would be nothing without innuendo. It is to be employed at every available opportunity; combined with a 5 or a 1, this rule works wonders. When it’s getting hard, and you’re trying to work one in, the Rule of Innuendo should be right up your alley. With tits. For a burning busload of kiddies, innuendo may seem, at first glance, inappropriate. However, thinking laterally, we can use the bus driver; for instance: “The driver would have stopped earlier but he thought that the burning feeling was just his gonorrhoea.”
7) THE RULE OF SCOOBY-DOO
Simply start each word with the letter ‘R’, and ask your performer to adopt a gruff, “doggy” voice. If you can, get them in the “doggy” position. This rule works just as well for topics that are to do with Scooby Doo as for topics that aren’t. Anything remotely canine, cartoonish or to do with combi-vans is suitable for this treatment. Perhaps in this case we could try “The bus was found to be chasing ghost pirates. ‘Rthey Rhad Ry Rooby-Rsnacks!’ said the driver.”
23) THE RULE OF SURREALITY
When all else fails, you may employ the surreal. Drugs, mental illness and/or mentioning the 60’s are excellent pointers that this is the technique to utilise. In our particular case test, one could perhaps pursue the line that the fire started due to the kids smoking drugs in the bus; in fact one of them kept yelling, “Get back, fire demon!” Or one might merely mention a gargling squid on a unicycle – sometimes, strangeness is mistaken for comedy.
“Is it just me, or…”, “In related news”, “A spokesman said”. These little linking phrases are not funny in themselves, but set up the psionic environment of the audience, letting them know that what’s about to follow is extremely funny. Perfect for joining a Rule 4B to an 5, or for working in your precious 23. In fact it’s a faultless technique for linking to any joke, however tenuously. In our example, ‘a spokesman said, “We’re obviously very sorry. That was a great bus.”’
See Rule 10.
The Comedy Commandements were written by Mat Blackwell and Warwick Holt. You can read more from them at Media Empire (sadly inactive but still excellent).