by John P. Hess
All comedy is built around the same principles. Laughter is the release when we are taken quite suddenly from one expectation to a completely unexpected one.
The Setup – Why did the Chicken cross the Road?
The first joke everyone learns. This opening line sets up our expectations. Because of our experience with English we may be expecting a deeply thought out answer – a motivation that sheds light on the Chicken’s innate soul… This is also called a “build up” – we’re setting up the audience to think a certain way. What comes next is the punchline.
The Unexpected – To prove to the possum it could actually be done
I bet you were thinking “to get to the other side”. But that was to be expected… The punchline is something completely unexpected, a curveball, a new way of thinking that STILL makes sense. The disconnect between the buildup and the punchline is the essence of comedy – a set up that gets you to think a certain way and then we hit you (punch) with something you didn’t expect.
At the core, all comedy works in this way. From stand up to gross out, smart humor to the lowest of lows.
Now, let’s take a look at a comedy sketch I found this morning that I feel perfectly demonstrate comedic form in sketch writing:
Let’s break this down because there’s nothing like taking something fun and analyzing the hell out of it to make it boring.
The Setup starts with two women talking about a bake sale. The language (and performance) is overly bright and cheery. Even the small throwaway joke (“yum, yum AND YUM!”) fits into this fictional world of “sunshine and lollipops”.
And then we see the exception…
This is also example of the Rule of Three. There are three participants in the bake sale – the first baker sets up the tone of the scene. The second baker establishes the norm (yes, its normal to be cheery) and the third baker breaks the norm.
Now it could be any number of bakers at the table. It could be four or five. But three is the most economical number – one to establish, one to set a norm, one to break it. Any less would not have the impact and any more would just be repetitious.
“I made the nether-pastry of Al-Desh-Rah, the Donut that will End the World”
This is a huge leap from the cheerful rhetoric of the girls. The goth’s monologue is full of rich dark imagery.
“It’s dough is milled between the skulls of men executed for crimes that thieves and murderers alike forsake as ghastly and unforgivable.”
Even on a micro level we are seeing the essence here comedy here. These lines are about a donut – any life time experience reading cook books or visiting a bakery would lead you to believe that confectioneries are not spoken about in this proper gothic manner. Although this may not be the “Punch” of a punchline – the disconnect builds up the sketch in an amusing manner.
“It’s cooked in the boiling fat of animals that have feasted on their own young… It’s icing is a congealed mass of sorrow and despair made viscous with the saccharine discharge of sugar cane plants watered with the blood of the damned… it also has sprinkles”
Here the writer chose four items to list (Floured milled by skulls, cooked in fat, icing, sprinkles) each of these cooking processes described in long dark details to ultimately lead up to the short “Sprinkles” line. Instead of using the Rule of Three the writer goes with four and it works just fine as each of the three cooking stages has its own amusing lines and jokes written in. If the writer did wish to tighten the script here’s where a set of lines could be dropped… but as it is it works fine as an amusing set up to the final punchline.
The final punchline is a role reversal. The Goth, after all that build up, calls back to the “Yum, yum and YUM” joke earlier, dropping the dark nature.
What makes strong comedic writing is the rich layering of setups and unexpected twists. From a holistic view of an entire scene or sequence down to the individual lines themselves, good comedic writing is rich with these patterns of setups and twists.
When writing comedy be mindful of the comedic pattern and figure out how everything fits into the pattern that you want to establish. There are no hard fast rules of comedy but if you understand the mechanisms of what makes something funny, you hone your ear for what’s funny.