How To Writing Meaningful Comedy

4 Ways to Write Meaningful Comedy

How To Writing Meaningful ComedyNotoriously, comedy is one of the most difficult forms of writing. This isn’t because it’s so hard to write a gag or a line that’s funny. Life’s a pretty hilarious place, after all. No, it’s difficult because translating goofiness into meaning is vastly more difficult.

These days, we tend to think of comedy as fluff—silly people doing stupid things so we can relate to them just enough to laugh at them and thank heavens we’re not that dumb. But comedy can be so much more than that.

Comedy is the key to entertainment, and entertainment is the key to winning readers over and selling them on every other meaningful thing in your story.

And, yes, I said meaningful. The idea that comedy is meaningless entertainment is false. Comedy is never meaningless. No story is—which is why writers have a responsibility to wield comedy more wisely and responsibly than just about any other technique in their arsenal.

Frankly, in the the sea of meaningless, vulgar, diluted (and, for my money, not very funny) comedy that floods the media these days, if you can write meaningful comedy, you will, without doubt, find yourself with a story that rises far above the pack.

Top 4 Tips for How to Write Meaningful Comedy

There’s a method to every madness, even for how to write meaningful comedy. Here are four tips to get you started, whether you’re writing flat-out comedy or just wanting to infuse a little humor in your adventure, romance, or mystery.

1. Comedy Should Have a Message

Ironically, theme is more likely to be ignored in comedy than in any other medium. And yet, comedy has, arguably, the greatest power for sharing theme effortlessly and painfully: if you keep readers laughing, they’ll never accuse you of preaching at them with heavy-handed themes.

Frank Capra directed some of the greatest screwball classics of the 1930s, including Arsenic & Old Lace, You Can’t Take It With You, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. But no one would argue these stories are mere fluff. They are stories with powerful social and personal messages that remain classics as much for their themes as for their humor.

You Can't Take It With You Frank Capra

Capra said:

The best way to make friends with an audience is to make them laugh. You don’t get people to laugh unless they surrender—surrender their defenses, their hostilities. And once you make an audience laugh, they’re with you. And they listen to you if you’ve got something to say. I have a theory that if you can make them laugh, they’re your friends.

How many comedies today offer meaningful ideas that stick with you long after you’ve closed the book or left the theater? How many create character arcs that offer anything beyond a cursory (and usually improbable) overnight change?

Consider such classic sit-coms as the beloved Andy Griffith Show from the 1960s, in comparison with most of the shows on television today. The heart behind the story is what makes the comedy just as funny today as it was nearly sixty years ago.

Andy Griffith Show

2. Comedy Should Be More Surprising Than Shocking

Surprise is the essence of comedy. Readers are led to expect one thing—only to be pleasantly surprised by something else. Really, as much as anything, we’re trying to get readers to laugh at themselves for their mistaken preconceptions.

However, too many writers have come to rely on shock value—usually in the form of social vulgarities—as a crutch for evoking the necessary surprises of comedy. Comedy today is almost synonymous with foul language, sexual explicitness, and gross-out gags. But for what reason? To make a shocking comment about society that both amuses and stings readers into a greater awareness of themselves and their world? Generally, not so much.

The problem isn’t just that this approach to comedy is arguably degrading to both storytelling and society, but that it’s an ultimately self-destructive tool. The more you shock audiences, the more shock-proof they become, and the harder it becomes to reuse the technique.

Occasionally, I’ll watch the 1990s British comedy As Time Goes By with Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer. Accustomed to the rapid-fire vulgarities of the current slew of American sit-coms, I keep expecting the same from this show around every corner. But not so. Instead, it actually relies on good ol’ storytelling (remember that?) and the ever-deepening context of its characterization to consistently evoke laughs from surprise rather than shock. Granted, this requires far more skill to pull off, but who doesn’t enjoy a challenge?

As Time Goes By Geoffrey Palmer Judi Dench

3. Comedy Must Offer Readers a Relatable Protagonist

I can’t remember the last modern comedy I watched or read that featured a truly likable protagonist. Outrageously selfish, stupid, and even despicable people are, apparently, the only ones who are supposed to be funny anymore. That may be true for a three-page story or a five-minute YouTube skit. But for a full-on novel or movie?

As Kurt Vonnegut famously said:

Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

I would argue this is even more important in comedy than it is in drama, if only because suspension of disbelief makes more demands upon readers in a comedy. Screwy people doing screwy things are much easier to swallow if we like them—0r at least relate with their screwy choices.

4. Comedy Must Be Socially Aware

In her “10 Writing Tips,” Joyce Carol Oates reminds us:

You are writing for your contemporaries not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.

Because comedy has the ability to walk that fine line between pointing out the flaws in contemporary social consciousness without (necessarily) being offensive, it will always be the most time-sensitive of all thematic media. This does not mean what’s funny to one generation will not be funny to future generations. Not at all. But it does mean comedy will always be interpreted through the lens of the time in which it was written.

William Powell and Carol Lombard’s classic 1936 romp My Man Godfrey offered a commentary on the Depression that was both biting and heartfelt—and which we still appreciate in that context today.

My Man Godfrey William Powell Carole Lombard

The David Niven and June Allyson remake twenty years later reused all the same gags but failed to work as well, largely because the era in which it was made—the late 1950s—could not offer the same context for the story’s thoughts about the responsibility of wealth.

By the same token, Mel Brooks’s original 1967 musical shock comedy The Producers was just far enough away from, but not too far away from, the atrocities of World War II to be able to make outrageous fun of Hitler and the Nazis. The 2005 remake, on the other hand, was so far distanced from the generation that actually experienced the war (and, thus, had the right to laugh at it, as a part of a necessary healing process) that it lacked all context and was far more offensive than funny.

This isn’t to say modern authors can’t write funny stories set in historical periods (because, of course, we do), but rather that even our historical stories will inevitably be implicit commentaries upon our own time period.

Just because something is funny doesn’t mean it has to be meaningless, anymore than food that’s yummy has to be bad for us. Comedy is one of the most powerful tools in your writing toolbag—no matter what genre you write. Use it consciously and responsibly, and you will also use it to great effect.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you ever write meaningful comedy into your stories? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. what grabs you about my space opera plot with the father son relationship?

    A struggling single father moves from planet to planet to over protect his son from the dangers of the galaxy. But when his son is kidnapped and slowly brain washed by a galactic theocracy that wants to exploit his powers, the father must learn to cope with his past and save his son before he loses him forever.

    you said it grabs you

    i also have a character list…want to read it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I like stories about complicated relationships and “gray” moral decisions where both choices have consequences.

      As for reading further, I’m afraid my schedule doesn’t allow me to do one-on-one consulting or critiquing. I’m happy to answer specific writing questions, but analyzing actual stories is beyond the scope of this site’s purpose.

      • What makes the theocracy personal is that the father used to be a soldier for that theocracy…who had a secret affair with the female heir to the throne of that theocracy

        And it is the mother that is sovereign of that theocracy…and she wants what’s best for her son and views the father as a monster that took away her son from her

      • Thoughts on the mother idea?

  2. This is so true. Comedy has got to be one of the hardest things to write. Do a competent job with a tragic scene, and most people will find it at least somewhat moving. (Or, if not actually moving, at least appropriate to the story.) Badly done comedy is one of the most painful things to watch or read. And the worst part is that it’s more subjective than almost anything else.

    I’m priggish and pretentious — I don’t like anything slapstick or vulgar. But comedy is important to me — I love certain kinds of humor more than almost any other type of entertainment. Jane Austen, David Foster Wallace, and Muriel Spark come to mind. DFW’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” is one of the funniest things I’VE ever read, but I suspect there are people who do not find DFW amusing at all. (Because he, also, was arguably priggish and pretentious.)

    But any kind of humor works only if it tells the truth. Tragedy can tell the truth simply, but comedy has to tell the truth AND do something fresh with it. It’s so difficult that probably no one would attempt it if it weren’t such FUN.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Spot-on point about the best comedy being that which speaks to a truth. If it’s not true, it doesn’t make resonate, and isn’t funny–no matter elaborate the visual gag or witty the wordplay.

  3. I like this. I don’t tend to “do” comedy in stories, because it’s not something I can do deliberately. I particularly like comedies that arise from characters behaving unexpectedly — the “Excuse me, I speak Jive,” moment works precisely because June Cleaver isn’t supposed to know “jive.”

    I once borrowed a Terry Pratchett technique to make a reader laugh, and it worked, but it hinged on the circumstances and tone of the story lending itself to that technique in the first place.

    I’m not into “humiliation” comedy, which typically depends on making a specific character the butt of jokes. I have noticed the better comedies all give each character a moment of triumph, or something they’re good at — especially if it’s surprising
    that they’re good at whatever it is — and use that competence as a point of humor. It adds depth to the character when the straight-laced accountant turns out to be an ex-drag racer. That type of surprise keeps me coming back for more.

    Just thinking about it, I think that type of comedic surprise hinges on a writer seeing the characters as three dimensional to start with. The worst comedies, the humiliation type, seem to arise from writers who see a character as “someone who should have something unpleasant happen to them.”

    I think you may be right about “message,” too. One of my English teachers hated assigning rhyming poems, because some kids would string together words just to make them rhyme. It was better to *start* with having something to say; the rhymes would flow from there.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great points! I, too, dislike “humiliation” comedy. Comedy is ultimately about being able to laugh at ourselves in a healthy way. If it’s not, it’s either needlessly sadistic–or, just as likely, a masochistic attempt at self-flagellation.

    • Humiliation comedy is my least favorite thing about the Harry Potter series! Even though the Dursleys are horrible, Dudley doesn’t deserve to be fat-shamed the way he is (although my sister pointed out that this was probably a more acceptable form of humor in the late 90s, but still…not cool). And I always hated it whenever the Slytherins got punished as a group, when we only really had reason to dislike a few of them. (Ahem, Dumbledore…that bait and switch in PS was MEAN. The End.)

      I have no idea if you’re a Harry Potter fan, but I’m glad to find someone else who doesn’t think beating others down is funny. 😀 😀

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        No wonder Slytherin went bad, right? :p

      • I am a Potter fan! I was actually more skeeved about Dudley getting a tail; I really don’t like scenarios where people become less than human. Werewolves are obviously not my thing 🙂

        You do make me wonder, though if kids are into that type of humor–if they find it cathartic. Kids aren’t my target audience, but now I wonder if there was an alternate way Rowling could have have handled the Dursleys that would still resonate with kids.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I think kids, in general, love it when bullies get a comeuppance. It’s cathartic because it addresses the sense of powerlessness they often feel themselves. However, I totally agree with you about the tail. Pushing back against bullying with *more* bullying isn’t the message we’re wanting to send our kids.

  4. I love the fact that you mention “As Time Goes By.” It is a classic British comedy that my wife and I have watched all the way through several times. We also enjoyed it thoroughly each time. It had wonderfully gentle humor that also spoke to people where they really live. Also, having Dame Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer in it made it all that more enjoyable. Their excellence raised the bar for the whole cast.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve never watched the entire series straight through. But I always love catching it when flipping channels.

  5. Jenny North says:

    I love the article–great stuff! But one thing I’d add is that especially when writing comedy the reader really wants to feel like they’re in on the joke. It’s like that scene in The Avengers where Nick Fury makes a comment about flying monkeys and Cap blurts out, “I understood that reference!” And then we all laugh because we get why it’s such a big deal to him that he does.

    Along those lines, one trick I love to use when writing comedy is to include callback jokes. The first time around they’re often just mildly amusing, but the second time is often funnier since now the reader feels like they’re in on it. If you ever watch episodes of Seinfeld they do that really well. (Nothing wrong with stealing from the greats!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. In-jokes aren’t just fun, they’re a fabulous way to make readers feel like they’re “special.” They get it! We not only love that Steven got that reference; we love that we got it too. 🙂

    • That reference is even funnier for homeschoolers. It’s like that part in Mean Girls: “‘I love this song!’ ‘I hate this song.’ ‘I KNOW this song!!!'”

      Because tbh that is all of our experience.

  6. Laura H. says:

    I use comedy throughout my novels, and when my WIP is going around the table with my Writer Buddies’ works, you can tell when my murder mystery is being read because someone is laughing! Since I write about death penalty murders from the defense team perspective, it’s really important to show the reader meaningful humor in the right places (investigations of people who are dumber or smarter than my protag, traffic, law school romances), and never in the wrong places (like describing the victim, when the verdict comes in). My stories are from real cases and funny stuff was always happening, funny and funny-not-funny. I depend on my Writing Buddies to tell me when I’ve gone a joke too far. And thank them!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That sounds fabulous! It can be hard to pull of appropriate humor when dealing with serious topics. So kudos to you!

  7. I remember one recent comedy that had a message, Bruce Almighty. Jim Carrey was Bruce, who was upset with his life and God. Then God (Morgan Freeman) offers to give his powers to Bruce. Bruce finds out that being God isn’t as easy as he thought it woud be.

  8. AWESOME article! 😀
    From when I started writing, humor has been my favorite thing to write and I’ve seen surprisingly few articles on it and this was great.
    The novel I finished most recently was actually only meant to be a humorous short story/brief serial story about a villain with amnesia, but it actually went waaaay deeper as it got longer with the redemption themes and everything. And I don’t usually write super deep, so keeping the slightly humorous narrative voice throughout kept it so it didn’t get too dark or depressing.
    And I can definitely affirm to the truth of the tips. -nodnod-
    Keep it up! Love your advice! <3

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That actually sounds fantastic! In my own writing, I, too, find that the scenes/characters intended to be comic often end up going much deeper, while the dark scenes/characters often end up finding at least a vein of humor. The contrast and the irony only makes everything richer and more subtextual.

  9. Oh, sure, just what I need is something else to research and attempt to learn and implement for the “fun” of it. Thank you, I love research and trying something new. I will try this and add it in places I can imagine humor would work. Your articles are some of my best motivators.

  10. My sister has a really amazing knack for inserting a joke just in time to keep her stories from getting too dark (and believe me, she writes DARK stories. Basically horror, even though she doesn’t like reading that genre). I really wish I was able to do that, because when I get in a “mood” for a scene, I have a lot of trouble breaking out of it. Aka if the mood is sad or horrific or tense, I don’t notice opportunities for humor until I’m rereading.

    I guess adding jokes during the editing process isn’t too bad.

  11. I like the case you make. One time I went to see a comedy with my family, and had to put my headphones on and crank up the heavy metal half-way through it. It was stressful just to listen to.

    I can think of a comedic scene I’ve written which is pure slapstick (complete with a vulgarity) and not particularly meaningful at the time, but oddly, is the source of drama a little later.

    My comedic sense is usually a little more subtle, though. Here’s a snippet for you:

    (Context: The witch conjures broomsticks for her and Samson.)
    “What? We’re going to fly?”
    “No, we’re going to clean up the street a little bit. Yes, we’re going to fly.”
    “Why? Can’t you just teleport us? Where are we going, anyway?”
    Lyla sighed. “What, you’re scared? More people have died from teleporting than flying, you know…”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. That did make me laugh. 😉

      • Yes! 😀

        • Joe Long says:

          Yes, these absurd kind of comments are typical of what I like,

          When I sense it’s an appropriate time for humor and/or find myself chuckling at the situation, I’ll drop in these type of one-liners. Perhaps the character embarrasses himself by saying something inappropriate, or finds himself in an awkward situation.

          For more extended situations, I did a scene last year for a Halloween anthology where my characters left a party to go ghost hunting at a local cemetery in the woods – except one of the guys can’t get Bigfoot off his mind.

          Another I wrote recently was where my protagonist had finally gotten himself into a relationship and then found himself attracted to and hitting it off with a different girl who’s new to his bowling team (can’t avoid her). His best friend advised him to “Tell her you have a girlfriend”. When he does, he stumbles through and ends up admitting his attraction to her, definitely not what he intended.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Hah. The Bigfoot gag immediately has my brain running to hilarious possibilities.

  12. Lourdes says:

    Thank you for writing this! I don’t like most American comedians because all the comedy is based on vulgar language/situations. But I love comedy in novels, when it’s done right, especially the dry wit of British novelists.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love “smart” comedy–the kind that offers subtext, requires a little thought, and makes you feel just a little smarter for having “got” it. 😉

  13. Good broad points about comedy. Part of why Frank Capra did comedy with heart so well is he started out on silent comedy films with a small time comedian. He knew how to do set-ups and comedy beats. Even his more serious films – Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Meet John Doe (an obscure but great movie), and It’s a Wonderful Life, use comedy to connect to the audience, which gives the dark but hopeful endings more depth.

    I also recommend a more obscure film of his called Lady For A Day. It came out the year before It Happened One Night and was nominated for the top 4 Oscars (Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Picture, Brst Director) the year before It Happened One Night became the first film to win all three.

    There’s a terrible 1960s remake of Lady For A Day called Pocketful of Miracles starring Betty Davis and directed by Capra which supports your point about time relevance. The original is an incredible film reflecting the struggles of the early Great Depression. The remake is focuses on the glamorized Hollywood version of gangsters with 1960’s sequins and hoakiness.

    On the contemporary point, however, I disagree with your point on The Producers. The Broadway version is one of the most successful plays of all time, with the most Tony Awards of all time and the second most nominations after Hamilton. Making fun of evil dictators is always relevant, especially with musical numbers like Springtime for Hitler. The film bombed because it was a poorly made photo copy of the live musical, without the life and verve of the original.

    Thanks again for a thought provoking postwith practical applications.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I haven’t seen the Broadway play, so can’t comment there, but I can’t imagine it didn’t do a better job than the movie remake. :p

  14. J.M Barlow says:

    Why do I get the impression that you just saw Guardians of the Galaxy v2?

    I wish I was better at writing humour. I u don’t plan on anything remotely close to the comedy genre, but some elements thrown in to my work would be good. All in due time, I suppose.

    I read this post, then went saw Guardians 2 and just loved it. And the whole time, it made me realize how good of a job they do, making a movie like this. It’s way better than the traditional super hero comic book hero humour that I’m used to seeing.

  15. Oh, yes! Katie, so true and I kept shaking my head in agreement with all your references. I love watching all the old movies and TV shows. The humor is truly humorous. And I love As Time Goes By. One of the few shows that can make me laugh out loud. I would love to be able to insert humor in my writing. But, alas, it hasn’t worked out yet. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although there’s certainly an art to comedy, I do tend to feel that it’s largely something that just has to happen. It either wells up for the writing or it doesn’t. And *nothing* is worse than forced comedy. :p

  16. Great post and comments! I especially agree about “forced comedy” instead of letting things happen naturally.
    I insert humor in my stories where it works, and I researched how story humor works. I taught a writing class on it and wrote a book covering that aspect, if anyone is interested. I found the best way to create story humor is to set up the correct elements for a humorous character and/or situation, then write the story and let that humor happen naturally.
    This also means that the humor doesn’t have to be side-splitting. If it brings a smile to the reader, that is enough to make them enjoy your characters and story. The degree of humor you use also depends on your story and audience. I write action thrillers, and my current three stories are very different in this regard: they all have intense action, but the tone of one is like Hunger Games, with almost no humor, another is like a (humorless) Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Batman, in which humor is very sparse but charming, and the third is like Indiana Jones or Romancing the Stone, in which the humor is rampant, making it fit for a more mainstream audience to enjoy.
    My book is called Making Fiction Funny: How to Create Story Humor if anyone wants to check it on amazon or B&N. Good luck, writers! (:^D

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  1. […] Kole considers the question of using politics in children’s books, K. M. Weiland lays out 4 ways to write meaningful comedy, and Ash Krafton provides resources and tips for writing historical […]

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