Writing an entire stand-up comedy special isn’t something anyone can accomplish; but anyone can sprinkle humor throughout their story. Like anything else, comedy writing is a skill you must practice to perfect.
Still a skeptic? Perhaps examining the science behind humor will help. There are four main theories of humor: Relief, Superiority, Incongruous Juxtaposition, and Script-based Semantic.
One of the reasons humor is difficult to define is because it’s incredibly subjective. For example, I don’t enjoy humor based on the theories of Relief (laughter as a release of nervous energy) or Superiority (laughing at people “beneath” us). As such, I’ll focus on what makes me laugh: Incongruous Juxtaposition and Script-based Semantic.
Incongruous Juxtaposition basically says laughter is the result of subverted expectations. An example I’ll always chuckle at is a dog wearing a suit and tie. Why is it funny? Because dogs don’t have anyplace formal to go. They aren’t going to work on Woofstreet or argue the merits of being allowed on the sofa before the Supreme Court.
To practice using Incongruous Juxtaposition, write about something unexpected that has happened to you. Something that should have gone one way but went completely sideways. The more absurd the better! Feel free to add embellishment. Did a bird poop on your head on the way to a job interview? Super, now make it a whole flock of seagulls (specificity heightens comedy) and make sure it’s your dream job.
If you already have a story in mind you can still inject humor using Incongruous Juxtaposition. Think about what is supposed to happen, what traditionally happens in the scenario you’re writing, and give it a playful twist. It certainly doesn’t need to be a major plot point. Something as simple as wardrobe malfunctions, miscommunications, or inclement weather can create tension, comedy, and humanize your character all in one swipe.
The Script Based Semantics Theory of humor is the youngest of the four theories and it’s not super dissimilar from Incongruous Juxtaposition. But instead of just an unexpected scenario it relies more specifically on word play.
The creator of this theory, linguistics professor Victor Raskin, uses this joke to illustrate his point: "Is the doctor at home?" the patient asked in his bronchial whisper. "No," the doctor's young and pretty wife whispered in reply. "Come right in.”
The joke relies on our understanding of the words “patient” and “doctor”. If you were substitute the word “patient” with “lover” or the word “doctor” with “dummy” it would no longer be clever.
You probably use Script Based Semantics in your daily conversations without even realizing it. When you call your toddler your “boss” or your best friend your “partner in crime” you’re playing with the understood definitions of those words to embellish and amuse. My toddler is indeed bossy and my best friend would help me bury a body—but ultimately I’m in charge of my kid and so far haven’t had to dig any graves (except in my stories of course). Next time you hear someone joking like this make a note of it.
In your story look for places, especially in dialogue, to twist how characters refer to each other, themselves, and their situations to exaggerate and entertain. Dialogue is my favorite place to work a joke in—there’s something so empowering about having control over ALL the speakers whereas when I riff with my friends I only get to “write my own lines” so to speak.
In that vein, recording yourself riffing with your friends and listening to it later can be a great way to fine-tune your ear for funny banter. OF COURSE you want to let everyone know you’re recording them and ALWAYS ask permission before you include someone’s joke in your story. As someone who spends a lot of time hanging out with other comedians, we ALWAYS say, “Hey can I use that?” if someone says something we really love. It’s pretty common to get together and work on jokes with each other—sometimes a friend will say something that sparks a funny idea for me but the joke would work better for them because it’s more their style. Sharing ideas is wonderful, but STEALING them is morally wrong.
I won’t list the title because I don’t want to give it any more free press, but I recently learned of a book slated to be released which used private conversations and actually identified the speakers. This is SO wrong on SO many levels. I would never discuss a friend or their situation (even if I didn’t identify them) on stage or in a story without asking their permission. If you actually hope to have a career as a story-teller of any kind you must have enough imagination to invent characters and all the trimmings. Being inspired by life is great but the object of your inspiration should sign off on your portrayal, especially if the story could identify them.
As Shakespeare would say, brevity is the soul of wit, so I’ll end with this: you can inject comedy into your writing. You can. You are clever enough and now you are armed with the basic principles behind two of my favorite kinds of humor. If you have any questions, please ask. I love engaging on this topic. Also would love to hear your favorite literary jokes in the comments!