The funny business

15th August 1997 at 01:00
If people laugh it's funny; if they don't it isn't. That's the golden rule of comedy, because there's no formula for being funny. So how do comedy writers distinguish between the hysterical and the hopeless? Henry Normal explains.

In Jokes and their Relation to the Subconscious, Freud defines a joke as "a playful communication without moral implication whereby an image implanted in the audience's mind is twisted with utmost brevity to reveal unforeseen consequences, thereby triggering an involuntary reaction". He goes on to explain that it is even funnier if you can include the word "knob".

The first sentence is more or less correct; the second is an illustration of how to get away with a "knob gag" in The TES by thinly disguising it as bathos. This is an important starting point as the root of most humour tends to be irreverence. So the first rule of comedy writing is that there are no rules. Comedy is often about breaking rules and unpredictability. If there were a formula there would be no surprise twists, or "reveals" as they are more commonly known.

Back to Freud. In his book he uses mostly German humour, which to many may seem like an oxymoron. The best British example I can offer to support his description of a joke is a classic by Tommy Cooper: A man walks into a bar. "Ouch," he shouts. It was an iron bar. This is of course a pun on the word bar. Puns are a useful tool in a wide range of humour and tend to work best where they present not just a word picture but a solid image in the audience's mind that, when twisted, presents a new and unforeseen solid image. Beyond the paraphrasing of Freud and this one example, I wouldn't like to venture an all-encompassing definition of a joke. As a general rule of thumb, if people laugh it's funny; if they don't it ain't.

getting started When I started writing comedy I'd never read Freud and thought bathos was one of the Three Musketeers, but it did seem that comedy was essentially about the perversion of information. So the key weapon in the comedy writer's arsenal is information and a nose for opportunities to pervert that information to comic effect. When Steve Coogan and I were writing some stand-up material for Pauline Calf we wanted to introduce some jokes about Pauline's baby. The starting point had to be, what do we know about babies? Or, more importantly, what does the prospective audience know about babies? Well, they puke and cak everywhere. So one joke was Pauline complaining, "I took baby Petula to see our Paul the other day. Oh, there was puke and cak everywhere. It was no place to take a baby."

Obviously, we used the popular association of babies with puke and cak, and twisted the image in the manner of the Tommy Cooper example. Information and imagination is all you need. I'm not sure anyone can teach someone to have imagination. The best way I can explain the process is that you need to play "what if?" until you reveal an unforeseen consequence. After that it's gut feeling.


I once typed a tried and tested joke into a talking computer and played it back. The delivery was awful. A lot of rubbish is talked about comic timing, but I believe it is to do with finding the right rhythm and intonation in the words of the joke so as not to signal the twist too heavily or punch home the reveal too obviously (whilst giving sufficient emphasis to allow the twist to be read). One of the most common criticisms of comedy material is that "it's too hammered home".

Freud's "utmost brevity" is needed at the point of twist up to the end of the remaining information. This means that prior to the point of twist all the information needed to understand the ending must be supplied. Take the joke, "Jimmy Tarbuck taught me everything he knew . . . it was a Wednesday." The point at which you wish someone to laugh is usually going to come at the end of the sentence. If we switch the information around, the joke doesn't work: "It was a Wednesday. Jimmy Tarbuck taught me everything he knew."


Writing with a partner or a group of writers is much more fun than writing alone. It has several advantages, not least of which is having an audience to convince, and comedy writers are the hardest audience. If you can make a fellow writer laugh you've usually got a good joke. Finding a joke is often trial and error, so having to stumble through a joke helps hone it to perfection.

is comedy truth? A wise man once said, "What is funny is often true, but what is true is not necessarily funny." Which is true but not funny, unfortunately. People do seem to laugh more at the truth within jokes rather than those based on a false supposition. Sometimes, simply pointing out the truth of a situation will get an instinctive laugh. One of the reasons racist and sexual stereotypes are no longer regarded as funny is that most people now know they are based on untruths.


As comedy is about irreverence, perverting information and revealing blatant truths, it brings with it an element of power. If we laugh with someone, we voluntarily submit to their vision of the world. In a social situation the comic can ply his trade only by agreement of the audience. The comic is given power. The more society acknowledges the rights and the voices of women and traditionally less powerful groups, the more comics from these areas will emerge. Power is an important aspect to bear in mind when writing comedy. People will laugh more easily at a joke about a rich American rather than the same joke told about a starving African.


Charlie Chaplin once said, "Tragedy is life close up, and comedy is life at a distance." I'm not sure this still holds true, but certainly there is a relationship between comedy and tragedy and the line between is often wafer-thin. Comedians and comic writers do use comedy to laugh at tragedy, to exorcise demons and come to terms with their own misfortunes or misgivings. If you're essentially happy-go-lucky, the chances are you're not a comedy writer.

Woody Allen says comedy is "attitude". This is a useful definition, especially when writing character-based comedy (although all stand-up comedy is character-based as even those who are playing themselves, such as Jack Dee or Jo Brand, are to some extent playing a character). All the best comedians and comic writers create their own comic world where you are invited to share their experiences and observations. The great ones are always true to that world.


We had Boy George as a guest on Mrs Merton, so we wanted jokes that related to his fame and his personality. Now, he is openly gay. So, taking the various points mentioned above, we wanted something that was truthful, relevant, in keeping with Mrs Merton's attitude, that recognised the public perception of the power situation and was irreverent (and funny). We asked ourselves, what image is there that we can twist? We played "what if?". My favourite line in the interview was Mrs M's statement, "There's gays in all walks of life now; you've only got to look at the Village People to see that." It made the writers laugh, so our gut feeling was it was funny. Trial and error eventually paid off on the show with trial and success. The audience laughed. The job was done, and not even a mention of the word "knob".


Genuinely funny material is like gold dust; even reasonably funny material, if original, will sell itself. However, if you're not an established writer, no one is going to come knocking on your door seeking your material. As Harry Hill would say, "What are the chances of that happening?" There are so many styles of comedy and so many outlets, all I can advise is: send your comedy where you believe it can best be used. If you like someone's work, send it to them; if they can use it, they'll thank you (and pay you). If they can't use it, all you've lost is the price of a stamp. If you like a TV or radio show, send it to the producer. If you like a book, send it to the publisher. If you like a magazine or newspaper, send it to the editor. Start at the top of your wish list, and if it gets returned don't give up. If it was easy, everybody would be writing comedy and people wouldn't pay such good money for it. Persistence is an essential virtue in comedy writing (that and writing funny stuff, of course).

* Henry Normal has written scripts for Mrs Merton and Steve Coogan

* The Arvon Foundation runs highly respected creative writing courses at centres in Devon, Yorkshire and Scotland. The first 10 readers to send a TES masthead together with their address to David Pease at The Arvon Foundation, Lumb Bank, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire HX7 6DF will receive the new Arvon brochure in January and 20 per cent off the course of their choice

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