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The ‘Golden Rules’ of Writing Comedy by Caimh McDonnell

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Caimh McDonnell

Caimh McDonnell

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It has been suggested a few times that I should do a “Golden Rules of Writing Comedy” article and I’ve always resisted it for one very good reason. I’ve been making my living from comedy for about 14 years now, be it as a stand-up comedian, as a writer for prime time television and kid’s sitcoms on British TV, and lately, as a novelist of crime thrillers with a darkly comic twist, and the only thing I can tell you with absolute certainty about comedy, is that nothing is certain. There are no golden rules.

By way of illustration, when I moved to London back in the year 2000, after we’d all barely survived that Y2K apocalypse, I went to a seminar for aspiring comedy writers. During it, a TV exec gave us a talk on the golden rules of comedy. He confidently told us to never ever set a sitcom in an office because nobody cares about your office and they don’t want to be reminded about their crappy day job. Fifteen years later I was at a similar talk where a TV exec stood up and confidently told us to never ever set a sitcom in an office because it’ll get compared to The Office and that is the greatest sitcom ever. The point here is that anyone who tries to tell you how to write comedy is an idiot.

Hello, I am an idiot.

Still, I’m an idiot who at least knows there are no golden rules, so here are my seven silver serving suggestions for writing a comedy novel.

1/ A ‘comedy novel’ is not a thing

By which I mean, comedy isn’t a genre; in the same way that delicious isn’t a type of food. Comedy is a style, or in other words, it is a way you choose to tell a story. The story itself defines the genre. Nobody has ever said “Oh, if you loved Bridget Jones’ Diary you must read A Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy.” Why that is important to remember is that comedy serves the story and not the other way around. If your main character gets trapped in a sausage factory it had better be for a much better reason than you’ve come up with some amusing double-entendres. You should always concentrate on narrative and character first and then add the funny. Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta sitting in the car discussing the ‘Royale with Cheese’ in Pulp Fiction is a great scene, but what makes it a great movie is that the car is going somewhere. Always make sure your car is going somewhere.

2/ Voices

There’s a maxim about TV writing that says in a really well written script you should theoretically be able to pick a line at random and someone who is familiar with the characters can tell you who says it. Try it with Friends, it mostly works outside of people saying ‘hey’. The point being, great dialogue isn’t just the words, who is saying them is just as important. A lot of bad comedy writing is when someone has come up with a funny line and has just given it to anybody; regardless of whether it is something they would actually say. Characters are not line delivery machines. A really good line works two ways, it is funny in its own right and it reinforces the character. That’s not to say a character can’t say something unexpected, comedy relies a lot on such misdirection, but it has to be very consciously done. You have to define expectations before you can try and break them.

3/ If writing is editing, comedy writing is editing squared

Have you ever noticed how people react differently to a new TV drama than a new sitcom? It is a widely held belief among comedy writers that sitcoms get dumped on way harder by critics than other types of shows. Leaving aside the fact that ironically, comedy writers are much bigger drama queens than drama writers, they do have a point. The theory goes, that if someone feels like you’ve tried to tell them a joke and they don’t get it, they will actively start to dislike you for it. Either they will think you’re an idiot or they will think that you think they are. People take comedy personally.

In On Writing by Stephen King, which I assume every aspiring author has read at least three times – if you haven’t please stop reading now, go and do that and come back – the rest of us will wait for you…

Right, all caught up?

OK, remember the bit where he says that when it comes to your early or beta readers, in the event of a tie, go with the house? By which he means, if half of your sample group like something and half don’t, the decision goes with the author and it is perfectly legit to leave it as is. I’m as surprised as you are that I’m saying this but I am; that rule is wrong for comedy. If half of your readers think something is funny and half don’t, then you almost certainly need to rework it. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a comedy gig where only half of the room are laughing, but it isn’t comfortable for anybody. One person not getting it is probably fine, more than one and you need to at least take a very long look at the material. (The big proviso here by the way is that I’m assuming you have been judicious in who you show your early work to. I’m sure my aunt, the nun, would not find The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy hilarious and her being dead isn’t even one of the top three reasons for that.)

4/ Actually, it might be editing cubed

My old housemate is arguably one of the best one-liner comedians in the world. I say arguably as in comedy, somebody will argue about anything. What isn’t in doubt is the freakish amount of time he puts into writing and rewriting. He will move words around and around in a single sentence for hours to find the correct order for them. While he is admittedly weird, he isn’t wrong. It is incredibly important. It’s the difference between a gag sort of working and ripping the roof off. It’s why a lot of people can’t retell a joke they heard; they remember all the bits but they don’t remember the exact order or delivery. It’s like remembering all the lyrics of the song but not getting the tune. There are lots of little comedy writing rules – for example, ideally the reveal comes with the last word in the sentence, you don’t repeat words unless absolutely necessary etc. Don’t worry about that, a lot of them you will know instinctively. Still, even for prose, which is a lot more forgiving than live performance, it is worth reading your work out to check the sentences have the rhythm you are after.

5/ Watch Your References

This is a good rule for any form of writing. If a reader is confused by how something is written then you’re in danger of pulling them out of the story. For example, I write books set in Dublin, I have to be very careful that if I’m using Irish slang, which I regularly do, I use it in such a way that the meaning of the term is clear in context. If I have readers in America or Japan Googling the word ‘Gobshite’ to figure out my main character’s opinion of someone he went to school with, I have failed in a very big way. This is very definitely not to say that you should write in a bland ‘good for all time zones’ style, just that it is a thing to be conscious of. The reason this is doubly important for comedy is that it is really hard for someone to get a joke if it relies on information they don’t have and as previously discussed, people get annoyed fast if they think there was a joke they didn’t get.

The references are especially important in genre. People can and do write really successful books that rely on the reader being clued into the tropes of certain genres so that they can cleverly parody or subvert them. Terry Pratchett’s early work is a great example of someone doing this well. Be very careful though that you’re not putting jokes into a book you think will work for a broad demographic that rely on things like, for example, the reader having seen episode three of the third series of Doctor Who.

A brilliant example of having your genre reference cake and eating it is the comedic gem that is the film Galaxy Quest. While obviously an affectionate parody of Star Trek, it managed to reference tropes of the genre while doing it in such a way that people who didn’t know them beforehand would still get the joke. The writers managed that through establishing a strong narrative (see point 1) and strong characters (see point 2). In short, Galaxy Quest is brilliant and if you don’t agree, we cannot be friends.

6/ A bit of good news

I realise a lot of the above is making comedy sounding like a lot more effort than it is worth, so I should point out a positive. A large part of writing involves misdirection. As authors, we often need to slip in a vital piece of information without the reader realizing its importance – like sticking a tablet in a dog’s din-dins and hoping he doesn’t notice it and eat around it. Comedy is an excellent way of doing that. I ruin a lot of crime dramas for my wife. I often shout ‘killer’ as soon as someone walks on screen (I’m a lot of fun to live with). The writers on these shows need to introduce somebody so we can find out they’re the killers later on and that is really hard to do subtly. However, if you can find a way to do that in a funny way, the reader/viewer is more likely to believe that it being amusing was the purpose behind that scene. Done right, it can provide an excellent cover for introducing facts/people/things that become important later on – see the TV show Sherlock for numerous examples of this. It’s also why that close-up magician is shamelessly flirting with your wife while showing you a trick. Well, that and the fact that magicians are inherently creepy people.

7/ Timing is everything

If my early attempts at having sex prove anything, it is that there is a time to try and be funny and there is a time to shut the hell up. A large part of respecting your narrative as suggested above in point 1is letting your dramatic moments be dramatic. I’m blessed with a great editor. His biggest note on my first book was about the climactic scene. He went through and basically said “that’s a good joke, that’s a good joke, that’s a good joke – and you’re taking them all out.” He was absolutely right – I was committing the cardinal sin of undercutting myself by trying to be funny when respecting the story meant shutting up and letting my characters get on with it. Your characters need to react as real people do to moments of despair or loss as otherwise, your reader isn’t going to empathise and it will feel like nothing is really at stake. Similarly, the quip in an action scene has to be very well judged, otherwise it’ll mess up all that hard won momentum you’ve built up.

So there you go, there are the seven hostages I am giving to fortune. I hope they are useful, even if it is just to give you a list of ways you are determined to prove some idiot wrong.

(c) Caimh McDonnell

About Angels in the Moonlight:

For Detective Bunny McGarry, life is complicated, and it is about to get more so.

It’s 1999 and his hard won reputation amongst Dublin’s criminal fraternity, for being a massive pain in the backside, is unfortunately shared by his bosses. His partner has a career-threatening gambling problem and, oh yeah, Bunny’s finally been given a crack at the big time. He’s set the task of bringing down the most skilled and ruthless armed robbery gang in Irish history. So the last thing he needs in his life is yet another complication.

Her name is Simone. She is smart, funny, talented and, well, complicated. When her shocking past turns up to threaten her and Bunny’s chance at a future, things get very complicated indeed. If the choice is upholding the law or protecting those he loves, which way will the big fella turn?

Angels in the Moonlight is a standalone prequel to Caimh McDonnell’s critically acclaimed Dublin Trilogy which melds fast-paced action with a distinctly Irish acerbic wit, and it is complicated.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Caimh McDonnell is an award-winning stand-up comedian, author and writer of televisual treats.
His writing credits include The Sarah Millican Television Programme, A League of Their Own, Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You. He also works as a children’s TV writer and was BAFTA nominated for the animated series ‘Pet Squad’ which he created. He was a winner in the BBC’s Northern Laffs sitcom writing competition.
During his time on the British stand-up circuit, he has firmly established himself as the white-haired Irishman whose name nobody can pronounce. He regularly supports Sarah Millican and Gary Delaney on tour and has also brought the funny worldwide, doing stand-up tours of the Far East, the Middle East and Near East (Norwich).
His debut novel A Man With One of Those Faces has been nominated for best Novel at the 2017 CAP awards.

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