Whether you’re writing a rom-com, a fantasy, or a horror flick, nearly every script can benefit from more levity. So we asked Fred Rubin, veteran writer/producer of such TV classics as “Different Strokes," “Mama’s Family," “Family Matters,” and “Night Court,” to share his side-splitting secrets. Besides writing dozens of sitcom episodes, pilots, and TV movies, Fred teaches at the UCLA film school and spends a great deal of time punching up scripts for other writers. Take it away, Fred!
Learning to be funny is one of the most difficult writing skills to master. Most everyone is born with the sensibilities to be scared, confused, serious, moody, frustrated, conflicted, and angry—all elements that contribute to great writing. But “funny?” Well, if it’s not in your environment as you grow up, it’s often not on hand when you create. Still, I believe anyone who at least possesses a sense of humor, anyone who likes jokes and laughs a lot, can learn to be “funnier.”
Whenever I’m hired to do a script punch up, before getting deeply into rewriting jokes or going through the time consuming task of writing new jokes, I always do a quick reading of the script with the following five tips in mind. These rules will help you in creating humor, but they are particularly helpful in improving jokes you may already have.
1) BE SPECIFIC
There is nothing that improves a joke more than using a “specific” allusion. The more well known the allusion, the bigger the laugh. Often novice writers, or people trying comedy for the first time, use general allusions in a joke, say for example the word “dog” rather than Schnauzer, or Poodle, or Chihuahua. Using any one of these “specific” breeds is automatically funnier than just “dog.”
Recently, while watching Mel Brook’s classic movie, The Producers, I laughed again when Max Bialystok tries to convince Leo Bloom how poor and needy he is. He screams at Leo, “I’m wearing a CARDBOARD belt!” Flimsy belt, crummy belt, discount belt…none of these are as specific as “cardboard.” It’s part of what makes the joke so funny.
2) PUT THE FUNNY WORD AT THE END
This rule is so simple and so obvious that writers often don’t take it to heart, but it works. If there’s a funny sounding word within the punch line of your joke, try to arrange the sentence so that the funny word falls at the end of the joke. A lot of what makes us laugh is mysterious. Even hardened, cynical comedy writers can’t always explain why some jokes work and others fall flat. But we do know that it has to do with rhythm and sound. If a funny sounding word is the last thing the audience/reader hears, it strengthens the joke. What makes a word funny? Well, for one thing:
3) WORDS WITH A HARD “K” OR HARD “C” SOUND ARE FUNNY
Watch any great comedy movie or any classic sitcom and you will find across the board that a good majority of the jokes rely on the use of a word with these sounds. In the hysterical Neil Simon masterwork on comedy, The Sunshine Boys his main character, Willie Clark, an aging vaudevillian, lectures: “Pickle is funny, Chicken is funny, Alka-Seltzer is funny.” And, he’s right. Comedy writers as a rule don’t search their brains for “K” or “C” sound words to end their jokes, but when pitching the jokes, our minds “instinctively” choose words with those consonants.
Remember, the late night scene in Annie Hall, where a tearful Annie gets Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) to come to her apartment to kill a spider? He charges into the bathroom with a tennis racket and after much off-screen noise and combat he comes out to announce, “You got a spider in there as big as a Buick!” Was there ever a sweeter comedy “K” word than Buick? It’ll be a sad day for comedy writers when General Motors goes under.
4) NEVER WRITE TO A JOKE—LET THE JOKE COME OUT OF THE CHARACTER OR SITUATION
Often, while writing a script, particularly when one is struggling to be funny, a great, fully written joke comes to mind for use later in the scene. We are so enamored with the joke that we then begin crafting the dialogue in the scene to lead to that joke. This almost NEVER works. Nine times out of ten when rereading that scene, the joke jars the flow of the dialogue. Sometimes it stops the scene dead, sometimes it can change the entire emotionality of the scene. It doesn’t work because it does not grow organically from the characters or the situation. Even though it might be on topic, it can still feel out of place.
The best humor ALWAYS comes first from character: fully developed characters with very specific, hopefully quirky traits. Secondly, comedy grows out of the conflict of the situation. Some of the best comedy writers write their scenes without any comedy, then they do a rewrite to find where in the character and conflict the humor can be mined. It’s important to:
5) EXORCISE THE JOKES THAT DON’T FIT, EVEN IF YOU LOVE THEM
I have a vivid memory from my first job as a television writer many years ago, of watching the producers rewriting my script and tearing out whole pages of jokes and dialog that I had loved. Never mind that I had sweated over them, rewritten them half a dozen times, cherished them, and been paid for them. I felt angry, frustrated, and betrayed. But after this happened a handful of times, I came to learn with some surprise that the script worked anyway! And often the comedy was even sharper, because as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Don’t be afraid to edit, trim back, and discard, because pacing (again rhythm) is also a key ingredient to a successful comedy. The very hardest thing in comedy writing is when you recognize that a perfectly crafted joke, a hysterical joke, a joke you laughed out loud at as you wrote it, is not working in the scene. Just give it up and kiss it goodbye.