Writing and directing comedy has always been hard. Recently, people like Todd Phillips have been saying it's near impossible. But we need comedy now more than ever. And we're getting it from all over.
You've no doubt heard a few times from a few sources. Comedy isn't doable anymore. Comedy is under fire. You can't be funny. Or some variation on this sentiment. True or not, it seems to be a chorus of voices almost discouraging people from going into comedy. As if comedy wasn't already hard enough.
The bigger problem? The world needs comedy. Whether it is in movies or television, the genre is a staple of and necessary for fans of both.
We don't want creators to shy away from it. In fact, we want to encourage everyone to make comedies without worrying about the modern-day 'dangers' or concerns that surround it. The good news is comedy is just as doable as ever, but if you want to do it there are a few simple things to keep in mind that can help you be better at it, but also avoid the sorts of issues people are talking about.
Oh, and the best part?
These guidelines will also help you create comedy that is edgy, maybe even 'offensive' to some. You can tell off-color jokes in a way that works and in a way that doesn't work and we'll help you understand through six simple methods.
But first... let's answer the burning question here...
Why Can't You Do Comedy Anymore?
The argument goes that "cancel culture" (which some would argue is a con) has made it hard for comedians to push the envelope. Too many people are likely to "get offended", cause a stir, and cancel the comedian in question.
There is a weird contradiction at the heart of it all. Comedians lament the loss of their "safe space" in the clubs while lambasting Millennials for wanting safe spaces at all. Taking a step back, it looks like boomers and members of Gen-X are just throwing their own brand of oversensitivity into the mix, perhaps partly as they age out of relevance. After all, it's also hard for a comedy to age well.
I’m funny. Not exceptional. Not woke but not mean. As I get older I’m not every comedy fan’s messenger. It’s a little scary. Ultimately humbling. Comedy owes us NOTHING. We’re lucky when we catch a wave once. WE WILL ALL BE REPLACED. Women have an easier time accepting this.— JEN KIRKMAN (@JenKirkman) October 2, 2019
In fact, it's hard for anything to age well!
Watch a great movie from the 1930s and you're likely to see a representation of a culture whose acceptable norms vary a great deal from ours today. And that really touches on something we'll get to later, perhaps the most important principle when creating comedy that is effective yet inoffensive.
There are fewer comedies in multiplexes, but there is plenty of comedy happening in niches across the streaming platforms, on the internet and on TV. Comedy of all kinds, offensive, intentionally offensive, and "clean."
So can you do comedy still? Absolutely. You can and should and people are doing it constantly.
Only Taika Waititi could make a coming of age film about a Nazi Youth in which he stars as a imaginary Hitler and it somehow be the feel good comedy of the year that every kid should see. Speaking of which, ‘JoJo Rabbit’ also features the best ‘fuck’ in a PG 13 in recent memory. pic.twitter.com/MOlLSKms7e— edgarwright (@edgarwright) October 6, 2019
The question then becomes how can you do comedy well, without living in fear of pushing the wrong buttons, but while also being irreverent and having an edge.
Now it's time for us to get down to it!
1. Don't Punch Down
If you haven't heard this before, it's the best guiding principle behind doing comedy that won't ruffle feathers the wrong way. But ruffling feathers is still often critical to comedy.
So what's the right way to ruffle feathers?
Punch up. Not punch-up, as in a writing pass that adds new jokes to the material. Punch up as in the opposite of punching down. This idea all comes down to notions of status.
Punching up means taking someone higher on the world's ladder of status down a few pegs. Because they can take it.
Making fun of the rich and powerful as opposed to the poor is an obvious instance of punching up.
Succession on HBO is a modern example of a comedy that punches up. The Roy family at the heart of Succession is rich and powerful beyond anyone's wildest dreams. They're also blundering fools most of the time. It feels good to laugh at people like this, and nobody gets hurt in the process.
Well, that's not true. Maybe the Murdoch family could get hurt. But the idea is that they can cry into their billions of dollars and estates and yachts and well... they'll be fine. The idea of high and low status in comedy is a staple dating back to, well, the earliest forms of drama imaginable. It's funny when the low man upends the high man. It's sad when the high man punches down.
Can that still be funny? Can people still laugh at it? Yes. But that's going to ruffle a different set of feathers.
Figure out where you or your characters are on the status in the society being depicted, and go from there.
Remember the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry talks about someone converting to Judaism "for the jokes"? This is part and parcel of the idea of punching down or across and not up. A Jewish person, as the rules go, can make Jewish jokes but it's a lot less comfortable when a non-Jewish person does the same.
If you want to be edgy in terms of making jokes about a specific group or minority, consider who is making the joke. People will see a racist joke from a person of the other race differently than they will see it from someone of the same race. This is pretty basic knowledge, but it's part of the larger idea that you can be funny and push boundaries within your own group, or your own status.
Who better to discuss all of this than one of the masters of comedy George Carlin:
Wow, this is from 1990. And I thought us “sensitive” folk didn’t understand the unfunny punching down jokes from these “comedians”. Interesting pic.twitter.com/2jU5Xj6pA3— Aiah Samba (@Dualityman81) September 28, 2019
In this clip from an interview with Larry King, Carlin talks about comedy as being best when targeting people in power and not underdogs. Carlin is specifically addressing Andrew Dice Clay's routine, which had 'shock value' (more on this later), but he does a great job defending Clay's right to do "whatever he wants."
Worth noting though? Comedy like Clay's doesn't last. It's not sophisticated enough. Carlin managed to be edgy in a way that worked at the time but continues to be relevant and funny to this day.
Which brings us to the next point:
2. Shock vs. Surprise
Shock comedy is when you do something nobody was expecting. It doesn't require a ton of craft. You can simply say something out of context, insulting, or off limits and shock people to get a reaction.
Shock comedy's cousin is "surprise," which instead is predicated on a set-up for different expectations and a different outcome. It's more nuanced, it's the actual bones behind the structure of any joke.
A "punchline" is a surprise. It's not a shock. If it was a shock it would have limited lasting power. It's a surprise because it makes sense given the setup, but it wasn't what you were expecting. It's also closely related to the idea of foreshadowing or plant and payoff.
See, good narrative story habits crossover from one style to another.
Imagine a horror movie where a monster pops out from behind a box. Scary for a second, right? But a lot less scary than creating the distress you can when you set up one expectation and subvert it last minute with something well-planted. Great comedy has suspense in its arsenal.
Which brings us to...
3. Situations and Dramatic Irony
The term sitcom comes from the phrase situational comedy. It's a comedy built around a situation that will create many jokes. Sitcoms have been around a long time, so there are some well-worn situations. Like the boss is coming over for dinner unexpectedly!
You can see how this situation lends itself to a series of jokes.
But it can obviously get increasingly complex and unique. Dramatic irony is simply when you let the audience in on something the characters do not know yet. For example, think about how The Simpsons' Principal Skinner's planned dinner for Superintendent Chalmers. The dinner is a disaster, but Chalmers has yet to fully realize this. The gap in knowledge creates tension and anticipation, and you can "milk" the moment.
This often works with mistaken identity, or general misunderstandings as well...
You can make people laugh pretty hard at an entire sequence that is wildly 'inappropriate' without it being something that crosses any kind of major line or targets any specific person because of who they are. In the case of There's Something About Mary, the moment she uses the, ahem, hair gel, is shocking, but the scene that plays out afterward has more to do with dramatic irony, milking the circumstances for more jokes.
4. Self Deprecation
If you have to make fun of someone, make fun of yourself.
If you can't make fun of yourself or laugh at yourself at all then you probably shouldn't be in comedy and you might have some other issues to work out.
This gets closer to the idea of punching down, or across. But the bottom line is, we all feel comfortable laughing at ourselves. We're not really laughing at YOU when you do it, we're laughing at the part of self-hate that we can all identify with. And we feel an immediate kinship with the comic for creating that bond. "Ah yes, I am human too. I am also feeling badly."
You can really go to town on yourself without hurting anyone's feelings. The only problem is you can go too far and it can make people start to feel bad for you.
But that's the real trick. Comedy is going to work best when it has the least victims. If you're targeting a whole swath of people who seem like underdogs with jokes then you're going to hurt them, but you might also garner some defense and sympathy from others. You will generate fewer laughs. Of course, we can get laughs making fun of someone when we're in a small closed group. But that won't work as well when we have to try and extend that to a bigger audience.
If you want to get the most sustained laughs, target yourself, your groups, and people in power. But how you target people and groups is so critical, and that's what we'll cover in the last and most important section.
5. Callbacks and Dead Horses
A good way to generate comedy that can have absolutely nothing to do with punching down or being offensive is simply through callbacks. A callback, or reincorporation in improv terms, is when you bring back an idea or moment from earlier in a new context and deepen the joke.
Similar to plant and payoff or foreshadowing again, but this time almost in reverse. What was the thing that seemed entirely unimportant that you can reference again? Nobody does this better than Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
When you callback too much it can be called "beating a dead horse", but nowadays we have this great little thing called meme culture which is literally just beating a dead horse so much that it becomes funny even when it ceases to make any sense at all. Ironic how there is a swirling and popular meme culture surrounded Joker, which was made ostensibly because comedy can't exist anymore. Joker memes are the only truly irreverent thing about the movie.
Does that type of comedy require mocking anyone? Nope.
Lastly -- but most importantly -- is context.
Almost all previous guidelines tie into this one, but if you can get this one down you can probably get away with any type of comedy at all. On some level at least. Context is how your jokes and comedy are situated within the story and the world you are presenting.
Who is the comedy coming from? Is it you? Someone like you? Are they angry? Are they trying to hurt someone else? Ask these questions if you are trying to determine if the context of your joke will work or will it "come off the wrong way."
Again, maybe you want to come off the wrong way for shock or for whatever reason. That's fine, we all want to support everyone's right to do that of course. But if your goal is to create effective comedy with some bite that isn't just baiting some group, or stepping on toes, or punching down, then context is key.
If you properly contextualize the humor you can still push buttons, be edgy, and make statements about touchy subjects. Comedy is hard. Great ones wield a scalpel as they take apart our society, they don't bludgeon it with a mallet...like... ya know... Gallagher.
Writer and retired athlete Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made this point effectively in The Hollywood Reporter:
"...Ricky Gervais is able to make comical fun of religion, Atlanta has poignant and hysterical observations about race, Sarah Silverman is riotous about sexual politics, Will and Grace and Tig Notaro are hilarious about the LGBTQ community. All of them offend some people. But they don’t offend through deliberate, malicious attacks. Their humor brings the culture into sharper focus through intelligent and often barbed observations."
He's pointing out that context, along with the other tools we've mentioned, can allow for a comic to take aim at things that are 'touchy' without being OVERLY offensive.
There is a reality that the internet means everyone can voice their offense or opinion about anything. Take a recent post on this site about the movie Joker. It was an editorial, but it was also a passionate take, which in turn inspired a slew of very passionate takes. Things got aggressive very quickly. The internet has a way of doing this.
Should we all take all of that seriously all the time? No. We should use our best judgment to properly contextualize our jokes and the reactions they get.
If in the end, you make a comedy that offends someone, there is no harm in also genuinely apologizing. One of the issues the culture seems to keep running into is the idea that we all have to be perfect and correct all of the time. We don't. We can't.
Mistakes are made. Lessons are learned. We can get better at what we do, and at the same time maybe we can also learn to laugh at ourselves.
Comedy is at its very core a process of delivering joy. Happiness.
Can we really honestly do that if we insist on only doing so at the expense of others?