How to Write Better Comedy. Seriously.

How to Write Better Comedy. Seriously.

A sure-fire comedy-adventure entitled The Fall Guy, starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt, tanks at the box office, taking in less than $30 million its opening weekend. Comedic legend Jerry Seinfeld writes and directs Unfrosted, a comedy about Pop-Tarts that gets the worst reviews of his career. Even the great Jon Stewart returns to Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and critics question if his schticky style is too dated for today’s times.

What’s going on here? Is it that hard to be funny these days?

Perhaps, so. Comedy, as most any artist will tell you, is the most difficult of genres. (Actor Edmund Gwenn, upon his death bed famously remarked, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”) No matter the medium—film, TV, stage, the page—you’ve got to make an audience laugh right off the bat and keep them laughing throughout or you are toast. It doesn’t help either that laughter is an involuntary reaction, unfettered and genuine. Comedy may be subjective, and not everyone finds the same things funny, but generally speaking, the laughs either are there, or they’re not.

So, why is getting laughs getting so much harder? The dirty and vicious humor on display during the recent Tom Brady Roast on Netflix certainly produced hearty guffaws, but has comedy of the extremes become the only surefire hits in the genre? Are more subtle or witty jokes just too tame for today’s audiences? Have we lost our ability as a nation to find the funny in anything but the most outrageous?

Comedian Bill Maher thinks that political correctness robs comedians of their full arsenal, tampering down efforts that need to be full-throttled. Maher’s been fighting the ‘woke’ crowd for years now, crowing about how cancel culture is scaring comedians into pulling such punches. Is there too much sensitivity, too much presence of the ‘thought police’ in comedy these days? Is that kind of interference what’s making comedy so lame? Have the trolls taken out too many and scared away others?

I’m inclined to think that one of the main problems in films, shows, plays, and stand-up acts is that there’s been far too much comedy on television these past four decades. Ever since the onslaught of cable, comedy on the tube permeates programming. Shows trying to tickle our funny bones have become so prolific that we have started to collectively yawn—it takes a lot more to stand out in 2024. Breaking through the clutter is always the challenge for any artist, and it’s especially hard given that comedy can be very subjective. If a comedy can surprise us, it stands a better chance of sticking to the wall, but with so many gags coming at us 24/7, audiences these days get ahead of both the comedy’s story and those gags.

Still, an over-saturated marketplace is just part of the problem. There are many sad, new realities about the genre of comedy that go much deeper than just too much content begging for our viewing. I’d argue that one of the things plaguing comedy today is that so little of it is truly well-written, acted, or directed. The skills needed to truly make brilliant comedy have become more and more of a lost art. And comedy takes work and a lot of it seems very lazy.

In The Fall Guy, two of the funniest actors on the planet—Gosling and Blunt—barely had a single good line between them. Their dialogue should have been chock full of surprisingly sexual and cutting banter, but the writing failed on both counts, leaving the film’s stars flailing. They were funnier in their two-minute bit at the Oscars this last spring than they were in the entirety of this misbegotten film comedy.

Being funny, you see, isn’t just in the premise. The proof is in putting it all together. Comedy has rules, too, and those making comedies must honor them and showcase them properly.

There are a particular group of tenets that would behoove any comedy writer to follow and here, are a crucial six:


Character’s in conflict is what drives a drama. The same is true in comedy, only they’re farther apart from each other in thoughts, words and deeds. That’s what makes their situation funny.

In the 70s sitcom “The Odd Couple,” Felix Unger and Oscar Madison were both divorced men sharing an apartment to save money for alimony, but outside of that they were miles apart. Felix was neat, sensitive and responsible. Oscar was sloppy, selfish, and rather amoral. So, with such opposites, anything that came between them was ripe to be funny. Take the time they adopted a retired greyhound, Felix wanted to pamper the pooch, while Oscar wanted to race it to make money. Conflict and confrontation ensued, complete with quips and slapstick, and the audience rolled in the aisles.

The farther away characters are from each other in any such situation, the funnier the comedy will be.


An actor performing in a comedy must be funny, but they should never act like they know they’re being funny. That’s part of what makes comedy so awful these days; actors know they’re in one and try to be hilarious. And it shows.

One of the reasons that Unfrosted was so grating is that almost everyone in its all-star cast pitched their performances so broadly due to the material being a farce. They were all running about, huffing and puffing, trying to pump it up further. But the premise of a company fretting over breakfast wars is already ridiculous; the cast doesn’t need to work that hard to underline it.

If they’d played it straighter, that would have made their characters’ silly machinations all the funnier. Instead, performers like Melissa McCarthy were mugging all over the place, trying to match the material. Big mistake. McCarthy was much better in Bridesmaids where her character acted serious all the time, even when she was shitting in a sink. Which was itself on the premise, hysterical. Her playing it serious? Pants-wetting funny.


Everyone thinks they’re funny. They’re not. Everyone thinks they can tell a joke. They can’t. People can be momentarily amusing, adlibing at work, doing an imitation at a party they’ve done since the sixth grade, or farting in bed. But comedy is quite a skill, akin to learning to sculpt, hit a baseball with a bat, or singing on pitch.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

So, if you’re writing comedy, read it out loud. Act it out. Share it with friends. Test it at a playreading with coworkers and see what gets the laughs.

In the 1930s, the Marx Brothers, pictured in my caricature, didn’t include a gag in a film if it didn’t make a vaudeville audience laugh first. And by playing out their comedy on stage, they were able to perfect all aspects of their schtick. What pauses made the bits funnier, what volume, what props, what slapstick? Their learnings on stage enabled them to shoehorn proven bits into their film screenplays, confident in the fact that they knew that audiences got the gags and gagged with laughter on them.

Such knowledge made Duck Soup, Horse Feathers, and A Night at the Opera into the classic films they are that have stood the test of time. All because those brothers took the time to practice to get it practically perfect.  


The tragedy of most sitcoms is that they might as well be radio plays. All the snarky dialogue back and forth, it’s a lot of talk, but where is the action these days? Sitcoms during their heyday, like in the 60s and 70s, were mostly physical. Sure, there were great lines in “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Gilligan’s Island” or “I Dream of Jeannie,” but mostly the show’s comedy was built on putting their main characters in conflicted situations and watching them squirm, fidget, and thrash their way out of them.

Think of Rob Petrie trying to save face and falling all about in his attempts, or Gilligan and Skipper flailing about like Laurel and Hardy as they confronted headhunters, or Major Nelson trying to explain to Dr. Bellows why he was covered in whipped cream after one of Jeannie’s mis-blinks.

Physical is funny, and the more you can write physical schtick into your comedies, be it a comic novel, film, play or show, the better.


There is much to learn in the study of classic comedy, but the last few generations have frowned upon that which they regard as “ancient history.” Too bad because we learn by example, and if comedy writers are only remembering Urkel, the Nanny, or Joey and Chandler, they’re missing out on a greater scope of comedy.

Comedy that occurred 30, 40 even 100 years ago, is worth the study to better understand what makes things funny.

I pity writers who don’t know the history of vaudeville and the Jewish theater; the names Harold Lloyd, Abbott & Costello, Bob Hope or Jerry Lewis. Those who’ve never read a script by Neil Simon or John Hughes. The Lubitsch Touch? How many writers today know it? Or, for that matter, do they understand the bits that made a Blake Edwards movie a Blake Edwards movie?

The lack of such important influences, influences that would make any comedy writer better, may be lost on today’s generation. I hope not. But I suspect it.


Writing witty descriptions of the action in your scripts can make or break your comedy. It’s not enough to merely write:

“Jack falls into the bathtub and emerges covered in suds, his tuxedo ruined.”

Try describing it more vividly than that:

“Jack falls into a suds-soaked tub and emerges looking like a figure from the top of a wedding cake who swam the top tier like it was the English Channel.”

Sure, your snappy, funny dialogue is important, but paint a picture of the physical absurdity in your story in ways that are fresh and surprising, and you’ll have the readers and the directors laughing. And that’s what is going to get your comedy the green light.

Comedy is a serious business. And, make no mistake, it’s hard. Hard as hell. Harder than dying, I hear. But silence from an audience when you’re trying to be funny? That, my friend, is even deadlier. Do whatever it takes to avoid that.

*Feature illustration by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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