Comedy recipes

While it’s not too diffi­cult to describe, in broad terms, the kind of shift in perspective that comedy creates for us, it’s harder to pin down exactly how it achieves it.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of some well-worn ways to extract comedy from a situ­ation or scene.

Change the rules

Begin with a premise that is patently absurd and develop it logic­ally until it is a force that sucks the rational world into it like a black hole.

This is the start of a Marty Feldman radio sketch that begins with two men at a bus stop:

MAN 1: Evening
MAN 2: Good evening.
MAN 1: It’s a nice evening
MAN 2: Yes, thank god.
MAN 1: You’re welcome.

(Listen to the complete “God” sketch? Click here)

From this point on you’re in undis­covered territory. One char­acter insists he is God and, wouldn’t you know it, by the end of the sketch, has persuaded the other one to take him home in a taxi and put him up in his spare room. The second char­acter repres­ents us; he is the ‘straight man’, if you like, and his capit­u­la­tion to the premise is natur­ally also ours. We know it’s absurd but our pleasure derives from seeing the premise work itself out.

A lot of comedy is built on the found­a­tions of an absurd premise and it isn’t always anarchic in its form. Oscar Wilde’s The Import­ance of Being Earnest, for example, is based on the premise of a baby being aban­doned in a handbag on a station. Although ostens­ibly a comedy of manners, it is actu­ally by defin­i­tion a farce because of the ridicu­lous premise at its heart.

Comedy Magic

There is some­thing a bit magical about the trans­form­ative power of a logic conjured up and set askew in this way. It exerts an irres­ist­ible pull. This is why chil­dren love conjurors or clowns, they appear to break the mundane laws of the everyday world. They have secret powers that are myster­ious and entran­cing to the unspoiled imagin­a­tion of a child.

The simplest and most enduring comedy works in a similar fashion. You can see it in its purest form in the phys­ical knock­about of early cinema. Stan Laurel flicks his thumb and gets a flame on the end of it. Oliver Hardy is scornful; how ridicu­lous, how silly. Hardy flicks his thumb and the same thing happens – panic and consternation!

There is a force at work here that over­turns our sens­ible reality, but that we under­stand at a deep and instinctive level. This moment in the film Way Out West; where Laurel and Hardy, under the spell of some music, break into a little soft shoe routine; feels almost as if they are obeying some immut­able law.



Repeat as necessary

Chil­dren love repe­ti­tion, as any writer of children’s books will tell you, and there is some­thing in all of us that responds to the “here it comes again” element in comedy. Repe­ti­tion is another way of rein­for­cing connec­tions and it is seeing the connec­tion that is crucial to us getting the joke.

The famous Rule of Three is some­thing often talked about in this context. First comes the ‘set-up’, followed by the ‘pay-off’ and then finally the delivery of ‘the cap’. The formula is as old as comedy itself. A running gag, or recur­ring refer­ence, is also a firm favourite and has the added advantage of building up laughs as it goes.

(For a great example, hear the way Marty Feldman uses repe­ti­tion in this sketch “Funny He Never Married”)

Richard Lester’s film The Knack is full of subtle comic connec­tions. This scene between Rita Tush­ingham and a suave shop assistant uses repe­ti­tion to get its point across.



Start small, get bigger. A classic tactic in comedy is to begin with some­thing trivial, the meta­phor­ical flap of a butterfly’s wing, and then build it up until it reaches hurricane propor­tions.  This is the essence of those slap­stick routines in silent films and it is humour that has a universal appeal.

The secret of using this tech­nique success­fully is to make it consistent but with vari­ations at each stage and to get the timing right. The escal­a­tion can be phys­ical or verbal or any combin­a­tion of the two.

A masterly example of both is this scene between Dom DeLuise and Leo McKern in Sher­lock Holmes’ Younger Brother. Here the two bad guys get liter­ally to grips with each other, exhaust them­selves, and end tucked up in bed like two toddlers.



Exag­gerate and deflate

I could see that, if not actu­ally disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

Over­state and under­state. Using hyper­bole, delib­er­ately exag­ger­ated language has long been a staple of comedy from Moliere to Black­adder:

BLACKADDER: Bald­rick, I have a very, very, very cunning plan.
BALDRICK: Is it as cunning as a fox what used to be Professor of Cunning at Oxford Univer­sity but has moved on and is now working for the U.N. at the High Commis­sion of Inter­na­tional Cunning Planning?

The added joke here is, of course, the unwiel­di­ness of the language, the delib­er­ately clunky meta­phors and similes. But moments of bathos (anti­climax) are just as important in creating comedy.

Here’s an example from the God sketch again:

MAN: I am omni­po­tent you know; that means “all-powerful”.  I have power over all things. I am all powerful, I am omni­po­tent. There is nothing I cannot do. I can level the moun­tains, I can turn the seas to Hall’s Tonic Wine. There is nothing I cannot do, I am omni­po­tent … lend me five bob.

The last line delib­er­ately under­cuts and deflates. Altern­ately, you must be able to think of many sketches and jokes in which God behaves in an off-hand human way. Under­state­ment, like over­state­ment, works equally well at getting laughs.

This prin­ciple can give a humorous twist to even simple state­ments like ‘Jamie Oliver has slightly more money than God’ or ‘His politics are slightly to the right of Atilla The Hun.’  The word slightly qual­i­fies the exag­ger­a­tion and ampli­fies it at the same time. Writers like P.G. Wode­house, James Thurber and Terry Pratchett employ this type of under­state­ment a lot for comic effect.

Another type of comedy that uses exag­ger­a­tion is satire. In this scene from Bruce Robinson’s acerbic portrait of the advert­ising world, How To Get Ahead in Advert­ising, the excesses of ad-man language are given a wonder­fully comic bite.

Wrong words in the wrong place

Change the register (register is a linguistic term that refers to the language appro­priate to an occa­sion). To illus­trate how this works: an old sketch was once built on the premise that, due to a foul-up,  a set of radio comment­ators had been given the wrong events to cover.

So the sports announcer is comment­ating on the Queen’s garden party: “And Lady Devon­shire is coming up on the inside and she’s almost got to the cream scones but, wait, look at this, Lady Melbury’s headed her off and she’s there first…” Mean­while, the fashion announcer is covering the horse races: “Michael is wearing a fetching red blouson as he gallops rather fast towards the finishing line…”

You get the idea. It’s a simple one but there’s still some mileage in it and it’s still frequently used by comedy writers. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie wrote this typic­ally witty sketch about two lawyers nego­ti­ating a first date for a couple (at the time some­thing similar was actu­ally happening at certain Univer­sities in America, couples drawing up contracts before they went out.)



It was also a favourite of the late Marty Feldman who would often take a respected figure like a bishop or a head­master and change their class and language to create a comic culture shock. Part of the humour, of course, was based on the idea of British reserve in the face of outrageous behaviour:


David Clough ©2011

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