The terms comedy and humor are often used interchangeably in screenwriting. Is there a difference between the two? Actually, there is. And screenwriters should know them.
Comedy is the premeditated act designed to cause an audience to laugh. Comedy relies on jokes, visual gags, and physical acts to amuse and entertain an audience. It is more of an art form than an internalized trait. Comedy can be studied, learned, practiced, and fine-tuned. A writer can become good at comedy through practice, whereas they can’t necessarily become good at humor.
Screenwriters are defined as comedy writers, not humor writers. Their job is to create jokes and be funny on the page.
Comedy, like humor, has a range of sub-categories. These include broad, dark, satirical, slapstick, offensive, intellectual, sexual, satirical and absurd.
Despite many rules associated with successful comedy, not everyone who tries their hand at it will succeed.
Comedians must master the art of reading a room and engaging their audiences. They must make their jokes sound spontaneous and off the cuff, rather than memorized and rehearsed. They must monitor audience reactions and course correct if their jokes fall flat, or tell more of the types of jokes that audiences find funny.
Good comedians know how to adapt their jokes and execution style depending on their audiences. They understand when to push the limits of their risqué material and when to strategically retreat to keep their audience invested.
Comedians study their audiences. They have a sense of which types of jokes they will most likely respond to. They also require a strong sense of timing, intimacy, and immediacy in delivering their jokes. Comedians must also cope with repeated and often scathing rejection. One joke in a comedy club may make the crowd howl with laughter one night, and the same joke told on a different night might evoke booing.
Humorists aren’t quite so malleable and rapid in their quest for funny material. Nor do they need to be. They can take the time to dissect and mine a situation for humor, rather than think about the best way to tell a joke and work an audience.
Humor refers to something more innate in your characters that gives rise to comedy. Characters are referred to as having a sense of humor, rather than a sense of comedy. Writers need both. A sense of comedy relates to the setup, execution, and punchline of a joke.
Humor is a temperament that requires a writer to observe their environments and find something amusing that can make people laugh.
Humor relies on deeply understanding the human condition. Humorists are therefore bona fide psychologists due to their ability to process and interpret a situation that might not otherwise be funny.
It can be both a form of entertainment and a coping mechanism to release tension in stressful environments. Humor is about finding a kernel of something amusing in a sea of tragedy.
Consider a dramatic situation, such as a person waiting alone at a restaurant and being stood up. What are possible events that can arise from this situation? The humiliated person eats alone, leaves and goes to a bar to get drunk, goes home or something else.
Humor relies more on the granular observation of people and situations than the creation of jokes. How can humor be inserted into this situation? Imagine if the waiter sees the person who was stood up and joins them for dinner. What if they are stand up comics and want to test a few jokes? What if they plan a revenge together for the date that never showed up?
Humor is more a predisposition to understanding the peculiarities within the context of a situation, whereas comedy is an expression of humor.
Humor is often discussed within a social or community construct. It might be class-based. One group might have a sophisticated sense of humor, while another might enjoy crass humor. Humor instigates social interaction.
The role of humor is both psychological and physical in nature because it encourages well-being. It lightens heavy moods and defuses potentially dangerous situations.
HOW TO BE A GOOD COMEDY WRITER
The best comedy writers use a mixture of humor to source their material and comedy to express it to their audiences via jokes.
Good jokes are grounded in reality no matter how farcical the situation is. The more solid the grounding, the more outlandish the joke can become.
Comedy writers are always asked to tap into their personal stories. Their fears, concerns, and anxieties.
The deeper the emotional connection of the jokes to the writer’s personal experience, the more likely they will fare well with the audience because of their authenticity.