Making them laugh as they read it is an entirely different kind of flying altogether.
The word “funny” has a lot of different interpretations, but in the filmmaking profession, the word funny only means one thing: causing an audience to laugh. If your character’s joke doesn’t cause a script reader to laugh, your joke is not funny. If your piefight/carchase sequence with the John Belushi robot doesn’t keep a script reader in stitches with every line, your piefight/carchase sequence with the John Belushi robot is not funny.
Bottom line: If your script doesn’t cause an audience to laugh, it’s not funny.
If you want your script to be worthy of the description “comedy screenplay,” then take a minute, Chachi, and apply a few of my quick philosophies/cantrips below to make sure your comedy is actually uh, you know, making people laugh.
Your laughs aren’t rooted in the unexpected
Here’s a joke for you:
Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says “Why the long face?”
Funny? Sure, 50 years ago when it was first told.
Funny now? Probably not.
So let’s fix it:
Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says “Why the long face?”
Horse says “I’ve got AIDS.”
If you laughed, you’re sick, yes, but hey, you laughed.
The reason you laughed? Aside from being completely offensive and non-politically correct, it’s a reversal; a surprise.
To wit, every good joke is rooted in surprise.
In this case, the punchline is completely unexpected, because you brought that first, original horse joke in with you. And that original is a joke you’ve heard a million times, so the “AIDS” reveal, while not terribly PC or nice, flipped it on its head, triggering your primate brain to laugh, for reasons only evolutionary biologists and fundamentalist Christians understand.
Assignment: Seek and destroy any jokes in your script that are pat, overused, unfunny, or have no element of surprise to them.
Your jokes rely too heavily on references
But alas, while the “horse with AIDS” joke worked due to the audience member bringing in the original horse joke with them, good comedy doesn’t rely on that being the case 100% of the time.
Audiences, readers of your script, moviegoers – the onus isn’t on them to “get” what you’re talking about, or to “get” the references your comedy is leaning on. The best comedy is self-contained, and the best comics and comedy writers know that a punchline is only as strong as its setup, one that brings everybody in on the reference, so to speak.
In other words, the only comedy that makes non-imbeciles laugh is the kind that doesn’t rely on them “getting the joke.” It’s your responsibility to make audiences laugh, no matter how many times, if any, the audience has seen Monty Python and The Holy Grail or all those rad Francis videos on YouTube.
Assignment: Scan through your script and find jokes or comedic moments that rely too heavily on the audience knowing something specific; something perhaps you haven’t provided. Tweak those jokes’ setups, whether the setup is in the joke itself, or comes earlier in the script, to make the reference “gettable” by everyone reading your script.
You overuse clichés and tropes
Perhaps inaccurately, the word “trope” has come to be rather synonymous with the word “cliché,” at least in the screenwriting space. For our intents and purposes, we’ll define “trope” as “a commonly overused literary device.”
A spit take, for example, is a trope, verbal backpedaling is a trope, the annoying laugh (e.g. Chrissy’s snort in the TV series Three’s Company), is a trope.
Comedy that relies on cliché and/or tropes usually gets far fewer laughs than comedy that takes the time to turn those clichés on their heads, or to customize them in some way as to make them surprising or fresh.
Assignment: Hunt down your clichés. If you can’t remove them or craft them more originally or comedically, at least tweak them to be less glaringly unoriginal.
You haven’t measured your LPP (Laughs Per Page)
A script aspiring to the description “comedy” owes the audience at least one major thing: laughter.
But if your pages don’t have laughs, you might be failing, (or you might be making Sophie’s Choice.)
Do this: Count how many times you laugh, per page, and write the number down at the bottom of each page. Then add up the script’s total laugh count. Divide by how many pages you have. Now multiply that by 10. Add 5. Subtract 30, and you have your birth age.
Seriously comedically though, if you’re not at a laugh per page, minimum, your script is probably not funny.
When counting the laughs, make sure they’re laugh-out-loud moments as well, not “Oh, that’s cute,” moments. For a laugh to count as a laugh, it needs to actually, you know, make you laugh.
When you’re done, ask a friend to do the same, and compare numbers. (I’ll bet her count is way lower than yours.)
Pin that number to your wall and focus on it. It needs to go up. Ever up. Always, always up. The amount of laughter in a comedy makes the difference between a movie like Airplane! and a movie like Employee of The Month.
All that being said, all good musical compositions have rests, and so should laughter. So feel free to dole out laughs in measured doses, complete with periods of non-laughter. There’s nothing wrong with one or two pages going by without a laugh. In fact, I’ll bet you got through this entire page without laughing once. Jerk.
You’re flat-out not funny
Some people are funny, and well, frankly, some people just shop at Vons.
If you’re truly interested in writing comedy, you’ve got to tear open your shirt and let people stab you.
If you don’t know if you’re not funny, ask your friends and family, ask professionals, and ask them to be honest. (i.e. To stab you.)
To realize you’re not funny is the first step towards becoming funny. Admit it, then do the following:
Find and watch George Carlin, Imogene Coca, Phyllis Diller, Sid Caesar, Gilda Radner, Mel Brooks, Louis CK, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Bill Murray, Bill Cosby, Will Ferrell, Will Forte, Wil Arnett, Rodney Dangerfield, and Peter Sellers.
Then find and watch Gallagher, Carrot Top, Dane Cook, Carlos Mencia, Ron White, Whitney Cummings, and a plate of cous-cous.
If you gravitate towards the comedy of the former, you’re on your way.
If you gravitate towards the comedy of the latter, you’re still on your way, unfortunately.