Being Funny:
The Definition of Comedy

How do you learn to be funny? What is the definition of comedy? If you want to write a comedic character you must learn how to be funny, so how is it done? Do you look at funny scripts and memorize the cadence and the ridiculous wording? Do you reference a pop-culture icon and try to turn him on his head? 

I’ll break it down for you into three easy steps: 
1. Listen. 
2. Analyze. 
3. Surprise.

If you don’t know how to listen, you might get a few laughs with your funny bits, but they’ll run out eventually (both the bits and the people) :). If you can’t analyze what was heard you’ll just spit back exactly the same thing. This is what the makers

of Date MovieDisaster Movie, and Epic Movie do. They listen, but they can’t think.

The surprise step gets a lot of people. Often people will say exactly what they think they are supposed to. They open up the bag of clichés and typical speech and they go to town. This is where we get the typical:

“Johnson, where are the McGillicuddy files?” 
“Right here, Sir.” 

And then the scene putters along for two minutes until it is mercy edited. The improv comedy version of the long wooden crook. Now, what if we listened, analyzed, and went with something a little less expected.

“Johnson, where are the McGillicuddy files?” 
“Sir, McGillicuddy is dead. Long dead.”

That was totally unexpected. Now what if we listened, analyzed and surprised back?

“Wow, I must be behind the times. Have you seen my pager?”

But why stop there:

“It’s the year 2037, Sir.”

Now, not every line needs to be a joke, but in just three or four lines we have the basis for a strong comedic scene and all we did was listen, analyze, and surprise.


To improve listening you must build it up like a muscle. Start small and work your way up. If you are a big talker, try closing the mouth over 50% of the time :). When your friends and co-workers talk to you, make an effort to hear every word they’re saying, don’t just skim for the main points. Once you’ve graduated from that task you can move onto lengthy phone conversations, freshman biology lectures, and NPR.


Now that you are a superb listener, try to get a feel for the way your friends and co-workers are saying their words. Then you should put what they’re saying in context of what’s going on with them and their environment. Are they being short with you because the boss has been extra tough? Is there a secret that the person wants to tell you but can’t? Analyzing is mostly comprised of listening between the words and getting a feeling of what is really going on.


Saying something unexpected does not need to be wacky or absurdist. It could just stand to be atypical. If you are trying to create a funny character moment you might have one character respond to the other with a random question or an out of nowhere observation.

“My wife has been a real pain in the ass lately.” 
“I know!” 
“What do you mean you know?!”

Addison and Steele have a definition of comedy or wit of their own. In the Spectator they wrote “…every resemblance of ideas is not that which we call wit, unless it be such (a) one that gives us delight and surprise to the reader...Thus when a poet tells us the bosom of his mistress is white as snow, there is no wit in the comparison; but when he adds with a sigh, it is as cold too, it then grows into wit.”

Try this three step method of being funny on for size. Or don’t.


Happy writing!

Go back to the "Comedy Channel"

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Written by Bryan Cohen

Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on and Facebook.
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