David Zucker’s 15 rules of comedy

David Zucker, one of the minds behind movies like Airplane and The Naked Gun, set out these fifteen rules for comedy. They’re smart rules. If you break them, people probably won’t laugh. Of course, rule 15 applies to any list of rules when it comes to creativity.

Some of the apply only to comedy, but others apply to most creative work. For example, the rule about two jokes at the same time canceling one another out. This is just a good reminder to give each part of your story or song its moment or it will get lost.

These were written many years ago, so the references are a bit outdated. (Especially OJ)

1. JOKE ON A JOKE: Two jokes at the same time cancel each other out. When an actor delivers a punchline, it should be done seriously. It dilutes the comedy to try to be funny on top of it. Likewise, if there is something silly going on in the background, the foreground action must be free of jokes and vice-versa.

2. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Actors in the foreground must ignore jokes happening behind them. At the end of Naked Gun, Priscilla Presley tells Leslie Nielsen, “Everybody needs a friend like you.” They never acknowledge O.J. Simpson’s wheelchair careening down the steps and launching him into the air.

3. UNRELATED BACKGROUND: A joke happening in the background must be related in some way to the action in the foreground. The reason why the O.J. Simpson joke works is because he’s flying through the air as a result of being slapped on the back by Drebin.

4. BREAKING THE FRAME: Don’t remind the audience that they’re watching a movie. This is the rule most often legally bypassed, but a movie has to be a strong one to withstand more than one or two of these.

5. TRIVIA: A joke using references so arcane that few people will ever get it.

6. JERRY LEWIS: Don’t use a comedian in a straight man role. Scenes in a parody ought to mimic the real thing. That means, basically, follow Rule #1. You’ve got funny lines in the script. If you add comedians (and “funny” character names, “funny” wardrobe, etc.), it’s a joke on a joke.

7. AXE GRINDING: When the joke is overshadowed by some message, it gets unfunny fast.

8. SELF CONSCIOUS: Any jokes about the movie itself, the movie business, or comedy itself. A strict no-no because it prevents the audience from being invested in plot and character.

9. STRAW DUMMY: Where the intended target is set up by the writer instead of real life. Even if the joke hits the target, who cares?

10. CAN YOU LIVE WITH IT?: Once a joke is made, it can’t be allowed to hang around after the initial laughs. In Naked Gun, Frank and Ed are seated in a car, their lips turned ridiculously pink from the pistachio nuts they’re munching. But one scene later, when Frank goes snooping in the bad guy’s apartment, he’s got to be clean. It’s kind of like buying a personalized license plate. How long can “I H8 MEN” be funny?

11. THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN: Something that totally defies all logic but is on and off the screen so fast that we get away with it. Example: Robert Stack in Airplane! yells to Lloyd Bridges, “He can’t land, they’re on instruments!” And of course we cut to the cockpit and four of the actors are playing musical instruments. Seconds later, in the next scene, the saxophone and clarinets have disappeared. If it’s done right, no one in the audience will ask where the instruments went.

12. LATE HIT: You know a particular target has had enough when it’s been raked over the coals by Leno, Letterman, the MTV Awards, etc.

13. TECHNICAL PIZZAZZ: Special effects don’t necessarily mean funny.

14. HANGING ON: Don’t play a joke too long. When it’s reached its peak, get the scissors.


Steve Martin’s creative journey

41wY-r2ubCL._SY346_I don’t want to review Steve Martin’s new book Born Standing Up, I just want to tell you that it’s a wonderful, concise description of a brilliant comedian’s creative life. It’s warts and all, describing embarrassing mistakes, horrible jobs and exactly where the arrow through the head gag started, in an entertaining, funny way. Although it touches on his personal life, it is really only in relation to his creative life.

One of my favorite sections quotes a postcard he wrote to a girlfriend in 1965. He writes to tell her about tracking down e.e. cummings’s house, e.e. was an early hero, and standing in front of it. This is how the post card ended followed by Martin’s comments on what he wrote.

I have decided that my act is going to go avant-garde. It is the only way to do what I want.

I’m not sure what I meant, but I wanted to use the lingo, and it was seductive to use these pronouncements. Through the years, I have learned that there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.

Also interesting and useful is his realization about giving things a beginning, a middle and an end. He hadn’t realized it at the time, but he had abandoned his  stand up career and not looked back. While writing the memoir, he came to this conclusion, “Moving on and not looking back, not living in the past, was a way to trick myself into further creativity.”

An interesting thought, is there something you should give up to trick yourself into more creativity? Are you burned out in a medium?

You should read this book. If the philosophical stuff doesn’t grab you, at least you get to read about the conversation he had with Elvis.

“Son, you have an ob-leek sense of humor.”

Patton Oswalt’s affirmations

Patton Oswalt, who voices the title character in Ratatouille, is a very funny, honest stand up comedian. He writes an incredibly entertaining blog on his website. One fairly recent post listed his three personal affirmations. I wanted to share this one which involves focus and the creative process.

He starts the story as a poor, young comedian, sharing a comedy condo with a headliner. A comedy condo is basically the free housing you get to use while you play the club. The headliner got the bigger room with a water bed and huge TV. Patton got the small, bare room with a bed, a chair and a clock radio. Bored in his room, Patton went out for some food, when he got back the headliner was waiting for him and had been all afternoon.

“I went into your room,” he said.

I said, “Oh.”

“The clock radio in my bedroom only has one alarm.  Yours has two alarms and a snooze option.   So I swapped them out.   I wanted to make sure you knew what I did, so I’ve been waiting here.”

I said, “Oh.”

“I mean, you realize, me being the headliner, you having two alarms and a snooze option, as the emcee, is unfair.”   Now that I write this, I remember now that he stressed the word “unfair”.

“Yyyyyeah,” I said, but my heart was filling with joy.

This was the first time in my life — and in my still-neophyte stand-up career — when I realized that certain douchebags I was encountering wouldn’t be in my life four or five years later.  A headliner who could waste an afternoon over an extra alarm and a snooze option on an $8 clock radio wasn’t going to be pursuing the same career that I would.  He’d fight for petty privileges, live and die by the approval of the dumbest person in the audience, and think getting on the 5 O’Clock Funnies entitled him to a sitcom.

The affirmation:    Leave them to their fates.

There are two other affirmations in the post. I recommend it.

Read the rest here.

There is always another joke

Jane Espenson is a really successful TV writer with a blog about being a successful TV writer. Her tips range from life-changing lessons to common sense stuff that seems so obvious after she points it out you wonder why you never thought of it yourself. There is one repeated phrase she uses that I think applies to more than just TV writing. Here she explains it:

There is always another joke. This is probably the biggest lesson of comedy writing. No matter how much you love a joke, even if a particular joke was why you decided to write a certain episode, there is always another one.

I think this applies to far more than jokes. There is always another idea. There is always another way things can work. Don’t hold onto something out of fear that nothing will be able to replace it. There is always another way.

She also has a few articles on the process of writing in the “Works” section.

Jane Espenson’s blog

Playing the audience like an instrument

storyrobot, my favorite improv blog, points towards this quote from comedian Louis C.K.

AVC: When you’re taping in front of a live studio audience, do you find you’re playing to them as much or more as the people at home?

LCK: It’s not so much that you’re playing to them, it’s just that they tell you what’s working. It’s like doing stand-up. You would never do stand-up without an audience. I mean, no one would even consider it. It’s like they’re the instrument you’re playing. It’s that intimate of a relationship, and they’re that essential to each other.

The audience as the instrument you’re playing is a fantastic metaphor. The more removed you are from your audience, the more you tend to forget that they are even there. A stand-up gets instant feedback, but a novelist might not get a reaction for years.

Do you take the audience into consideration when you create?

One more great quote from the interview:

You also can’t afford skepticism, because it’s preparing for failure, which is useless. You don’t need any preparation: Failure’s just gonna suck.

Quotes from Onion AV

Comedy By The Numbers

Comedy_by_the_Numbers_2nd_loresThe new McSweeney’s book, Comedy By The Numbers by Eric Hoffman and Gary Rudoren, is a really rare thing. It’s a book about comedy that is actually funny. Pretending to be a comprehensive guide to the 169 comic attitudes and situations ,it manages to be equal parts sarcastic snark and earnest opinion. There is actual information in the book. It’s easily more useful than a book like Comedy Writing Secrets and a heck of a lot funnier.

I recommend it, especially if you enjoy the humor of Mr. Show. Definitely not recommended if you are easily offended. In fact, stop reading now because I’m going to quote it.

Here’s one tip:

One of the masonry units of physical comedy – the chairman of the board of reactionary humor. This comedy device is to one’s repertoire what trinkets and beads were to the Native American Indian way back when – once you see it, you must have it! You will need full use of your eyes and eyebrows, mouth, neck and sometimes ears in order to get the substantial laugh that accompanies this baby.

Easy. Follow this simple example of a typical situation where THE DOUBLE TAKE reaction is set up – Picture this scene:
1. You come home from work and say, “honey, I’m home” as you’re walking through the door.
2. You hang up your fedora and coat and walk into the living room.
3. You pick up your newspaper and sit in your favorite easy chair, barely noticing your wife and dog across the room.
4. Your wife is sitting on the couch wearing a huge piece of cheese as a hat and your dog, King, is sitting next to her in a push-up bra and crotchless panties.
5. You ask your wife how her day was in such a manner that means you don’t really care.
6. You flip through your newspaper nonchalantly as she answers: “unusual”.
7. You say: “That’s nice, dear” in monotone that befits your lack of interest.
8. As you flip the paper one more time, you glance over at her and King and clearly notice what they are wearing is inappropriate, but it doesn’t register in your brain at that moment, so you look back at your paper.
9. BUT at the same moment you stop rustling the newspaper, your brain DOES finally register the inappropriateness of their attire and you pull the paper down to your lap, while snapping your neck back to look at them and raising both your eyebrows, widening your eyes and leaving your mouth agape (open). Your face is expressing how unbelievable it is that your wife is sitting on a couch with a dairy product on her head and your pet is cross-dressing in intimate apparel!!

Interestingly enough, this facial comedy began with the immigrants who brought with them to America, not only their yearnings for freedom and democracy, but also a sense of reactionary humor bred from the shtetls of Eastern Europe.

Read a few excepts on their website.

Parody Yourself, I Did And Ended Up With A Bacon Tuxedo

The company I work for, Archie McPhee, decided that we were going to do an April Fools joke homepage this year. I had the task of coming up with the products and soon realized that I was basically being asked to parody myself. If you aren’t familiar with the company, our products are incredibly over the top and exaggerated to begin  with. (Our top sellers include Bacon Mints and Remote Controlled Hopping, Yodeling Lederhosen.)

I recommend trying this exercise to everyone who does anything creative. It’s really much harder than you think! Half the ideas I came up with we decided were something we might actually do at some point in the future. (Which makes this exercise useful) The other half were too grotesque or profane to risk affiliation with our company. (Rainbow Flavored Unicorn Poop Candy? No.) I probably went through 15 ideas before settling on the first usable one.

After a few days, I decided to go for products that would be physically impossible, legally impossible or something that no one would want to buy. I came up with the Bacon Scented Bacon Tuxedo, the Baby Parachute, a Beard of Bees Kit and a Surprise Dumpster. You can see them here. Our graphics department did an ace job with the pictures, they sell the whole thing.

The reaction so far has been mixed. Some people, like Seth Godin, get it. Some don’t. I have to admit that I did enjoy the fact that proof of the downfall of civilization sprang from my brain.

The most interesting part of the whole experience for me has been the fact that the world is so over the top now, that people believe a product with this description would actually go on sale:

Beard Of Bees Kit
Tired of boring old facial hair? Take it up to the next level with a Beard of Bees! Years in development, we have finally come up with an economical way to take advantage of all the buzz about bee beards. In each box, you’ll get a tube of royal jelly, a grooming wand and a coupon for bees. Just send in the coupon or call with your redemption number and the following morning you’ll receive a package of 30,000 bees in our patented UPS approved Swarm Sack™ packaging. After they arrive, apply the royal jelly to your chin, neck and chest, shake the bag vigorously and then release the bees. Use included wand to coax bees into beard shape. Fun for birthdays, retirements or bachelorette parties. Not recommended for indoor use.

So, whatever you usually create, try and parody it. See what you come up with, it might surprise you!

April Fools Page

Funny Steve Martin Quote On Writer’s Block

From Steve Martin:

Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol. Sure, a writer can get stuck for a while, but when that happens to a real author — say, a Socrates or a Rodman — he goes out and gets an “as told to.” The alternative is to hire yourself out as an “as heard from,” thus taking all the credit. The other trick I use when I have a momentary stoppage is virtually foolproof, and I’m happy to pass it along. Go to an already published novel and find a sentence that you absolutely adore. Copy it down in your manuscript. Usually, that sentence will lead you to another sentence, and pretty soon your own ideas will start to flow. If they don’t, copy down the next sentence in the novel. You can safely use up to three sentences of someone else’s work — unless you’re friends, then two. The odds of being found out are very slim, and even if you are there’s usually no jail time.

Read the rest of his essay on writing here

How to make a monkey laugh – Why do we laugh?


This NY Times article has some interesting observations about why people find things funny. It also talks about the neurological basis for laughter and how scientists tracked down the primal laugh in rats, their laughter is an ultrasonic chirp, and monkeys.

He and Professor Provine figure that the first primate joke — that is, the first action to produce a laugh without physical contact — was the feigned tickle, the same kind of coo-chi-coo move parents make when they thrust their wiggling fingers at a baby. Professor Panksepp thinks the brain has ancient wiring to produce laughter so that young animals learn to play with one another. The laughter stimulates euphoria circuits in the brain and also reassures the other animals that they’re playing, not fighting.

“Primal laughter evolved as a signaling device to highlight readiness for friendly interaction,” Professor Panksepp says. “Sophisticated social animals such as mammals need an emotionally positive mechanism to help create social brains and to weave organisms effectively into the social fabric.”

Their conclusion is that laughter is a social lubricant and that who and what you laugh at reveals your spot in the social pecking order.

The article also contains an extremely unfunny muffin joke.

Read it here

Lost Art Form – Vaudeville!


Vaudeville! The Library of Congress has a great selection of available recordings, films and other information about that lost form of entertainment, the vaudeville stage. You can listen to The Arkansas Traveller, a comedy sketch that dates back to at least 1852! A Laughing Sketch, there were lots of these. It was basically a sketch where something happened and someone with an infectious laugh started laughing until everyone on stage and the whole crowd joined in on the mass hysteria. Or just enjoy a dramatic reading like this one.

They don’t have video collection online, but if you find a title you like in their archive, search youtube, I found Animal Act With Baboon, Dog and Donkey.

There are also scanned scripts available. The featured script right now is The Lone Hand Four Aces (To be acted by a Troupe of Educated Dogs). Most of the scripts read as if they are transcribed from someone describing the stage act to someone else. Which they probably were. Scripts in English and Yiddish.

Perfect for research, inspiration and entertainment.

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