Film & TV

How to Write a Comedy Screenplay: A Guide to Writing A Comedic Screenplay That Will Make Audiences Laugh

Written by MasterClass

Jun 1, 2019 • 4 min read

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Judd Apatow Teaches Comedy

Audiences love to laugh and will remember laugh out loud funny lines of dialogue from movies for years to come. But writing comedy isn’t easy. A comedic screenplay has to have a strong premise, feature well-developed characters, and arrive at a lesson—all while entertaining an audience.

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What Is a Comedy Screenplay?

A comedy screenplay is a script for a comedy movie. Comedies lead with humor and seek to make audiences laugh. But you don’t need an intricate story to be funny; a solid comedic premise pairs a challenging, amusing, or humorous situation with a person who is unsuited to deal with it.. The genre’s primary interests are to amuse and entertain, but there’s a strong tradition in comedy writing of mocking social conventions, institutions, or beliefs in the popular subcategories of parody, satire, and farce.

The #1 Tip to Writing a Comedic Screenplay

Watch The 40 Year Old Virgin screenwriter and director Judd Apatow explain why every comedic script should be anchored in a strong dramatic premise.

5 Elements Every Comedy Screenplay Needs

  1. Complex, relatable, and three-dimensional characters: Everyone, both real and fictional, is trying to figure out how to live, find love, and work through their problems while being forced to learn along the way. Take the time to flesh out your characters. The more detailed their backgrounds, the funnier and more three-dimensional they’ll be on screen.
  2. High stakes: Stakes consist of what your main character is worried about, what they’re trying to attain, or what they stand to lose. The stakes must be high, or the audience will lose interest.
  3. Elements of drama: If comedic screenplays were wall-to-wall jokes, the audience would quickly tire out—and the script writing process would take years to complete. Incorporating dramatic elements helps with the pacing, makes the film more relatable, and makes the big comedic moments feel more satisfying.
  4. Specificity: The details are what make a story funny and unique. The best way for a comedy screenplay to be original is to be specific. Include moments and lines of dialogue that express a human truth that touches the heart of the viewer, but stays true to the sense of humor and personality of the character(s) involved.
  5. A lesson: Comedy is the result of the mishaps and misadventures along the way. Audiences want to see character development. Your characters must learn a lesson at the end. Otherwise, there is no story.

How to Punch Up Your Screenplay

It’s not easy to be funny, and it’s especially difficult to make people laugh when they’re expecting you to be funny. Here’s how to write a funny screenplay that will both impress Hollywood executives and make audiences laugh:

  • Get personal. Think about personal moments in your own life and see if you can apply them to your comedic characters or plotlines. When you get personal, you’re expressing your opinion about something or highlighting an absurdity in your life, which is naturally comedic—and the audience will recognize themselves in the joke.
  • Think about the scenes of your life. Try to recall moments in your real life from childhood, high school, college, or adulthood that felt like they could have been in a movie. If they don’t feel inherently cinematic, think about what else you can add to these situations to make them even funnier or more amusing.
  • Be relatable. Relatability elevates good comedy to great comedy. Articulate a thought or observation that is universally experienced but has never been said. It’ll catch the audience by surprise and instantly win them over.
  • Don’t let the audience see you trying to be funny. Think of humor as a pleasant deviation from an expectation. Then, create a context where laughter is easily produced. It’s much easier and more effective to be funny unexpectedly.
  • Use funny words. Some words are just funnier than others. Keep a running list of words that amuse you and try to incorporate them into your screenplay.
  • Don’t force jokes or overuse one-liners. When a joke doesn’t work, the audience can tell it’s just there because it’s a joke. Successful jokes are rooted in a character’s personality or the comedic nature of the situation.
  • Cut what doesn’t work. Be a brutal judge of your own comedy. Every line, scene, and character should serve a purpose. Don’t get too attached to your ideas, because not every joke will make it from your first draft to your final draft.

Where to Find Comedic Inspiration for Writing Screenplays

The best way to become a better comedy writer is to watch—and write—a lot of comedy. Familiarize yourself with the different ways to write comedy, learn the basic joke writing techniques, and analyze the mechanics comedians use to set up and deliver jokes:

  • Comedic screenplays: Read screenplays from different comedic genres, like a romantic comedy, a physical comedy, and a mockumentary, to see how comedy movies look on the page.
  • Stand up comedy: Watch stand up specials and pay attention to how comedians set up ideas, then transform those ideas into punchlines.
  • Sketch comedy: Watch television shows like Saturday Night Live, Mad TV, and The Kids in the Hall and note how a short skit follows the same comedic arc as a 90-minute screenplay.
  • One act plays: Read play scripts for comedic one acts for further inspiration on bringing a comedic premise to life.

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