Comedy Genre (Middle Years)

Writing comedy

Set up and flip

A lot of comedy uses an element of surprise — a situation is set up and then suddenly taken in an unexpected direction. The switch is usually short and punchy, which is why it’s called a ‘punchline’. This character observation in Don’t Call Me Ishmael uses that format.

Before we break it down, have a read.

The new boy sat back twitching his nose like a rabbit, then leant forward once more. His hand hovered over the red pen before settling on the black. He picked it up and slid off the cap. The pen lingered over the diary like a scalpel over a patient. James Scobie twisted his neck, stretched out his arms, straightened his shirt, made a minor realignment of his ruler, fiddled with his tie, patted down his hair gently, screwed up his face and poked the tip of his tongue between his lips. He tilted the diary to a minute angle. Then he tilted it back. Then he… left it where it was.

Don't Call Me IshmaelMichael Gerard BauerSource

The over-the-top excess of all of those vivid similes and extended action is funny in itself, stretching the anticipation of what is going to happen next. The sudden reversal at the end is a great punchline for the gag.

A turtle slapping a fish.

For this sort of gag the actions don’t have to be the focus. The key is to use a long set up with a short surprise ending. Here are two examples — one that is action heavy and one that is more list-based.

Phoebe Fish checked for predators, flicking her tail like a cat about to pounce, then swam forward slightly. She looked over the reef before swimming back to where she started. She twisted around and looked behind her. She twisted back and around and back once more like a dog discovering its tail for the first time. Phoebe swam up slightly, looked back and forth again, dipped, checked the water slightly below where she started, darted forward, darted back, checked the water behind her again and was about to begin an intricate figure eight move when she crashed into a passing turtle.

“Sorry," apologised Phoebe. "Didn’t see you there.”

Tony Turtle stared at his shell collection, considering his choices like a film star going to an awards night. He tried the striped shell, then the spotted one. The blue one was next, then the aqua, the teal, the sea green, the sky blue, the navy, the bottle green, and the lime. He considered the magenta shell for a while, rejected it for the maroon, went back to the magenta, decided against it, changed his mind again, and again, tossing it to the ground like it was diseased. Tony tried the gold, the khaki, the lemon, the peach, the wheat, the sienna, the tan, the chocolate, the corn, the yellow, the off yellow, the golden yellow, and even the burnt orange (which he knew was two sizes too small but persisted anyway) before finally swimming out in the same grey shell he swam in with. 

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