The Ten Rules Of Writing Comedy

by Allen Rucker

(We’re honored to have this insightful piece from our old buddy AR. Besides major film and TV credits, he’s the author of four books, including “The Sopranos: A Family History” and the spoofy “The Sopranos Family Cookbook,” a past #1 New York Times Bestseller.)

RULE #1: Writers write, and that includes comedy writers, unfortunately. Like shooting free throws or skiing on one leg, writing is a mind/body activity that demands an enormous commitment to practice. If you don’t want to put in the time, become an actor.

RULE #2: As Martin Mull once said, the only thing you need to be a comedy writer is to remember every person you ever met and to have no respect for any of them.

RULE #3: The best piece of advice I ever got about comedy scriptwriting: the story happens in the middle of the room, the comedy happens in the corners. If you take this literally, don’t become a comedy writer.

RULE #4: There are no books on comedy writing. There are books on comedy or actually books of comedy and you should read them all: Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Stanley Elkin (look him up), Gary Larson, Ian Frazier, Roy Blount, Jr., Allen Rucker, Kinky Friedman, etc. If you can learn comedy, which you can’t, you learn it from other writers.

RULE #5: Have you ever heard of Bob & Ray? Ever seen the W.C. Fields movie, “It’s A Gift” or any Preston Sturges movie? Old episodes of “The Honeymooners” or “Taxi”? If not, go find them, watch them repeatedly, and get back to me.

RULE #6: Lee Strasberg’s famous adage about comedy acting often applies to good comedy writing: “The best way to play comedy is just a little more seriously than drama.”

RULE #7: If you’ve ever seen “The Life of Brian” or “This Is Spinal Tap,” you know that the comedy you bore your friends with ten years later is in the details. In fact, it’s all details. (See Rule #3)

RULE #8: Find a box and write inside of it. My own favorite comedies, like “Spinal Tap,” use the box of reality – everything happens in documentary, or mock-documentary, space and time. (In this box, for instance, you can’t get caught in a hurricane without dying or you can’t punch someone in the face without it hurting). The “Seinfeld” box is beautifully constructed: “No tears, no messages,” or something like that. In other words, it never turned into a sitcom.

RULE #9: The best source of comedy, no matter the form, is reality. Have an awesome respect for reality. Reality is your friend. Most people who call themselves comedy writers, i.e., sitcom writers and whoever comes up with those feel-good “concept” comedies for Eddie Murphy or the like, have lost touch with reality. They make comedies based on other comedies. Don’t do this. Reality never gets old. You’ll get old, but reality is always a fetching young virgin.

RULE #10: There are no rules to comedy writing. Otherwise, everyone would read the manual and I, for one, would be out of a job.