I was recently asked on twitter (I actually have a human follower?) what comedy writing books I would recommend and thought 140 characters is probably not going to do my answer justice. So you get a wordy blog post instead.
Of course, this is all very personal to me. I’ve bought recommended books that I thought were a bit ‘Meh…’ but also blindly bought other books that were ‘Aha…’
But with comedy it depends on whether you want to learn how to write funny stuff or learn how to turn your funny stuff into a particular format ie. sitcom, sketch, one-liner, film, stand-up.
Now, I’m not going to turn this post into the endless debate about whether you can teach someone to be funny or whether you can learn to write. My view is simply you can learn either just like you can learn how to drive. However, not all drivers are Formula 1 world champions. Talent, hard-work and a whole lot of other things filter us all out.
How to be funny…. one-liners, sketches, puns
When I was writing one-liners and sketches for radio, I felt the most useful book was Melvin Helitzer’s Comedy Writing Secrets. As it has loads of great exercises for writing sketches and jokes, and general ways of squeezing comedy out of anything. It also talks about the different types of jokes: puns, wordplay, visual etc.
In short, this book is a great refresher in how to create jokes.
If you want to know the detailed, and I mean detailed, mechanics of a joke then have a read of The Naked Jape by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves. I found it interesting but a bit on the heavy technical side.
How to write comedy film and sitcom
So this is where it is hard to recommend just one book. First of all, I’ve not read a good book that is specifically about writing comedy film or sitcom. I’ve read some books that made good points here and there but nothing I would say: ‘here you go, that’ll tell you everything.’
For film in particular, I wouldn’t recommend getting a how-to-write-comedy-film book. I think you’d be much better off reading a book about how to write film in general. There are some exceptional books on this topic and nearly all cover comedy as well as show that a lot of the rules/guides apply to all genres anyway. Also a lot of the advice in these books apply to writing sitcom and novels. It’s about getting the story and characters developed, revealed and concluded in some way.
Now, the books that helped me the most in the beginning were definitely read in the wrong order. I started with Robert McKee’s Story. I even went to his seminar and somehow didn’t stay brainwashed. It’s very prescriptive, heavy and long. But it covers everything and you do learn a lot that you can apply and ignore at your will. This should have been the last book I read.
The second book I read was Blake Synder’s Save The Cat, which couldn’t be any more different in user-friendliness. In fact, whilst reading it I felt insulted by its brevity and simplicity, clearly still carrying some McKee demons with me. It really is a blueprint to how you can literally write a script-by-numbers. Fantastic for getting a first draft down. This should have been the first book I read.
Thirdly, I read Christopher Vogler’s The Writers Journey. If I was being a bit over-simplistic about this (and I am) then this would be somewhere between McKee’s and Snyder’s books. It helps you map out a story but is a lot more flexible and in-depth about how you should do it. I particularly like the sections on the different types of character.
And there are a whole load of other books out there that I haven’t read as I’m happy with those three, although I’m also reading and enjoying Yves Lavandier’s Writing Drama. Which is somewhere between Vogler and McKee at the moment.
My biggest tip for reading about comedy film and sitcom, and I can’t stress this enough, is to READ SCRIPTS of comedy films and sitcoms. That’s how you will learn the most. Particularly if you have read some of the aforementioned books and so know the rules/patterns. All the secrets and lessons are in these scripts as they got made. Try and read them everyday, momentum is everything. Make sure you read bad scripts too so you can spot the same mistakes in your own scripts.
Film scripts are usually available online, whilst Amazon sell cheap second-hand script books for The Office, Extras, Royle Family, Porridge, Pheonix Nights, Blackadder and Fawlty Towers. All of which I have. Plus the latest Fawlty Towers box set has commentary from co-writer and star John Cleese who talks about the writing blueprint throughout. A real masterclass.
AND OF COURSE visit the London Comedy Writers Festival for unmissable advise and networking. (£25 discount with code: NUTS).
So there we have it, I hope that was useful. And good luck!