Let’s face it, in a comedy dialogue does 50% of the work. So if you write comedy dialogue that is good enough to make the audience chuckle, they’ll probably overlook the crappy set you built in your garage, the terrible actor you found on Craigslist, and the direction which is so terrible that it seems that Tommy Wiseau is behind the camera.
Although, if the set is crappy, the actors are terrible, but Tommy Wiseau really IS the one behind the camera, chances are that your movie will be hilariously terrible enough to be a massive success.
But let’s get back to the point. To write comedy dialogue that doesn’t suck it’s not enough to throw a pun here and there and hope for the best. If the joke is bad no laugh track in the world will be loud enough to make it funny.
There are shows out there that rely way too much on the charm of the actors or the “beauty” of the scene. The result is that if you take a joke that seems funny with the help of a laugh track and a weird facial expression, and write it on paper, that same joke will lose all its charm.
If you don’t believe me here’s an example:
Clay: “It’s like asking Han Solo what space is”
Hanna: “Wow! You’re an actual nerd aren’t you?”
Yes, Hanna. Vague knowledge of a worldwide known multibillion-dollar franchise which has been around for over 30 years is the equivalent of being a nerd…
The same way, too much emphasis on a joke that is just mildly entertaining will end up killing the laughter. Here’s another example:
Sheldon: “I want to build a road but I need wood. Do you fellas have wood?”
Raj and Howard laugh
Sheldon: “I don’t understand the laughter. The object of settlers of Catan is to build roads and settlements, to do so it requires wood. Now I have sheep, I need wood.”
Raj and Howard laugh
Sheldon: “Who has wood for my sheep?”
Raj and Howard laugh
Wood sounds less and less like a word. Please stop repeating wood, Sheldon.
What is comedy dialogue?
The truth is that even to write comedy dialogue you need to write REAL dialogue. In another post, I’ve talked about how to give the audience information about your character through their dialogue.
Everything about us can be revealed by our words: our upbringing, our mood, our intentions in that specific moment etc…
Comedy dialogue must have some joke, sure, but it should also be personal to the characters. Anyone can tell a knock knock joke and get a cheap laugh but only Chandler Bing (from Friends) can make the audience hysterical with an internal monologue like this one:
(To a girl) “You know on second thought gum would be perfection.”
Thinking to himself:
“Gum would be perfection?!” “Gum, would be perfection?” Could have said “Gum would be nice”, could have said “I’ll have a stick” but no no no no no… For me gum is “perfection”… I loathe myself.
The point is: when you need to write comedy dialogue, you need to forget about goofy faces, physical comedy and cheap generic jokes, just focus on who your character is and what aspect of his personality can be funny.
Among the other Friends, Chandler is the one with the strongest social anxiety and, as he says himself, he always tries to hide it using sarcasm.
In the monologue above, he beats himself up for not being able to talk normally to a beautiful model he finds himself stuck in the ATM with. But even if you’ve never seen this episode or any other episode of friends, you can understand what’s going on just by reading his lines. He is just a guy anxious about talking to a girl.
The marvelous Mrs. Maisel
The marvelous Mrs. Maisel became one of my favorite comedies pretty much 10 minutes into the first episode. It’s written by Amy Sherman Palladino (who also wrote Gilmore Girls), so you can be sure that the dialogue is going to be hilarious.
Dialogue reveals personality
Try reading this scene from episode 2. All you need to know is that Shirley and Rose are the mothers of a couple that is getting divorced and that Rose invited Shirley at her house for dinner.
Shirley: “Wha- what are those?”
Rose: “Gougéres. French cheese puffs.”
Shirley: “French food is salty. Is that on purpose?”
Shirley: “Did you know that a lot french women aren’t married? Because they’re always going topless on the beaches. Men see it for free, they’re not gonna propose.”
A few minutes later in the kitchen
Shirley: “I just don’t understand why you didn’t ask me to bring something”
Rose: “Because you’re a guest Shirley”
Shirley: (looking at the food in a frying pan) “I don’t even know what this is. I’ll make soup, soup we understand.”
Rose: “Shirley, you’re a guest. You’re a guest. You’re a guest.”
Shirley takes a bowl out of the freezer.
Rose: “What is that?”
Shirley: “Chicken soup”
Rose: “Where did that come from?”
Shirley: “I put it in the freezer last time I was here. Oh, do you have any matzo meal?”
Shirley: “Nevermind I have some in my purse”
Rose sighs and opens a bottle of wine.
– The marvelous Mrs. Maisel
So what do we know about Rose and Shirley now?
Shirley is probably a control freak. Even though she has been invited to someone’s house she can’t help herself and goes in the kitchen to prepare the dinner herself. She hates foreign cooking and has prejudices against French people.
Also, the line “Men see it for free, they’re not gonna propose” tell us that her view on marriage and men is dated (it makes sense since the story takes place in the ‘50s).
Rose is a control freak as well. She implores Shirley to leave the kitchen alone but she doesn’t say it explicitly, she just keeps repeating “You’re a guest”, hoping that the other woman will get the hint (she doesn’t …).
Rose is much more comfortable with French food, and she comes across as a little condescending since she wants to show off her knowledge “Gougéres. French cheese puffs”. She gives up pretty easily and doesn’t make a scene when Shirley invades her kitchen, so she probably would rather keep on a good facade rather than directly confronting someone she is in conflict with.
This is an example of how the characters’ personalities naturally bring up the comedy. Those are just 2 women with different opinions and different worldviews bickering over the food. No need for Star Wars references.
This scene has nothing to do with the actual plot of The marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Rose and Shirley are just secondary characters that get a bit of screen time while the action is somewhere else.
But even if they are not as important as the protagonist, we get to know them, and BECAUSE we get to know them we laugh at what they do.
Dialogue reveals emotions
In another scene from the same episode, we get to see the confrontation between Abe, a man whose daughter has just been left by her husband, and Joel, the husband that left her. See if you can tell what emotion Abe is feeling.
Abe: “No, you do not call me Abe.”
Joel: “What do I call you?”
Abe: “Nothing. You call me nothing! You don’t talk to me or look at me. If you see me on the street, you will cross the street whether or not there is a crosswalk present. Your pedestrian safety is of no importance to me anymore.”
– The marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Well, Abe definitely isn’t happy. He basically implies that he doesn’t care if Joel had to die “Your pedestrian safety is of no importance to me anymore” and says that he doesn’t want to talk to him.
The last line breaks the tension and makes this conversation funny by exaggerating a hypothetical situation, but it also expresses Abe’s anger.
So there you have it. As I said at the beginning of this long ass post, to write comedy dialogue you don’t need charismatic actors, wonderful sets, laugh tracks or anything else. All you need is pen and paper (or a keyboard…) and characters with strong personalities.
Never watched The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? Don’t worry, you can binge the whole series and many other marvelous series by signing up to Amazon Prime Video by clicking below: