27 Jul 2018
dave's picture

Topical comedy gag writers are among the most sought after professionals in comedy writing. I can only think of about ten people who have kept at it successfully and consistently in the 35 years or so I've been doing this. I did it for about 20 years and even spent a few of them in the Premier Division, but in football terms I was not so much Manchester City as Hull City.
But in those many enjoyable hours spent writing for News Quiz, and Have I Got News For You, I picked up a few hints about how to write topical jokes.
Regular readers of these diatribes will be familiar with my obsession with The Poetics by Aristotle, a book more than 2,000 years old yet still the most useful volume on how to write – yes, even more than Seven Secrets Of Successful Screenwriters (“Richard Curtis always writes in a nightcap, by the light of a burning candle”).
The Poetics describes the three act structure, in a slightly more complex way than “every story has a beginning, a middle and an end” but not much more complex. And the structure more or less holds whether you’re writing a movie, a novel, a sitcom, a sketch – and even a single gag.
One line gags normally have a set-up – have you ever noticed the number of comedians who begin a gag with the phrase ‘have you ever noticed’? It probably owes its continued existence to one of the greatest comics ever, George Carlin, who said more than 50 years ago “Have you ever noticed anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster is a maniac?”
This is a perfect three act joke. The question is a classic act one set up, and the observation is probably something you had noticed, so it’s in your normal sphere of believability, but it took a comedian to bring the absurdity of it to your attention.
Now look at the word ‘and’ in that joke. We don’t look at ‘and’ very often do we, it’s not the kind of word we think about when writing anything. Here though it is the inciting incident at the end of act one, the normal world where everyone who drives slower than you is an idiot. He could have said ‘but’, but he said ‘and’. (Possibly the clumsiest sentence I have ever written.) 'But' takes your brain too quickly to the suggestion of an opposite, 'and' disguises the complication that is about to come, which is that we’re not just talking about slow drivers, we’re talking about fast ones. And here’s the second twist, we’re talking about you, even though you were laughing in the set up and act two because you thought he was taking about someone else. Hence the punchline – everyone of us is a crap driver.
Apologies for taking the fun out of that joke by analysing its meaning. If you want to write one-line gags though, this is useful knowledge.
If you want to write topical jokes, you’ll be pleased to know that most of the joke has already been written for you. When Donald Trump (act one) went to Russia (inciting incident), he exonerated Putin of all election wrongdoing (act two complication) – oh hang on, he meant to say he didn’t exonerate him (another complication). I know I’ve been telling you to avoid Brexit and Trump sketches, but if you have any one-off gags that really have not been seen before about them then this is the place to use them.
To pick a random joke from a recent slow news day, here’s a story “A decomposed body has been found in the water near Donald Trump’s golf resort.” Act one – a dead body. I know, that sounds like an inciting incident rather than the everyday world, but admit it, you’ve watched dozens of shows and read lots of books that begin, page one scene one, with a dead body. In storyland, if not in our own lives, this is the normal world.
The inciting incident is that the body has been found near Donald Trump’s golf club. Which brings us to the complications – Who is the body? Who committed the crime? I saw a few responses, most of which were degrees of variation on the idea that Trump did it. But the funniest I think came from the great Twitter gag writer @Pundamentalism – ‘police confirm identity as Uncle Sam’. That's quite a leap from the story, beyond the obvious route taken by eberyone else, and no one else got there. 
You might come up with a funny punchline quite quickly, but the chances are so will everyone else. If Twitter has achieved one good thing in its miserable decade or so of existence, that’ll be that it’s made gag writers work harder to find more and funnier angles.
Try and be different. Go off on a tangent, find a topic where you hear the same obvious jokes being made and try and look at the story from a completely different angle. Read lots of different newspapers. For those of you under 30, a newspaper is a device that holds a bunch of stuff you read, except instead of just switching it on you have to go to a shop and buy a new one every day. And - get this - it's made of paper. I know, it's ridiculous, but you'll be surprised how the physical act of reading a paper can sometimes feel more conducive to coming up with gags than swiping through a screen. No idea why, but sometimes a sentence jumps out and you come up with an instant punchline.

As with sketches, look out for the quirkier stories. Not the stories that are funny in their own right, the same rule applies as with sketches, you can never be as funny as the story itself.
Listen to shows like News Quiz and The Now Show on the radio. Watch Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week. Don't nick the jokes (instant disqualification, because everyone else will have heard them,) but get the feel for the structure of a gag. It's usually constructed the same way as the opening line of a newspaper story.
If you haven't already done so, listen to our Sitcom Geeks podcasts where we interview the producer and two writers of NewsJack,  https://www.comedy.co.uk/podcasts/sitcom_geeks/episode_69/ - and the host Angela Barnes: https://www.comedy.co.uk/podcasts/sitcom_geeks/episode_70/

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