Narrative Comedy Themes

By | September 9, 2018


[Excerpt from The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy]

Every TV comedy needs a theme
or what is known in feature-film development as a ‘controlling idea’. This inspires a show’s moral framework, the subtextual message that drives the show. Once you’ve had some initial thoughts about a project, take the time to identify its overarching theme. Often this is implicit in the show’s premise.

For example, the controlling idea of Kath and Kim, ‘Love of family ain’t much but it’s all we’ve got’ is a message we draw from watching a dysfunctional family coping with their troubles. For Gilligan’s Island, a show where seven castaways wait for rescue on a deserted isle, the theme is ‘We survive together or perish alone’. The theme of absurdist series The Mighty Boosh boils down to ‘Friendship is all’.

All these themes contain an implicit grain of hope, but at heart they are serious and concern universal human issues. A light theme, such as ‘Happy is as happy does’, is not necessary for humour to thrive. The TV series Kingswood Country deals with racism, sexism and cultural wars. The show’s main character, Ted Bullpit, faces isolation in every episode and the theme is that tolerance unites us while intolerance divides us. Many a serious political speech has been made on the same topic—yet the show is a comedy classic.

A TV show represents months or years of work, so you need to say something to the world that’s important to you. There is a difference, however, between ‘serious’ and ‘dark’. A cynical theme like ‘Dishonesty works’, ‘Greed is good’ or ‘A life without love is a life without hassles’ presents three problems for the writer.

The first is personal. Though you might feel it is both important and true, will you still feel the same way after you’ve spent years of your creative life promulgating a cynical, joyless or empty message? (Or, if you think you will, maybe you should look at a career in law.)

The other two reasons are practical. Entertaining permutations on a cynical theme quickly run dry. For example, if ‘Dishonesty works’ is your theme, once your hero has been laid and become rich and comfortable, what else is there to do but teach him a moral lesson? Satires may depict their central characters winning the day through deceit, selfishness, heartlessness and villainy (see Veep or Yes, Minister), but they are generally hollow victories.

Satire’s themes tend to be grim and rarely deliver hope their worlds can be lastingly fixed. The political series, The Thick Of It, Utopia and The Games each feature central characters who have clear moral and common sense, though they may achieve their aims through cunning and manipulation. These three characters -‘Malcolm Tucker’, ‘Tony’ and ‘John Clark’ spend much of their time complaining about the idiocy, self-centredness and waste they regularly confront. But their insights fall on deaf ears. No matter what befalls them, the other characters can’t say they weren’t warned.

What positive qualities they may have are due to the extent that they thwart an even greater evil. Even the darkest satire has a moral rudder, using stories of dire treachery to highlight the shortcomings of our world rather than celebrating treachery itself. A satire’s message might simply be ‘The evils of this world are intractable’, but even this message implies the ideal of a better and fairer society, impossible though it may be. The dismal daily horrors depicted in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin simply underline the idea that the world would be a happier place if people were less ignorant, self-centred and petty.

Third, viewers are turned off by cynicism because ultimately it is unrewarding. They will simply find your show too depressing.
The characters in your show, on the other hand, can be cynical—it’s just the controlling idea that cannot. Even the exquisitely painful The Office has a benign, if cautionary, theme: ‘Be honest with yourself’. The antagonist, David Brent, must learn to face his inadequacies or he will never discover his strengths. The protagonist, Tim, must embrace his ambition and act on his potential or lose Dawn, the love of his life, and spend his remaining days in lonely torpor.


You’ll find richer soil for your episode ideas if your theme is more than an attack on the world you’ve chosen to explore. The theme of The Larry Sanders Show boils down to more than ‘Network television is populated by arseholes’, though that message is clear throughout. By series end, Larry Sanders learns a grander, more challenging lesson: ‘To thine own self be true’. And throughout the series we’re on Larry’s side, even though he’s a selfish and scheming celebrity. We don’t engage with his faults, but with how he acts in his world.

Your controlling idea might be in the form of a question. The theme of The Nanny is ‘Do we deserve true love even though we are flawed?’ The answer is subjective. To respond in the affirmative we must forgive Fran Drescher’s nanny character all her faults.

To find a satisfying controlling idea, ask yourself what you are most curious about. The notion that writers should only write about what they know is misleading. Even in constructing a textbook the writer does more than jot down what they know on the first day. Writing is an act of exploration. Without learning as you go, the act of writing would be deathly dull—and the reading even worse. People write autobiographies because they want to make sense of their lives, not because they know everything that happened and what it means. Questions, not answers, keep us awake at night. So, what do you wonder about most? Love? Death? Identity? The true value of success?

Be sure the theme, like the show’s premise, is something you want to explore—otherwise you could waste years working on something you don’t care about. And that is no laughing matter.

[Excerpt from The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy]

The Principles of Comedy

By | July 1, 2018


[Excerpt from ‘The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy’ – Currency Press]
For as long as it’s been recorded (the earliest satires date back to ancient Greece), comedy has been comprised of a range of elements and principles that have not changed. Comedy may have a thousand skins but its bones remain the same.

Just as any story must feature a protagonist who faces obstacles to their goal, comedy relies upon a specific range of principles. These principles are based upon primal understandings shared by every human being on the planet.

Though the higher cognitive processes of the brain vary from person to person, the same raw human instincts drive us all. We all have a funny bone.

Sure, each culture may have its own comedy traditions. The Germans, despite appearances, love to laugh. They particularly enjoy Schadenfreude, laughter at the misfortunes of others. The Japanese have Manzai, a comic tradition first developed in the Heian Period (794–1185). Manzai features a two-man team made up of the ‘Boke’ (an enthusiastic idiot with a short memory who misunderstands things) and the ‘Tsukkomi’ (a dour straight-guy who constantly interrupts the Boke to correct him and hit him on the head with a stick). The Italians have Commedia dell ’Arte, a tradition dating back to the 16th century that gave birth to Punch and Judy.

Each nation’s comedy traditions, however, operate on the same principles. Laughter at a man slipping on a banana peel, the slapstick of the Three Stooges and the psychological cruelty of ‘David Brent’ in The Office are all manifestations of Schadenfreude. Comic duos such as Abbott and Costello, Lano and Woodley (Colin Lane and Frank Woodley) and ‘Mark Wary’ and ‘Jerry’ (Jason Gann and Dailan Evans) all share a similar dynamic to the ancient Boke and the Tsukkomi. Mr and Mrs Castanza in Seinfeld and Frank and Marie in Everybody Loves Raymond share qualities with the ever-battling, baby-taunting Punch and Judy.

Given these contemporary examples of ancient traditions from far-flung countries, it’s clear that successful narrative comedy is not so much about what you do, it’s about how you do it. This book presents the what. The how is up to you.

Below are ten principles of narrative comedy. They don’t all have to be present in a character, scene or joke for it to be funny, and many apply equally to drama. But they represent the ‘territory’ of comedy.

If you’re laughing at something, at least one of these fundamentals will be at work:

• Comedy deals with the abrupt negation, reversal, equation, furthering or exaggeration of given elements.
• It compares, combines, associates, deconstructs or changes the context of given elements.
• It uses stories, characters, rhythms and repetition to build and then defy assumptions and expectations.
• It presents nonsense scenarios or propositions, uses random elements to create absurdities, and applies faulty logic to known absolutes or truisms.
• It inverts values, portraying the trivial as important, the irrational as rational, the incomplete as complete—and vice versa—to illuminate larger truths, or expose the fallacies in accepted truths.
• It examines human nature and relationships by distilling and compressing character and narrative.
• It offers bare truths, not fanciful escapism.
• It examines individual human behaviour, often to highlight common behaviour or broader social concerns.
• It distils complexities and makes the simple complex.
• It uses metaphor to highlight aspects of situations or themes.
• Above all, comedy uses any of the above to provoke laughter through affinity, anxiety and surprise.

There isn’t a successful comedian or comedy-writer on earth that doesn’t rely on one or more of the principles above. The principles do not change between centuries, nations, or artists. Nor do they vary between degrees of sophistication, public taste, age, social awareness or political leanings. They are very human principles. Capable of being adapted to times and cultures, but present in all comedies, no matter the century or culture.

Once learned, the principles can never be forgotten. The fact is, we know them already without ever having to be told. For example, if a comic hero finds a pot of gold, how long do you think he will keep it?

The answer is, of course, ‘not for long’. He’ll either lose it, trade it or give it away. There’s no way he’ll have it at the end of his story, unless it’s the last thing he wants.

Somehow, we all know this. It’s an inevitable scenario that chimes a primal bell in all of us. A narrative comedy-writer’s job is to ring that bell like it’s going out of fashion, safe in the knowledge that it never will.

[Excerpt from ‘The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy’ – Currency Press]