1) Hen is a funnier word than chicken.
Deeply controversial. I have a grand unifying theory of comedy that you can divide the world into two kinds of people, those who think ‘hen’ is a funny word, and those who favour ‘chicken’. Oh, chicken should be the funniest word, with its voiceless velar plosive (the ‘k’ sound so beloved of funny words – knickers, knackers, knockers etc. “Yakuza” is funnier than “Mafia” for exactly this reason.) But that’s why, to me, it isn’t as funny. Chickens cross the road and are stapled to punks, they’re part of the comedy bricks and mortar already, they’re lazy.
‘Hen’ is a good shaped word – its round and smooth, it sits in your mouth (or the mouth of the actors you are writing for) like a warm egg. I wrote a radio sketch with comedian Matt Kirshen about amateur butchers which contained the line “you came in here, with just a hammer and a hen…” I get dizzy just thinking about the words ‘hammer’ and ‘hen’ together.
But your mileage may vary. After the comedy panel, over Kev’s mum’s wonderfully moist pear and chocolate tart, I asked my peers, “So. Are you chicken, or hen men?” Paul Mayhew Archer said, “Chicken, of course” . Not in a mean way, but in the concerned, avuncular way God or Father Christmas would say ‘chicken, of course’. My heart withered like an apple core in a glove compartment. Paul Mayhew Archer has a finger in the most successful comedy pies of the 20th and 21st century. I am a tit who shops in the yellow-stickered reduced bit at Sainsburys.
Note: Most animals go through cycles of being funny. There was a dark time in the 90s when simply saying the word ‘badger’ was a thing. Never forget.
2) Some numbers are funnier than others.
Recently I went to see a lecture by Galton and Simpson, exquisitely-suited writers in their 80s who are better at comedy than you or I will ever be. A numerologist in the audience asked if there was mystical significance to Steptoe and Son living at 23 Oil Drum Lane. Alan Simpson looked politely baffled. He said: “I imagine we made it that because 23 is a funnier number than 20.” And IT IS. FACT.
Numbers go through comedy cycles too – a radio producer I work with, David Tyler, is so terrified of wasting any air-time with material that isn’t 100% joke substance, he insists all big numbers in a script are rounded up. The outcome of this is the writing team get quite snobby when we notice baroque, flowery numbers on other things.
“4573?” we say, loftily. “Talk about try-hard. What a massive needoid of a number.”
Five thousand is a funny number. “The deaths have been estimated at four or five thousand.” The sitcom Louie used the number “Seventeen million” to near-devastating effect in the episode ‘Moving’. Fractions may become fashionable again in our lifetime, but I doubt it. Needy. Fractions are the ‘Scunthorpe’ of numbers. If that sentence makes sense to you, go outside in the fresh air, and try and experience one moment of genuine wonder and sincerity today. Smell a baby’s head. Skip naked through a wheatfield. Something.
3) The devil is in the details/use all five senses.
A general useful tip for writing is ‘specificity is funnier than… not specificity’. Say Jujufruits instead of candy. Chocolate babka instead of cake. Big salad, instead of salad. (those are all from Seinfeld.) But also, just chucking the word “Ginsters” into your script does not make you the Alan Partridge writing team.
Words that trigger more than once sense are helpful to enrich your writing – I have ‘touch/taste/smell/hear/see’ on a post-it note over my desk as a constant reference. If you evoke more than one sense, in theory the audience doesn’t just hear/read a word, they taste/smell/feel it and lodge it in a different bit of their brain. You may have noticed I have peppered this blog with words that make you feel hungry – ‘cake’, ‘pear and chocolate tart’ ‘warm egg’. This is because I want you to like me, and feel a primal sense of something or other when you come across my work, and hopefully your mouth will involuntarily fill with spit when you meet me. Yeah. (See also: Chocolate-covered-cherries in Tootsie, the Bog of Eternal Stench in Labyrinth)
4) In these troubled times, warmth is as important as jokes.
The BBC have an edict that all modern sitcoms must contain “at least one scene where the cast are in a car singing along to a song the viewers are familiar with”.
Reading all these tips re-mind me of what I already know but wouldn’t have thought of directly as a way to write. I just usually think of funnies in my head and forget them. If I write all these as notes and put them around me it should sink in.