Comedy Lives in Hyperbole

By: Ebonye Gussine Wilkins

It’s no secret that I love a good sitcom. My favorites are Frasier and 30 Rock (not quite a comedy, but I also love Portlandia).

For those of you who don’t know, 30 Rock is a comedy within a comedy. A show within a show. It’s where a bunch of writers, well, write sketch comedy. It shows writers as lazy (which if we are honest, many are) but also as people who are acutely aware of their surroundings and are well versed in pop culture.

In order for their comedy to work, it has to be based on something. Comedy comes from an interruption in what you expect to happen. It’s a deviation from what you know to be true. It’s the emphasis on something that is obvious. It is an exaggeration of what you already know.

For 30 Rock, pop culture is great for this. It addresses topics and situations that you are already aware of. It is grounded in satire and the fact that the viewer already has knowledge of certain things. For most viewers, you have to have seen a handful of popular movies and watched at least the highlight reel on the news in order to get it.

What does this have to do with writing? Everything.

Firstly, since it’s a sitcom, it’s scripted. That means, somebody, somewhere sat down to write these jokes. The writer put the jokes into context and connected the dots for you. If you’ve been paying attention the entire show, you’ll not only laugh at the jokes in the middle, but you’ll laugh when it comes full circle. It is essentially a joke within a joke.

Secondly, it’s about writers writing (and actors acting and acting out). We see the actors executing the jokes that are written. We see the parallels that they try to draw. And even in the exaggeration of the truth, we get the joke.

It’s hard to do that in writing, especially comedy writing. Comedy lives in the hyperbole. In order for the exaggeration to work, the writer has to know its audience intimately. They have to know what the audience already knows, and what they expect to see. When the show deviates from that, you get laughter.

For example, in one of my favorite episodes, Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan) is talking about the awful childhood he had. He claims that the basketball hoop that he used to play with was actually a ribcage. Think about it. Everyone has an idea of what bad urban neighborhoods are like: shoot-outs, robberies, drugs everywhere. However, how bad does a neighborhood have to be in order for a ribcage to be the basketball hoop? No neighborhood is that dangerous. And there lies the comedy.

So when you write, (whether it’s comedy or not) know your audience. Learn their expectations, what they like and what they don’t like. And then give it to them.

Do you know your audience?

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