The Challenges of Comedy Writing

First of all, I feel like I have to apologize for the fact that most of my posts recently have been about humor in writing in particular: it’s just because that’s the headspace that I’m in for working on Camp Ferguson, and that’s where my thoughts go most of the time. But anyway, on with today’s topic, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot and have learned from experience that it just can’t ever really work the way you want it to.


For reference on sitcoms, I’d tell you to look at shows like Seinfeld, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The League, all of which are near and dear to my heart. A sitcom, or situational comedy, is traditionally about drawing some well-defined characters with set rules, limits, and morals, and then sticking them into outlandish situations that stretch the boundaries of their tolerances and cause them to behave differently than they normally would (or perhaps the same, whichever way it works out). In particular, the three shows that I’ve mentioned are part of the “new paradigm” of sitcoms, as I like to call it. Seinfeld sort of started this trend, which the latter two shows took to hilarious extremes, and that’s the trend of talking about ordinary, everyday things that pretty much everyone agrees exist, but would never, ever talk about in polite company. And boy, are they impolite about it. In addition, the characters in all three of these shows are caricatured, awful, self-centered human beings at their core, only concerned about their own benefit, and solely bound together as a group of “friends” because no one else will tolerate their antics.


This is the kind of atmosphere I’ve tried very hard to cultivate with Camp Ferguson, as I feel it’s just ripe for all kinds of comedy. However, translating it to a novel proved to have many more problems than I anticipated. For one thing, my first draft was way too long: over 500 pages. That’s mostly because in my quest to inject humor in the style of my favorite shows into the story whenever possible, I mostly neglected the plot altogether and dragged pointless, unconnected joke scenes out for several pages before finally getting to the too-little meat of the story. That’s something that It’s Always Sunny does especially well on TV: milks stand-alone jokes and situations unrelated to the central plot (such as it is) for everything they’re worth, no matter how long or distracting it is. However, if you try to incorporate something like this in every single chapter of a 17-chapter story, it can get really old, really fast, and bore people out of reading further, because I’ve found people have a much shorter attention span when reading than when watching TV simply for the less-work value of it.


Another point I’d like to make is that the utter anarchy that many of these kind of shows embody nowadays is also very, very funny to me, but it, too, just doesn’t work when you try to put it down on the page. One of things I love in these shows are the scenes where confusion it at its height, everyone is shouting over each other, and no one knows what anyone else is talking about. It’s extremely difficult to replicate on paper, though, as I found out in my first draft. Having rapid-fire dialogue back and forth in a book along with ascriptions to every single line needed to show who said what is confusing and really fatiguing on the eyes. Therefore, it’s much better for a writer to try and interspace it with the kinds of description, both of people and actions, to further set the scene and give the reader some time to digest the dialogue. And again, it only further detracts from the overall plot, which is honestly the single most important part of the entire work. In writing, the single cardinal rule is that in a story, you need to keep the plot moving forward, and do it in as concise a manner as possible. Otherwise, you risk losing the interest of your audience, as they won’t see any steps being made towards a problem or the resolution of that problem.


That’s all the thoughts I have for now, but I hope it gives you a somewhat better understanding of how I’ve worked to revise Camp Ferguson so far. And for those of you who end up reading it, I’d love to know if I managed to preserve the humor I’ve tried to embody in it with the consistently plot-driven story I know a good novel needs. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of work, but eventually, if you are persistent and open-minded enough to allow yourself to make some changes large or small, trust me, it will all work out for the best.


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