7 Comedy Writing Techniques & How Clichés Are Used in Writing Humor

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Explore the fundamentals of humor writing with these tips taken from Comedy Writing Secrets by Mel Helitzer with Mark Shatz. You'll learn the different techniques used to create a play on words, what a cliché is, and how it can be used to surprise a reader or listener.

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Seven Techniques (And Definitions) For Creating a Play on Words

  1. A double entendre is the use of an ambiguous word or phrase that allows for a second—usually racy—interpretation.
  2. A malaprop is the unintentional misstatement or misuse of a word or phrase, or the accidental substitution of an incorrect word for the correct one, with humorous results. Malaprops are effective in part because they allow the audience to feel superior. Malaprops can incorporate clichés and double entendres.
  3. An oxymoron is a joining of two incompatible ideas in one phrase. It can also be called a contradiction in terms.
  4. A pun is a word used in such a way that two or more of the word’s possible meanings are active simultaneously. A pun may also be reformation of a word to a like-sounding word that is not an exact homonym.
  5. Reforming is a process that adds a twist or a surprise ending to a cliché (a predictable, hackneyed phrase) or a common word phrase, or expression. Other play on word techniques, such as double entendres and puns, rely heavily on reforming.
  6. The simple truth is the opposite of a double entendre. It plays on the literal meaning of a key word in an idiomatic phrase.
  7. The take-off is a statement of the standard version of a cliché or express, followed by a realistic but highly exaggerated commentary, frequently a double entendre.

Clichés In Comedy: What They Are and How to Use Them

A cliché is an expression that was clever once but has lost its original impact through overuse. Some people salt every dish, whether it requires salt or not. Clichés are used just as frequently (and indiscriminately). They are sprinkled liberally into every conversation, every letter, every political speech, and (unfortunately) in too many major literary efforts. They’re shortcuts to comprehension that we use when we are creatively lazy or mentally bankrupt. But the humor writer uses audacious and surprising interpretations of clichés to shock an audience into laughter.

A cliché can be reformed with homonyms—words that look or sound the same but have different meanings. Clichés are perfect launch vehicles for the neophyte humor writer because one-lines are the most salable humor form today. Simple cliché humor can be put to immediate use in a wide variety of formats, including photo and cartoon captions, greeting cards, news and advertising headlines, bumper stickers (a rear view of pop culture), titles of books and articles, and monologues.

Frequently, a cliché is used to set the audience’s train of thought in motion—so the humorist can derail it. Since the ending phase of a cliché is predictable, the audience’s thoughts head in a predictable direction. The key word here is predictable. The easiest way to achieve surprise is to use a vehicle that takes the audience for a ride in a predictable direction—a direction you will change at the last possible moment. It’s last-second switch in the anticipated verbal conclusion. The result is surprise, which produces laughter, the payoff of all comedic effort. As you see shortly, there are a number of formulas for altering a cliché so that its final direction surprises the reader or listener.

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