Eight rules for comedy


Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book titled Slapstick. It is NOT a book about comedy. Wikipedia describes it this way:

Slapstick is dedicated to Arthur Stanley Jefferson and Norvell Hardy (better known as Laurel and Hardy), and the title of the novel is in reference to the physical and situational comedy style that duo employed. Vonnegut explains the title himself in the opening lines of the book’s prologue:
“This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography. I have called it “Slapstick” because it is grotesque, situational poetry — like the slapstick film comedies, especially those of Laurel and Hardy, of long ago. It is about what life feels like to me.”

Kurt Vonnegut also gives us eight rules of storytelling that work great for comedy.  These are the rules, and I follow up with comments on a few of them.

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Rule #3.  Every character should want something.  Sometimes in comedy, however, one character just wants be left alone to live their life, but some other character is ruining that for them.

Rule #4.  Many people in animation will tell you that everything in a story must advance the action.  That you must cut out anything that doesn’t do that.  Vonnegut provides the option of revealing character. And that is quite true for comedy.  Funny characters can be exquisitely entertaining even when they are not advancing the story.

Rule #6. Put your character into a situation where even you don’t know how they are going to get out of it.  Make it difficult for yourself.  If it takes you a while to find the answer, then it won’t be obvious to the audience.

Rule #8.  This rule is especially good for short stories/films.  The challenge is in how quickly and elegantly you can get the viewer up to speed with what is going on.  You do not want them confused at any point.


The Secret Handshake


Here is a great idea for an animation exercise.  The secret handshake.  Secret handshakes show two characters physically interacting in fun ways.  They can involve way more than the hands, and style is hugely important.  Generally, these greetings are believed to have started with men’s fraternities such as the Freemasons or the Shriners.  These private fraternities were lampooned in films from Laurel and Hardy, as well animated shows such as the Flintstones.


Still it is very relevant, and currently alive in “bro” culture. These days, you are most likely to see them at sporting events. This first example is from a team where each player has a special handshake for the captain, who must know them all.  Note how it can include dance moves.

One advantage to this exercise is the fact that the audience will probably understand what is going on instantly, so even a short clip will make sense.  The action can involve the whole body, or small finger movements.  I really like the timing in this shake.


This next video is a series of simple shakes, but each one has a name.  The handshake is then a form of mime that represents the name.

In secret societies that are closed to the outside world, knowing the handshake is a way to prove you are who you say you are.  One of these societies is the college fraternity.  This live skit is built around an extended handshake that goes way beyond the hands to all sorts of silly behaviors.

Then there is this very nice animated example from Disney’s Big Hero 6.


I had this post in a draft form for several months, and I decided to finish it when I discovered this short film by Jackson Read and Susie Webb, students at Ringling School of Art + Design.  They started with the basic idea and took advantage of animation by having them do things way beyond what normal humans can do.

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