Finding your genre is The Fourth Rule of Writing Funny.
When we go to a Farrelly Brothers movie we expect a certain kind of product. Gross out humor in largely unrealistic, high concept plots with a handful of genuinely inspired lines and moments. Woody Allen films, especially his early and mid-career efforts offered a witty, neurotic take on the human condition, especially romance. His fans knew that they were going to see a unique, intellectual kind of creativity and wit. If Judd Apatow’s name is on a film be it as writer, producer or director we know it’ll be something high concept with an abundance of sex jokes, but with an undertone of sweetness. So finding your genre is The Fourth Rule of Writing Funny.
The thing is, depending upon the kind of comedy you’re writing, you may not need to be as funny as these guys. Romantic comedies need laughs, but not necessarily six per page. Take two Reese Witherspoon films: Sweet Home Alabama wasn’t a laugh a minute. Neither was Legally Blonde, although it was funnier and had a higher concept. But both had compelling stories.
Guy comedies (or buddy comedies) need more laughs than a romantic comedy. Think I Love You, Man, Wedding Crashers, The Pineapple Express or Role Models.
Let’s look at television again. I used to hear people refer to Sex and The City as a sitcom. It wasn’t. It was a drama with occasional laughs and humorous situations. No one watched Sex and The City for the humor (and nobody went to the film version expecting to laugh out loud for two hours), as opposed to Seinfeld, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm and of the current season Modern Famly. Same with Entourage. Is it a sitcom? No. Parts of every episode are hilarious, but it’s really a drama with occasional humor that comes from character.
Sitcom writers have an expression for the parts of a script where there are intentionally no laugh lines: laying pipe: information crucial to the plot is given.
Comedy screenplays are allowed to have some laying pipe sections, but not many. And there should be on in the first 15 pages. You have to keep the laughs coming.
So if you want to write a big, broad comedy (The Hangover, Tropic Thunder, Dodgeball, Liar, Liar) your script better be funny as hell from first page to last.
If you want to write a romantic comedy or something serio/comic (serious topic with laughs) or a comedy/drama (lighthearted story with a serious or sentimental turn) you don’t necessarily have to have 3-6 laughs per page. Once again, here is where having a solid story will supercede lots of laughs.
Can someone be taught to write comedy? Yes. Just like someone can be taught how to cook. If you take cooking classes, read a bunch of cookbooks, watch The Food Network and spend enough time in the kitchen trying out recipes, you’ll be able to prepare a meal that you won’t be ashamed of.
Learning to write comedy is pretty much the same. Take a class on sitcom writing, improv and/or stand up. Read books on comedy writing (Writing The Romantic Comedy is very good, as is What Are You Laughing At: How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories and More). You can study comedies (you’ll learn more from the bad ones, than the good).
If you don’t want to collaborate and if your heart is set on writing comedies, just keep staring at the scene that needs punching up until a funny line pops into your head. Then do it again and again and again. Just don’t try to analyze what’s funny or figure out where it comes from.