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1. On Writing by Stephen King
Okay, sure - this really isn't about writing COMEDY (although I would argue Stephen King has written some of the most authentic-sounding comedic characters and set-pieces in modern literature) but just about the art and struggle of writing, period. And it's a great, fascinating mix of Stephen King recounting his writing process evolution, half-biography of his beginnings and difficulties with addiction, and general musings on life and fiction. But I can honestly say that I've never read any book that's made me feel absolutely inspired to go out and write about evil dogs.
2. & 3. Here's the Kicker & Poking a Dead Frog by Mike Sacks
These are the two most absolutely essential choices for anyone who aspires to be involved in comedy in any way - or even to just appreciate comedy a bit more. In both, writer Mike Sacks interviews dozens of comedic greats, ranging from old-timey writers to stand-ups to improvisers to TV/Film writers and everything in-between. They give anecdotes, talk about their personal philosophies, and generally provide everything any comedy geek could hope for. The only problem with these books is that there's only two of them so far, and I could honestly read these forever.
4. Fart Sounds: The reason(s) why jokes are funny by Zuri Irvin
Along the same lines as Mike Sacks' duology of comedic interviews comes Fart Sounds, which is similar in nature - featuring interviews with dozens and dozens of well-regarded comedic voices - but finds its own path by including a lot of less traditional choices. See, Sacks' books is looking largely at legends - Mel Brooks, Garry Shandling, Larry David, John Cleese, etc., but Fart Sounds aims to get the legends of the FUTURE, who are making great comedy RIGHT NOW, in ways that only the internet would allow. A lot of them you may know from excellent Twitter accounts or great submissions to The New Yorker or McSweeney's, but would largely be total unknowns to your parents. And that's actually great - if you want to know how to make great comedy in the here and now (and not 30 years ago), Fart Sounds is a must-have.
Also, what a great title.
5. What Are You Laughing At?: A Comprehensive Guide to the Comedic Event by Dan O'Shannon
Dan O'Shannon has done something truly extraordinary with this book - basically, he's written a scientific textbook on comedy as an idea: what works, why it works, and how we all experience it. And if anyone knows comedy, it's Dan O'Shannon - the guy has written for Frasier, Cheers, Modern Family, Better Off Ted (PLEASE WATCH THIS SHOW IF YOU HAVEN'T YET), and Newhart. And over his long career, he's had a lot of time to really study what makes great comedy function. This Amazon review sums it up nicely:
As I started reading "What Are You Laughing At?", I began to worry. If humour was explained to me, if somebody successfully pulled back the curtain on what makes us laugh, would things stop being funny? And if I ever tried to write anything funny, would it interfere with my natural instincts?
Luckily, as I pushed on, I realised that Dan O'Shannon's book isn't about to ruin anyone's appreciation of comedy, instead it explains the variables that come into play when something makes us laugh. You may have wondered, for example, Why is something funny to you, but not to me? Why does the same person give a hearty applause to a joke in a stage play, but roll their eyes at the same joke in a TV sitcom? Why did Bob, who's a real hoot in work, bomb when he went to an open-mic night?
All these questions, and many more, are clearly and thoroughly answered in this book.
Additionally, through explaining the above, O'Shannon creates a sort of "Grand Unified Theory of Comedy". Rather than just focus on what makes a joke funny (the most obvious go-to place for someone to begin) the author presents what he calls the "comedic event", something which takes into account your state of mind, your prejudices, your preferences, etc. After all, we find humour everywhere in life, not just when we turn on the TV or when someone tells us a joke, plus everyone has a different sense of humour. All of these things need to be accounted for if one is to truly present an explanation of what causes us to laugh.
O'Shannon's holistic view of things allows him to present insights that are completely self-evident once they've been explained. So solid is the author's appreciation, and so analytical is his approach, that you'll wonder how anyone has ever thought differently about the subject. I felt like I was back in University experiencing a great lecture. And yet, as I understand it, O'Shannon is the first person to present an explanation of comedy which actually takes into account all of these variables.
If learning more about a fundamental aspect of the human experience is something that sounds interesting, I highly recommend this book. It won't necessarily improve your writing (if that's your bag), but it won't ruin comedy for you either.
O'Shannon spent eight years writing this book, a lifetime researching it, and I think it's safe to say that his work has taken us one step closer to fully understanding what we're laughing at.
6. Bossypants by Tina Fey
Okay, this might feel like something of a cop-out - but to really get into the mindset of a comedic writer, a great autobiographical memoir is a great place to start. And of all the genius comedy writers who have done this, few can truly hold a candle to Tina Fey as a writer. Not only did she oversee SNL during some of its best years ever, she's responsible for what may be the greatest tour de force sitcom in history - 30 Rock. Just on a pure jokes-per-minute ratio, it's impossible to fully appreciate what a masterwork 30 Rock was in terms of delivering every kind of comedy imaginable: brilliant wordplay, amazing characterizations, nonstop satire, and just plain silly goofy wondrousness.
Also, she wrote Mean Girls, one of the few bonafide comedy classics from the last 20 years. If you want to be a great comedy writer - get to know Tina Fey better. That's all I can really say.
7. Funny on Purpose: The Definitive Guide to an Unpredictable Career in Comedy: Standup + Improv + Sketch + TV + Writing + Directing + YouTube by Joe Randazzo
There are so many avenues to getting into comedy nowadays, it can be somewhat daunting. Where do you start?! How do you focus?! Do you start a comedy blog, do you submit to The New Yorker, do you just tweet a lot, do you go into stand-up, do you start a YouTube sketch channel for your webseries about a couple 20-something slackers and the hilarious conversations they have on their couch? Well - here's where you start: with this book, by former Onion editor Joe Randazzo, genuinely one of the funniest humans ever and someone who knows every avenue of comedy on the internet and off like the back of his hand.
Some other ones to check out, because they're great and helpful and just plain entertaining if nothing else:
- The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl
- Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV: How to Write Monologue Jokes, Desk Pieces, Sketches, Parodies, Audience Pieces, Remotes, and Other Short-Form Comedy
- The Comic Toolbox: How To Be Funny Even If You're Not
- Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too!