by Jennifer Gaites
Sometime during the last few years, I’ve become obsessed with comedy. Maybe it’s the aftermath of the pandemic, or aging, or having kids that are leaving the nest, or just a way of processing the world—but I’ve come to crave shows, essays, podcasts and movies that make me laugh. Shows like Ted Lasso, Shrinking, Mike Birbiglia’s The Old Man and the Pool and Nick Kroll’s Little Big Boy. All of these have made me laugh. But, when I take a step back and look at common threads among types of comedy I most enjoy, I notice a trend. I’m not only laughing, I’m also sometimes crying.
It sounds wacky to cry from comedy, I know (even wackier to like to cry, maybe). In each of these shows, the writing is sharp, the punchlines are funny, and the scenarios are often absurd. But there’s also generally a premise that taps into some shared human emotion. That’s, I think, what draws the audience in—even as much as the laughter: it’s the vulnerability.
Clearly, I’m not alone. These shows, and so many more, are wildly popular for a reason. A good story. Quirky character development. Laugh-out-loud moments mixed with tender sweet spots of everyday life.
At Project Write Now, we’re always asking our writers to answer the question, “What’s drawing you into a piece of writing?” and I find myself asking the same question about comedy. What lessons can I apply to my own writing? Perhaps to make my own stories funnier. But also, to help my work connect with an audience in the same way that some of my favorite comedies and comedy routines do.
For me, as a viewer/listener/reader, the type of comedy that makes me laugh the hardest is also the most tender. Good comedy elevates the absurdity of the human experience by playing up vulnerability and raising the stakes. There’s the old formula: comedy=tragedy+time. But, like any good story, the audience also needs to feel invested in the protagonist’s desire. It’s the human need or shared fears that connect us. The need for belonging, love, to be seen and feel valued. Fear of death, loss, failure, heartbreak … the list is long. Caring about what the protagonist or storyteller wants escalates what will be lost as the situation goes awry, and makes the punchline even funnier.
And, like every creative endeavor, the process is as interesting as the result. Thanks to podcasts like Mike Birbiglia’s Working It Out, which started as a way for him to work out material when comedy clubs were closed during the pandemic, I’ve enjoyed a front-row seat to the process as he developed, workshopped and eventually performed his show The Old Man and the Pool on Broadway.
The takeaways? Comedy—like any craft—takes time. It requires trial and error. When a joke bombs, the audience’s silence is an important form of feedback—as important as laughter, even if it doesn’t feel great. Timing and pacing matter. Word choice matters. Pauses matter. A well-crafted joke toys with expectations and emotions. All of this, of course, applies to writing—whether or not we’re trying to be funny. Comedy can teach us a lot about craft.
There is, though, something magical about the collective experience of laughter, of sharing cringe-y moments, moments of mortification, and moments of vulnerability so familiar that we can all laugh at the punchlines—and at our own human selves.
Want to enjoy a collective experience of laughter? Join us on Friday, May 19, 2023 for our annual CringeFest fundraiser where adult writers tell embarrassing stories for a good cause. All proceeds support PWN’s outreach programs. Get your CringeFest V tickets today!