In his book “What Are You Laughing at?” the author Brad Schreiber offers some advise about writing comedy. The book does not only deal with writing screenplays, it also discusses other text types such as prose, theatre, poetry, radio, television, texts for stand-up comedians, songs, letters and speeches. Schreiber does all this in fourteen chapters and 277 pages.
Chapter one is called “Comedic Structure” but it deals with some very general aspects of humour. Chapter two summarizes in fifteen pages how to write a screenplay. Schreiber describes the process of screenwriting in one and a half page, explains high vs. low concept and finishes with thirteen things bad screenwriters commonly do, the first of them being the use of wrong format slug lines. Chapter three is called “Fiction vs. Nonfiction” but it starts off with the question where to find story material. Schreiber assembles an amalgam of anecdotes and quotes. Topics that are mentioned very briefly are the autobiography, hoaxes and how to borrow devices from stand-up comedians. In a fourth chapter called “Forms of fiction”, the author talks about the joke, the aphorism and the insult. Schreiber explains how to write a short story, comedic or otherwise, in less than six pages, and he only needs another six to teach you how to write a novel. Needless to say, the chapter is very incomplete and the selected items are gathered in a random and heterogeneous way. No specific reference is made to writing screenplays for comedy. To what extent is it similar to writing a screenplay in general? How is it different? To what extent can humour help the writer dispense with the “rule” of the three act structure or other devices for that matter? Etc. At a regular basis, paragraphs are broken up by writing assignments. At the end of this paragraph, one writing assignment reads: “write an entire comedic novel” (p.63). Chapter five tackles some forms of nonfiction: the anecdote, the article, the essay, the speech, the column, the criticism, the autobiography and the memoirs. Unfortunately, again, all these text types are discussed in very broad, superficial terms. Chapter six announces a comparison between writing comedy for the screenplay and writing comedy for other text types, but the author turns back to the topic of how and where to find story material (cf. chapter three). In this chapter, Schreiber also deals somewhat randomly with the spoof, the writers’ block, the writer’s voice, the use of setting and the theme of “fish out of water”. Chapter seven announces information about the plot. On the basis of his Physics, not his Poetics, Aristotle is associated with more reflexive, cognitive left-brained people while his master Plato is believed to defend the artistic, intuitive right-brained people. Schreiber (2003:116) suggests some kind of compromise which he calls his “Platostotle” approach. How the critical vs. creative skills can help understand and train comedy writing however is not explained. Chapter eight tackles character: here Schreiber reproduces some commonalities found in most manuals on screenwriting. What should be specific to comedic writing is not singled out. Topics like protagonist and antagonist are discussed in a rather mechanic way. Chapter nine deals with dialogue and offers information and insights that relate directly to comedy writing. It explains devices such misbehaviour in dialogue (less clear), misuse of language, misunderstandings and other modes of comedic dialogue such as urgency and understatement, mimicry, loudness vs. softness, tone, speed, dialect, etc. Chapter ten goes on with a number of sound features that can help produce comedy: what the author calls “Yiddish sound theory”, onomatopoeia, inexplicable humour (which means Schreiber does not know why some texts are funny), alliteration, malapropism, “double entendre”, – subtext was already dealt with elsewhere… – , character names, etc. Chapter eleven also deals directly with writing comedy. In it, Schreiber talks about the satire, the parody, the black comedy, vulgarity and bad taste; again as previously, in very broad terms. Chapter twelve continues with humour in poetry, songs, lists, monologues, letters, cartoons, etc. Hereafter, the author adds some very general remarks about writing for television and playwriting. Schreiber finishes the book with a final chapter on how to market yourself in a digital world.
“What are you laughing at?” fits into the larger context of (screen)writing manuals but continues also previous work done in the more specific field of comedy writing. Worth mentioning here are John Vorhaus’s The Comic Toolbox (1994) of course, but also Melvin Helitzer’s Comedy Writing Secrets (1987), Gene Perret’s Comedy Writing Step by Step (1990) and Sol Saks’s Funny Business. The Craft of Comedy Writing (1991²). What all these books have in common is that they make one particular point very clear: teaching how to write stories in a compelling way may be difficult, but teaching how to be funny is probably a hundred times harder. That is why it is all the more regrettable that too often manuals on screenwriting in general, and manuals on comedy writing in particular ignore the work done previously by colleagues, or should I say competitors. Contrary to most of his colleagues, Schreiber does offer a rather extensive bibliography, but why except for Vorhaus does not one of the aforementioned experts figure in the list? Consequently, publications keep on reinventing the wheel and the discipline of screenwriting and training cannot make any real progress. Why cram a fifteen pages chapter on screenwriting in a manual on comedy writing when literally hundreds of manuals have dealt with that topic previously in a more extensive and far better way? Why pretend to have invented a so-called “PSI-chart” helping writers to think about the physiological, sociological and intellectual (read: psychological) features of their characters, when this advise has been available for years in dozens of screenwriting manuals? Why redefine commonly known concepts such as treatment and step outline in a way that differs significantly from the way most manuals and professionals have been using them for years?
“Qui trop embrasse, mal étreint”. Trying to deal seriously with all possible text types and their respective comedic potential in one book is surely too ambitious. The information assembled in “What are you laughing at?” is therefore necessarily very general and fragmented. The numerous anecdotes and the sometimes very long excerpts, – the relevance of which is not always clear -, do not help to increase the information density.
They also add to the rather random or chaotic structure of the book. Chapter titles announce one thing but subsequent paragraphs deal with another. See for example chapter one announcing comedic structure (?) while its first paragraph reads: “the nature of comedy”. Another paragraph is called “Creating a fictional world”, but it actually deals with one particular text type: the “Joke”, and this in spite of the fact that the very next chapter starts with a paragraph called “the Joke”…
Although the subtitle starts with “How to”, one can hardly say this book offers a writing manual. Schreiber does interrupt paragraphs on a regular basis to put in writing assignments, but it is clear that in the training of screenwriting, thinking about learning paths and didactic processes is still at the very beginning to say the least. That is why this last criticism does not only apply to Schreiber’s book. It goes for screenwriting manuals in general. Most manuals generally stick to explaining how to write a screenplay. In this, they confuse the learning process of the beginning writer with the writing process of the professional. Schreiber adds to this problem by inserting assignments that presuppose extensive writing knowledge and skills from the part of the reader; knowledge and skills pertaining for example to how to write a novel, a newspaper article, an advertisement, etc.; knowledge and skills that are not touched on in his book.
In conclusion: “What are you laughing at?” surely represents a courageous endeavour but requires a serious rewrite: more structure, less anecdote, more information. Brad Schreiber’s CV is quite impressive. It shows all the more that knowing how to do it is one thing; knowing how to teach it quite another.