Exercises for comedy dialogue

By: Helen Lederer

Exercises / All, Comedy / All, Characterisation, Dialogue, Generating ideas, Igniting the imagination, Unfolding scenes

The key is not to look for something funny – because you can start with anything and make it funny

It helps to add in incongruity, assumption and the shattering of that assumption and this can be achieved through dialogue.

1. Find the fib (lying in dialogue is funny) 

This exercise is fun to do with other people. It gets the brain loosened up and frees up a sense of humour without even trying.

Go around the room. Say one false thing about yourself and see if anyone can guess the fib. The act of fibbing is funny because it shows a lot about the character who is fibbing. It taps into aspiration and weakness which are both funny characteristics.

The more plausible the funnier it is. ‘My name is Helen, I’m a comedian, weaver and writer’

(BTW please don’t say that I’m a weaver and the other two ‘facts’ are the lies….it may break me….)

2. Conflict and aspiration through dialogue (the battle of the trouser) 

Most comedy occurs when a character wants something very badly and can’t get it. Write a page of dialogue for two people. In this scenario one character is taking some sullied trousers back to a cashier at a department store.

The first line of dialogue begins with ‘I bought these trousers from you yesterday and they have fungus on them’.

Continue with the cashier’s line of dialogue as a response. Each character needs to deny the other’s demands as well as win the argument. The complainant may end up fainting, calling the police or laughing uncontrollably. The cashier may be triggered into a reverie about some fungus she saw on her gap year or she may threaten the complainer with legal action – you decide. The more intense the dialogue, the funnier it is. Each character must outdo the other. Above all, they each must listen and react to each other to communicate their truth.

Aristotle said that comedy is about “surprise” and its very effective if you can inject some surprising twists and turn into the dialogue. The outcome will be funnier, especially if it the lines are not what we expect from a conventional shop assistant and disgruntled customer.

3. Hidden truth through dialogue (the bad counsellor)

Give yourself a name, (Justin Case) a job (dog food taster) and an emotion (confused). Now imagine you are having a counselling session with a newly trained counsellor. Write for half a page and see where it leads. Again, if the dialogue can demonstrate what is really going on, without telegraphing the story, the funnier it will be for the reader to respond to. Use silences, denials and lies to demonstrate – through dialogue – a funny side of the truth.

4. Managing social embarrassment through dialogue (it’s what you don’t say and/or what you do say to survive it)

Use at least one of these elements in the next page of dialogue. List the following words at top of page: Confrontation, Problem and Jeopardy. Try and include at least one of these in the scene. There are two people are seated opposite each other in a train. The person opposite them is doing something antisocial. The two passengers begin a dialogue as they both react to the third character. See how you can make the dialogue appear real and yet, extreme and a little distributing …


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