“The Comic Toolbox” Quotes

I just finished reading “The Comic Toolbox” by John Vorhaus. Here’s the quotes I found interesting.

“In blind obeisance to the rules, I forgot to have fun. And jeez, if you can’t have fun in… any creative endeavor, why bother?” (xiv)

“Comedy is truth and pain.” (2)

“People who don’t “get” a joke, or take offense at it, often feel that way because they don’t accept the “truth” that the joke presents.” (5)

“What makes a thing funny is how it impacts the generally held beliefs of the audience hearing the joke.” (5)

“You often don’t have to tell a joke to get a laugh; sometimes you just have to tell the truth.” (6)

“The class clown tells jokes everyone gets while the class nerd tells jokes that only he gets.” (7)

“Most of us have more humor than we know. What we don’t always have is the will to risk, and the will to risk is really the will to fail… a willingness to fail is one of the most valuable tools in your comic toolbox.” (9)

“As it says in the Koran, if you knew how little people thought about you, you wouldn’t worry what they thought.” (11)

“For every ten jokes you tell, nine will be trash. For every ten ideas you have, nine won’t work. For every ten times you risk, nine times you fail.” (12)

“When you expect success, you fear failure. You have something to lose. However, with the rule of nine, your expectations start so low that you have very nearly nothing to lose.” (12)

“The process of failure is vital to the product of success.” (13)

“As long as I dwell on what it’s like to be a made guy, a winner, on can’t concentrate on writing this book – the very thing I’m hoping will make me a made guy in the end.” (14)

“Hope of success can kill comedy just as surely as fear of failure.” (14)

“Require of yourself only that you do what you can do now.” (15)

“Applaud every small victory, because every time you do, you create an environment in which a larger victory can grow.” (15)

“The better you imagine yourself to be, the better you become. And how did you get better? By abandoning all interest in getting better in the first place.” (16)

“You’re concentrating on the process, not the product.” (17)

“Push everything into pigeonholes and in the end all you get are squished pigeons.” (25)

“Make every effort tot move from the general to the specific. Life is better there.” (26)

“Every comic character begins and ends with his strong comic perspective… The comic perspective is a character’s unique way of looking at his world, which differs in a clear and substantial way from the “normal” world view.” (31)

“Comedy flows from a character’s unique, quirky, offbeat way of looking at the world.” (32)

“Take your comic character’s comic perspective to the end of the line.” (34)

“Most failed comic characters fail as a function of their limited exaggeration.” (34)

“Flaws in a comic character work to open emotional distance between a comic character and viewers or readers so that those viewers or readers can comfortably laugh at, say, someone slipping on a banana peel. Without this emotional distance, the truth and the pain of a situation hit too close to home for an audience to find funny. A thing is only funny if it happens to the other guy, and flaws in a character work to make him “the other guy” in a reader’s or viewer’s mind.” (36)

“A comic character, in at least one sense, is the sum of his flaws… A flaw can also be a positive aspect that’s taken too far.” (37)

“Find a flaw and you’ve found a comic character.” (37)

“What you really want is a synergy between flaws and perspective so that some flaws conflict with the perspective while others reinforce it… in the best comic characters, flaws and perspective go to war… flaws reflect his true nature; comic perspective is his fantasy self-image.” (38-39)

“Flaws create conflict within characters, and they create emotional distance between character and audience.” (39)

“We used flaws to drive a wedge between the character and the audience so that the audience could laugh. Now we use humanity to build a bridge between the character and the audience so that the audience can care.” (39)

“All comic characters have humanity. If they don’t, we don’t care. It’s as simple as that.” (40)

“That’s a classic definition of humanity: He’ll do the right thing in a pinch.” (40)

“For every flaw, there is an equal and opposite humanity. The worse you make some aspects of a comic character, the better you must make others.” (41)

“One of the surest ways to create humanity is to give your comic character an indomitable will. No character is more compelling, more engaging, than the one who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal.” (41)

“Be careful in assigning humanity. It’s not enough to say of a character, “ (Sure, he’s a hit man, but he loves his mother so he’s okay.” A character’s humanity must be a real part of his character. If it’s pasted on, you get a cartoon and not a character.” (41)

“Humanity, then, is the sum of a character’s positive human qualities that inspire either sympathy or empathy or both.” (41)

“Find your comic perspective and you have found your comic voice, the platform on which your humor can reliably and consistently stand from now until the day you die. Maybe even beyond.  (46)

“Instead of thrashing randomly for inspiration, we can simply generate a list of titles, ask what promise each title makes, and then develop the most promising premises among them.” (48)

“Clash of context is the forced union of incompatibles.” (48)

“Pick a situation and ask yourself what the logical response to that situation would be. Then find the opposite of that response.” (50)

“A comic story is not about a setting or a situation or a predicament, but about strong and enduring lines of conflict between and among the characters.” (60)

“You have to drive them apart with their differences, and yet link them to an overriding common goal or struggle.” (68)

“A well structured story gives joke a place to happen. It tells the audience whose story to follow. If they don’t know how to follow, they don’t know who to care about. If they don’t care, they don’t laugh.” (76)

“Until you decide who your story is about, you have no hope of discovering what your story is about.” (77)

“An interesting and well-constructed comic hero has not one strong need but two: his outer need and his inner need. Put simply, the outer need is what the hero thinks he wants and his inner need is what he really wants.” (79)

“The most interesting heroes have many levels of comic need.” (81)

“If your story is tracking right, you’ll come naturally to the moment when your hero is poised between two things he really wants, two things which are clearly mutually exclusive.” (95)

“There’s no tension in the scene. No tension equals no release. No release equals no laugh.” (118)

“Here’s a guy with everything riding on that bet. There’s so much tension in the scene that the audience is practically begging to laugh, just to ease the tension. This is what you want.” (119)

“Logic and comedy are not always close friends, nor often even nodding acquaintances.” (120)

“It’s hard to find the humor of a scene just by asking, “What’s the humor of this scene?” But it’s easy to ask, “What’s at stake?” And when you know what’s at stake, you’ll know what’s funny, too.” (122)

“People laugh because they care, because they feel your character’s urgency and desire.” (122)

“Your audience has already suspended its disbelief. They don’t want logic, they just want laughs.” (123)

“When you’re confronted with a choice between story logic and story dynamic, always make the boldest, noisiest, most dynamic choice, even if it beggars credibility.” (123)

“Too much is never enough; you can always make a bad situation worse.” (123)

“We make logical choices because we assume that the audience wants them, but this is a false assumption. The best stories have so much boldness in their story choices and pot twists that the audience ignores or forgives lapses in logic. Comedy is not technical writing. If you build something genuinely funny, no one will care if there are a few pieces left over.” (124)

“To sum up comedy and jeopardy, then, take the unfocused, unproductive questions, “How can I make this scene funny?” and replace it with a simpler, smaller, detail-driven questions, “How can I raise the stakes?” Next, divide that question in two: “How can I raise the price of failure?” and “How can I raise the prize for success?” Break those questions down into specifics: “What several outcomes might my hero fear?” “What several outcomes might he crave?” End by asking and dismissing the question, “Is it logical?”” (124)

“The small conflicts reflect the big conflict. What’s being played out thematically is also being played out in the moment.” (126)

“But be aware that too much alliteration soon palls. What’s worse, it calls attention to itself so that your cleverly turned phrase may actually detract from the emotional impact.” (127)

“The best lines in comic writing do three truly marvelous things: They tell the story, tell the truth, and tell a joke, all at the same time. I call this kind of line a three-dimensional joke.” (133)

“You don’t need to pander to your audience, but you don’t want to alienate them either. Unless, of course, alienation is your act.” (137)

“Meeting an audience’s expectation is about the single most useful thing a comic creator can do to win an audience’s allegiance. Violating that expectation, on the other hand, is the kiss o’ death.” (137)

“Not everybody likes Howard Stern’s material, and not everybody’s going to like yours, no matter how carefully you shape and tailor it.” (138)

“Watch the new sitcoms. Try to be the first on your block to write a spec script for a smart new show.” (140)

“There’s no point in writing a spec script for a show you just don’t like, no matter how poplar or smart it may be, for the simple reason that you won’t write the script very well.” (140)

“Comedy is less about laughs than about willful, perverse destruction of a character’s serenity and peace.” (143)

“A sitcom is just a mirror on the world; it tends to tell people exactly what they want to hear. If not, it tends to get canceled.” (143)

“Another quick-and-dirty way to get a line on your sitcom story. Think in the following terms: introduction, complication, consequence, and relevance.” (146)

“If you shortchange your time in outline, it will only come back to haunt you in script.” (150)

“Once you’ve completed a first draft of your story outline, you want to examine it at length for two things: problems and opportunities.” (150)

“When dealing with story problems, you need to think in terms of two kinds of logic: plot logic and story logic. Plot logic is outer logic, the sequence of events that you, the writer, impose on your story. Story logic is the inner logic of your characters, the reasons they have for behaving the way they do. All of your story moves must satisfy both plot logic and story logic. In other words, your characters must do what they do to move the story forward, but their actions have to make sense to the characters themselves.” (151)

“As you rewrite your story outline, make sure that every move every character makes is justified by who that character is, what he wants, and how we understand him to behave.” (151)

“The more time you spend in outline, the better your eventual script will be.” (152)

“Always ask yourself, “What’s the worst possible thing that could happen to this person next?” and then find a way to make that worst thing happen.” (156)

“If you’re not willing ot commit to rewriting and editing, you might as well go drive a track.” (163)

“For every desire you have to improve the work, there will be an equal and opposite desire to protect your ego instead. This creates a dynamic conflict within, and it can make you very unhappy. Eventually you have to decide whom to serve. Will you serve your ego, or will you serve your work?” (163)

“It’s far, far easier to turn bad material into good material, or good material into great material, than it is to get everything (or even anything) right on the first try. Break it down. Mine it, then refine it.” (164)

“At every opportunity, present yourself with the challenge to cut. Why is this a good idea? Because if you force yourself to cut, say, 50% of your existing work, the 50% that remains will have withstood a fairly rigorous test. By natural selection, the strongest material is always left standing. Write long and cut relentlessly, to the benefit of your work.” (165)

“To move forward from this point, I’m going to have to give up some gains.” (165)

“Avoid falling in love with your jokes. Even though it’s funny, who says it can’t be funnier still? Avoid closure; the longer you put off saying you’re done, the better your finish will be.” (168)

“Peers make your best beta testers. Find people working at about your level and within your area of interest. Be willing to return the favor and beta test for them. This not only puts them in your debt, but also gives you a chance to learn from someone else’s mistakes besides your own.” (170)

“Once you tell people what you’re afraid of, you no longer have to worry about their finding that thing out.” (176)

“It’s okay to offend part of your audience if you connect with another part. If you offend too many and amuse too few, though, you’ll have no audience at all. And humor requires an audience.” (179)

“It’s okay if some people really hate your stuff. That means they feel strongly about it, and this admits the possibility that others will love it just as strongly. The place you want to avoid si the vast, bland middle ground where your humor is safe, innocuous, offensive to no one – and thus compelling to no one. You want your humor to move people, and that won’t happen unless your choices are bold.” (179)

“If you’re not as funny as you want to be, perhaps you’re not working hard enough. But rest assured that someone else out there is working hard enough, working twice as hard as you. If you want to be successful, you’re going to have to take a lot more batting practice than you ever imagined. And you’re never going to stop, not even when you become successful. Because as soon as you stop practicing, your skills begin to fade.” (182)

“Talent + Drive + Time = Success” (186)

“With every step I take, I’m moving farther from the beginning. I may never reach the end of the road, but I can always get farther from the start. Just as I focus on process, not product, I also bend my attention to journey, not destination.” (187)

If you like these quotes, I suggest buying the full book here.

2 Responses to ““The Comic Toolbox” Quotes”

  1. […] as well as some other topics. John Vorhaus is the author of the classic comedy writing textbook, The Comic Toolbox: How To Be Funny Even If You’re Not. Of all his novels, Lucy in the Sky is his favorite. When not writing novels and non-fiction, he […]

  2. Tiago says:

    Hello. Thank you for this.

    What did you think about the book? Does it worth it? I’m trying to find a good book to help me creating sitcom character and structure.

    Thank you!

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