Writers in the Storm

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October 27, 2023

How to Write Comedy Part 2, Verbal Comedy

by Ellen Buikema

The word Comedy in green neon on a red brick background with a stand-up mike, awaiting the stand-up comedian.

Humor is an interesting concept. The goal is to be funny, but responses may differ. What makes some people laugh out loud may make others cringe.

In part two of the series on how to write comedy, we’ll take on verbal comedy—the art of comedic dialogue. Check here for Part 1, Physical Comedy.

Writing Verbal Comedy

The Pun

One of the most common forms of verbal humor, a pun, is a play on words, multiple meanings, or a word of like sound but different meaning, used to make the joke.

  • Math pun - Without geometry, life is pointless.
  • Science pun - I dropped an electron somewhere! Are you sure? Yes, I’m positive!
  • Post-kill pun - In The Last Action Hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character, Jack Slater, blows up an enemy in an ice cream truck. Schwarzenegger says, “I just iced him…to cone a phrase.”

Innuendo or Double Meaning

An innuendo is an indirect hint, drawing attention to an alternative meaning. 

The speaker seems innocent, although not always, and it’s up to the listener to make sense of the words. The second meaning, often achieved through a pun, is intentional.

The multitalented Mae West was known for her sexual innuendos.

  • Between two evils, I always pick the one I've never tried before.
  • Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?
  • I speak two languages: body and English.

Damon Knight’s short story, To Serve Man, provides another example of double meaning. The tale begins with a group of aliens coming to Earth with a book called “To Serve Man.” Everyone is thrilled that the aliens want to serve them, believing this means they wish to perform services for them. But the book turns out to be a cookbook—the aliens’ plan is to serve man for dinner. Gruesome!

Mixed Metaphor

Mixed metaphors are the delightfully funny result of combining well-known clichés.

  • We can talk until the cows turn blue.

This metaphor blends two clichés: “talk until the cows come home” and “talk until we are blue in the face.” Both mean to talk for a long time without agreeing.

Here are some politically inspired mixed metaphors.

  • “I conclude that the city’s proposal to skim the frosting, pocket the cake, and avoid paying the fair, reasonable, and affordable value of the meal is a hound that will not hunt."
    (a labor arbitrator, quoted by the Boston Globe, May 8, 2010)
  • "I don’t think we should wait until the other shoe drops. History has already shown what is likely to happen. The ball has been down this court before, and I can see already the light at the end of the tunnel."
    (Detroit News, quoted in The New Yorker, November 26, 2012)

Here are examples of Mixed Metaphor Examples, How to Write, Tips


A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech where the last word, phrase, or sentence causes the reader or listener to reinterpret the earlier part.

The unexpected ending of a paraprosdokian creates comic effects, a linguistic U-turn. One example is the one-liner, a statement ending with a surprise. The two-part one-liner is a simple setup with a payoff joke:

  • “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” - Groucho Marx
  • “If I could just say a few words … I’d be a better public speaker.” - Homer Simpson
  •  “He taught me housekeeping. When I divorce, I keep the house.” - Zsa Zsa Gabore

Paraprosdokian in Literature

“Trin Tragula – for that was his name – was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot…” The Restaurant at the End of the Universe - Douglas Adams

“Contemporary man, of course, has no such peace of mind. He finds himself in the midst of a crisis of faith. He is what we fashionably call ‘alienated.’ He has seen the ravages of war, he has known natural catastrophes, he has been to singles bars.”  My Speech to the Graduates - Woody Allen


Regarding standup comedy, timing may not be everything, but it is an essential part of verbal comedy. Standup comedians develop routines, practice in front of audiences, and adjust as needed. A bit like a recipe.

They don’t want to rush into a punchline because people need a moment to be ready for the full impact of your surprise ending. If they are too slow, people may lose interest or get distracted. Knowing where to put the starts, stops, and pauses makes good performances. Think of the series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—fantastic timing.

Timing in Writing

My editor once asked, well actually asked several times, for me to slow down some scenes. I wasn’t giving the reader enough time to be satisfied and fully appreciate the events.

The following can help with timing:

  • Pauses in the form of commas and ellipses.
  • Additional dialogue in a scene.
  • Sound of clearing throat (ahem) or whisper (psst).
  • Rhythm of sentences.
    • Long and short sentence length alternation.
    • Sentence fragments.
    • One-sentence paragraph.
    • One-word paragraph.

A little humor goes a long way.

Here are some ways to sprinkle ‘funny’ into the mix:

Make chums with your Thesaurus.

Find funny-sounding synonyms.

  • Bustle, scamper, or skedaddle instead of hurry.
  • Pandemonium, brouhaha, or hullabaloo instead of chaos.

Use the Rule of Three.

 A popular humor writing technique based on the setup and punchline formula begins with two “straight” items, with a surprise twist third. This technique can consist of a list of three words, phrases, or sentences.

  • “I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
    Jon Stewart
  • “I can’t think of anything worse after a night of drinking than waking up next to someone and not remembering their name, how you met, or why they’re dead.”
    Laura Kightlinger
  • “writer, actor, and tall person” — John Cleese, as part of his bio
  • “The heart of a mother. The soul of a reader. The mouth of a smartass.” — Mother Reader, tagline.

Try Exaggeration.

The more extreme the exaggeration, the better.

  • “We worry that if we get just one variable wrong, we will find ourselves facing a wrathful spouse, who is holding up a garment that was once a valued brassiere of normal dimensions but is now suitable only as a sun hat for a small, two-headed squirrel.” — Dave Barry
  • “It only got worse after I turned 50, as my metabolism seemed to have taken an early retirement. I now have to jog five miles just to work off a tic-tac I ate in the 90’s. The only things that fit from my earlier years are my earrings.” Judy Carter on the Psychology Today blog

We probably won’t become comedy writers overnight. But we can use these techniques to create comedic dialogue.

Do you use verbal comedy in your writing? Who is your favorite comedian? What, in your opinion, makes good comedy?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon chapter book series with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works in Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and The Crystal Key, MG Magical Realism/ Sci-Fi, a glaze of time travel.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by Tumisu from Pixabay.

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13 comments on “How to Write Comedy Part 2, Verbal Comedy”

    1. Comedy writing is definitely complex, and it takes a special set of skills for those performing the writing.

      I laughed a lot, reading through various examples and am happy to share the joy.

  1. This post was a lot of fun, Ellen. I had quite a few out-loud chuckles. 🙂

    And learned a new word for jsut about every thing Grocho Marx has said publicly, Paraprosdokian. Cool term!


  2. What fun. I also learned a new word, a funny word, and a word that's fun to say: Paraprosdokian.

    I use a little humor in my stories to lighten the tone after dark/heavy/sad scenes. Most frequently I use mixed metaphors and double meanings. Then there's the unintentional humor...let's not talk about that.

    I think it takes the right set-up, the right audience, and the right timing or delivery to make good humor.

    With the lessons, the reminders, and the examples from your posts, I may use humor a little more often in my stories. Thanks, Ellen.

    1. Hi Lynette,

      I love a good unintentional funny! I think that when we are young, we do that kind of thing a lot and later learn use it to good advantage.

      Humor is helpful to shine a little light into the dark.

  3. Perfect, Ellen! Great essay and I laughed out loud at the "two-headed squirrel."
    You have brightened my day and, like other writers who have commented, I learned a new word -- paraprosdokian. Thank you!

    Later -- oh, no! Now the squirrel is stuck in my mind; I keep thinking of it and then "Weird Science." "Why are we wearing bras on our heads?"

    1. Thanks a lot for the image, James. LOL "Weird Science" is a fun movie.

      Paraprosdokian is a new term for me as well. I couldn't resist including it the article.

      I'm happy to pass along some mirth. Laughter is good medicine.

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