Warning: I will use my own comic, mcDuffies, as an example, but I’ll make it so that you’re not actually required to read mcDuffies to understand it.
It’s often thought that you either have sense of humor or not, and that if you do, you’re capable of making humor comics, otherwise you’re not. Those are mostly misconceptions. First of all, humor, or more precisely, ability to write a joke, can be trained. In fact, most of professional gag-comic writers are having those skills trained (or rather, exercised) because they usually just can’t relay on inspiration to give them a fresh idea every day. That’s why they have their own ways of getting through any kind of block. Also, people with very good sense of humor often can use that only in social occasions, but when confronted with a blank paper, they just can’t come up with a joke out of nowhere. There’s an issue of being able to make a comic without any sense of humor through recycling well-known jokes, but I wouldn’t go into that one.
Important part of coming up with a new joke as often as work/site schedule/urge to write requires, is brainstorming. Brainstorming is basically thinking of any possible idea related to the basic one, through free associations, and then thinking of all ideas related to those ideas, and so on until a satisfying idea is reached.
But that’s not enough. Great part of good humor in a comic lays in the conception of a comic itself. The conception has to lend an opportunity for humor.
For instance, let’s imagine a comic with this conception:
Two guys sitting on sofa.
Not much to work on. Well, if you succeed in squeezing a good joke out of such setup, I applaud you, but it isn’t easy.
A comic needs quirks, it needs conflicts.
Let’s add some personalities to guys above. I mentioned conflict. Let’s say one of guys is a paranoiac (such personality quirk can be interesting) and for the sake of having conflict, let’s say the other one is having a government job.
Such simple addition to a basic concept can result in lots of jokes.
Now onto more complicated example. But not too complicated: I’ll use my own comic, on which site you are right now, but to keep it simpler, I’ll use main five characters.
Ah-ha. We already have some joke material here. Now, when we brainstorm, we can use any of mentioned characteristics for a starting point: Mentioned throwing sandwiches, or the fact that he likes exotic kitchen, yet works in fast food restaurant.
It is another quirky character.
He’s not lending too much to humor, but his character can get into conflict with other character’s quirks. Lots of comics have one ‘reasonable guy’ character as a kind of reference to normality.
Now we can already see how this character conflicts with other three characters.
Now I need locations. Logically, it’ll be either mcDuffies restaurant or back rooms of the same restaurant.
Of course, these should develop in time, keeping the concept static results in repeating same jokes, but my recommendation is to start from small and relatively simple cast and locations, and develop it later, through the comic.
One source of jokes, as I said, is conflict between characters, precisely their opposite characteristics:
For instance, Gordon is nervous, while Smiley is quite cool in any situation. What kind of conflict can come out of that?
How would Tommy react to Rebeca's short temper?
Let's think of Gordon and Rebeca. His character sheet says that he likes a good eat so he brings his lunch from home. One thing that mean Rebeca could do is to pull a prank on him:
Other thing we can do it, place characters in certain situation, and see what their reactions could be. In this line of thinking, setup is very important.
Here, everything is happening in fast food restaurant. Fast food restaurant has customers. What if a weird customer comes in?
How would Jessie react to it? My thought is that she wouldn't even notice anything unusual:
Gordon, the character he is, is gonna do something equally unusual.
Tommy, of course, tries to approach the problem with reason:
And Smiley? He's pretty lazy.
As oposite approach to building a conflict, I made jokes based on similarity of Gordon and Jessie sometimes:
Fast food restaurant also has hygiene rules. Brainstorming this idea, we can come up with rats, as natural enemies of fast-food employees.
Crossing the idea of giant mutated rat with characters, particulary Gordon's love of cooking, gave me idea of the whole setup for mutation story:
What would rats want? Whatever rats want, be them mutated or not: food!
Now, remember: the more you have in your character and setup sheets, the more possibilities for jokes you have. But you shouldn’t either put too much: Reader doesn’t know what’s written in it, he has to know about some character’s quirk to be able to appreciate a joke based on it. That’s why you have to guide reader slowly into what’s written in those sheets, and that’s why comics are often not as good at start as they are later.
Timing is ability to say perfect words at perfect moment. In gag comics, the goal is to make joke as funnier as it possibly can be. It is indeed something you practice.
Choice of words is something that really affects how funny a joke can be. Let’s take one mildly funny idea: A customer is talking unintelligible so Rebeca decides to fake his order as something very big and expensive.
Not much of a joke. But with different wording, it might be much more funny.
Or, with exaggerated order:
I personally fancy the last variant so we’ll stick to it.
Another important part is ability to but words in right time. For instance, this jokes gets more kick if we make Rebeca bother with customer a bit longer; One panel longer, for instance:
Regarding placing comments in time, here’s a bad example of the whole joke:
Arrangement of comments during the strip, leaves no time between punchline and comment before it, Rebeca’s last order seems rushed.
Another thing we should take care of, are reactions of characters. Exaggerated reactions add a lot to a joke. Here, customer is surprised by Rebeca’s order, but we can exaggerate his surprise:
But don’t overdo it. It can be annoying.
Now for a few usual tools of comic strip panel:
Empty panel: Just a pause before punchline, regularly used to emphasize the effect of punchline.
Ellipse; Jump in time. An event in one panel can be happening a lot of time after the previous. Facing two events from two distant moments in time can make comical effects.
Sometimes, a string of jokes is too good, that you don’t feel like cutting it. For instance, “Simpsons” do this all the time:
(Chief Wigam ends up in a trash can -> Trash can rolls down the hill -> Chief laughs: “Hey, this is actually funny! -> Trash can hits a tree and stops -> Trash can explodes)
This scene could have been cut off in any of these moments. Each of them can serve as a punchline. Still, creators choose to keep the scene as far as they have another joke up their sleeve.
Caution: This can seriously mess up your timing. You could miss a funniest joke and end up with one that is not so funny at all as a punchline. Jokes can seem dragged out too. So carefully.
In the end, “Simpsons” got audience used to this kind of treatment of humor. You can do too, but be consistent.
It’s not rare that comic creators relay on drawing solely as a support for verbal jokes that would work without visual element as well. Except that much less people would read them.
But drawing shouldn’t be a mean of promotion. It is integral part of a comic and that’s why most of your jokes should include visual part. Especially because some things that don’t sound funny in words, when drawn look very funny.
So try to come up with jokes including visual part because it’s the nature of the comic medium and because verbal jokes, no matter how funny they are, are never to attractive as visual jokes.
Stealing a joke is not a big deal.
Actually, there are various reasons for stealing a joke:
You heard it somewhere and it stuck in your head. After some time, you’re not sure if you heard it somewhere or you made it up yourself. This happens.
Or you might be lazy or out of jokes, and just decide to snitch one from favourite webcomic.
Risk is, if this joke is specific, lots of readers will notice it and it will bring you much more bad reputation that one joke is worth.
Sometimes, you can decide to use a joke you’ve heard somewhere. Bad sides are, this joke will most likely be verbal, it will be different from the usual humor type of your comic, and of course, everyone has already heard it so it won’t be funny to anyone.
There are some jokes that are used rather often. They are even considered public property. Some of them are funny. Some of them lost their funniness with extensive use. Some weren’t funny to begin with.
There are a number of common and often-used ideas that comic writers use. There are entire books listing those ideas. Undoubtedly, these lists are useful to start your brain and eventually come up with a joke that has nothing in common with those on list (but it’s debatable whether you should give any money to someone to gather ideas for you).
However, I'll give some that I find most interesting:
Character doesn’t notice what’s behind his back.
This leads to an old office joke where a guy is doing something rather unsuitable for an office, while boss is standing behind him.
Or, as applied in mcDuffies situations.
Sure, there’s no cheese that big. But exaggerating the size of it, led to a joke.
Acting out of character:
When you get used in character acting a certain way, his incidental but brief change in act can be very funny.
Repetition of jokes:
If you repeat a phrase or a joke once in a while, it can become a sort of inn-joke, a thing that is funny by itself. However, to someone who is not common with your comic, jokes based on such phrases, are totally meaningless and unfunny. Also, you should be careful not to overdo it.
A word that has more than one meaning, or words that sound similar, can be used as joke devices. However, such jokes can be incredibly lame sometimes.
Taking jokes from real life.
A friend once said to me, talking about a bad daily comic: “If he just wrote the funniest thing that happened to him that day, it would be a lot funnier.”
However, it’s not that simple. If comics were real life, happenings from real life would be as funny in comic. Unfortunately, taken out of contest, transferred into a comic, jokes often loose great deal of their initial funniness.
That doesn’t mean you should diss them totally. My recommendation is that, when you use something from real life, use it only as initial idea for joke, work on it as if you’d work on any idea, which means that you might need to change it a lot.
Heh heh... NO!!!
As with jokes from real life, random jokes always sound funnier in your head than on paper. I strongly suggest avoiding jokes that are supposed to be funny only because what characters say has no meaning.
People will often tell you that humor is subjective. What is funny to someone can be totally unfunny to the next guy. However, if most people don’t find your comic funny, try to change something. Humor is not THAT subjective.
Ok, now that I said all this, I gotta say also: Use these rules until you're good. When you're good, totally forget about them. This can actually go for other tutorials of mine too.
But here, specially: as I said, writing jokes can be trained. Once you're trained, you won't need guidelines to write them.
mcDuffies is hosted on comicgenesis, a free webhosting and site automation service for webcomics. All material is property of Srdjan Achimovich, I heard he usualy incourages you to copy it for your personal use.