The Craft of Comedy Writing

Is there really a formula to writing comedy? Can you write funny even if you are not naturally a comedian? These questions, among others, may very well sit in the minds of the audience that gathered recently at the VFS campus to participate in a three-day workshop with acclaimed writer and teacher John Vorhaus .

Best known as the author of The Comic Toolbox – a how-to guide for comedy writing – Vorhaus began his career writing for popular situation comedies including Married with Children and Head of the Class . Now a teacher at the American Film Institute and UCLA, Vorhaus travels frequently offering workshops based on concrete formulas that supply even the most fearful writer with the tools to write comedy.

This formulaic approach to writing is designed to help writers overcome the fear that so often accompanies their craft. “I truly believe that it all comes back to words on a page,” Vorhaus says during a lunch hour interview. “If a writer is putting words on the page, his or her life is moving in the right direction.”

Indeed, there are certain commonalities shared by many of the most popular sitcoms, but is it possible to reverse the standard equation – start with the formula and then create the idea from there? Maybe. Maybe not. And maybe that’s not even the point. It is what it is. A set of tools given to help writers keep writing, to build on ideas or observations that are already inside them, because that’s when the walls come down and the funny stuff really starts coming.

Vorhaus himself is no stranger to the love-hate relationship so many writers have with their craft and with themselves. At twenty-five years old and stuck writing ad copy, Vorhaus quit his job and grabbed for his guitar, hoping to use music as a way of connecting with people. Five years later, and still writing part-time, Vorhaus finally decided to uproot his life by moving from Boston to L.A. to pursue writing full-time.

Through a mutual friend he met a man who would later become his mentor in Hollywood , a must, Vorhaus admits, that is still necessary for new writers starting out today. Vorhaus was so amazed by his mentor’s commitment he couldn’t help but finally ask, Why? Why was this man willing to mentor him? And the answer came to him as simply as the question: Because he too had been mentored. Writers need the help of other writers.

For a period, Vorhaus was Hollywood ‘s flavour of the month, claiming credits on hit shows and drawing regular interest from producers. But he readily admits to being difficult to work with, and before long discovered that just as quickly as Hollywood shows interest, it loses interest. Vorhaus found himself dumped from his job and looking for another new direction. “I was serving my ego, not the work,” Vorhaus acknowledges. “I was too overt in my security, and this threatened those who were covert in their insecurity.”

After accepting a teaching position at UCLA, Vorhaus initially found himself lamenting his broken Hollywood career and soaking in the classic saying, “Those who can’t, teach.” But this sentiment vanished as Vorhaus soon realized that as a teacher he was learning as much about the art of storytelling as when he had been a full time writer. “There are two things I have to do: write and teach,” Vorhaus says. With that, Vorhaus transformed the curse of “Those who can’t, teach,” to the blessing, “Those who can, do both.”

With this in mind, Vorhaus began writing what was to become The Comic Toolbox , a turning point he says signaled the true start to his career as a writer. Perhaps no one was more surprised by the success of the book than Vorhaus himself, who admits it took time to accept his new status as an authority on comedy. “That was the moment of my life,” Vorhaus says. “It was my watershed moment. And everything great has come from it.”

Now ten years since the book’s publication, The Comic Toolbox is still connecting with people who want to write comedy. It is, of course, not a magic wand, or even the blueprint to that next great story. That remains up to you. But it is a way for one writer to provide much needed mentorship to emerging writers, offering the best tools he knows about how to build confidence and disentangle yourself from fear.

“Succeeding as a writer,” Vorhaus says, “has for me been about knowing the difference between the feeling that ‘I am not worthy’ and the feeling that ‘I fear I am not worthy.’”

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