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By Margeaux Johnson · July 19, 2014
There is a formula to writing good comedy. Academics and seasoned screenwriters will list out step by step guides that promise to nail the correct structure of a comedy script, but fail in lending help with actually making it funny. Unfortunately, most writers just don’t get it right. First, it’s important to have a strong story to support the comedy. As with any script, the story must continue to move forward, even with the comedic dialogue or actions. Oftentimes comedies fall flat when the story just doesn’t make sense or the conflict gets stuck between the overzealous jokes or slap happy physical comedy. In the end, it’s just not funny.
Another important element is dialogue. Comedy is fueled by the way a line was delivered and the timing of the words. This has all to do with the natural ability of the actor, but dynamic dialogue is key. For example, if you’ve seen any Wes Anderson film you've understood the importance of dialogue. Anderson uses wit and great timing to secure the comedy relief. It’s not overbearing, it’s not repetitive – it’s just funny dialogue.
Compiling a list of the best comedy writers was no small task. There are many talented comedic writers that have contributed to the history of film, and in no way could I begin to list them all here.
So I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 modern comedy writers. Modern (in my definition) applies to the last 25 years. The writers listed here exhibit different qualities, but they all share the ability to provide great comedy that pulls audiences in. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments section.
10. Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture, Girls)
Lena Dunham is still considered a new writer, but her work has blazed a trail for quirky stories about women who just don’t have it all together. Her work on HBO’s Girls has been a critical success and audiences want more. Dunham provides an honest quality in her writing that makes it easy to relate to-even when she’s delivering her lines topless.
9. Todd Phillips (Road Trip, The Hangover II)
Todd Phillips capitalized on his career as a producer on the successful Hangover series and soon took over as writer. What I like about Phillips is his approach to poking fun at male camaraderie. The buddy story is classic, but Phillips does a good job at pointing out how awkward and troublesome it can be when a group of adult men come together.
8. Tina Fey (Mean Girls, 30 Rock)
Tina Fey is just funny. Being the first female head writer on SNL, Fey had a lot to prove and fortunately she has done just that. From writing skits to bringing the jungles of high school to life, Fey writes with comedic confidence. On and off screen, Fey has continued to provide comedy that pokes fun at situations and people.
7. Adam McKay (Talladega Nights, Anchorman, Step Brothers)
Adam McKay often teams up with funny man Will Ferrell to bring us some of the best moments in comedy. Who can forget the dinner table prayer scene from Talladega Nights? McKay is a writer who creates concrete, comedic dialogue for the actor. He plays up on the strengths of the cast he works with and audiences love it.
6. Mike Judge (King of the Hill, Silicon Valley)
Gaining notoriety as creator of Beavis and Butthead, Judge has remained stable in creating good comedy that captures regional and cultural differences. Judge recently launched the HBO series Silicon Valley and received an Emmy nomination. The series centers on a group of oddballs living and gaining success in Silicon Valley. Judge is once again able to authentically capture those little regional differences that capture audiences and make him the king of niche comedy writing.
5. The Farrelly Brothers (Dumb & Dumber, Me, Myself and Irene, There’s Something About Mary)
High concept plots and big humor dominate the writing of the Farrelly brothers. Their break out writing credits on Dumb and Dumber gave audiences a new appreciation for plain old dumb humor. I like that their writing plays on not being too serious and providing audiences a true relief from cookie cutter comedies. Peter and Bobby have made slap stick humor and outlandish plots actually funny.
4. Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, American Dad, Ted)
From his days as a writer on kid friendly shows such as Dexter’s Laboratory and Johnny Bravo, MacFarlane has carved out a serious niche for writing dialogue for animated characters. Creating more adult oriented animation was a natural (and welcomed) progression. His writing is political, sometimes rude, mostly satirical, but always funny.
3. Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange Is the New Black)
Jenji Kohan has made a career in writing great female characters. From her early days on Tracey Takes On… to her newest (hilarious) show Orange Is the New Black, Kohan knows how to write funny women. The great thing about Kohan is that she gets it. She can create natural dialogue for any character and has done a great job in developing the characters in OITNB.
2. Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums)
Wes Anderson’s success as an offbeat comedy writer was solidified by the time his dysfunctional family comedy The Royal Tennenbaums received an Oscar nod. More recently, his work on The Grand Budapest Hotel proved his ability to write characters that are unusually appealing while providing comedy that is holds on to its intelligence.
1. Judd Apatow (40 Year Old Virgin, This is 40, Knocked Up)
Judd Apatow continues to churn out box office hits. His writing appeals to everyday situations and pokes fun at the things we take for granted…like getting knocked up. He has a distinctive style, pairing sexual jokes with undertones of compassion that appeals to a mature audience. He also lends his talents as an Executive Producer on Dunham’s Girls.
Honorable Mention: Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project)
I couldn’t complete this list without mentioning Mindy Kaling. Kaling has shown a lot of growth since her days as a staff writer on The Office. She is quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s shining talents. As the creator and star of The Mindy Project, Kaling has creative control and continues to bring the laughs-even if the joke is on her.