Billy Connolly standing in an empty theatre looking serene.

Understanding comedic devices

By BBC Maestro

If you’re starting out as a comedy writer or comedian, you’re bound to come across the term “comedic device” at some point. There’s no great mystery or complexity to comedic devices: they’re simply techniques you can use to make your words funnier.

Punning, repetition, innuendoes – these are all ways to structure your writing to add comedic value. Even if you’ve not heard of comedic devices before, you’re probably using these humorous effects naturally.

In this article, we’ll dash through a few of the best-known devices in comedy, complete with examples from the best in the business.

What are the features of comedy?

Comedic devices come in all shapes and sizes, from convoluted juxtapositions to groan-worthy puns. If you’re thinking of writing comedy, a background in the different humorous effects can be helpful. Whether you’re structuring a joke or want to add a bit more oomph to your anecdotes, try some of these tried-and-tested techniques.

Overstatement

Overstatement or hyperbole in comedy is exaggeration for humorous effect. However, this device also appears a surprising amount in everyday conversation. “I nearly died laughing!” Well, no, but your listener absolutely knows what you mean.

There’s a lot of room for exaggeration in a comedy routine. Imagine if comedic anecdotes simply told an accurate tale – they’d be more like legal statements than something you’d pay to hear. Billy Connolly’s routines combine hyperbolic language with exaggerated body movements: check out his turn as Agnes the hungry lioness.

Understatement

And now for something completely different. Understatement is when something is downplayed for humorous effect. The limbless knight in Monty Python & The Holy Grail shouting, “It’s only a flesh wound!” is a gruesomely great example.

This comedic device, which can have undertones of self-deprecating, laconic or ironic humour, has been part of British humour for centuries. The Anglo-Saxon poets were early masters of this: Grendel’s nightmarish swamp in Beowulf, for instance, is described mildly as “not pleasant”.

Juxtaposition

A juxtaposition in comedy is where two unrelated things are put together for the sake of a joke. It can be as simple as the “odd couple” motif, or as utterly random as the Monty Python fish slapping sketch.

Billy Connolly’s legendary Last Supper routine, which moves the action to the Saracen’s Head pub in Glasgow, is a masterclass in comedic juxtaposition. Billy takes us through the development of this 20-minute-long routine in his BBC Maestro course.

Repetition

There’s a lot of repetition in comedy. Traditional standups made great use of catchphrases, and the “callback”, where an earlier theme is referred to again (sometimes at the punchline) is an essential feature in a lot of comedy writing.

Comedians will also use repetition to bring the audience along with them, as they anticipate a theme or phrase and feel like they’re part of the joke. And that’s when you bring in a bit of misdirection…

Misdirection

This is when the audience thinks the joke is going off in one direction then the comedian veers off down a different route. This change of direction is funny and clever, and adds an element of surprise to the routine. Here’s an example from Jo Brand:

“It’s hard sometimes because the house is a mess, the kids are screaming. In the end my husband couldn’t take it anymore and he stormed off to the pub. I said to him, “What are you doing here? You’re meant to be at home looking after the kids!”

Puns

Few of us can resist a pun, which consists of deliberately misusing similar words for comedic effect. They’re much beloved by newspaper headline writers, who’ve made this an art form all of its own. Most of us can riff on a few puns during a conversation, which makes this a very accessible form of humour, and we all groan approvingly (and with some envy) when we hear a particularly clever one.

The Edinburgh Fringe funniest joke award in 2022 went to a food pun: “I tried to steal spaghetti from the shop, but the female guard saw me and I couldn’t get pasta.”

Double entendre

A double entendre or innuendo is a way of phrasing your words to make them seem innocent, when they’re actually a bit cheeky. The traditional British pantomime has this down to a fine art, and you’ll often hear a panto described as working “on two levels”, with jokes embedded in the family show that are definitely for the grown-ups.

The classic innuendo of the Carry On films is satirised (and explained) to perfection in the Bawdy 70s Hospital sketch from That Mitchell And Webb Look. (Warning: this clip also contains single entendres.)

Irony

Irony is another one of those comedic elements that messes with our expectations. Again, it’s the incongruity of a situation that makes it so funny. Irony can also round off a story to create a memorable punchline: try Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter”, later dramatised as one of the Tales of the Unexpected.

Taboo

In his BBC Maestro course, Billy Connolly talks about taboos in his lesson, Crossing the Line. Taboos, he explains, change all the time. He recalls the days when talking about farting was taboo, which “seems crazy” these days. As society changes, so do the topics that shock us, and this bold comedic device can be used to make us think.

“There’s great value in shocking people,” he says. “It makes them be quiet for a start… And that’s the time to come in and say what you meant.”

This Is Going To Hurt is a dramatization of life in an NHS hospital, adapted from his own memoir by comedian and former doctor Adam Kay. A black comedy-drama set in an Obs & Gynae ward is going to break taboos by its very definition, and it did, while teaching us a lot about our expectations.

Mistaken identity

Shakespeare got a lot of mileage from mistaken identity: The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night are probably the best-known examples of this in comedy. Since then, this motif has featured in everything from The Big Lebowski to Disney’s Aladdin.

In a mistaken identity plot, the error isn’t corrected, which leads to increasingly farcical or cringeworthy situations. Try the famous “Hotel Inspectors” episode of Fawlty Towers to see mistaken identity in action, or for a more recent example, watch the hapless undercover officers in Black Ops.

How do you choose the right comedic elements? Play around with these devices. See how introducing misdirection or more repetition changes the humour of the piece or the flow of the language. And of course, you can learn from the best, by checking out Sir Billy Connolly’s BBC Maestro comedy course.

Give the gift of knowledge

Surprise a special someone with a year's access to BBC Maestro or gift them a single course.

Thanks for signing up to receive your free lessons

Check your inbox - they’re on the way!

Oops! Something went wrong

Please try again later

FREE video lesson: Going on stage

Get a FREE video lesson: Preparing and going on stage with the king of stand-up, Sir Billy Connolly.