The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus

Jack Thompson
5 min readDec 26, 2021


How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not

It’s time to return to the classics, with a look at… um… here’s a book from 1994.

Comedy Is Truth and Pain. That’s the first chapter title and the Vorhaus look on comedy. He has a story from when he was twelve, but enough about him. I’m doing well, thank you, because my reviews fit; truthful in content, painful to read.

Vorhaus introduces the theory with a school day memory he wants to forget. Here it is, so he can’t (why did he write it?). Then there are a number of jokes, that he says work, through truth and pain.

Go with it or don’t, the main pain’s avoided as the section’s kept short.

For writers, the correct frame of mind is incredibly important, and after his brief theory tour, this is where you’re taken. He preps you with helpful, caring words. A kind of emotional bonding session through the pages. Close the book, he’s trying to breast feed you.

Sucking is encouraged. Or I should say, sucking on the page, as you write, is encouraged. No, I mean, sucking in writing is… just forget it…Be prepared to fail, the rule of nine, lower your sights. Then again, if you’re reading this, you can’t get much lower.

It’s Christmas. I’m on a sugar downer.

Now comes The Comic Premise. It’s about a gap between comic reality and real reality. This leads to some exercises, and it’s the start of many more to come. Vorhaus shows you his quickly made up ideas for inspiration, while famous film examples also offer help.

Next up, there’s a process for creating characters at speed. Then, to push that further, he gives you three more steps. One makes characters funnier, another adds sufficient emotional distance (so they can be laughed at), while a final one brings them close enough to care about.

All done in good time, and like toilet roll bought for the chronically constipated, there’s no wasted paper.

Vorhaus mentions some comic characters from famous films, then stops things at Hannibal Lecter. Stops too soon, because when you’re alive and a violent criminal’s eating your brain, you have to laugh.

There are more tools to discover. Clash of Context is one. Tension and Release is another. A couple more involve telling the truth, or lies, to comic effect. This review’s great!

I’ll stop now, because the work continues.

There are no cover shots of John Vorhaus, because he’s bald. And being bald is the most embarrassing affliction a man can suffer from. That’s why this is written in tiny letters.

In one exercise, Vorhaus asks you to imagine you’ve been in a road accident with a major studio boss, which in turn, offers you a moment to pitch some high concept ideas. So make the most of it, and impress them. Show them you’re an expert with a neck brace.

Page 60, and a warning that sends a shiver down the spine of any cliché loving aspiring author. The warning is, and please sit down if you can, because it says, “the amount of actual writing you’ll be doing is about to go way up.”

Oh my… I think I’m having a heart attack. This isn’t good. Quick, doctor. Get me 12 hours of procrastination.

Should you choose to follow the exercise, there’s a reason for the writing increase; you’ll now be creating a whole world of characters. The names of classic films get thrown about, with Vorhaus’ instant creations are at hand again, to help you through.

If you’ve survived, Vorhaus consoles, as he says not all ideas will be keepers. Which is somewhat optimistic. I mean, when I write to paper, even half my rejects can tip a garbage truck.

It’s Christmas. I’m on a sugar depression… but the highs are so good.

You’re given a short way to structure stories. The process is simple, and he guides you through, so you too, can create a step by step outline. Like he says, it’s a way to get the story bones down in around ten sentences.

Which is small. Don’t think Save the Cat, this is Save the Kitten. And it’s more than reasonable, meow.

He goes over standard joke things; rule of three, cliches, running gags etc….Etc. as in, that’s pretty much it. He adds some spice with jokoids and the doorbell effect.

In Comedy and Jeopardy, you’re shown how to raise the stakes, and why it’s a crucial to do this. Vorhaus follows this with a host of little tools, to help add more laughs to your material. If that doesn’t work, then add more petrol.

Some sitcoms tricks are here, with a few pointers on structure and story, which can help, even outside the medium. Sketch comedy follows, with a 9 point method across 3 ½ pages. A process to help you lay out your sketches is an added bonus.

As the book’s coming to a close, it gets sitcom like, and returns to its beginnings. While the book’s start encouraged you to write, this is for help once you finish. It’s good, even if it’s quite readily available info. The best bit is on beta testers; what to expect, and what you need from them.

The book pads out with some weaker information, although you might pick up a tip or two in the closing pages.


A book about comedy witting that brings something a little different. Numerous ‘tools’ are provided, which are ready to use across various comedy genres.

In the main, John Vorhaus doesn’t mess about, and the majority of the book gets to the point, although the final pages tail off. Either way, the whole book’s pretty good, and you can definitely learn some writing process optimisations by giving this a read.


Creating stories based around characters from the start.

Setting up situations that are more likely to be humorous from the get-go.


While there’s a chapter on jokes, if you want something for straight stand up, there isn’t much here to warrant a look (perhaps the info on characters can be used).

Other thoughts

The sitcom and sketch parts feel a little tacked on, in the way they’re presented. There’s enough transferable info in them, if those two things don’t interest you.


191 listed pages. Knock off about 20 pages for blank spaces and exercise page gaps. Add in 4 for the intro and the forward. 175 pages is about right.

Quicker readers will be through this in a day or two.

Slower, dedicated readers, will be around two weeks.



Jack Thompson

Writes serious book reviews. Other ideas in the works.