Improvising Comics: Techniques to Generate Funny Ideas | John McNamee | Skillshare

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Improvising Comics: Techniques to Generate Funny Ideas

teacher avatar John McNamee, Cartoonist and Comedy Writer

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Your Project Assignment


    • 3.

      Drawing Simply


    • 4.

      Generating Ideas


    • 5.

      Expanding Your Ideas


    • 6.

      Ending Your Comic


    • 7.



    • 8.

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About This Class

Ever wanted to make comics, but didn't know what to draw? Join John McNamee (Pie Comic, the Onion News Network, Clickhole) as he shows you how to use ideas from the world of improv comedy to help you make comics. In this class you'll learn to draw faster and more simply, generate funny ideas, explore what's funny about those ideas, and come up with the punchiest punch lines. This is the perfect class for beginners, or veteran comic makers who just want to inject a little more fun into their work.

Meet Your Teacher

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John McNamee

Cartoonist and Comedy Writer


John McNamee is a comedy writer and cartoonist living in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the New Yorker, Mad Magazine, the Onion News Network, and Clickhole. John's comedy has been featured on CNN, IFC, McSweeny's, TV Guide, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Gawker, and numerous other sites. He has studied and performed improv and sketch at the UCB theater in Los Angeles, where one of the founders once made fun of his pants on stage for like 2 minutes. John had it coming.

John has also been a comic maker and reader since he first figured out how to ride his bike to the comic book store at age 8. He's drawn the comic strip Pie Comic since his freshman year of college and doesn't see any reason to stop now.

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1. Introduction: Hi. My name is John Mcnamee. I'm a comedy writer and cartoonist. My work has appeared on The Onion and Clickhole and McSweeney's and on top of that, I've been writing and drawing the comic strip Pie Comic for about 10 years. Two years ago though, I was getting really frustrated with how my comics were turning out. I was doing the same old two guys sitting on a couch just reciting a joke over and over, and I really wanted to get back to what I liked about drawing comics in the first place, which was drawing fun things and having them happen. So, I decided to start integrating some of the techniques that I learned from studying improv at places like UCB and use them to inject a little more fun back into my comics. So, in this class, I'm going to walk you through my process a little bit. I'm going to show you some techniques for drawing simpler, which will allow you to draw more. I'll show you some improv techniques that will help you generate ideas, explore those ideas and come up with good punchlines for the ends of your comic. By the end, you'll be improvising your own comics and I can't wait to see them. So, let's get into this. 2. Your Project Assignment: Well the name of the class is improvising comic. So your assignment is going to be to improvise one comic, four panels long. Later on you'll be able to improvise for as many panels or pages as you'd like, but for now let's keep it simple. For supplies, you're going to need paper, or a sketchbook, or walls, I don't know what your living situation is. Your favorite drawing pen, I like a Micron O5 myself, but any will do. A pencil, non-photo blue is nice because it makes scanning easier later, and a ruler if you're not super good drawing straight lines like me. As far as time, the whole thing should take about an hour and a half. Half an hour for idea generation and then no more than an hour for drawing. The idea of these comics is for them to be spontaneous. So, I don't want you to dwell too much on them. The thing I want you to keep in mind to, is not to worry about whether your comic is good or bad. You are just trying to make a comic that explores what you want to explore. And if you worry about it being good or bad, you're just going to get stuck on that. So, I'd rather have you make 50 bad comics than not make one great comic. Just have fun with it to. If you're having fun, it really comes off in the drawing and it will make it so- you make more comics, because it's a thing you like doing. With that in mind let's get started with our first lesson. 3. Drawing Simply: Before we begin to making comics, I wanted to talk a little bit about drawing. As I've been improvising comics over the past couple of years, my drawing style has gotten simpler and simpler. This has allowed me to make comics faster, but I also have started to really appreciate simple drawing styles as I go on. Some of the most popular comics are the simplest looking ones like XKCD or Cyanide and happiness. There's I think a reason for this, when you have a simple cartoon people are more easily able to identify with it, and project themselves on to it. When you have a more realistic drawing of something they don't see themselves, they see the person that's drawn. So, this is a nice way to make your comics more identifiable is to have them simpler. The first rule for drawing simply is build your stuff out of basic shapes, circles, triangles, ovals. I could draw ovals all day and just have a great time. I love making things out of ovals. If you start getting bored with the basic shapes, you can play around with a little less regular ones, like I like this bean shape, that's fun to play around with. Figure 8's, crescents, semi-circles, all of them can be used to build characters, and objects, and whatever you need, but they're still very simple, easy to repeat. If you really want to bump up your design on a character or object, you can use a concept called self similarity. This is when you build something out of the same shape over and over again. So, here for example is a bean man. He's made all out of beans, his hair is beans, just made of beans or there's this semi-circle dog that I really love. Just lots of semi-circles, and yeah. So, as we go forward to make your comics in the next couple of lessons, I want you to actively think about how you can keep things as simple as possible. This will allow you to focus more on the actual comic making and getting bogged down in drawings. All right. Let's go on to making comics. 4. Generating Ideas: Probably,the biggest question cartoonists get, is where do you get your ideas? I think this is the wrong question, because anything can become an idea. So if you're worried about where you're going to get an idea, you're going to be stuck drawing whatever idea you end up getting. So, instead of worrying about that let's just start by drawing things we wanted to draw. I personally like drug, wizards, robots, spaceships, that's a big one dinosaurs, robot dinosaur wizards, that's a fun one. Just have fun drawing whatever you want for a little while first. One, the simplest things you can do to make a drawing into an idea, is to give the character in it a point of view. For instance, here's a penguin, which is nothing right now but if I make that penguin really mad that is wings don't do anything, all of a sudden, I have the basis for what would later become a comic. The stronger the emotion associated with the point of view, the easier it will be to come up with things to happen as a result of it. For instance, kind of wanting a sandwich is not as dynamic as wanting a sandwich more than you've ever wanted anything in your life. Anthropomorphizing is also a great source of ideas. This is where you take a non-human character and give it a human characteristics. So, here I have a fly and I asked myself, how would I feel if I were a fly? Well, flies only live for 24 hours, so I might be nostalgic about a garbage pile I was at earlier that morning, and now I've taken this fly and turn it into an idea. Another way to take something and turn it into an idea is to mash it up with something else that's ironically connected to it in some way. For instance, I have a caveman here, so I think what's the opposite of a caveman, it's a guy who always has to have the latest technology. So, I mash those together and I get a caveman who's an early adopter of technology. These are just some of the ways of coming up with an idea. But really the thing you should be worried about, is finding something you want to explore, that's what an idea is. So don't be worried about coming up with something funny. Just look for something you would like to draw four panels of, and that will make for the most interesting comic, which is what we'll be getting into next. 5. Expanding Your Ideas: Now that you've generated some ideas, let's look at turning those ideas into comics. As far as layout is concerned, any real work really you could do four across, you could do four down. I personally like the two-by-two grid. I think it looks neat and is formatted very nicely for the Internet. To expand our ideas, we're going to use a concept called the game. The game is a term from improv and sketch that means the single pattern of unusual behavior that defines the scene. Take for instance Will Ferrell's, More Cow Bells sketch. The game of that scene is this guy is going to be all about the cowbell, and that is literally the only thing that happens in that entire scene. Let's try playing a game. Remember that awesome comic idea I had about a guy who wants a sandwich? Well we can turn that into a game called Who wants the sandwich more? In panel one, Bob wants a sandwich, but Bill also wants a sandwich. Now, if we repeat that for four panels, it would not be very interesting. So, to keep it interesting, we're going to use something called heightening. Heightening just means every times you repeat the pattern of the game, you intensify. So, in panel two, they want the sandwich even more, and by panel three, the sandwich is the most important thing that has ever existed in the universe, and by panel four, they've given up everything in pursuit of the sandwich. Notice how by heightening incrementally in each panel, we're able to get to really absurd levels, but in a way that doesn't seem unnatural. This is important, because if you make the heightening too quick, too early, say you start from I want to a I want a sandwich to I'd rather blow up the earth and let you have that sandwich, then you end up in a place improvisers call crazy town. The audience can't trust the reality you've created, because you've jumped to such absurd levels right away, that the whole thing just seems Crazytown. Here's an example of a comic I made using the game. Panel one, I just state what the game is. Billy the nicest dinosaur. Panel two, we see that game play out by him chasing down a person, but also complimenting them. Panel three, that game heightens by him actually eating the person, but pointing out how delicious he is, and in panel four, the game heightens to its peak with him writing a thank you note to the person he just ate. To wrap this section up, I want you to keep two questions in mind, the first, what is the game? And the second, how can I heighten that game? If you follow those two questions, I think you'll have a pretty good time making your comics. 6. Ending Your Comic: Let's talk a little bit about endings. Now if you've been playing the game in your comic and heightening, you might not even need to come up with a traditional punchline in the fourth panel. You might just be able to put the most heightened version of your game there and call it a day, but there's still some other things you can do to give it a little extra punch, and we're going to take a look at those. One of the best ways to end the comic is with a character moment, a moment where they get to show who they are, and lets take a look at this one of mine. Here the game is very simple, it's about a wolf pretending to be a sheep. Panel two, he's pretending partner. Panel three, the sheep aren't buying it. So I asked myself the question, how does the character feel about what's just happened. I decide that he feels very sad because inside he's a sheep. So, by just having the character express how they feel about the comic that has just happened, you can end up with a pretty good punchline. Another good technique is the reversal. This is where you take what's been going on for the previous three panels and switch it around at the last second. The reversal can be a reversal of emotion or action. So take a look at this one. Here, it's a friendly son being very nice to a tree. Panel two is that same friendly son being nice to a lizard, heating up his rock forum. On panel three, the son is being very nice to a car. So, for panel four, I reverse that. The son is furious, furious at that car. Look how angry he is, and that's the punchline. Just reverse the emotion. Another way you can end your comic is to just show the consequence of the game you've been playing. Here's an example. Here the gain is a man is stopping to smell the roses. Panel two, he's overwhelmed by the number of roses. Panel three, he just tries to plow through and sniff all of them. So, what's the consequence of this? The consequence is he ends up living in a bush estranged from his family because he spends all of his time smelling roses. The last way we're going to look at is the callback. This is where you take something from earlier in the comic and bring it back in the last panel as the punchline. Here is an example of a time it really helped me out when I was stuck. So, in panel one we have an obvious undercover cop trying to buy drugs from a criminal, and the next two panels are just me heightening the game of how obvious an undercover cop he is, saying alien, there's another cop behind him, but I didn't know what to do at the last panel. So I went back I looked at the first panel where he offered to buy some crime drugs. So, I bring the term Crime drugs back and have the criminal in the last panel be giving him a bag of crime drugs. That's it. I just call back that phrase and it gave me the punchline I was looking for. So, remember the ways of ending your comic. One, heightening the game, Two; a character moment, Three; reversals, Four, showing the consequence of the game, and five; a callback. If you do one of these I think you'll find endings are not as hard as people say they are. 7. Conclusion: You did it! Now you know how to improvise comics. Party. Here are a few things to keep in mind for your comics. The drawings. Are they simple? Are they clear? What is the point of view of the comic and the characters inside of it? What's the game of the comic? How does that game heighten? How does the game end?. If you keep these questions in mind when making comics, it's going to give you a lot easier time. If you've taken this class with some of your friends or you want to teach your friends about improvising comics, you can make a jam comic together. A jam comic, is when you improvise a comic with other people, alternating between panels who's drawing. It's one of the finer ways you can spend an evening. Thank you so much for taking my class. I had a lot of fun making it, and I'm sure you going to have a lot of fun reading your comics, and this is comics. So, fun is what it is all about. Remember that when you're making them, because the more fun you have, the more comics you'll want to make, and that's the real key to making good comics. It's just having fun and making a lot of them. All right, thanks again. 8. More Creative Classes on Skillshare: