Make Me Laugh
If you can write a good dramatic scene, you probably can learn to write a good comedy scene. They are cut from the same cloth. This is why the best comedians can, if pressed, generally do drama quite well. Steve Martin comes to mind. Robin Williams. Remember the guy who played the scummy corporation guy in Aliens? The comedian Paul Reiser.
The trick is, of course, doing one or the other well in the first place. If you can’t write anything for sour snake scat, starting with comedy is not an easy road. A comedy scene takes every bit as much work as a major dramatic scene, and the mistake a lot of people make is that they think because it’s supposed to be light and fluffy, it shouldn’t be work.
Wrong. It’s just as hard to bake a souffle as it is to broil a roast. Cary Grant never won an Oscar™ for his comedy roles but he could run with Spencer Tracy.
Here the cliche, the old saw, the grizzled saying: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Listen to stand-up comedians talk: You flop, nobody laughs, you die. If, however, the audience rolls on the floor slapping their livers and blowing scotch out their noses, you killed.
If you have the gift, it is magic and I’m not the one to tell you anything, skip this article. If you aren’t a natural, and you feel like a schlub every time you botch the punchline of a shaggy dog story, you can learn.
Um. To a degree.
Go to a science fiction convention, rock concert, retirement dinner. You’ll almost always find a guy who shouldn’t be allowed within fifty yards of a live microphone trying real, real hard to be funny. It makes you wish you had a gun to put him out of his–and the audience’s–misery. Few things sadder than somebody who thinks he’s hilarious and isn’t. God help us, it’s usually a man.
Hint #1: Don’t try to be funny.
You don’t even have to be funny in person to write funny. Trust me here.
All right, let’s start with two bottom-line basics:
1) The best comedy comes from character. You can do joke-jokes, one-liners, tomato surprise stories and they can be very funny, but the stuff that people remember comes from inside. Lucille Ball’s Lucy was a bumbling and inept housewife who always got into trouble when she did something she knew she wasn’t supposed to. And virtually every stand-up comedian you see builds his or her act around a persona. They work the soldier-in-the-war-of-the-sexes, the angry-young-man, the storyteller, the ain’t-those-people-over-there-stupid? characterizations. It’s the same in writing. It doesn’t have to be someone who is intrinsically funny, it can bloom from somebody who is angry, mean or deadpan droll, but the deeper the character, the funnier the possible bit.
2) Comedy has structure. Just like a stage drama or a movie script, there are beats to a successful comedy routine, be it live or on a printer, and there are a few venues you need to know about. I’ll list six basic ones . Here: a) Slapstick b) Scorn c) Word play. d) Reverses. e) The Odd Couples. f) One, Two . . . Three!
Before we get there, a brief aside on what’s really funny:
Nobody knows what’s really funny.
Humor is a matter of experience and opinion and if you are the most hilarious person on the planet, if audiences go into seizures when you perform, and you do your best bit in front of a thousand people, I guarantee you, some of them won’t laugh. Because what you say will offend some of them. Just you being who you are will offend some of them. If you want everybody to like you, don’t try to be funny.
Generally, fat people usually don’t like fat jokes, gays don’t like queer jokes and the NRA doesn’t like Sarah Brady . . . Unless, of course, the teller is fat, gay or from the NRA, exactly in that order. You can joke about your own and get away with it when an outsider would get crucified for doing the same. I can tell southern jokes but I probably ought not to be telling black jokes, those don’t sound too good from my redneck cracker mouth. You can poke fun at something if you are one. You get laughs making fun of yourself as much as you will making sport of somebody else, as long as there is a butt somewhere–see, the truth is, almost all humor is at somebody’s–or some thing’s–expense. You are almost always laughing at somebody.
We laugh because we’re surprised or it makes us feel superior or it hits so hard and close to home we are on the edge of tears but it’s easier to laugh than cry. We laugh because it is exaggerated way too big or too small or even too dead on. And this last, the absolute funniest thing of all, is that nothing is as funny as the truth. I once heard a comedian reading a newspaper clipping about a jet plowing into a hotel full of people, then commenting on it. Article said, “Some of the hotel guests were surprised by the impact.”
Comedian said, “Some of the guests. Some of them. What about the others? The ones who weren’t surprised? Did one guy get up and say, ‘You know, Martha, I wouldn’t be a bit goddamned surprised if a big ole jet plane didn’t plow into us this morning.’ What the hell was anybody who wasn’t surprised doing there?” People died. But his take on it was funny.
Well, okay. I have a warped sense of humor, I used to work in a doctor’s office, but it was a liver-slapping-scotch-blower for me. There are people who look at me for this as if I sprinkle dried baby toes on my Grape Nuts. To them, I offer this:
Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.
If you try to make funny without offending anybody, nobody is going to laugh. You wind up doing family hour TV, el blando e blanco. Which is not to say you can’t be funny without being racist, sexist or scatological, but it takes a little more work.
(If you took away husband jokes, wife jokes and TV commercial jokes, you’d wipe out half of the stand-up comics in the biz. If you took away fart jokes, sexual innuendo and the word “motherfucker,” you’d eliminate another third, most of them black. Jewish mother jokes would take out another ten percent. And if you took away cheap shots and scatology, why, there goes ninety-three-percent of Jurassic Park.)
Humor is risky. If you don’t offend somebody somewhere along the way, you aren’t doing your job. That pretty much applies to any kind of writing you do, in my opinion. You don’t have to be sand in the gears of the machine but you ought not to try to be full-time STP, either.
Um. I digress. Never mind. Let’s go over the basic formulas here. Formulae? Formications?
a) Slapstick. Do I really need to explain this? If you’ve seen Laurel and Hardy or the Stooges, you know what it is. For a modern master, look at John Cleese, a man whose goose-stepping in the Fawlty Towers episode about the Germans still puts me on the floor every time I see it. If you are a visual writer, you can do this and describe it lovingly enough so it is funny. Remember that in slapstick, the injuries aren’t real, we are talking about Wile-e Coyote here. If it really hurts, it usually isn’t funny. Usually. But not always.
b) Scorn. This is the we’re-reasonable-but-look-at-them-dummies approach, sometimes called the angry-young-man among stand-ups. Read Mark Twain’s essay on Fenimore Cooper and if you have a brain in your head, you can’t not laugh. If you are a brainy writer, you will laugh more. And if you’re a brainy writer who ever shot a gun, you will need a box of Kleenex, a few Valium and perhaps some clean underwear.
c) Word Play. Here we have your puns, double-entendres, homonyms, spoonerisms, redundancies and like that. George Carlin and his words you can’t say on the air routine: “You can prick your finger but you damn well better not finger your prick.” Or the redundant terms: complete stop, free gift, past history. There’s Moe Howard taking the stooges to the Giva Dam. Or the lounge lizard who approaches the woman and says, “Hi, babe, what would you say to a little fuck?” She says, “Oh. Hello, little fuck.” The best of this is as clever as humor gets. The worst of it makes an audience groan loud enough to worry earthquake fanatics.
d) Reverses. This is where you are led to expect one thing and are served another in its place. A woman walking a dog passes a drunk on the street. Drunk says, “Hey, where’d you get that pig?” Woman says, “You drunken fool, it’s a dog, not a pig!” Drunk says, “I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to the dog.” The two guys being stalked by a bear. One stops to put on running shoes. The other says, “You idiot, you can’t outrun a bear!” First guy says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you.”
A man of the cloth goes into a bar in his hotel. Asks the redhaired waitress for a double bourbon. She says, “I didn’t know you guys drank this stuff.” He shrugs, says, “It’s in the bible.” They talk. He asks her to dinner. She lifts an eyebrow, but he says, “It’s in the bible.” So she shrugs and goes. They have dinner, he asks her to his room. They wind up in bed. She demurs at first, but he says, “It’s in the bible.” They screw, get finished and she says, “Well, that was nice, but I want to see where it says it in the bible.” So he pulls Gideon out of the bedside table drawer and opens it and on the inside cover somebody has written, “The redhaired waitress puts out.”
Here is where exaggerations and repetitions do their best work, too. Establish a line and go back to it. Milk it. Think about what you could do with something as easy as “Who, me?” dropped into the right place during 1) a party, 2) then a sex scene, 3) a subsequent court hearing.
d) Odd Couples. These are paired expressions, one, two, either, or: The classic Samuel Johnson line: “Your manuscript is both good and original, but, alas, the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.” Or, he’s Brad Pitt’s double–twice his age, twice his weight. Which is also a reversal. You can mix and match ‘em.
e) One, Two ... Three! Sometimes called triples, this is one of the most important rules in being funny. Or in writing per se. Three is a magic number for our species. Three guys go into a bar ... a priest, a rabbi and a preacher are on an island ... A guy went here, then he went there, then the punchline ... Almost always you will work in threes. This gives you the most solid format for being funny. One, the set-up. Two, the arc. Three, the payoff. This is the same structure for most plays, movies and novels. The beginning, the middle and the end. Keep it in mind. Don’t forget it. Remember it always.
What I tell you three times must be true.
Now, let’s talk about what the late Danny Simon–Neil Simon’s older brother–called The Umbrella. When you do something funny, you should consider the overall context of the subject matter. What else is going on? What is is funny business doing in relation to everything else? It is a stand-alone set-piece? You can do that, but better it should relate to moving your story, developing your character, or telling us some exposition we didn’t know. If you have a frustration-sequence going, everything your protagonist touches turns to shit, then what is your point? You need one, you know, a point. If you are going to arrive at it, you must set it up properly. Until you get a feel for it, diagramming a comedy bit isn’t a bad idea. Break it into the three pieces, see where you want it to go and what it is supposed to do besides be funny. In a story or a novel, even a script, being funny alone isn’t enough.
Probably the most important thing in writing humor is the same thing that is important in writing any kind of fiction, SF in particular: Imagination. You have to look at something and think “What if . . .?” so it brings forth a smile.
Let’s spitball off the top of my head. Now there’s a colorful mixed metaphor.
Take the old Superman TV series, one of my favorite themes for comedy. What if it were being done today? What would the music for the opening be? Rap, maybe? Like, “It’s Superman and that ain’t no lie/ he come from a planet way up in the sky/ he faster than a bullet, he stronger than a train/ he hangs wid a bitch name of Lois Lane/ Don’ get in his way, don’ make him mad/ it’d be the worst party that you ever had . . ./
Or what if the Academy Awards established an Oscar™ for Best Idiot Plot? Who’d win that one? The residents of Metropolis for not knowing who the fuck Clark Kent was? Can we take up a collection to send an optician there? Wouldn’t you like to have the white cane concession for the Daily Planet’s lobby?
Or would the award go to the crew of the Nostromo?
Start a comedy file. Anything that strikes you as funny, drop into it. Someday you might be able to work it into a story. In Portland, a citizen activist whose last name is “Squirrel” sued the police chief. Know what the Chief’s name was at the time? Charles Moose. I swear, it’s true. Right there in the newspaper, though they refrained from using the headline I would have used. Rocky and Bullwinkle fans would love it.
How will you know when you can write funny? Here’s the test. Write something you think is really funny. Give it to somebody who doesn’t know you. If they laugh aloud where they are supposed to, you probably got it right. Unlike stand-up, where you die if you blow a line, you can revise and rewrite a story as many times as you need to, you don’t have to let it out of the house until you get it right. You can gradually get to be funny and nobody ever has to know that in person you always forget the punchline, “I got your goddamn canoe right here!”
If you can make me cry, you likely have the ability to turn that coin over. But it is a skill, like writing a fight scene or a sex scene. You have to practice, cut and prune, spackle and paste and work at it. You don’t get into the NBA unless you spend a lot of years bouncing a basketball. You can’t write funny unless you do enough of it to get the feel for it. Might as well start now.
Go ahead. Make me laugh. I can use it and these days, so can the rest of the world. Sometimes laughter is all that keeps the dark away. If you can provoke it, you will be loved for it.
Sometimes, humor can start small and build, like an avalanche. Even if you're not all that fond of a joke early in the stream, by the time you get to the end, the rapid fire bullets of humor have you laughing. There is a reddit thread about humans in the Federation (Star Trek) basically being "hold my beer" mad scientist types. It always has me gasping by the end, when they reach the toaster joke. You can see the thread here:
Went to the Emo Phillips/ Weird Al Yankovic concert the other night. Emo Phillips said, of course you know there's another Portland in Maine, I was just there a couple of months ago and I made a stupid mistake - I thought it was the Portland where it's _okay_ to set fire to City Hall...
Pretty sure I'm going to hell for being a little bit proud about that one.
Your rap parody makes it seem like your only exposure to the genre was a secondhand description in the 1970s.
I thank you for the gifts of both comedy and insight. I had somehow missed the Mark Twain / Cooper bit which was worth the price of admission by itself.
I've never tried to write comedy but the thought occurs to me it must be more difficult than situational comedy or a one-time zinger. Written comedy has to be funny on the second reading and every additional reading thereafter. It also has a foundation in that particular language, society, context and so on. So for giggles, with the entire accumulated knowledge of the world at my fingertips, I searched for "cuneiform comedy" to see whether such shenanigans have been with us since the time of scratches on clay tablets. Of course they exist and there are scholarly articles translating and explaining them. Of course there are. They managed to cover 17 pages of alleged Sumerian wit without eliciting anything save a grimace.
I think I will cheer myself up be revisiting a pseudo-scholarly work "Maledicta" which styled itself "The International Journal of Verbal Aggression" and in its compilation format self-defined as "A scholarly, scatological, and witty investigation of outrageous insults, forbidden language and wicked jokes." I got this "work" at a time when I had determined I wanted to be able to "cuss like a sailor" without spending months at sea on a pirate ship. I soon learned it was unabashedly gathered from run-down pool hall bathroom graffiti and other even less reliable sources. It should only be delivered with a warning sticker that all of the contents will cause conniptions to more sensitive types as it is far beyond politically incorrect. It might, in fact, be banned for hate speech somewhere or if not, it almost certainly should be a prime candidate. Nothing is sacred to that author. It has a chapter discerning between general Italian blasphemies and Venetian blasphemies and such fascinating chapter titles ranging from "Ritual and Personal Insults in Stigmatized Subcultures" to "Common Patient-Directed Perjoratives Used By Medical Personnel." Basically the whole thing is a shoddy excuse to print naughty words and phrases from all over the world and it was gathered in a time before the Internet so there isn't even a "top ten" insults section.
On second thought, it is a bit chilly this morning so maybe I'll put it to a better use in the stove.
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