Tuesday, October 28, 2014


As fun as this blog has been, it is time to move to a new location. You can find my new blogs about writing, reading, reviewing, health, etc. on my website: berinstephens.com. I also have a blog about saxophone and clarinet pedagogy on my other website, saxmyax.com. Feel free to check them out and subscribe.


Friday, May 30, 2014

Tales of Myrick the (Not So) Magnificent, Volume 1

Are you sure you want to be an adventurer?

Believe me, there are plenty of dragons, moronic guards, golems, evil sorcerers, zombies, blood-thirsty plants, undead necromancers, bandits, and troglyns out there who do NOT have your health and happiness in mind. If it weren't for my friends-the squirrel-like Nut-boy, the beautiful yet brawny Princess Frederica, and the ever-loyal but brainless Nonac the barbarian-I wouldn't be alive today to warn you about the many dangers out there. Of course, possessing magic running socks helps a lot, too, even though they seem to get me into trouble as fast as they get me out.

So, I've compiled a few of my life experiences in an effort to convince you, my good friends, to just stay home, lock your doors, and keep a loaded crossbow handy. Oh, and have a barbarian around in case something needs to be thumped senseless.


It's out today! This is a fun series of stories that I've been writing over the years. It is a YA fantasy/comedy that pokes fun at fantasy tropes and characters. The collection starts out with the three 'prequels' that I wrote for various sources, like Smashwords and in the compilation: Wandering Weeds: Tales of Rabid Vegetation. Those first three stories are called: The Princess and the Privy, The Crypt of the Undead Sorcerer and Other Vacation Spots, and Of Weeds and Wizardry. The other two installments are novellas consisting of 12 episodes each and were published as serial stories on Big World Network. They are entitled The Lord of the Socks, and How to Hug a Golem. Big World Network is now a free site, enabling anyone to access all the content, including the audio versions. If you can't get enough Myrick, there are three more seasons available there that will one day in the near future also be compiled in print form as volume 2. Currently, the sequel to Delroy Versus the Yshtari is running on Tuesdays there, called Delroy Versus the Pirates of Poughkeepsie. It is a sci-fi/comedy.

Here are the Amazon links for print: http://www.amazon.com/Tales-Myrick-Not-Magnificent-Volume/dp/0692218173
And Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Tales-Myrick-Not-So-Magnificent-ebook/dp/B00KNFB81M

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Serious Look at Comedy, Part XIB

Part XIB
An Hysterical Analysis: Galaxy Quest, Part II

Just an FYI: May 30th will be my launch of Tales of Myrick the (Not So) Magnificent, Volume I. I'll post more details here once I know some. It is several YA fantasy/comedy serials I wrote for Big World Network.

Anyway, when we left off from the last episode, our intrepid heroes were about to be blasted into atoms by the evil, lizardlike Sarris.

38:40 into the movie. So the ship goes into combat and gets shot up. That's not so funny, but it does increase the tension. It's important to point out that tension is a very needed part of good comedy. When are things funniest? Often times, it is right after a stressful situation. Good comedies know this and utilize it, like here. Humor following tension allows us an even better release.

39:45. Here is a brilliant combination of two comedy techniques: parody and understatement. Fred reports from engineering in a deadpan tone, “Generators won't take it. The ship's breaking apart and all that. Just FYI.” The understatement alone is humorous, but when you realize that this is a parody of the original Star Trek, it makes it all the funnier. Whenever good ol' Scotty reported from the engine room about how bad things were for the Enterprise, he was the total opposite of Fred as he would be screaming in a panic, “She just can't take it anymore, cap'n!” We could also say there's a little slapstick here, because while Fred is delivering his report, the aliens behind him are in a panic and look like they are about to be sucked out into space.

40:ll. The mine field scene. More tension, but also humorous quips to break it up. We see Tommy's panicked reaction while Guy dives under a desk. Alexander says to Tommy, enunciating distinctly, “Try not to hit every single one!”

42:43. The ship's computer doesn't respond to the other crew members. The aliens, in their efforts to make the ship exactly like the TV series, set it up so that the computer would only respond to Gwen. And then all she does is repeat what the computer says. When Tommy gripes, “That is really getting annoying,” Gwen replies, “I have one job on this lousy ship, it's stupid, but I'm going to do it!”

43:47. Mathesar takes the blame for the disaster because he'd seen the crew (in the TV show) overcome greater obstacles. The crew decides it's time to explain that they are just actors and not real heroes. Gwen asks, “You don't think Gilligan's Island is real, do you?” Mathesar answers, “Oh, those poor people.” We still get a laugh at their misunderstanding. Just when we think the Thermians might be starting to understand, they laugh in their goofy way and think the crew is just joking.

45:50. Fred group hugs the Thermians who just helped him find out how to solve their power problem. This is a cute-funny.

46:00. Alexander finds out he has a protege. One of the Thermians has taken the Dr. Lazarus Mak-tar code as his own. Alexander doesn't know what to think of it, but we get to laugh at this Thermian for dedicating his life to a non-existent code. Alexander forbids the alien from saying, “By Grabthar's hammer,” referring us back to his earlier panic attack over the line.

47:15. The crew has to go down to an alien planet to get a new power sphere. Most of the crew looks nervous while Fred smiles and eats his cheese and crackers that he got from the vending machine before leaving earth. Again, we see opposite reactions as Guy has a panic attack about dying again. Alexander uses an old cliché, “Are we there yet?” This shows that clichés can be a great source of comedy when used right.

48:38. After landing on the planet, Guy panics when Fred opens the shuttle door. Guy, “Don't open that! This is an alien planet. Is there air?” and he holds his breath. Fred sniffs and says, “Seems okay.” Again, opposites.

49:27. We get a chance to laugh at and mock Alexander. He played the scientist on the TV show but doesn't know how to operate a real scanner the Thermians gave him. Tommy adds insult to injury by saying, “I actually thought you were smart.”

50:49. They see the 'cute' aliens. “Are they the miners?” Alexander asks. Fred answers, “Sure, they're like three years old.” Alexander responds, “Miners, not minors,” giving us a combo of word play and ridicule humor. Gwen sees a hurt one and wants to help it. Guy, in his near panic mode, stops her and asks, “Did you guys ever watch the show?” When the aliens turn mean and ugly, as Guy predicted, the crew turns and runs. Gwen says the classic line, “Let's get out of here before those things eat Guy,” playing on Guy's fear that he is the expendable one. To make things even more uncomfortable (thus funny to us) for Guy, they come up with the plan they used in episode 81: the episode Guy's character, Crewman Number Six, died in. Again, some good parody of the red shirt phenomenon in Star Trek.

53:05. They try to come up with a signal. Tommy wants to make a 'caw' sound until Jason brings up that they have communicators, thus ridiculing Tommy. They get Jason back, though, after he rolls around all commando-like and then loses his gun.

53:38. We get a comic look at Fred as he is rolling the beryllium sphere and carrying his snack bag in his teeth. Jason says, “Never give up, never surrender,” and the rest of the crew tells him to shut up. Tommy, who is on the lookout, starts screaming, “Caw, caw!” Here is the repetition technique, bringing up the earlier joke and giving us another laugh at it.

54:00. We see their comical escape as they roll the sphere back to the shuttle. When Jason ends up staying behind so that the others can get away, Alexander brings up his jealousy from when they were doing the TV series, “You gotta be the hero. Heaven forbid anyone else gets the spotlight.” Jason punches Alexander into the ship. As they lift off from the planet, Alexander adds, “It's always about you!”

55:25. We get some classic awkward-uncomfortable humor when Jason wakes up to the large, slimy tongue of an alien pig. Fred has to try and figure out how to use the digital conveyor, which is a parody of the Star Trek transporter. Gwen tells Jason that it's perfectly safe and then the Thermians inform them that it hasn't been successfully tested. Meanwhile, tension for Jason is getting ramped up as he has to deal with the pig-thing. They test the conveyor on the pig and it is beamed up inside out. Gwen tells Jason everything is fine but one of the Thermians interrupts with a truth statement (something true but shouldn't be said), “But the animal is inside out.” Jason starts to panic and the crew lies to him again that everything is okay. The pig remains then explode, spreading guts all over them (discomfort). The Thermian adds another truth that should be unsaid, “And it exploded!” This isn't helping to calm Jason at all.

59:00. To make matters even worse for Jason, a rock monster shows up. Tommy suggests that Jason go for a vulnerable spot. We get another true but funny line when Jason yells back at them, “It's a rock! It doesn't have any vulnerable spots.” Guy's next suggestion falls into the non-sequitor humor category when he says, “Form some kind of rudimentary lathe.” This might also be harking back to the Star Trek episode when Captain Kirk used raw materials to fashion a cannon to defeat the Gorn.

1:00:47. Fred figures out the digitizer (after a smile from Laliari, the cute Thermian girl) and brings Jason up to the ship. Jason, of course, lost his shirt during his fight with the rock monster. Alexander gets in his quip, “I see you managed to get your shirt off.”

1:01:55. Sarris boards the ship. Guy sees him and passes out (slapstick). When Sarris learns that the crew are really a bunch of actors, he enjoys revealing to the Thermians the concept of lying. This devastates them, giving us a serious moment again that we'll need some release from.

1:07:25. Here we have the 'whiff of death' moment (see: Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder). All seems lost and the characters are about to die. Jason and Alexander fake a fight to distract the alien soldiers who are about to kill them. They succeed, sending the alien lizards out the airlock. Fred returns us to a lighter vein when he apologizes for the airlock door being sticky and he'll have one of his boys get some WD40.

1:10:40. We don't stay humorous for long as the ship is about to explode. They don't know how to shut down the reactor until Jason remembers that the kids on earth were into all that tech stuff and they have a real communicator. He calls up the leader of the kids, Brandon. Brandon goes into a semi-depressed mode and says, “I understand completely that it's just a TV show.” Jason tells him, “It's all real,” which causes Brandon to have a complete turn around in the opposite direction as he shouts excitedly, “I knew it!” I think this taps into an inner desire many of us geeks have: that our fantasy worlds are real and we can go there.

1:14:07. During a doom and gloom scene with Sarris, we see one of the aliens that was ejected into space smash against the ship's window like a bug hitting a windshield. It's kind of a slapstick/parody of life.

1:16:09. Guy decides to accept his role that he is the “red shirt” and going to die no matter what. He decides to be a distraction in order to save the others. Fred suggests, “Maybe you're the plucky comic relief,” which is exactly the role that Guy has been playing throughout the movie (truth). 

1:17:18. Meanwhile, Jason and Gwen have been running through the bowels of the ship in an effort to prevent it from exploding. They go through all sorts of ridiculous situations like you'd see in a cheesy sci-fi show. Gwen finally blurts out, “This episode is badly written,” poking fun at several sci-fi tropes all at once. After barely surviving the 'chompers', she screams, “Whoever wrote this episode should die!”

1:18:29. Fred gets an idea to take out the aliens by digitizing the rock monster into the midst of them. As the rock monster takes out the aliens, Fred says, “It's the simple things in life you treasure.” Laliari then kisses Fred, causing Guy to say, “Get a room.” When Laliari's tentacles wrap around Fred, he just looks at them and continues kissing her. Most people would be grossed out by it (like Guy), but Fred takes it all in stride (opposites, doing the unexpected).

1:20:00. Alexander and his protege rescue a room full of trapped Thermians. The Thermians give Jason the credit, causing Alexander to grimace and say, “It's just not fair.” At the death of his protege, though, he takes on his Dr. Lazarus personae, dispelling his previous disdain for the role. He says his famous line from the show, “By Grabthar's hammer, you shall be avenged,” and attacks the alien who shot his protege.

1:22:30. Jason and Gwen finally make it to the room and push the button to stop the timer. The countdown doesn't stop. In a panic, they try to call Brandon. We get a quick cut scene of Brandon running out of his house while taking a bag of trash to the garbage can. He is trying to explain to his mom the life and death situation he's involved in while his mom reminds him about the recyclables. Back to Jason and Gwen, they prepare to die until the countdown stops at exactly one second. This is again making fun of a common trope, since the countdown on the show always stopped at one.

1:24:00. We get some action here for a while. Sarris is supposedly vanquished by using the unknown 'Omega 13'. Unfortunately, though, the ship is about to crash to the earth (tension).

1:32:00. Brandon is running out of his house with an armful of fireworks. His parents see it and we get a humorous non-reaction from them when Brandon tries to explain that the ship is about to crash. His mom just tells him, “Dinner's at 7.” After he leaves, his father gives his mother a questioning look, prompting his mom to say, “Well, he's outside.” This is a truth statement pointing out that we nerds have a tendency to want to stay inside and play on our computers instead of get fresh air.

1:33:50. The ship crashes into the convention, panicking the crowds. The crew exits the ship, eliciting applause. The announcer proclaims, “What effects,” not realizing the crash was real. Guy is introduced as “another shipmate.” They say of Alexander, “Give a big hand, he's British.” When Sarris appears, the crowd shoots Nerf guns at him. They applaud when Jason disintegrates Sarris with a real ray gun.

Okay, I know I skimmed over a few things here to shorten this. A lot of what I found funny were all the 'awkward' moments throughout the show. And of course, the little parodies of Star Trek were brilliant. I hope you learned a few things from this analysis that you can use to help you in your own comedy writing. 

Unfortunately, my schedule is getting more hectic and I'll have to take a hiatus from this series. I'd like to continue, but it probably won't be weekly. There's just too little time and too much to write. I've got five novels screaming inside my head to be let out, so it's kind of noisy in my skull. Still feel free to send questions or thoughts about this series, I'd love to hear them. Until next time, live long and prosper and party on, dudes.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Serious Look at Comedy, Part ???

I'm afraid I must apologize. This has been a busy week and I have not been able to get back to writing my analysis of Galaxy Quest. This has been one of those weeks where I've had more to do than time to do it and something had to be cut out. Hopefully, I'll have some time next week to get back to it.

On the good news front, one of the things that has kept me busy is getting ready for the print launch of The Tales of Myrick the (Not So) Magnificent, Volume 1. It is scheduled to be released May 23rd, so as I get more details, I'll let you know. One of the things I'm trying to get ready is the audio book version. I've already done the audio for the two seasons that were released through Big World Network (The Lord of the Socks and How to Hug a Golem), but I'm releasing the three prequels (The Princess and the Privy, The Crypt of the Undead Sorcerer and Other Vacation Spots, and Of Weeds and Wizardry). The three prequels are taking me longer to record than I planned, due to technical issues and the fact that they are a lot longer than one of my typical weekly episodes. They'll come out to almost two hours of narration, but the time-consuming part is all the editing it takes to get a clean sound.

Until then, live long and prosper.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Serious Look at Comedy, Part XIa

Part XIa
An Hysterical Analysis: Galaxy Quest, Part 1

A couple of months ago, while watching Galaxy Quest on a road trip, I took notes on some of the things I found funny or remotely humorous. Of course, writing out something like this is going to kill the comedy but I hope that this analysis will help you understand some of the comedy techniques we've been discussing. Also, remember, we all find different things funny, so what I bring out may not be funny to you and I may miss a few things that you thought were hilarious. I'll use the movie character names here because of the confusing aspect of actors playing actors playing characters. *Spoiler Warning* Everything that follows:

In the first minute, we see an over-acted “lost episode” during a fan convention. This establishes the movie as a spoof of our dearly beloved Star Trek and its conventions.

At two minutes, we see the actual 'intrepid crew', but we get the rule of opposites here: they are neither intrepid nor very happy to be around each other.

When we hit 3:40, the captain, Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), arrives. He is happy and soaking up all the attention he gets from these conventions while the rest of his crew is not (opposites).

5:15: Alexander (Alan Rickman) wears a rubber head in order to reprise his role as an alien character from the old TV series. He refuses to say his famous line, “By Grabthar's Hammer,” establishing that he is tired of his role and wants out. The video behind him says it anyway and we see his chagrin.

6:05: When Jason finally comes out, he revels in the attention he is getting from the crowd as he says his famous lines. When he tries to continue, the mic gets cut off, creating an awkward and embarrassing situation for him.

7:22: A group of kids who are big fans of the show arrive to ask Jason about a 'conundrum'. Here is some truth in humor as this isn't so much as mocking fandom but portraying it and letting us see some of the humor. Of course, they get cut off as Jason decides to go flirt with Gwen (Sigourney Weaver).

8:04: Aliens, called Thermians, from the Klaatu Nebula arrive (this name probably is a reference to the 1951 sci-fi movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still and the line 'klaatu berada nicto', creating a nice little inside joke for sci-fi fans). They look silly and awkward. There is a misunderstanding between them and Jason; Jason thinks they are booking him for a 'gig' while the Thermians think he's a real starship captain who can help them with an evil bad guy. We get so see another silly aspect of them as they imitate Jason saying 'mum'.

9:25: We then get a serious moment when Jason overhears people making fun of him. He comes back to the signing table and snaps at the kids with the conundrum. He then goes home and gets drunk. This isn't funny, but it sets up character motivation and some humor down the road.

12:00: We see Jason hungover and not wearing pants (this is always funny, right?). Meanwhile, the Thermians show up, looking as goofy as ever. Here we see opposites again with Jason a hungover wreck while the aliens continue their humorous smiles. The aliens also talk in a silly way.

13:08: Mathesar (Enrico Calatoni), the Thermian leader, says, “You are our last hope.” At this moment, Jason isn't giving us much hope of anything.

13:39: Here we get one of my favorite parts of the movie. While Jason is looking for his shoe with his underwear-covered butt pointed toward them, Mathesar says, “This is our greatest honor we could hope to achieve in our lifetime.” This combines embarrassment with a statement of truth.

13:48: Those of us who have ever sent kids out to find something get a kick out of this when Jason asks for help finding his shoe and the aliens just stand in one spot and humorously look around, smiling.

14:23: In this scene, the Thermians are riding with Jason in a limo. As one of the aliens goes into some exposition about their problem, we are distracted from it's boredom by the Jason's actions. We get a further distraction when when he tries to flirt with the cute alien girl, Laliari (Missi Pyle), who then speaks in a shrill (thus, funny) voice because her translator is broken.

15:30: Jason wakes up, drooling (awkward, ridicule). He burps (crude). At this point, Jason still believes this is an acting gig. It is a conflict of misperceptions.

16:55: Jason makes a joke but it flops (awkward), mainly because of the different interpretations of the situation.

17:14: Jason sips from his soda as he addresses the big lizard-like baddie, Sarris. The Thermians are all frightened while Jason thinks the special effects are good and he is still just doing an acting job. Jason acts bored by Sarris's speech so he orders a full assault. We see an alien running around the ship in a silly fashion (reminiscent of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks sketch). We finally learn the aliens were hoping Jason would negotiate with Sarris, not fire on him (awkward). Still, it looks like Jason defeated Sarris so the aliens are grateful for him saving them. Jason is again put in an uncomfortable situation when Mathesar tries to hug him.

19:07: We see Jason go into a panic when ooze covers his body (think: pie in face) in order to shoot him back to earth. He realizes that the whole situation he was just in was real (including revelatory music) just before he is launched through space, screaming (more opportunity to laugh at his discomfort). When he lands, he is standing next to his pool, shaking.

20:12: The rest of the crew is at a store opening and reciting lines like they'd rather be somewhere else. Jason shows up, bumping into the kids. He accidentally swaps the real communicator the aliens gave him with a fake one belonging to one of the kids. When Jason reaches the rest of the crew, he tells them what happened to him but they don't believe him. He tries to prove he's telling the truth by activating his fake communicator. The others mock him by showing him theirs.

At 21:51, the Thermians returns with bad news: Sarris was not defeated. Jason uses a malaprop when he introduces the Thermians as 'termites'.

22:51: There's more misunderstanding when the rest of the crew starts to suspect Jason is talking about a job. There's that moment of silence while they all ponder the possibility before they all dash out of the van at once (comedic rhythm). Guy (Sam Rockwell), who has just been tagging along as an outsider, joins in, not realizing what he's getting himself into.

24:18: They are transported to the Thermian base. The Thermians walk into the room without their disguises, thus freaking out the crew. They restore them just before Jason shows up. Guy screams, in opposition to Jason's excitement. When Fred the engineer (Tony Shalhoub) arrives, Jason and Fred poke fun at the rest of the crew. “What's wrong with them?” Fred asks. Jason answers, “I don't know.” As they walk further into the ship, Tommy the pilot (Daryl Mitchell) falls down, providing us with a little slapstick.

At 25:57, we see the aliens worshiping the crew. The crew learns that the aliens believe the television transmissions of their show are historical documents and thus, all true. The aliens have no concept of acting, pretending, or drama. This sets up the humorous situation the crew finds themselves in: they are frauds. We get further humor when the aliens don't recognize Guy, but when he tells them he was in the show, they revere him as much as the other crew members. Gwen summarizes the situation by saying, “We're actors, not astronauts.”

29:33, Jason is eating up all the attention. Alexander says, “It's like throwing gasoline on a flame.” At the same time, Guy is all smiles, just loving being a part of the crew which puts him as an exact opposite of Alexander's glumness.

30:26: Thermian crew called in by Malthesar's screech and they enter with their characteristic silly walk.

30:50: Jason says to Tommy, “Loredo, take us out.” Tommy, “Excuse me?” Tommy may have been the child pilot on the show but he has no idea how to actually fly the ship the Thermians constructed for them. As they launch, things seem to be going okay until the ship starts drifting to the side. We get some visual humor as they try to use body movements to steer the ship away from the side of the dock. The ship hits and we get the obnoxious scraping sound for several seconds until the ship clears. Once clear, we see Tommy's embarrassment as the Thermians all clap.

33:15: The crew is served food the Thermians think they'll like based on their observations of the 'historical documents'. Since Alexander plays an alien in the show, they assume he likes the tics they serve him. Alexander says, grimacing, “Just like mother used to make.” This allows us to laugh at his discomfort as the tick does a dive back into the bowl. Also at this time, Mathesar goes into more boring exposition. Everyone is now paying close attention except for Guy, who is first dangling a long string of alien spaghetti into his mouth and a moment later, gags on it.

35:30: After seeing the previous captain being tortured, the crew tries to make a run for it. This is no longer just an acting gig, but a life and death situation. We get Guy's speech, “I'm not even supposed to be here. I'm just crewman #6. I'm the guy who dies.” This is an obvious poke at the high death rate of people who wore red shirts in the original Star Trek.

36:29: Jason talks to Sarris again to explain the previous 'misunderstanding'. Tries to have Gwen mute the broadcast. Jason then calls Sarris stupid and ugly (insult humor). Unfortunately, Gwen didn't mute it and Sarris hears every word (awkward). We then get Guy speaking some highly-complex terminology by saying, “Red thingy moving toward the green thingy. I think we're the green thingy.”

Anyway, this is getting a little long and one of my goals with this series is to give you short, quick articles to read. I'll take up the rest of the movie next week. Until then: never give up, never surrender!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Serious Look at Comedy, Part X

Part X
Steer Truck: Into Dorkness

Sorry for being a little late, but when I started on this project, I did initially say Thursday or Friday. Hopefully, not too many of you lost sleep as you anxiously awaited this installment. Once you read it, you are welcome to take a nap.

This week, we'll talk a little more about setting. What are some other good ways to create a humorous world to put our intrepid main characters in? We can try spoofs, parodies, and satires. Some of the already aforementioned worlds of Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker's Guide) and Terry Pratchett (Disc World) fit into one or more of these categories.

Spoofs: are a lighthearted imitation of something in order to make fun of them. The movie Galaxy Quest is a good example of this. Even the title is a play on words for Star Trek. All through the movie are subtly hidden spoofs of the original Star Trek series, like Tim Allen managing to get his shirt ripped off. In fact, there is so much we could discuss about this movie that I'll save that for it's own installment.

I've done this in my Tales of Myrick the (Not So) Magnificent by creating a fantasy world that pokes some fun at traditional swords and sorcery. I also threw in characters that spoof classic heroes like Conan and Elric of Melnibone.

Parodies: are pretty similar to spoofs, and are often considered the same, but I would differentiate them as something making fun of a more serious source material. For instance, in 1969 the Harvard Lampoon produced a book called Bored of the Rings that hilariously mocks the names, situations, and characters from Tolkien. They did another one called Doon based on Frank Herbert's classic with a similar sounding name.

Satires: have been with us since at least the Greeks. They tend to expose human or society foibles in such a way as to ridicule them. This is the source of a lot of the humor from Adams and Pratchett as they bring up aspects of English society in their sci-fi or fantasy worlds and make them look ridiculous.

There are all sorts of levels for these categories from subtle to outrageous. It's up to you to decide to what degree you want to show these elements, but be careful of how weird you get or you might lose some of your audience.

Next week, I'll see if I can do a scene-by-scene breakdown of Galaxy Quest, but no promises.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Serious Look at Comedy, Part IX

Part IX
Location, Location, Location

Last week we talked about how we can create a humorous atmosphere by putting our main character against their supporting cast. This could also be classified as the 'man versus man' conflict. This week's topic is related, but this time we pit our wily and witty hero against their social environment, or 'man versus society'. Of course, putting our character against their setting also includes the 'man versus nature' conflict, too.

This is pretty simple. Say we want to have a scene at a fast food establishment. What's the fun in having it at a boring old place like that? How about if we have them meet at Wally's Wiggly Pickle Palace? First off, the name connotes humor, but it makes it more believable when silly/funny things happen. In Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, did they take Napoleon (yes, the Napoleon) to some run-of-the-mill ice cream place? No, they took him to Ziggy Piggy and had him 'eat the pig'.

So, having a funny-sounding name adds humor, but how about if we spice up the location a little? In the upcoming second season of Delroy Versus the Pirates of Poughkeepsie, I needed him to go investigate the New Vegas Space Station and Casino. I was racking my brain trying to think of how I could make this setting more interesting and create humorous conflict. I realized that casinos often host conventions. I next asked myself, what kind of convention could be going on during Delroy's visit? How about a Star Trek convention? That would allow me a few inside jokes for sci-fi fans. I also decided that Delroy would know next to nothing about Star Trek while his butler-bot, Minx, would be an expert on it. This creates a 'fish out of water' situation. Fish out of water is a great way to put our characters in conflict with their surroundings. We can see this in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or The Hobbit (books and movies – the movies even used the same comic actor—Martin Freeman).

Another thing we can do is create an entirely humorous world to set our characters in. This is what Douglas Adams did in Hitchhiker's as well as Terry Pratchett with his Discworld books (and the city of Ankh-Morpork). Another series I enjoyed was the Myth series by Robert Lynn Asprin. These are all good to study if you want to see how to create a comical yet functional world.

Of course, man versus nature can create humorous situations, too. Most of the time, though, this type of story is more dramatic, such as Jack London's short story To Build a Fire or movies like The Perfect Storm. The only humorous example I can think of right now is the 2004 movie Without a Paddle. It all boils down to how the characters respond to the stimuli or their situation that makes it comical.

So, have fun and happy world-building.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Serious Look at Comedy, Part VIII

Journey to the Four Realms

How else can we make our stories humorous? How else can we create that 'atmosphere of funny' that we talked about in Part III? 

Character interactions. It's where our main point-of-view character is in opposition to the cast that surrounds them. Sometimes it's just two characters, like cop-buddy stories, but we don't have to limit ourselves to only two.

I break this into four categories. First off, we have the serious main character with a serious supporting cast. How boring. We'll save that category for those who want to win Oscars or other awards.

Next, we have the serious character with a comic supporting cast. When I was writing Dragon War Relic, someone in my writing group mentioned my 'Kermit the Frog' character. At first, I didn't know what he meant until I realized that Jared, my very serious, down-to-earth main character was surrounded by a wise-cracking teen, a vegetarian ogre, and three short elves who loved Star Trek and had Tolkien-elf envy. With the Muppets, Kermit is the one sane character surrounded by Fozzy Bear, Miss Piggy, and Gonzo the Great. Other examples: Space Jam (Michael Jordan versus all the Looney Toons) and Back to the Future (Marty McFly versus Doc Brown, Biff, and his teenage parents). Oh, and how can we forget good ol' Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

Another category is the comic character with a serious cast. The main thing that carries this is the POV character's 'comic perspective' (which I'll try to expand upon in a later installment). Basically, the comic perspective is the way the character perceives and comments on their world. This is often what makes stand-up comics so hilarious. The first example that comes to mind for me is ABC's Castle series starring Nathan Fillion. You have your wise-cracking author (who we writers tend to idolize) surrounded by a bunch of serious NYPD detectives. From the literary world, we have the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, except we have a wise-cracking wizard in modern-day Chicago. Or Larry Correia's Monster Hunter series with Owen Pitt. I currently have a series on Big World Network called Delroy Versus the Pirates of Poughkeepsie which, obviously from the title, pits my clever scam artist (at least he'd like to think so) against a bunch of cut-tongue killers.

Lastly, we have the comic main character surrounded by yet even more goofballs. One famous example is the Disc World series by Terry Pratchett, where you have people like the criminal Moist Von Lipwig (funny-sounding name, too) surrounded by an entire city of hilarious characters. My Big World Network serious Tales of Myrick the (Not So) Magnificent also is set in this kind of world, with my wizard-wannabe Myrick traveling with the ever-fearful Nut-boy, the thought-challenged Nonac the Barbarian, and a surfer dude from San Diego who possess a sword that sucks all happiness out of its victims.

So, hopefully that gives you some food for thought as you are creating your worlds and characters. Good luck.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Serious Comedy, Part I B

Serious Comedy, Part IB

We're going to backtrack a little this week. We'll get into some other methods for creating an atmosphere of funny next week.

Back when I was writing part one, I was trying to remember another aspect of why writing comedy seems hard. For the life of me, it didn't come until a couple of weeks ago. And it was one of those 'duh' moments. This reason is why I came up with the title 'Serious Comedy' in the first place. I'm dumbfounded it took me so long to remember this point.

Anyway, here it is: nobody takes comedy seriously. When I say this, I get funny looks, like, “Well, of course, comedy is comedy. It's not supposed to be taken seriously.” True, but that's not what I mean.
As I've said before, just about everyone wants to laugh. I believe that is why humorous jokes, stories, books, TV shows, and movies are a significant part of our culture. We need them to help us meet our need for humor. The question I ask is, what percentage of our entertainment is comedy? Maybe fifteen to twenty percent (I'm guesstimating)?

Okay, next question. What percentage of comedy movies have won Oscars? When I perused the list, I didn't recognize any. Now, there were a few that had humor in them, but they were not full-blown comedies. Of course, I don't know much about the movies from the thirties, forties, and fifties, so there might be one hiding there, but I doubt it. In fact, even looking at the list of nominees that didn't win Oscars, I didn't recognize any comedies. Wouldn't you think that if fifteen percent of all movies were comedies, fifteen percent of the nominees and winners would also be comedies? It makes sense to me. However, since they are not well represented in the Oscars, I return to my hypothesis that comedy isn't taken seriously.

At least with the Emmy awards, there are separate categories for comedy. I believe if it weren't for that, comedy would be completely ignored there as well. And literature? I've looked over several lists of the “100 all-time best novels” and found a few comedies, but not very many. It's interesting the variations between the different lists, though, based on the opinion of their compilers. It just shows how everyone has different taste and it is not possible to please all the critics.

So, yeah, when comedies don't win a lot of awards, we can get to thinking that comedy is hard. It just doesn't seem appreciated. Well, it is, so don't let that thought bring you down. Just because what we write will probably never win any of those snooty awards, there are still people out there who need to be uplifted and cheered up by what we write. Now get out there and (cue 'Singing in the Rain' music): “Make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh.”

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Serious Look at Comedy, Part VII

Part VII: POW, Right in the Kisser, Part 2

Last week, we covered a few plays on words like malaprops, reforming, and oxymorons. This week, we'll go over puns, double entendres, and clichés.

Some writers feel that puns are the lowest form of humor and that they shouldn't be used. I feel, though, that if you outlaw puns, only outlaws will have puns. Yes, it's okay to groan. In fact, that's usually the best result you can hope for. If you want to avoid puns because of this, that's fine. Personally, I like puns. You definitely don't want to use them a lot, but they can be useful in our desire to create an atmosphere of funny.

Just a couple of weeks ago, there was one that happened on Duck Dynasty that I think accomplished the desired goal of adding to the comedic atmosphere without distracting from it. In the episode, one brother, Jace, was making a duck blind that looked like a cow. The other brother, Willy, comes in and says, “This is udderly stupid.”

Sometimes these plays on words overlap in definition. For instance, Willy's statement above could also be considered a double entendre, where we use a word or phrase that can have two meanings. Most of the time, though, double entendres are used to disguise sex jokes. Even if that's not the humor we want to use, double entendres can be a clean and useful tool. Here are a few examples of malaprops from newspaper articles that are also unintended double entendres:

Miners refuse to work after death.
New obesity study looks for larger test group.
Children make delicious snacks.
In our writing and English classes, we've been taught to avoid clichés. Well, for comedy writing, I disagree. Cliches are gold mines for comedy writers. Why? Because they have audience expectations built into them. We just have to make sure that before it's over, we've twisted it into an unexpected outcome. A simple example comes from Back to the Future, where the bully, Biff, says after the principle arrives, “Let's make like a tree and get out of here.”

Tropes are another form of cliché that often are used as short cuts for explanations. These are used a lot in the genre I write; fantasy. For instance, all you have to do is say 'elf' and the fantasy reader automatically thinks of these tall, sleek warriors with excellent woodcraft and archery skills. In my book, Dragon War Relic, I realized how cliché and overused that was. I also realized that before Tolkien, elves were short little creatures full of mischief. Even the Santa Claus elves were watered down. I decided to go back to the traditional elf for my three elf characters as a way to poke fun at the Tolkien version. My elves are ornery, huge Star Trek fans (naming themselves Kerk, Sprock, and Bob), and they have Tolkien-elf envy.

I'm not sure what we'll explore next week yet. If you have any suggestions for topics you'd be interested in, let me know. Until then, remember, comedy saves lives.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Serious Look at Comedy, Part VI

VI. POW, Right in the Kisser, Part 1

Abbott: I'm telling you. Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third–
Costello: You know the fellows' names?
A: Yes.
C: Well, then who's playing first?
A: Yes.
C: I mean the fellow's name on first base.
A: Who.
C: The fellow playin' first base.
A: Who.
C: The guy on first base.
A: Who is on first.
C: Well, what are you askin' me for?

We've all heard this comedy routine over the years. It has stood the test of time. Why is it funny? One reason is because of what we call 'play on words', or POWs. POWs are used all the time in comedy and there are several different forms: puns, malaprops, oxymorons, double entendres, twisting cliches, reforming words, etc. There are a lot of things to cover here, so we'll only discuss three this week.

Let's start with malaprops. “What does that mean?” you ask. Well, let's just say that it's a fancy way of describing when we misspeak with a humorous result. They mainly work if the person saying them is unaware of what they are saying. Do you remember our previous statements from insurance claims? Go ahead, look back. Okay, most of those are malaprops. Here are a few other examples:

     On a wedding announcement: “Mr. And Mrs. John Smith request your presents at their daughter's wedding.”
     George W. Bush: “We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.”
     Former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley: “The police are not here to create disorder, they're here to preserve disorder.”

It can also be when words are improperly used in place of others. This is a common trick utilized in sketch comedies and sitcoms. For example, in Tim Allen's series, Home Improvement, Tim would often talk to his neighbor, Wilson. Wilson would give wise advice based on obscure references. Tim would later try to quote them to someone else and end up replacing his own words into Wilson's statements. Here's one example:

     W: Tim, it's not unusual for a father to want his son to succeed. You know, I'm reminded of what Wally Schirra, the astronaut said, “You don't raise heroes, you raise sons. But if you treat them as sons, they'll turn out to be heroes, even if it's just in your own eyes.”
     Then, when Tim tries to relate this advice to his son:
     T: I'm reminded of what the great astronaut, Wally Cleaver said. You can't expect your son to do his homework and eat a foot-long hero without Prussian dressing.

How can we use this in our novels? Well, one way is to build it into one of our characters (like Tim 'the Tool Man' Taylor). In Dragon War Relic, my comic-relief character, Doug, is not the brightest bulb on the tree and would often mix things up. Your not-so-comic characters can do it, too, but make sure it doesn't seem out of place for them to say it.

Another technique I use is one I call 'reforming words'. This is where a writer purposely reorders words or letters to create a kind of humorous time bomb: a joke that at first isn't realized until thought about later. Some examples can be found in my Tales of Myrick the (Not So) Magnificent stories. For instance, there's my barbarian character Nonac of Airamic. Nonac is just Conan with the first and last letters switched. Conan was from Cimmeria, so Airamic is a respelling of it backwards. I've also planted more little time bombs in my Myrick stories as a subtle way to make fun of our world and culture while having things set in a fantasy world. Like there are the monks who worship Endonynt (Nintendo). Also, several of the magic spells are scrambled statements waiting to be decoded.

Let's close this week with oxymorons. You probably already know what those are, two words next to each other that are contradictory. Things like: jumbo shrimp, pretty ugly, soft rock, alone together (though it's a great jazz standard), and Congressional Ethics. Some of my favorites are: military intelligence, rock musician, and country music. A good use for these is in chapter titles. Oxymorons utilize the principle of opposites, which is a commonly used technique that we'll delve more into later.

Next time, we'll deal with puns, cliches, and double entendres.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Serious Look at Comedy, Part V

V. Once, Twice, Three Times a Comedian

Do you remember that graph we talked about last time? If you don't, I'll wait a second for you to go back and look at it. I'll wait right here until you return. Finished? Okay.

In review, that graph represents a setup along a certain train of thought and then does a surprise, 90 degree twist at the end. Well, a simple way to utilize this graph is with the rule of three.

The rule of three is used in many ways. It could be a group of three characters (Harry, Ron, and Hermione; Larry, Moe, and Curly), it could be three obstacles a character faces, or three parts of a joke. Even in our fairy tales, a pattern of three is often used (how many bears did Goldilocks face?). I've even encountered it in jazz improvisation, where it's a common technique to state a musical idea two times to set up an expectation and on the third repetition, change it to surprise the listener. In comedy writing, it is sometimes called the comic triple and can be used in several ways.

One method is to make a list of three things. The first two set up the expectation, then the third one breaks it. Here is a classic example from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure:

Beethoven's favorite works include Mozart's Requiem, Handel's Messiah, and Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet.”

We can use this trick in our novels, too. For instance, here's a little snippet from an upcoming Delroy story I have coming out in a few weeks on Big World Network:

     Several hours later, after a good nap and some quality self-loathing, the door to my makeshift prison clicked and opened. Captain Rob entered with Marv the Malicious and Typhoid Larry close behind. “How's it going, Del?” Rob asked with a wide smile.
     “Great,” I answered. “While I've been waiting, I developed a better way to travel faster than light, came up with a solution for galaxy hunger, and invented a new device to painlessly shave back hair.”

When I was in high school, I used this technique without realizing it. My class was asked to come up with a phrase to describe myself and draw a picture of it so that it could be put on display in the school district offices. This was what I came up with: I am like a pasture; smooth, easy going, and full of B.S. For some reason, the school administration opted to not put it on display.

Of course, the rule of three doesn't just apply to lists. Sometimes it entails three different people or groups responding to a situation. Take the example from the last installment with the three presidents. Now, think about all those obnoxious jokes you've heard over the years. Things like, “A priest, a rabbi, and a Mormon walk into a bar…” 

Sometimes the pattern comes out during a conversation, like someone making a statement, another person asking a question about it, and then a response. This might be a more natural way to have the rule of three in your novels. Here's an example:

“My uncle ran for Senate last year.”
“Really? What does he do now?”
“Nothing. He got elected.”

These types of conversations often happen in real life. For instance, one time I posted on facebook, “The reason why I give the dog treats all the time is because she at least acts excited when I walk into the room.” My daughter responded, “Well, maybe we'd get more excited, too, if you gave us treats.” I replied, “Okay, but I didn't think you liked Milkbones.”

Now, is this a hard and fast rule without variation? Of course not. But often, only one segment to set up the twist isn't enough, and more than two can make it feel too long. Use your common sense, but most of the time, three is enough.

Next week, I'll sock it to you.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Serious Look at Comedy, Part IV

IV. The Joke's on Hugh

I'm sure you've heard the expression by now, “The secret to humor is surprise.” And it's true, especially in the joke department.

Jokes are a subset of comedy writing. They are primarily the domain of the stand-up comics and that guy who seems to be at the water cooler every time you walk by. A joke is primarily a short story with a humorous twist at the end. The problem is that you can't build a novel out of them. You can use them, but only as one of many tools.

Writing jokes can be boiled down to this simple graph:

“What does it mean?” you ask. It's not very exciting to look at, but keeping this simple graph in mind can help us when writing our jokes. The horizontal line represents the set-up; it is the expectation created in our audience's mind. The sudden 90 degree change represents the punchline that twists away from the expectation.

Here's an example by Richard Dran: “I have a rock garden. Last week, three of them died.” We're first set up to believe we are talking about a nice little ornamental display made out of rocks. When the last word, 'died', hits, its an unexpected twist that we find funny. Why? Because rocks can't die, unless you are a really, really horrible rock gardener.

Here's another example: President Obama and former presidents Clinton and Bush are all out hunting together. They discover some tracks, stop, and try to determine what animal created them. Bush says, “Those are rabbit tracks.” Clinton says, “No, no, I've seen these a lot while in Arkansas. These are deer tracks.” The two of them argue for quite a while until they decide to ask the current president for his wise opinion. Before Obama can answer, all three of them are run over by a train.

See how the misdirection works? This time, the expectation is that they are looking at tracks created by one of our cute, furry friends. Then BAM! No more presidents. There's also the element of three supposedly intelligent men being completely stupid but we'll talk more about opposites and contrasts later. It also uses the rule of three, which I'll talk about next week.

The trick is to make sure we surprise the audience. If it is too predicable, though, our audience can lose interest. I'm sure you've been to a movie or read a book where at some point you predicted what would happen next. When you predict a lot of it correctly, do you like it more or less? At the opposite end of the spectrum, if it's too hard for the audience to make the connection, we also lose.
The moral of the story: find ways to create surprise by using the sudden twist.

Over the next few weeks, we'll discuss some ways to utilize the joke formula, as well as other tools for creating our 'atmosphere of funny'.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Serious Look at Comedy, Part III

III. Cumulative Comedy

First, some news. For today and tomorrow, the Kindle version of Delroy Versus the Yshtari is free on Amazon. You can find it here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DFM2M5Q/ref=tsm_1_fb_lk It is a sci-fi/comedy. If you don't have a Kindle or Kindle app, you can also read them on Windows and Mac computers. So, download away and enjoy.

This week, we'll explore what most comedy writing is: creating an 'atmosphere of funny'. Even though having lots of hilarious punchlines is great, it just doesn't work with novel writing like it does in stand-up comedy. We have to tell a longer story. Another name I've given this principle is 'cumulative comedy' and it works like this:

Think back to a time when you were young, say last week, when you were with a bunch of friends. You started laughing at something one of them said. Then someone adds to it, then you get your quip in, and before you know it, all of you are on the floor in danger of needing hernia surgery. Then someone walks in (another friend, mom, parole officer) and they look at all of you like you are space aliens. You, in your desire to let them in on the revelry, explain to them, step-by-step, how you ended up in your jovial circumstances. They shake their head, turn around, and leave, now knowing for sure that at least some of you are from the planet Theespeoplaridiots. What went wrong? Why didn't they join in? It could be the different sense of humor thing, but most likely not. The problem was, they were not there while the 'atmosphere of funny' was created.

You've probably seen a series of stupid cat pictures that by the end had you laughing whether you wanted to or not. Or how about that list of insurance claims:

“I was driving along the motorway when the police pulled me over onto the hard shoulder. Unfortunately I was in the middle lane and there was another car in the way.”
“I started to slow down but the traffic was more stationary than I thought.”
“I pulled into a lay-by with smoke coming from under the hood. I realised the car was on fire so took my dog and smothered it with a blanket.”
Q: Could either driver have done anything to avoid the accident? A: Traveled by bus?
“I collided with a stationary truck coming the other way.”
“I was on my way to the doctor with rear end trouble when my universal joint gave way causing me to have an accident.”
“The car in front hit the pedestrian but he got up so I hit him again.”
“The other car collided with mine without giving warning of its intention.”
“I had been driving for forty years when I fell asleep at the wheel and had an accident.”
“The gentleman behind struck me on the backside. He then went to rest in a bush with just his rear end showing.”
“The pedestrian ran for the pavement but I got him.”
When a claimant collided with a cow. Q: What warning was given by you? A: Horn. Q: What warning was given by the other party? A: Moo.

You probably didn't find any of these lines by themselves to be super hilarious. At the same time, by the time you reached the end, you were probably laughing. Or at least got a good chuckle. The reason for that is because each line contributed more to the cumulative comedic effect.

Here is an example from my Big World Network series, Delroy Versus the Ysthari (did I mention it was free today and tomorrow on Amazon Kindle?). Delroy is trying to escape from an Yshtari kitchen (lobster-like aliens who think humans are delicious) before they can eat him. For better or worse, he is aided by his butler bot, Minx:

     The door opened, and I saw that obnoxious LED smile beaming down at me. “You can get out now, sir.”
     I climbed out of the oven, glaring at Minx. “What in the world do you think you're doing?”
     “I had to convince the Yshtari that you were no longer a threat.” He pointed to a bathtub-sized pot sitting on the table where they'd had me chained. “Now, please climb into that pot.”
     “What? You expect me to just hop out of the oven and into a stew pot? I don't think so.”
     “Trust me, sir, I'm trying to help you escape before the Yshtari return.”
     I looked around the kitchen. “Where are they?”
     “I convinced them to temporarily leave. Please sir, you must hurry. They'll be back soon.”
     “What are you cooking up in that addled processor of yours?” I climbed up on to the table. The pot was filled with some kind of greenish broth. It looked like snot. “I'm not getting into that.”
     “Please sir, I must insist.”
     “It's the safest way I know of to smuggle you out of here.”
     “Yes, but in a broth? Can't you think of another way?”
     “Not really. After all, I am programmed for cooking, not exotic escape plans. Oh, and I'm sorry that the spirulina sauce isn't to the right consistency. I didn't have much time.”
     “Right. Whatever.” I looked back into the pot and stuck my foot in. “Brr. It's cold. I sure hope you know what you're doing.” Against my better judgment, I climbed into the cold, syrupy liquid.
     “Okay, sir, now lie down and put this apple in your mouth.” He held it out to me.
     “I don't like apples.” I shivered as I eased myself down into a sitting position in the pot.
     “It's not for you, it’s for the presentation.”
     “What present—” I couldn't finish because he jammed it into my open mouth.
     “Now relax and hold still. We only have about a minute before they return.”
     I looked at him feeling a mixture of anger and confusion. He opened up a container and picked up a brush-like utensil. “Now, hold still.” He painted a foul-smelling red sauce all over my face.
     When I couldn't take it any more, I spat the apple out and let it plunk into the liquid. It sat on top without sinking. “What are you doing?”
     For an answer, Minx picked the apple up and shoved it back in. It tasted like rotten algae. “Sir, you really need to calm down. Now hold still and look cooked.”

Another good example I've thought of is the opening scene from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams when the main character, Arthur Dent, is trying to keep the bulldozers from destroying his house. Look it up; it's worth it.

Cumulative Comedy is powerful, though, even if the jokes aren't huge. Just keep plugging away with lots of little 'jokoids' and before you know it, your audience will be ROFLAWP (rolling on floor laughing and wetting pants). Remember, everyone has a different sense of humor; when you use several smaller jokes one of them is bound to hit someone just right.

Next week's installment will be a surprise.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Serious Look at Comedy, Part II

II. Why Writing Comedy is Easy

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. They both die in the process.” E.B. White

How ya'll been? I hope you haven't lost too much sleep in anticipation of this week's installment.

Here is what I believe: writing comedy is easy. “Well, that's easy for you to say,” you say. “You have a natural knack for it. Unless you have the gift, it's hopeless.”

Not so, my friends. Anyone can learn to write funny, as long as you know a few principles. Being funny in real life is another matter, and I can't help you there. But writing? That's something we can work with.

Why is comedy easy? There is one important thing to remember: everyone wants to laugh. Well, everyone except maybe Mrs. Axechucker, your junior high librarian. Even though it's true that everyone has a different sense of humor, just about everyone is looking for something they can laugh at. It's natural and it feels good. When they pick up your comedic masterpiece, they are rooting for you to succeed at making them laugh. We all have to deal with stress in our daily lives and laughter is a great way to relieve it. I believe we comedy writers don't get enough credit for keeping people from going psycho after a hard day's work. Comedy saves lives.

On a side note, I remember reading about a man, Norman Cousins, who was diagnosed with an 'incurable' illness and sent home to die. He decided laughter would cure his disease, so he got a bunch of Marx brothers movies and laughed himself back to health. True story. Comedy saves lives.

I think stand up comics have done us a bit of a disservice and make us put unfair expectations upon ourselves. The good ones can get us laughing almost every time with their punch lines. It makes us think, “All my jokes need to do this, too. All of my humor needs to end with an amazing zinger that has everyone rolling on the floor.” Though that's not a bad goal, we don't actually have to do that. Humor doesn't rely upon hitting a home run each time we go to bat. It can be, and usually is, more subtle.

Here's another thing: we don't have to write the perfect joke with the first try. There's this thing called rewriting. We'll get several chances during each of our edits to improve or upgrade the joke we first wrote. Many times as I'm writing, I think, “Something funny needs to go here.” I put my brain to work on coming up with something funny, and all I get is, “spice this scene up with a llama.” Or sometimes I just write: [insert joke here]. When nothing better comes along, I'll use whatever poor, weak excuse for a joke I have. There, I put a 'funny' in, but I know I don't want to keep it. I call them 'placer jokes'. When I come back later, I see that joke and go, “Ugh.” So I try again. I may improve it, come up with a better one, or cut it. But that's the thing, we get several shots at coming up with a better line.

Related to the above point is that most jokes are garbage. They say 90% of them are crap. This is true for everyone, even the greatest comedy writers. The trick is to generate, on average, ten jokes for every one we want to use. This is what those great stand up comics do. The odds are we'll come up with an upgrade at some point. This principle applies to plotting our stories, too, which is to not necessarily go with your first thought but to brainstorm several ideas and then pick the best one.
Another thing to help overall with comedy writing is to be a comedy connoisseur. Try watching sitcoms and comedic movies. And if you want to write clean humor, watch the old classics: Leave it to Beaver, Get Smart, Bewitched, The Dick Van Dyke show, etc. Many of these shows had great humor and writing without the questionable stuff. It also can get us in a humorous mood which helps when writing comedy. And when you do find something funny to you, write it down in your comedy journal. This applies to books, too.

Lastly, don't be afraid to let other people read your stuff. This is especially true with comedy. Have several people read it and get responses from them: friends, family, writer's group/enemies. It's also interesting to note who found what to be funny. It will be different for each reader, but if no one likes a joke, that's a good indication to cut it. Often, it is better to have no joke at all than a lame one.
I learned this recently with my attempt to be the first person to write a dystopian comedy. It failed just as miserably as my attempt to write Amish science fiction. The grim mood of the novel made the attempts at humor feel wrong and out of place. As much as my internal comedian hated cutting out all the jokes, it improved the story immensely when I did.

So, don't despair my fellow comedians. In the next articles, we'll explore some concepts and techniques we can use to create an 'atmosphere of funny'. And always remember, comedy saves lives.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Serious Look at Comedy, Part I

I. “Why is Writing Comedy So Hard?”

“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” –Edmund Kean on his deathbed.

I was at a writing conference once where I kept hearing several different instructors and attendees complain about how hard it was to write comedy. I kept thinking, “What do they mean? Comedy is easy. It's a lot easier than writing that drama stuff.” Nevertheless, a lot of writers I talk to feel that comedy is hard to do. I hope to show through this series of articles that comedy is not hard. It's actually easier than we think
Why do we feel it's so hard? Well, here are a few reasons:

The biggest hurdle we have to get over is that everyone has a different sense of humor. We've all had that experience where we hear a joke that we think is hilarious. We can't wait to tell someone, and when we do, it flops. Doesn't do much for our joke-telling self-confidence, does it? Was it a bad joke? Did we suck at the delivery? Or is it just that our funny bone is broken? Usually, it's none of the above. What might be funny to you can seem stupid or cheesy or gross to someone else. But, trust me, there is someone out there who will also think the joke is funny. You're not alone. Bottom line is, no one can write the ultimate joke that everyone will think is funny. It has only happened once, during World War II, as we learned from a very informative documentary done by the highly reputable news source called Monty Python. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3k7hKCdPcI

It also can be a bit of a challenge to make a funny joke that is not predictable. When people do predict the punchline, it isn't funny to them. In the chess match between us and our reader, we've lost when that happens (same with plot, by the way). It's bound to occur sometimes because every reader is different, but as long as it doesn't happen too frequently, we'll be okay. We see this a lot in the older sitcoms, and their technique to get us to laugh was to throw a laugh track in. I hate those things. To me, the modern equivalent is writing 'LOL' at the end of a line. Just make the joke and let people either enjoy it or not. Sorry, I'll get off my soapbox.

Another obstacle for some of us is wanting to keep the humor clean. Have you noticed how a lot of the young comedians tend to rely upon rude and crude humor to get their laughs? Even our older comedians like Robin Williams and Steve Martin tended toward the raunchy side of humor in their early days until they learned to add more comedic weapons to their arsenals. Why do so many gravitate toward crude jokes? It's easier to surprise your audience and get a laugh. After all, they say the secret to comedy is surprise. When we don't want to use the dirty joke option, it takes away one of the easier tools. It means there's more of a learning curve for clean comedians. 

Here are some of the tools used on the darker side of comedy:
*Foul language
*Sex jokes
*Gross out/crude

Does it mean we can't use them? No, but when we do we run the risk of offending more people. Some comedians believe that to write good comedy you have to be willing to be offensive. I personally don't think that is necessary, though I do admit to using some of the 'dark side'. I am committed to not using foul language but I do have swearing in the form of made up words or 'he swore'. I totally avoid sex jokes. There's plenty of that out there and I don't believe in going that route. Crude humor I usually avoid, but have been guilty of slipping in an occasional flatulence reference. And insults? Well, I use that a lot, for better or worse. It's also been a main staple in sitcoms since the beginning. I'll talk more about this when we get into making characters feel awkward. But I believe it's possible to write comedy that totally avoids this list if you want. It's been done for centuries.

Next Thursday, we'll talk about why comedy writing is actually quite simple. Until then, keep it funny.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Cleaning out the Cobwebs

Yes, I know, a lot of dust has gathered here. It's not that I have nothing to blog about, but trying to keep up on writing novels and serial stories takes precedent over whether or not I blog. And usually, I don't have anything really new to contribute. However, I've had an idea to start a blog series for a while now (I've warned you about this) about writing comedy. Well, I'm finally ready to start putting articles up. Beginning tomorrow, I'll be putting an article up on Thursdays or Fridays (depending upon my schedule) of each week exploring different facets of comedy writing.

Why, you ask? Well, there isn't a lot out there about humor writing. Also, I just put together a presentation that I did for 'Life, the Universe, and Everything' in Provo, Utah last week called 'A Serious Look at Comedy'. Now, I don't claim to be a total expert on this, but I've had some experience and done some research on this and I believe anyone can write comedy if they know some of the tricks.

So be patient and wait for tomorrow. I know, it will be hard and some of you won't sleep tonight because of the excitement, but hang in there. And if you have questions or ideas, let me know. Until then, keep on laughing.