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.

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.