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
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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
*Insults

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.

3 comments:

David J. West said...

I look forward to reading the rest of your tips Berin.

Anne said...

Is there a number two to dragon war relics?!

Berin Stephens said...

Anne, I have been wanting for a long time to return to the world of DWR. The first sequel was turned down by the publisher, but now I'm glad it was because it was awful. I'm planning to rewrite a sequel and possibly self-publish sometime this year but I have several other projects that have to be taken care of first.