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: 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.