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.