Ace of Spades HQ takes a break from political commentary to discuss the eternal question (and one that has brought many Googlers to these pages), “What makes something funny?”
Ace kicks off by discussing a formula for humor as set forth by Dilbert creator Scott Adams in his new blog. According to Adams, humor is created, Chinese menu style, by combining more than one of the following elements: Cute, Naughty, Bizarre, Clever, Recognizable, and Cruel. In his book, choose two and you have funny. Choose four and you’ve knocked the ball out of the park. Choose five and you have unapproachable genius, something that only Bill Watterson in Calvin and Hobbes has done.
To bolster his formula, Adams shows analyzes a couple of neophyte comic strips and discusses what made Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side so brilliant, in light of his formula. I should note here that I disagree with Adams’ feelings on Calvin and Hobbes. He contends that the strip fell flat when the gags centered around the parents. To my mind, some of the most memorable gags occurred when you realized how the parents had to connive and scheme in order to deal with Calvin. Plus, C & H was about more than just the humor. Yes, it was consistently funny, but it was also beautifully drawn and expertly paced and timed. There’s a reason why many, including myself, consider it to be the best comic strip of all time.
(And yes, I’ve told my family that the only thing I want for Christmas this year is The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. Unless it’s that amber rosewood Nashville Telecaster that I played at the music store the other day…)
After discussing Adams/Dilbert, Ace provides us with a look at his own formula for writing humor. And what do you know, his thoughts work, too. Having read Ace for a while now, and having seen how he writes funny, I can see exactly how his formula applies. He calls it Premise and Tweak. You start with a mundane premise and then give it an out-of-left-field tweak that turns the premise on end. He gives a couple of examples that are good, albeit in a PG-13 sort of way.
What about me? This is my third outing writing about humor. I have two series of novels that are marked by their use of humor, have published one play that is a dark comedy, and am writing another that is carried along with humor. Surely I know something about the subject.
Well, the answer is that I know something is funny when I’m writing it. But I haven’t really analyzed it for what my formula is. Maybe later on down the road I’ll be able to tell you what my formula is.
In the meantime, here is what I do know about writing humor:
- Humor is one step away from horror and revulsion. Remember seeing Jaws for the first time? Remember how loud you screamed when the head rolled out of the wrecked boat? Remember how you laughed when it was over? You know how you laugh after someone gives you a good fright?
Humor takes a lot of its effectiveness in the unexpected. Just like horror does. The only things that determine whether you scream or laugh are context and the other key to humor… timing.
If you can combine the two – humor and revulsion – you get something that is unbearably funny, provided everything else works just right. There are only two movie moments in history where I was literally an inch from falling out of my seat because I was laughing so hard. One was the junction of these two elements.
From Pee Wee’s Big Adventure: “And when they pulled the driver from the burning wreckage of the truck… he looked like THIS!”
- Another important factor in humor is incongruity. Hence, the reason why Ace’s humor formula works, along with a great many jokes – something comes along that doesn’t fit in, not really, but in an instant you realize it is appropriate and the surprise triggers a laugh. Such as in the joke that ends with Bill Clinton saying “Well there I was, sitting in this refrigerator, minding my own business…”
Using incongruity is also tricky, but can pay off big time, too. The other cinematic moment that almost put me on the floor laughing uses it. That scene?
From Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Right. One rabbit stew coming right up.”
- The rule of threes. Ever notice that it’s three nuns that walk into a bar? That the salesman tries three times to get into bed with the farmer’s daughter? That the penguin tries something three times before the punchline hits? That there are three guys standing in line to see St. Peter at the Pearly Gates?
The rule of threes is important in terms of placing humor in context. In the case of the St. Peter joke, it gives you two perfectly rational explanations for why two men are waiting to get into heaven, setting you up for Bill Clinton’s story about sitting in the refrigerator. By pacing and timing the joke out, it sets you up for the incongruity.
- The power of humor mitigates grim circumstances. See again Jaws – the war stories sequence where three men on a boat compare scars. Right before the final battle with the shark. Or watch Robocop and think about what a grim, dark, unwatchable movie it would be if it wasn’t so bitingly funny. Incidentally, I had the idea for the Pembroke Hall novels for many years – but it wasn’t until I saw Robocop that I knew how to go about writing them. That film became my model for that project, using humor to disarm what was a very grim and unseemly premise.
- All the formulas work. Scott Adams’ is onto something with his formula. But so is Ace with his Premise and Tweak method. And so was Rowan Atkinson with the Rules of Comedy he gave in the PBS special Funny Business that I wish, I wish, I wish I could find on DVD.
- On the other hand, a lot of comedy seems to be instinctive. Some of us learn we can make people laugh and then we go back and analyze it. That’s what I’m doing in this series of posts. I suspect Ace was doing it before he realized he had a formula (if you see this, Ace, let me know). I would also bet that this is the case with Adams, too. Even Bob Hope had a formula (swiped by Woody Allen in his early, funny years).
- Edmund Keane was right: comedy is hard. Ask anyone that has done any theater. Which is why people who make it look so easy are gifted.
- For as powerful a tool as it is, humor is criminally undervalued. In my mind, two of the best film performances of 1984 were Steve Martin in All of Me and Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson. Both Oscar caliber performances, both ignored. George C. Scott was known for drama, but in my mind his best performance was brilliantly funny: as General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove. And as much as I don’t care for him, it’s a shame that audiences rejected Sylvester Stallone as a comic actor. His performance in Oscar should have taken his career in another direction.
It’s just a shame that much of the literati rejects humor of any kind unless it is, well, woebegone.
The question is which formula works for you? Or do you have a formula of your own? If it makes people laugh, it no doubt is a winner. And if it’s something different than what I’ve discussed here, why not drop me a line and tell me about it? There’s always room in these pages for a Part 4.
Listening: Dandy Warhols, “Everyone is Totally Insane” (via iPod Shuffle)
PS. Highway Star by Deep Purple turned up in iPod Shuffle rotation while I was writing this post. Okay, okay, it’s another sign. I promise I’ll carve out some time and work on my new play this weekend.