Category Archives: What Makes Something Funny?

What Makes Something Funny? (Part 4)

After all these words about writing humor, I still don’t know how I do it. But after some reader e-mails and comments, I realize there were a couple of things that I left unsaid about the subject of humor that perhaps should be addressed before I stick a fork in it. Namely, I have a couple of rules that I use when writing humor that have served me well.

1) Comedy exists to serve plot and not the other way around.

This assumes you’re not writing short pieces for the New Yorker or McSweeney’s, or gags for a late night talk show.

If I might begin like an infomercial, how many times has this happened to you. You go see the latest comedy at the multiplex and laugh your guts out. Coming out of the theater discussing it with your friends, you realize something. The first half of the movie was much funnier than the second half.

I call this Movie Comedy Phenomenon. And it happens because the writers get together in a room, toss these gags at each other, and start bashing out the screenplay. Then they get halfway through and realize that it’s been a gagfest with no real plot. So the second half of the movie has to carry the weight of the plot, which means there isn’t as much room for gags.

The Robert Zemeckis film Used Cars is a prime example of this. First half – loads of gags based on every crooked thing we’ve ever suspected a used car salesman of doing. Second half – patently unfunny and downright dumb plot about a mile of cars. Animal House is a classic comedy, but treads dangerously close in this area. The tires don’t start wearing thin until the third act, but the slam-bang finish with the destruction of the parade saves it. Barely.

The lesson? Tacking a plot onto a series of gags = bad.

Better instead to have the jollies come about as a result of the plot. Mel Brooks knew it. His best films did it. His worst, History of the World, Part I, didn’t. Ditto Woody Allen (in his funny years). Even Monty Python understood it – Holy Grail and Life of Brian both mine humor from plot, while The Meaning of Life had no real plot and, for my taste, not much else going for it either.

Looking at a sampling from my DVD collection, most of the comedies I see get their humor from the constraints of the plot, which exists from the beginning: All of Me, The Addams Family, Addams Family Values, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Caveman (yes, there’s a plot from the beginning), Chicken Run, Galaxy Quest, Get Shorty, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Oscar, Overboard, Raising Arizona, The Return of the Pink Panther, and even Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

In fact, the only comedy I own that is a first-half gag fest is The Party with Peter Sellers.

What should this tell you? Plot is crucial.

Maybe this was why the shorts from The Three Stooges hold up so well. Get in, do the gags, and get out before anyone realizes that the plot was threadbare. But it didn’t need to be much more. It was The Three Stooges, man!

And you and I ain’t.

2) Don’t rely exclusively on easy jokes.

Sometimes you have to take them. But don’t lean on them for your entire oeuvre. Easy jokes get tiring fast, and unless your audience is the type that rents Adam Sandler on Friday night to unwind after a long week, they’ll probably appreciate the kind of humor that takes a little thought. I know this for a fact. More than once critics or readers have said they appreciated what they saw as my intelligent use of humor. Not once has anyone ever praised me for any of the easy gags I have fallen back on.

Every now and then at the ad agency where I work, we get together over a lunch hour, eat pizza and watch a movie, usually a comedy. Yesterday the movie was National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I was pretty much bored with it, because until Randy Quaid showed up, it was a series of predictable pratfalls for Chevy Chase. My experience watching this for the first time was like this:

ME (thinking): He’s going to step on that board and it’s going to fly up and hit him in the face.

MOVIE: Chevy Chase steps on plank, which flies up and hits him in the face.

ME (thinking): Now he’s going to turn around and it’s going to happen again from the other side.

MOVIE: Chevy Chase turns around and takes another plank in the puss.

ME (thinking): Time for an electrocution gag.

Oh, but do I need to go on?

Excuse me, but doesn’t predictability belie one of the basic tenets of humor – the unexpected?

There’s nothing wrong with formula humor, I suppose, but there’s something wrong when it’s all you get. Hollywood is especially culpable in formulaing us to death. They took a perfectly nice holiday novel by John Grisham, Skipping Christmas, and turned it into Home Alone. And they’ve done that with a couple of remakes of some old movie chestnuts, too, namely Cheaper by the Dozen and Yours, Mine and Ours. As if there’s no market for a warm family comedy anymore, they John Hughes it up with a bunch of open paint cans, broken glass, and falling anvils.

Please. If I want to see that kind of stuff, I’ll watch some old Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons, which had pratfalls, but were Rube Goldberg-like in their genius.

But want to hear something interesting? I don’t find the Roadrunner cartoons as funny as I did up through my college years. If you gave me the Warner Brothers cartoon catalog and told me I could watch whatever I wanted, I’d pull out all of the Foghorn Leghorn and Pepe Le Pew cartoons. I hated them both as a kid, but as an adult, I think they’re brilliant. Yet, they’re the redheaded stepchildren of the Warner Brothers stable – probably because so many of the jokes sail right over the heads of the kids.*

I don’t mind a brainless laugh-out-loud comedy every now and then. But I like the plot to hold together from beginning to end (and I’d like the movie to have a plot from the beginning). I don’t mind a pratfall if I can’t see it coming, and believe me, I can be very forgiving of things if I’m enjoying a movie. I can really turn my brain off. Sometimes my wife will say “I can’t believe you didn’t see that one coming,” and so I don’t lose standing in her eyes, I lie and say, “I did, but it was still funny.” Although sometimes, that’s the truth – but because the gag was so well-crafted, I laughed anyway.

As long as people respond to easy humor that is particularly not well crafted and plays to the lowest common denominator, Adam Sandler will always have a job. But Sandler should also look to the career of Chevy Chase and perhaps feel a shiver of weakness run up his spine.

Meantime, pursue the easy stuff if you wish. You’ll do all right, but the satisfaction won’t be there. And neither will I, because I’ll be at home with my DVD’s of Rowan Atkinson, Raising Arizona and How to Murder Your Wife.

So there you have it. Not how I write humor, but how I don’t. In this case, it’ll have to suffice.

Listening: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (via iTunes)

*In what must be the first time Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle was ever used in humor (predating even Steven Wright), Foghorn Leghorn hides in a woodshed while playing hide and seek. The Genius Chick looking for him makes some calculations on a chalkboard, takes a shovel, digs a hole in the middle of a meadow, and pulls Foghorn out. Foghorn, baffled, goes over to the woodshed to open it, but pauses. “Nope,” he drawls. “I’m afraid if I open it, I just might be in there.”

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What Makes Something Funny? (Part 3)

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.

No word on what six of six is. It’s either this Jandek album, or, more likely, the funniest joke in the world, as conceived by Monty Python.

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:

  1. 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!”

  2. 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.”

  3. 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.

  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

Sense of Funny (What Makes Something Funny, Part 2)

JCF’s Christmas Play
Pages, 10/10/05: 6
Current Total: 16

All of the protagonists are introduced. The last thing I wrote before quitting was a knock on the door. When our hero (or it might be his wife – I may change things up a bit) answers the door, the secure little world I’ve created for them will get turned upside down.

Figuring a minute per manuscript page, we’re 16 minutes into the play now. This is likely to run shorter because when I write a play (see Old Loves Die Hard), the success of it lives and dies on the pacing of the dialogue. I tend to write it fast and snappy except for the more dramatic parts. So the director will have to make sure the show moves.

I’m really conscious of length right now, because there’s a lot to do in this first act. My first impulse is to let my pre-editor kick in and leave out stuff that isn’t really needed, but who knows… I may get something I need by putting it in. I may suppress it and write everything in that tickles my fancy and then cut it later. I put in a couple of gags last night that I will probably end up cutting.

However, there seems to be an unwritten tradition in theater that the first act is the longest. I guess when people come into a theater and settle, you can push the amount of time they sit because they’re ready for a show. After that, things really need to move. This is great because, while I’d like to split the show into two perfect 45-minute halves, the realist in me doesn’t think it’s going to turn out that way. I think I’m looking at that or longer for the first act, and a shade under that for the second.

Those considerations aside, one thing I noticed while I was writing last night was my Sense of Funny. This is different from Sense of Humor, although SoH certainly influences SoF.

Sense of Funny, I have decided, is what goes on in the brain of a writer who is writing something humorous. While their fingers dance across the keys and words appear on the screen, something in their brain says, “now do this and people will find this funny.” It’s not what the writer finds funny, but his sense of what the audience will find funny. I don’t sit there and laugh at my own jokes as I’m writing because I’m not that kind of a guy. But there’s this sense that has kicked in while working on this play, a little voice (don’t start!) telling me that this is funny, or if I did something else or added a bit here, it would make something funny, or cause something already funny to be funnier.

I’m not really sure how that works.

Humor is a fascinating thing to me. If you think about it, the reactions you get are related to being frightened or surprised. People often laugh as a release after being frightened, especially if the fright was in vain (e.g., at a movie or in a Halloween haunted house – doesn’t often happen after you nearly have a head-on with a careless driver).

That’s a lot of what makes up humor – the unexpected. The other night I was going to accompany my daughter to a restaurant after a performance of Anne Frank. She was worried that I might not want to hang out with a bunch of teenagers. So I said, “Don’t worry. If there aren’t any adults around, I’ll give you a sign.” Then I coughed and said, “Sorry, my Tuberculosis is acting up.”

This nearly put her on the floor. She expected the cough business, but she didn’t expect me to dredge up Tuberculosis from the vaults of memory to ice the cake with. It made something mundane funny.

Humor can also disarm other unpleasantness. The film Robocop is a classic example of this. It’s a brutal, grim movie that would have been unwatchable if there hadn’t been so much dark humor scattered throughout. Like when the young executive is machine gunned by a malfunctioning Law Enforcement droid, a line given to the Old Man of the company is classic understatement: “I am very disappointed,” he says, almost over the body of the deceased. Jaws is another great example, where Spielberg uses humor – three guys on a boat getting drunk and comparing scars – just before turning on the tension full bore as the shark returns to attack them.

Humor can also raise the stakes in a drama. I was in the green room on opening night with two teenaged boys who play SS flunkies. They had no prior theater experience, so it’s been fun watching them learn. We were watching the first act of Anne Frank on the closed circuit TV set up for the actors, and they were shocked when the audience laughed at something.

“Hey!” they said, outraged. “They’re not supposed to laugh at this play!”

“Sure they are,” said another actor. “Some parts of this play are really funny.”

Then I said, “Besides, their laughing now will make it hurt even more when we go in and haul the families off to a concentration camp.”

Using humor, the authors of the Anne Frank play cause the audience to see the Franks as real people… and subsequently, they bond with them. And when real life intrudes and only Otto survives, that makes it all the more powerful.

So use it, but don’t abuse it. And if you’re into writing comedy, watch out for your Sense of Funny. Feed it well on all kinds of comedy, and it will serve you well.

Listening: Jules and the Polar Bears, “It’s a Shame” (via iPod Shuffle)

What Makes Something Funny? (Part 1)

What makes something funny? Why do we find certain things funny and other not?

Here I am, working on my dozenth novel, which uses humor throughout to temper the deadly chase the protagonists are in. All of my other novels had humor in them to one degree or another. I’ve written a darkly comic play. I’ve written hundreds of radio spots, most of which also used humor. I feel I can wield humor with deadly accuracy. Yet there are times when it escapes me why I find some things funny.

Some of it is related to family culture, I’m sure. My dad was never afraid to laugh at anything he thought was funny. Sometimes he would be the only one laughing in a theater. He once upstaged a community theater production I was in (Mary, Mary) by laughing for ten minutes at the line, “Are you in the mood? Because if you’re not, I’m going to take a sleeping pill.”

The fondness for dark humor comes from my mother (who would never admit it), and was nailed into place at a young age when I discovered an anthology of Charles Addams cartoons in the local library.

But that doesn’t explain everything.

When I was in college, an issue of National Lampoon did a piece on how your age affected what you found funny. It divided a person’s lifetime up into periods, and featured a joke that would appeal to each period. I don’t remember anything but the final entry, the category something like “Age 75+.” The joke was, “A man sat in a chair.”

I thought it was hilarious, probably because what made it funny was the fact that it wasn’t funny. One day after being up for more than 30 hours, cramming for and taking final exams, I couldn’t stop laughing about “A man sat in a chair.” It became a catch phrase for me in college, and spread among my circle of friends.

What prompts this query is my daily desk calendar at work. This year it’s Dilbert. Friday’s cartoon I thought was quite unfunny. It was Dogbert and the pointy haired boss in three Doonesburyesque frames (that is, all nearly identical), and the copy went something like this:

Frame 1
Caption: Dogbert Consults
DOGBERT: My data-mining software has found another message from God.

Frame 2
DOGBERT: It says you’ve been stealing lunches from the refrigerator in the break room.

Frame 3
DOGBERT: Then it says, “Ha ha, that wasn’t pudding!”

Not one of Scott Adams’ shining moments of humor to be sure. I looked at it all Friday and couldn’t wait until today when I could come in and tear it off.

Now, this morning, I find it hilarious. Not the strip, the setup or the execution. The phrase. Ha ha, that wasn’t pudding!

It’s resonating, it’s echoing through my head and won’t go away. I can’t wait for someone to ask a strange question so I can use is as a non-sequitur answer. I feel a new catch phrase coming on.

Why? Why why why?

It’s stupid and there’s no reason for it.

Well, I was ill over the weekend. Maybe I’m sicker and more sleep deprived than I thought.

A man sat in a chair.

Ha ha, that wasn’t pudding!

Hilarious.

NP – Genesis, Selling England by the Pound