Sunday, April 03, 2005

Funny Disected

The book that I have coming out in June is mainly humor. My main staple is humor, and I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the subject the last year or so. While I admit it’s probably more of an art than a science, I think you can still dissect humor and try to figure out what makes some things more funny than other things.

Here are a few of my thoughts, and I would be very interested to hear if you think I’m on the right track, on the wrong track, or sitting in my car with a flat tire in the parking lot of the wrong stadium where the real track meet is occurring.

So here are a few attributes of good humor:

1 – Humor is tied very closely with fear, pain, suffering, and many other extreme emotions, most of them negative.

While that sounds a bit counter-intuitive, let me offer why I think this is true. Think of America’s funniest home videos. It is not video of people telling jokes, rather people getting kicked in the crotch, passing out at weddings, saying or doing really stupid things in front of a large crowd. They are all extreme emotions, many of which we wouldn’t wish on our enemies, but we still can’t help but laugh.

There are also the clips where a child freaks out over a Christmas present, or a grandmother-to-be flips out over the news of an impending grandchild. They go wild, and we find these extreme emotions funny.

As one last example, we have probably all seen this clip. We find it funny because it is at once embarrassing for this young man, but is also a display of raw, unfettered emotion. Personally I think we should all dance like this, at least once, in front of a lot of people.

This also explains why we find ‘potty humor’ to be funny (at least the guys do) ;). It’s taboo, so when it’s brought up, we laugh, even if it’s nervous or guilty laughter.

2 – Humor relies heavily on situation and character.

Good humor depends on the actors. For example, consider the following. Let’s say you’re watching an episode of Leave it to Beaver. We all know June Cleaver; a rock of stability amidst all of Beaver’s wild escapades. What if you were watching a show and June is shopping. A friend tells her of Beaver’s latest adventure that has embarrassed the family, and caused damage to public property. We see a close up of June’s face. She swears softly, then grabs a bag boy and says, “Excuse me, where do you keep your hard liquor?”

Now somebody turning to drink because they can’t handle problems is certainly not funny, but given the situation and the characters, it becomes funny. So the lesson learned is that humor isn’t just a punch line or two, placed here and there, often there are entire passages building characters just so that they can participate in a humorous situation. In my book, I wrote a whole extra chapter, just so I could deliver one line. It wasn’t just for the line, it also helped develop character, but you can’t just throw in one line and say you’ve got your humor quota. A lot of time and thought has to go into it.

3 – Humor has to be a surprise

A joke just isn’t funny unless you don’t see it coming. If you are able to figure out a punch line, then there is rarely laughter. There are multiple ways to help make sure there is a surprise. One way is to simply surprise the reader by bringing something out of the blue. This isn’t hard if the reader isn’t expecting the humor. So if you are writing a mystery, the first laugh is by far the easiest, but it gets increasingly difficult as you go along, especially if the humor is the same ‘type’ of humor.

Think of the TV show Home Improvement. At first it was funny when Tim the Toolman Taylor tried to ‘supe’ something up, only to have it blow up in his face. The first 2, maybe 3 times it was funny, then it was just predictable.

After you have gotten those first few easy laughs, there are ways to get the further laughter. One way is to use a different type of humor. It would be almost as funny for something that Tim worked on to actually work. The looks of surprise on family member’s faces would be funny. A completely natural thing (fixing the lawn mower, for example), can be funny because it’s a surprise.

A good example of this is the comedian Steven Wright. He speaks in a real dead pan voice. He has a joke that goes like this. “I lost my sock the other day so I called information. *laughter* She told me it was behind the couch. *more laughter*. She was right.”

The first time the audience laughed because of the punch line, but there isn’t much laughter. But then he surprises them by delivering a second punch line that is a bit absurd. Then he surprised them again by an even more absurd line. The surprises are unexpected, and hence funny.

Finally, the other way to surprise a person, after you have already surprised them, is to make the reader think have you figured out, and then pull the chair out from under them. I do this at the very end of my book (by this time the readers have probably figured out my humor, so it’s very hard to keep making things funny. I set up a joke and it’s pretty clear what the punch line is going to be. I keep driving the reader toward that conclusion, almost like magic. Watch this hand, watch this hand, watch this hand… Then bam, you hit them with the other hand they weren’t watching. So even though it was clear a joke was coming, I led them down the wrong path so that they could be surprised in the end.

Anyway, I don’t mean to say that I’m an expert at this stuff, but I do think these elements are an important part of humor. Does anybody disagree? Have any other ideas about humor? Am I missing any elements?


Maria said...

A funny person has to have perfect delivery and I find that his/her voice can play a big part. The inflection, tone and pitch of someone's voice can make or break a good joke. I just saw Jerry Seinfeld perform and just the sound of his voice had me giggling. There was nothing spectacular about his material, yet everytime he opened his mouth, the audience was in stitches just listening to him deliver his jokes in his trademark Long Island accent. The most famous two words he has ever spoken had us rolling in the aisles and it was all because of his impeccable delivery and that unforgettable voice: "Hello, Newman."

Matthew Buckley said...

Ahhh... You bring up an interesting point, Maria. Reminds me of that old joke. A graduate student walks into a conference(all really good jokes start out with the phrase 'a graduate student walks into a conference'). The conference is a meeting of the annual Joke Cataloging Society of America. The graduate assistant sits down for the first meeting. A man walks up to the podium and says, "2549-38f". The crowd erupts into laughter. The man sits down and a woman approaches the podium. "2861-25y", she says, and again, everybody breaks into laughter.

The graduate student leans over to the man he's sitting next to and asks what is going on.

"Everybody is telling their favorite joke", he says.

The graduate student gets excited and decides to try it out for himself. He walks up to the podium and says, "2851-469s".

Dead silence.

Dejected, he returns to his seat. The man next to him pats his leg and says, "It's ok. Some people can tell them, some can't."

But I completely agree, I think tone, timing, pitch, facial expressions is all extremely important when telling a joke, or being funny, which makes writing humor all the more difficult. If you go into detail about tone, timing, facial expressions, etc. you're going to kill the joke. You have to rely on situation, surprise, or preexisting knowledge.

Of course by the time you are factoring in, dissecting, and adjusting for preexisting knowledge, can anything really be funny anymore? :)