Posted by: Sean | April 28, 2009

Theme Week Comedy: Last Day of Contest; Nota la Jess; and a Theory of Comedy

First up, today is the last day of our contest, and so far we only have a mere one entry. Up for grabs are thirty days of World of Warcraft game time, and some other assorted prizes. So if you want to have a shot at it, hop over to that link, read a bit of hopefully not terrible fan-fiction, and explain what’s wrong with it and how to fix it. Tomorrow I’ll be announcing the winner.

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Since Jess is apparently having difficulty with Theme Week Comedy, we’re going to give her a few more days with it before we move on to our next theme. Anyone have any preferences for themes to look at?

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Onto the main topic of conversation today: How to be funny. Oddly enough, this is a more serious column that you might expect. Comedy is a high theorised topic and it’s good to take a look at some of the underpinnings of the genre. The question of ‘why is something funny” has predictably been something a lot of comedians have given thought to, as well as some more serious literary critics who I don’t care much about. (You want to know about funny, go to a humorist.)

Let’s start with one of the more mechanical ones. Scott Adams (in his book The Joy of Work) argued that there are six elements of comedy.

  1. Cuteness.
  2. Weirdness.
  3. Meanness.
  4. Familiarity.
  5. Naughtiness
  6. Cleverness.

His contention is that to be funny, you need to cross at least two of these. So something cute and weird tends to be funny. I think we can all agree on that. Something mean yet cute would be funny. Sure. But he also suggests that something mean but familiar would be funny, and I don’t know if I can agree with that. I’ve heard lots of stories about people being cruel that are very familiar and they weren’t funny in the least.

What I think his list works better as is a general acknowledgement of areas that, in general, we do find funny. If you want to quickly leap for a humorous scene, start trying to play to those areas. And for World of Warcraft, the nice thing about the list is that there’s a number of qualities in there for any race. Orcs and trolls can be plenty funny with meanness, as long as you cross it with cleverness or weirdness. (Possibly.) Gnomes are tailor made for cute. Draenei have plenty of weirdness to go around. You get the idea.

OK, onto a more serious theory of comedy. This one comes via Steve Martin, and if he’s not an authority on funny, who is? He argued that humour is the release of a tension. In standard comedy, the idea works like this. As you begin telling a joke, it becomes clear that something with the story isn’t right. There’s an oddness there, or perhaps just a sense of ‘OK, where is this going’. Then, the punchline at the end inverts expectations, and provides the answer to the question, releasing the tension in one fell swoop.

What Steve Martin’s brilliant realisation was is that you don’t need a punchline to release that tension. It will, eventually, release itself. His style of humor trended toward abstract weirdness and bizarre antics that built tension crazily, with him refusing to release the tension with punchlines, thus forcing the audience to release it themselves.

This is, to my mind, a lot more solid as a theory. It explains most comedy pretty well. But the downside is that it’s not a very practical theory. I mean, how do you use that?

Well, the main thing is, you contemplate it. You internalise that wisdom. You start to understand what tensions work and how to evoke them, and then how to release them. A common example of mine (since I tend to play engineers a lot) is to bring in devices that seem to have something wrong, a ticking which shouldn’t be there, an unusual temperature, etc. Basically I all but hint it will blow up. That’s the tension. Then I ratchet it up by making my character hit it with spanners, or do other foolhardy things.

And then it gets fixed. That’s not the expected result, and thus the tension is released. Voila.

Alright, but what’s my theory of funny? Well…

I think funny is fascist.

This theory comes via Frank J. of IMAO, which I read in a previous life as a conservative. (I’m now a solid liberal.) The theory goes that comedy is a social response to things we disapprove of. We laugh at people who do stupid things, or naughty things, etc. We laugh at cute things because we find it both endearing yet weird. The idea is that it’s unpleasant to be laughed at. (So you stop doing the disapproved action.) But it’s fun to laugh with someone (thus building social bonds with other laughers). The whole effect enforces conformity and groupthink. Hence the observation that funny is fascist.

Again, OK, but how do you work this into role-play?

Well, you have two options here. You can either laugh with your audience, or be laughed at by them. And if you’re laughing with them, you need a target.

I find being laughed at easier.

So the real lesson here is what I’d said in my last column, too: Don’t be flawless. Nothing is less funny than a perfect person… how can you laugh at that? Have flaws. Have glorious, all over the place flaws. A perfect saint isn’t funny, but a prude who is constantly shocked by the tiniest bit of naughtiness might be, and a total hornbag probably is too. (And he’s funnier again if he’s not good at chasing women, just fond of it. BTW? Familiarity + Naughtiness, there. ) Someone who knocks themselves unconscious with every new weapon they get could be funny, but they’re funnier if they keep on getting new weapons. And enthuse over each one. And then knock themself out again. (See, that’s the tension theory at work. Build expectations, release tension.)

See? None of the theories are exclusive. The best advice I can give on comedy is to think about each of them, practice, and get funny.

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Responses

  1. Sometimes humour comes from suddenly showing something familiar in a different light – a totally unexpected slant.
    Like taking a cliche and suddenly inverting it… Groucho Marx: I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll make an exception.

    It can also be pricking the pretentious, the pompous – showing the absurdity lying just underneath the surface of the accepted standpoint… the party line.

    Where would we be without humour!


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