Thursday, June 17, 2010

A few thoughts on Comedy

I am frequently asked about "Comedy" in writing so I thought I would share a few thoughts on the subject. You may have heard the quote attributed to Edmund Gwenn on his death bed, "Dying is easy, Comedy is hard." - if you've ever tried to tell a joke or write a funny line, you can relate to Mr. Gwenn's insight.

I recently read an article in an educational Theatre publication on the "Mechanics" of Comedy. The article introduced the "laughter" theory of French philosopher and Nobel laureate Henri Bergson (1859-1941)
Monsieur Bergson proposed that Comedy happens when "something mechanical" is reflected in human action.
"The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine."

Bergson theorizes that "laughter" occurs as a result of our recognition of this "mechanical" function: a person doing a task over and over similar to machine or even some cases, along with a machine. (see assembly line)

While this theory may have some truth, I believe the actual humor rises when the "machine" goes out of whack and a person must adapt his own mechanical actions to compensate; e.g. the classic "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy and Ethyl are stationed on an (assembly line) and their task is to wrap chocolates that are moving down a conveyor belt. While the robotic action is amusing, the real laughs are derived when the belt begins moving faster and faster and they desperately to keep up.

My personal favorite is Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp working on a factory assembly line in the film "Modern Times". A brilliant bit of comedic choreography as Chaplin's own mechanical timing ebbs and flows with the march of the mechanism. Also, in a later scene of the film,the Little Tramp is picked to test a mechanical "Feeding Machine" - which of course goes whacky and you guessed it, hilarity ensues.

John Cleese, of Monty Python/Fawlty Towers fame, stated in an interview, (I will paraphrase) that someone acting silly or crazy is not as funny, as someone watching someone acting silly or crazy. For instance, a person having a absolute fit or tantrum is one thing but having an unknowing person suddenly walk in adds comedy. The humor may lie in the fact that we the audience understand completely what is going on, but this poor person who just entered hasn't the slightest clue. Their naive reaction makes us laugh. Many T.V. 'Situation Comedies' subscribe to this form of comedy.

Another type of comedy comes from the world of "misdirection". Now this may be a term one would associate in the world of magic, but it also has a place in humor. The basic premise is simply guiding the audience along one path or direction and delivering an outcome of least anticipation. An example of this could be found in the comedy of the late Henny Youngman. His classic one liner was: "Take my wife..(beat) Please!" The expectation is that he is going to say .."for example." The path or direction leads you with "Take my wife.." and that oh so brief pause allows your mind to anticipate or fill in the blank with "for example". Ha! Wrong! That sudden switch with the jolt of "Please!" turns the sentence into something else with a completely different meaning. Our reaction is laughter.

A few more examples of misdirection jokes:
A man walks into the doctor's office with a bird on his head. The doctor says, "How can I help you?" The bird says, "Can you get this thing off my ass?"
(misdirection is that the Bird speaks)
While hunting in Africa, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How an elephant got into my pajamas I'll never know.
(well, you can figure that one out)

Why do we laugh when our minds are mislead or tricked? Good question! I once heard someone define laughter as "a reaction of disapproval" however, I was never certain if this "disapproval" comes from ourselves, as in "shame on me for thinking one thing that turned out to be that other thing" or if it's directed outside ourselves, as in "shame on you for tricking me into thinking the one thing etc. etc.." which makes us react with laughter.
There is also a theory that laughter is essentially a 'release' for acquired tension. If a human feels threatened in some way, the release valves are tears, laughter or in some case becoming ill.

As a writer, I rely on the 'misdirection' brand of comedy because I limited to use of words. Sure, I could describe a whacky assembly line scene or a character acting like a machine but the actual comedy would depend upon the actor performing the action. Specifically the actor's timing. The real key to comedy is "timing". Yes, timing.
If you go back and watch Lucy on the chocolate assembly line you will notice what makes it funny is her timing; trying to catch up with conveyor belt, wrapping the chocolates faster and faster, falling behind by going to slow etc.. If Lucy kept up with the task it wouldn't be funny.
If she just stopped and gave up - not funny.
If you watch the old great slapstick comedians, Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Loyd you will see what actually makes their situations funny is the timing of their actions and reactions.

The same timing fact applies to misdirection humor. If Henny Youngman did not pause for a second in "Take my wife.. Please", the joke would not work. What makes 'comedy hard' is learning the timing. When to have the innocent person walk in the room and observe the guy acting crazy. When to have the conveyor belt suddenly speed up and how fast should the workers react to it. How long to lead the readers down one path before turning back into a humorous twist.

The best advice I can offer is to observe the great comedians. Read the best comedic writers. Discover their rhythm of humor. Personally my comedic influences are (visual or action timing)-Chaplin,Keaton,Peter Sellers, Rowan Atkinson (for word/written humor) Woody Allen,Mel Brooks,Kurt Vonnegut,Tom Robbins,Neil Simon, Douglas Adams (dry witty humor) Monty Python,Tom Stoppard, Oscar Wilde, Steven Wright... I could go on and on with influences here but the point is I have learned a lot from these people and essentially what I learned is the art and/or science of comedy and timing.

I would like to end this with a favorite old joke I heard long ago - A guy goes to prison and one day is in the cafeteria eating dinner with the other prisoners. One of the prisoners stands up and says "Number 47" and the other prisoners all laugh out loud. A few minutes later another prisoner stands up and says "Number 11". Again, laughter erupts. Later that day this new inmate puzzled by what he witnessed at dinner asks his cell mate, "What was the deal at dinner? Somebody stood up and said a number and everyone laughed. I don't get it." His cellmate explained, "Well ya see, it's like this. We don't get a lot of time here to socialize at dinner. You know, to tell stories or jokes. So we have this one 'Joke Book'. And in this joke book, all the jokes are listed by number. So, we've all memorized these jokes by their number. So if somebody stands up and says a particular number, we recall the joke and have a laugh." Intrigued with this information, the new inmate gets a copy of the 'Joke Book' and commits all the jokes to memory along with their numbers.
So one night at dinner, he feels the time is right. He stands up and says "Number 27", and nothing. Not a snicker, not a peep. Well, maybe that's not a good joke. He stands up again and says "Number 82!" Again, nothing. On their way back from dinner the perplexed inmate says to his cell mate, "Gee I don't get it. I learned all the jokes like you said. I tried it out at dinner tonight and nothing! Why?" His cell mate pats him on the back and says, "Face it man. Some people can tell and jokes and some people can't."