July 1, 2010 / 6 Comments

Now THAT’S Comedy

Bonus points if you know this week’s historical pop-culture reference.

We’ve all got our own ideas for what’s funny. Mine may not match up with yours and yours may not match up with hers. I loved (500) Days of Summer, but I also love Super Troopers and reading some of Woody Allen’s old essays. On the flipside, I was never that impressed by the Wayans Brothers movies, Beavis & Butthead, or the Three Stooges. Yeah, I don’t know why, but the Stooges just never did it for me. Maybe I got a bad first impression somewhere along the way or something.

Comedy’s a tough thing to define or give lessons on because of this. A few noted funny people have pointed out this little truth– tragedy is when I stub my toe; comedy is when you fall down a hole and die. Several pros say it’s one of the hardest things to pull off. As such, it’s good to be highly skeptical of anyone offering you simple rules and guidelines on how to be funny, because odds are they’re either a scam artist trying to make a buck off you or some idiot rookie who doesn’t know anything.

So, that being said, here are a few rules and guidelines on how to be funny. Please don’t forget to shop the great Amazon links to the right and down below once you’re done reading them.

That made you chuckle, didn’t it? I knew it would, but I couldn’t really tell you how I knew. I’m sure I could write out a few long paragraphs about comic theory and contradictory information and a bunch of other useless stuff that wouldn’t really tell you anything but earned some guy tenure somewhere.

That would be a bit pointless, though, wouldn’t it? I don’t want to write it out, you don’t want to slog through it.

Let’s see if I can give you something a bit more solid to work with.

A quick story…

Who remembers Captain Kangaroo? I grew up on the show. And, awful as Bob Keeshan would find it, one of my firmest memories of Captain Kangaroo was abject terror.

I can’t remember all the details, but there was a Captain Kangaroo special that had the Captain and his friends out of the studio and off on some adventure. There was a story, a mystery, the whole deal. I want to say it was set in Australia for some reason. Anyway, during the course of it, Captain Kangaroo gets sealed in a big oil drum and placed on the back of a truck. Said oil drum bounces off the truck and begins to roll down the largest hill in the world (it may have been Mt. Kilimanjaro, a well-known Australian landmark). Every few moments it would hit a rock or bounce over something and the Captain would let out another pitiful wail or cry for help. After what seemed like about nineteen and a half hours, the oil drum came to rest at the bottom of the hill and his friends pulled the unharmed-but-dizzy Captain Kangaroo free to wobble around on shaky legs.

Horrifying. Thirty five years later and I can still hear his screams echoing inside that drum.

Why was it horrifying, though? I mean, the same kind of gag happened on Scooby-Doo on a pretty regular basis. Abbot and Costello did it once, if memory serves. I’ve seen it on The Simpsons a few times since then, too. Granted, I was a timid little kid, but what about this particular instance made it so scary?

The catch (and the focus of this week’s little rant) is the setting.

Television has the term “situational comedy” better known as a sitcom. It’s the idea that these people in this setting will be funny. Truth is, though, all comedy is situational. It depends on the audience and it depends on the setting. There are jokes I’d tell my friends that I wouldn’t tell my parents. It’s funny when Kenny from South Park falls in a microwave and dies, but it’s a bit cringe-inducing in Kick-Ass. And while it’s laughable when Shaggy and Scooby get rolled away in an oil drum, it’s nightmarish when the same thing happens to Captain Kangaroo.

(insert long, uncomfortable silence here)

Y’see, Timmy, certain types of comedy work in certain types of stories. Once you’ve established the tone of the story you’re telling, you’ve also established what kinds of comedy will work with it. You can’t swap jokes back and forth between different material with no problem. If I try to lift a gag from The Office and drop it into Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or maybe one of Eddie Izzard’s routines, it’s not going to work. On a similar note, you can’t swap funny characters back and forth, either. A writer can’t just add in a bit with a dog or a fart gag and expect that their story is funny now. Granted, Hollywood’s determined to prove me wrong on this, but so far the evidence is stacked in my favor.

In my opinion, this is one of the big tricks to being funny, and also the reason most attempts at comedy fail. Writers set up one type of world and then pepper it with a different style of humor that clashes with that world. It’s mismatched ideas and tone.

Okay, I know I said I wouldn’t talk about comic theory, but let me dip my toes in it just for a moment…

Comedy needs to be believable, by which I mean within the context of the given world or story. Just like a good mystery or most genre stories, the audience has to believe in the situation and the characters–again, within this context– in order to relate to it. Something unbelievable isn’t funny. It’s just odd and it usually gets a very different response then what was intended.

This is when “humorous” bits become aggravating or disgusting or even terrifying. They’re alien forms of comedy for the established world, so they aren’t seen as comedy. A slapstick gag is awkward and out of place in a serious dramatic story. Likewise, a touch of wry, understated British humor isn’t going to go over well in an episode of Jackass.

Which is also what happened to poor Captain Kangaroo. He existed in a world of storytime, simple lessons about friendship, and Mr. Greenjeans stopping by to visit. It was a world where the biggest threat he had to deal with is getting a shower of ping-pong balls. When he suddenly gets stuffed in a BP oil drum and rolled down Mt. Kilimanjaro, that’s breaking the rules of that world. It’s not supposed to happen and so it isn’t funny–it’s just a pleasant, grandfatherly man being subjected to a horrific experience.

Know what type of story you’re writing and make sure the tone and type of jokes match the world you’ve set up. I’m not saying following this rule makes all writing funny. I do, however, feel safe saying that not following it will stack the odds against a story. Consider it more a rule of thumb that you’re probably safer going along with than not.

(insert second long, uncomfortable silence here)

(wait for laughs)

(even longer silence)

Next time, I’d like to introduce you to my cat, Cheap Shot.

Until then, go write.

January 29, 2010 / 2 Comments

The Ten Percenters

No, this isn’t something like the Dirty Dozen, the Rogues Gallery, or the Crazy Eights. I’m not being that subtle for once.

So, I’ve tossed around an idea once or thrice here called “common knowledge.” It’s the sort of stuff you can put in your writing without worrying that people won’t know what you’re talking about. Nazis are bad. Puppies are good. Republicans are conservative. Democrats are progressive. Grass is green. The sky is blue. Getting into Harvard, the Major Leagues, or the Navy SEALS is an accomplishment. These are all safe bets in the world of common knowledge.

The place I see fledgling writers stumble a lot is when they decide since they know something, everyone must know it. They’ll even insist people should know it. And then they’ll use this “common knowledge” in their writing. Which is why a writer can make a joke about Kit Fisto putting his testicles all over Natalie Portman and then can’t figure out why no one laughs hysterically.

For the record, that’s a double-whammy nerd joke, but it depends on you knowing who Kit Fisto was in the Star Wars prequels and knowing what he looked like and remembering a joke from the 1985 film Better Off Dead. If you did have all that at your fingertips while you were reading that last paragraph, you probably got a good chuckle. If not, you’re still wrinkling your brow and trying to figure out what I’m getting at.

Which is what I wanted to get at.

On The Simpsons they have a special kind of joke they call “the ten percenters.” As the name implies, a ten percenter is a gag or a joke they know only ten percent of their audience is going to get. It’s a sly reference to politics or Fox News or Planet of the Apes that will slip by a lot of folks and make them wonder why one or two people keep repeating that line later at work.

(By the way, if any of you can explain the reference behind “I’m the first non-Brazilian person to travel in time!!” I’d love to hear it. Seen that one every Halloween for coming on fifteen years, still don’t get that joke…)

Now, here’s the key point. While they may do three or four of these ten percenters in each episode, The Simpsons does lots and lots of jokes for 99% of their audience. Everybody gets why it’s funny when Homer’s new boss turns out to be a supervillian planning to wipe out France with his doomsday device, and the irony that this is a job Homer’s finally good at. We also understand the joke when Krusty blames his bad behavior on his crippling Percoset addiction, then gets reminded Percoset is one of his show’s sponsors. And it’s hard not to laugh when Homer cheerfully implicates himself as a suspect when the old lady down the street is murdered. The ten percenters are great, but they can’t be the majority of the program. This is when the writers acknowledge that some of the things they find funny might be a bit obscure to some audience members. It also shows they’re aware of what the majority of their audience will find funny.

Want a literary example of a ten-percenter? I’m betting a decent number of you here have read Stephen King’s Under The Dome by now, yes? How many of you caught the reference to Lee Child’s kick-ass military character Jack Reacher? I skimmed right past it, myself, with only a dim thought of Who is this guy he’s talking about? flitting through my mind. It wasn’t a huge, key element of the chapter, though, so it didn’t really disrupt my reading. My girlfriend had to point it out while she was reading it.

Y’see, Timmy, the biggest mistake I can make as a writer is to assume that because I know this, everyone does. Writers are creative folks who read voraciously. We watch the news, we do research. We even watch for details in our own lives. This is especially dangerous for writers coming out of specialized fields where they’ve got a lot of specialized terms and knowledge. If you’re a lawyer, every other lawyer in the office might get your witty reference, but that doesn’t mean your mechanic will. Likewise, the mechanic’s clever transmission joke might make the junior ad executive scratch her head.

Speaking for myself, I could probably name over three hundred Marvel or DC comic characters on sight, or describe what they look like. I’ve got a fairly large background in archaeology and astronomy. From my years in the film industry I can rattle off tons of movie jargon that would leave most of you scratching your heads. I’ve got a higher-than-average knowledge about firearms, and have fired more types than many military weapons experts (the film industry again). I also play a popular miniatures game with tons of backstory, which means I can spew out pages of silly facts about fictional alien life-forms like Tyranids, Kroot, or Necrons.

Yet, I’d never assume everyone else knows this stuff. I sure as hell wouldn’t assume you’d understand some of the jokes that have built up between my friends over the years. They make us laugh, but you’d probably stand there with a blank look on your face.

It’s also worth noting that the reverse of this is true. If I assume my audience isn’t going to know anything I’m talking about, I’m just going to annoy them. If I waste pages explaining that Nazis are bad, people need to breathe oxygen, or that the man who just got his leg torn off might die from blood loss… well, I’m not going to be holding anyone’s interest for long

A writer needs to have a firm grasp of what their intended audience knows. It doesn’t matter if I think everyone should know the genestealer reproductive cycle– most people don’t. If I do this, I’d be confusing my audience at best, talking down to them at worst. And that’s when they put the manuscript down in that big pile on the left.

So now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

Next time, we all need to be punctual. More or less.

Until then, go write.

June 21, 2008 / 1 Comment

The Pod Six Jokes

The title of this week’s little rant might seem a bit odd, but it’s an important lesson every writer needs to learn, and several never do. I’ve been shown two or three examples of it just in the past month. And what better way to demonstrate this lesson than through the wonders of Star Trek.

Honest, this is brilliant. Stick with me.

The fifth season of Next Generation really began with a wonderful episode called “Darmok.” The Enterprise encounters an alien race, the Children of Tama, that has repeatedly halted first contact attempts because its language baffles the universal translator. The Tama language can be rendered in English, but their words still make no sense. In a bold move, the Tama commander, Dathon, kidnaps Captain Picard to a hostile world where the two must fight together against a near-invisible energy creature to survive. Through their trials and a few garbled campfire discussions, Picard comes to realize that the Tama language is not based on ideas and concepts, but on stories and metaphors. Literal translation has been impossible because the Federation does not share the same history and folklore with the Tama.

In a way, all of us do this every day. Some of my best friends and I make frequent references to Pod Six (those guys were jerks), Lucky Bob, and “the girl’s evil cheater magic.” In college, the folks I hung out with understood when you talked about Virpi Zuckk, the third Pete, and nice shoes. Heck, my girlfriend and I almost have our own language with phrases like French Mousey, cat-switch, and Mr. Sexypants.

We all have circles of family and friends where there are shared memories, private jokes, and special references that few people outside these groups would understand. Some people like sports, others like science. Some crack jokes from Playboy, others from Prairie Home Companion. These folks watch CSI obsessively and these folks watch Reaper whenever they happen to catch it. And everyone talks about what they know and what they like.


A common failing I see again and again in stories and screenplays are oblique references and figures of speech that the reader cannot understand. While it makes sense within the writer’s personal circle or clique, outside readers end up scratching their heads. Many of the writers responsible for this will try to justify their words in a number of ways…

One is that since their friends are real people, people obviously talk this way, and therefore there’s nothing wrong with it. Alas, “real” does not always translate to “good.” In fact, unless you happen to be shooting a documentary, it usually doesn’t. That’s a large topic for another rant, though.

Two, usually reserved for screenplays, is the auteur excuse. The writer plans to direct this script and cast their friends, so it doesn’t matter if no one else can understand the writing (or if there are tons of inappropriate camera angles, staging instructions, and notes for actors). The flaw here is that the screenplay will invariably end up getting shown to someone else. An investor. A producer. A contest reader. Someone out of that inner circle of friends who needs to look at the script and needs to be able to understand the writing.

Three would be arguing common knowledge. The writer will try to say this material is generally known– universally known, even– and it’s the reader who is in the feeble minority by not being aware of it. This is probably the hardest to contradict, because if someone honestly believes everybody should know who lost the 1969 Orange Bowl, there’s not much you can do to convince them otherwise. It’s much more likely, in the writer’s mind, that those readers are just uneducated, pedestrian simpletons who never learned the periodic chart of elements, don’t collect Topps baseball cards, and couldn’t tell you the plainly obvious differences between Venom and Carnage if their lives depended on it.

Alas, their lives don’t depend on it.

Your writing does, though.

This is one of those inherent writer skills. It’s something you just need to figure out how to do on your own, and the easiest way is by reading everything you can get your hands on all the time. You need to know words and phrases. You have to know them and you have to be honestly aware of who else knows them. Using rare or antiquated words like atramentous instead of dark or glabrous instead of bald may show off your vocabulary, but the moment someone has to stop and think about what a word means, they’ve been taken out of your story. And knocking people out of your story is one of the all-but-certain ways to make sure the reader puts your manuscript down and goes off to fold laundry, make a sandwich, and read something different.

It’d be foolish to say your writing has to appeal to everyone and be understood by everyone. That’s just aiming for the lowest common denominator and that’s how you end up with The Love Guru or anything Anne Rice has written in the past decade. By the same token, however, you can’t be writing just for your five closest friends.

Well, you can, of course. But not if you want to do this for real.