If you want to see what I’m doing here, you can go back to Part One. If you would like to see the start of the current topic I’m discussing, you can read Part Six. I’m going through a number of brainstormed topics I have in a file, and I was on the topic of wisdom from famous people that I apply to my daily creative life.
I read an interview with Gene Wilder once, and he spoke about writing comedy. The odd thing about comedy writing is that it’s hard to find practical advice about being funny. A lot of examinations of comedy that I’ve read have been high brow examinations of high brow humour. I have no problem with smart humour. A lot of the time though, smart humour has to be mixed with the more silly type to work.
What Gene Wilder said was pretty simple. For a page of script you should try to have four jokes. It seems like that’s a lot for a page of script, but I do my best when writing comedy to reach that quota. I use it when I’m writing comedy in book and essay writing as well. I figure that the pace is understood to be slower in this type of writing than on screen, so I can get away with about four jokes per page then as well.
Scott Adams, who I said would come up later in this, but I didn’t mean this when I said that, wrote a great examination of comedy writing in “The Joy of Work.” In his examination, he contends that there are six basic starting points for jokes: Bizarreness, cleverness, cuteness, meanness, naughtiness, and, um… and Doc… oh, recognizability. He also contends that if your joke can combine at least two of those that you have a pretty good chance of having something funny. You’ll have to read his examination for further explanation, because while it would help fill my word count, it wouldn’t be incredibly original… which he discuses originality in there too.
There are a few types of humour that I recognize. Miguel actually has a pretty good examination of humour too, but getting him to write it might be hard. What I’m going to list here are not really anything that I was astute to notice on my own. They are things that I realize exist, and that I use in my writing.
Visual – This is probably one that I should use more often when I’m writing show sketches, since it is a visual medium. Nathan is particularly good at this. Visual can be slapstick. Visual can be goofy faces. Visual can be something that the audience sees that they realize is out of place. Etcetera.
Dialogue – This is the one that I use most often, and maybe not to good effect. The basic idea here is that you have two people talking, and they say things that are funny. I said before about smart humour needing to be mixed with the dumber humour. An overabundance of dialogue humour can create a dull sketch, even if it is technically funny. An overabundance of visual humour can cause people to desensitize to the visuals. Keep this in mind with any type of humour you might use.
Prose – This is also a speech humour, but is usually written into situations or description in stories or essays. These jokes are more or less spoken in the author’s voice rather than by the character as it is in dialogue humour.
The rest of these can actually fit into visual, dialogue, and prose, and are perhaps a little more specialized.
Blue (aka dirty) – This is the dick and fart jokes category. When I am criticized for my humour writing by Miguel, it’s usually not productive criticism in the respect that it might help me refine what I do. His criticism is that since I don’t write dick and fart jokes that I’m not funny. He’s wrong. Even if I’m not funny, there is no proof that you can’t be funny unless you use blue humour. This can also fall under the heading of slightly politically incorrect humour.
Tasteless – There was a collection of books called “Truly Tasteless Jokes,” or something like that. This is a form of blue humour or politically incorrect humour, but tends to just be very wrong. It’s the kind of thing that when you do laugh at it, it’s usually out of an involuntary uncomfortable feeling. Dead baby jokes and severely racist or sexist jokes fall into this category, as well as a lot of politically incorrect jokes. These should probably almost never be used. Understand that when I say tasteless, I mean tasteless. I’m not talking about something that’s only slightly out of bounds. I won’t give examples. k-thx. Have a good day.
Inside – This is one that I’m often criticized for. I write jokes that will be funny to a very small group of people. I blame this on my jobs. Stupid jobs. Yes, that was an inside joke. The funny thing about this is that one of the funniest shows on television, “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” made good use of inside and obscure jokes. The reason I’m a fan of this type of humour is that it’s often more exciting to laugh at something that you know that not everyone will get. When used sparingly (listen up, Chris) inside humour can be very rewarding to the audience who gets it.
Callback – This is the most effective type of inside humour. The concept is that you have set up the audience to understand the inside joke, so that when it comes up again, they understand it. It basically calls back to information you gave the audience earlier. I once demonstrated this in a way that I was a little proud of myself for. Nathan and I were being interviewed for a newspaper (don’t get excited, the interview was never printed, though there is an audio show somewhere) and I said something that was funny to Nathan and me. The woman interviewing us didn’t get it. I told her that I’m a fan of inside humour. I explained why what I said was funny, and she got it with explanation. I then found a way of repeating the joke, and she laughed, because it was a callback at that point.
Math – This is a type of humour that you should use very sparingly. I like to throw in really odd jokes that you only will get if you know that the mathematical fact is wrong or what it represents. “He’s reliable, sure. But is he consistent?” “Oh yes sir. He always adds up to nine.” Yes. It is actually funny. Not very funny. But it is funny. This can also work for scientific fact, historical fact, and even technical fact. “If my Peavy T-40 breaks another strap, I’ll have to sell it,” said Tom, heavily. “I feel as stiff as my Peavy T-40,” said Tom, woodenly. Yes, it’s an extension of inside humour.
Situational – I touched upon this a little above, but maybe it deserves a spot here. This is the kind of thing that sets off the laughter, but not so much because someone said or did anything specifically. This is a type of humour that if something good occurs to you, you should probably pursue it, because it will likely get laughs. A good example is in “Zak and Miri Make a Porno.” They have set up for the first night of shooting in the coffee shop, and the two actors are performing their scene (you know, porn “acting”). The problem is they left the front door unlocked. A guy walks in and quietly walks up beside them and starts watching. Eventually, there is dialogue spoken and action taken, but at that moment the situation is all that you need to start laughing. Further situational is that the guy is so drunk that he doesn’t even seem to comprehend what is out of place in the coffee shop.
I’m sure I’m forgetting something, and like I said, Miguel actually has a list of some very specific examples of humour. Maybe he’ll write it up sometime. Also, like I said, even though examinations of humour tend to be dull (“I know this probably was,” Tom said, parenthetically.) there are a few good ones out there.
I still have a few things to discuss concerning the wisdom of famous people. We’ll get to that next time. See you then.