Sense of Funny (What Makes Something Funny, Part 2)

JCF’s Christmas Play
Pages, 10/10/05: 6
Current Total: 16

All of the protagonists are introduced. The last thing I wrote before quitting was a knock on the door. When our hero (or it might be his wife – I may change things up a bit) answers the door, the secure little world I’ve created for them will get turned upside down.

Figuring a minute per manuscript page, we’re 16 minutes into the play now. This is likely to run shorter because when I write a play (see Old Loves Die Hard), the success of it lives and dies on the pacing of the dialogue. I tend to write it fast and snappy except for the more dramatic parts. So the director will have to make sure the show moves.

I’m really conscious of length right now, because there’s a lot to do in this first act. My first impulse is to let my pre-editor kick in and leave out stuff that isn’t really needed, but who knows… I may get something I need by putting it in. I may suppress it and write everything in that tickles my fancy and then cut it later. I put in a couple of gags last night that I will probably end up cutting.

However, there seems to be an unwritten tradition in theater that the first act is the longest. I guess when people come into a theater and settle, you can push the amount of time they sit because they’re ready for a show. After that, things really need to move. This is great because, while I’d like to split the show into two perfect 45-minute halves, the realist in me doesn’t think it’s going to turn out that way. I think I’m looking at that or longer for the first act, and a shade under that for the second.

Those considerations aside, one thing I noticed while I was writing last night was my Sense of Funny. This is different from Sense of Humor, although SoH certainly influences SoF.

Sense of Funny, I have decided, is what goes on in the brain of a writer who is writing something humorous. While their fingers dance across the keys and words appear on the screen, something in their brain says, “now do this and people will find this funny.” It’s not what the writer finds funny, but his sense of what the audience will find funny. I don’t sit there and laugh at my own jokes as I’m writing because I’m not that kind of a guy. But there’s this sense that has kicked in while working on this play, a little voice (don’t start!) telling me that this is funny, or if I did something else or added a bit here, it would make something funny, or cause something already funny to be funnier.

I’m not really sure how that works.

Humor is a fascinating thing to me. If you think about it, the reactions you get are related to being frightened or surprised. People often laugh as a release after being frightened, especially if the fright was in vain (e.g., at a movie or in a Halloween haunted house – doesn’t often happen after you nearly have a head-on with a careless driver).

That’s a lot of what makes up humor – the unexpected. The other night I was going to accompany my daughter to a restaurant after a performance of Anne Frank. She was worried that I might not want to hang out with a bunch of teenagers. So I said, “Don’t worry. If there aren’t any adults around, I’ll give you a sign.” Then I coughed and said, “Sorry, my Tuberculosis is acting up.”

This nearly put her on the floor. She expected the cough business, but she didn’t expect me to dredge up Tuberculosis from the vaults of memory to ice the cake with. It made something mundane funny.

Humor can also disarm other unpleasantness. The film Robocop is a classic example of this. It’s a brutal, grim movie that would have been unwatchable if there hadn’t been so much dark humor scattered throughout. Like when the young executive is machine gunned by a malfunctioning Law Enforcement droid, a line given to the Old Man of the company is classic understatement: “I am very disappointed,” he says, almost over the body of the deceased. Jaws is another great example, where Spielberg uses humor – three guys on a boat getting drunk and comparing scars – just before turning on the tension full bore as the shark returns to attack them.

Humor can also raise the stakes in a drama. I was in the green room on opening night with two teenaged boys who play SS flunkies. They had no prior theater experience, so it’s been fun watching them learn. We were watching the first act of Anne Frank on the closed circuit TV set up for the actors, and they were shocked when the audience laughed at something.

“Hey!” they said, outraged. “They’re not supposed to laugh at this play!”

“Sure they are,” said another actor. “Some parts of this play are really funny.”

Then I said, “Besides, their laughing now will make it hurt even more when we go in and haul the families off to a concentration camp.”

Using humor, the authors of the Anne Frank play cause the audience to see the Franks as real people… and subsequently, they bond with them. And when real life intrudes and only Otto survives, that makes it all the more powerful.

So use it, but don’t abuse it. And if you’re into writing comedy, watch out for your Sense of Funny. Feed it well on all kinds of comedy, and it will serve you well.

Listening: Jules and the Polar Bears, “It’s a Shame” (via iPod Shuffle)

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