What Makes Something Funny? (Part 3)

Ace of Spades HQ takes a break from political commentary to discuss the eternal question (and one that has brought many Googlers to these pages), “What makes something funny?”

Ace kicks off by discussing a formula for humor as set forth by Dilbert creator Scott Adams in his new blog. According to Adams, humor is created, Chinese menu style, by combining more than one of the following elements: Cute, Naughty, Bizarre, Clever, Recognizable, and Cruel. In his book, choose two and you have funny. Choose four and you’ve knocked the ball out of the park. Choose five and you have unapproachable genius, something that only Bill Watterson in Calvin and Hobbes has done.

No word on what six of six is. It’s either this Jandek album, or, more likely, the funniest joke in the world, as conceived by Monty Python.

To bolster his formula, Adams shows analyzes a couple of neophyte comic strips and discusses what made Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side so brilliant, in light of his formula. I should note here that I disagree with Adams’ feelings on Calvin and Hobbes. He contends that the strip fell flat when the gags centered around the parents. To my mind, some of the most memorable gags occurred when you realized how the parents had to connive and scheme in order to deal with Calvin. Plus, C & H was about more than just the humor. Yes, it was consistently funny, but it was also beautifully drawn and expertly paced and timed. There’s a reason why many, including myself, consider it to be the best comic strip of all time.

(And yes, I’ve told my family that the only thing I want for Christmas this year is The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. Unless it’s that amber rosewood Nashville Telecaster that I played at the music store the other day…)

After discussing Adams/Dilbert, Ace provides us with a look at his own formula for writing humor. And what do you know, his thoughts work, too. Having read Ace for a while now, and having seen how he writes funny, I can see exactly how his formula applies. He calls it Premise and Tweak. You start with a mundane premise and then give it an out-of-left-field tweak that turns the premise on end. He gives a couple of examples that are good, albeit in a PG-13 sort of way.

What about me? This is my third outing writing about humor. I have two series of novels that are marked by their use of humor, have published one play that is a dark comedy, and am writing another that is carried along with humor. Surely I know something about the subject.

Well, the answer is that I know something is funny when I’m writing it. But I haven’t really analyzed it for what my formula is. Maybe later on down the road I’ll be able to tell you what my formula is.

In the meantime, here is what I do know about writing humor:

  1. Humor is one step away from horror and revulsion. Remember seeing Jaws for the first time? Remember how loud you screamed when the head rolled out of the wrecked boat? Remember how you laughed when it was over? You know how you laugh after someone gives you a good fright?

    Humor takes a lot of its effectiveness in the unexpected. Just like horror does. The only things that determine whether you scream or laugh are context and the other key to humor… timing.

    If you can combine the two – humor and revulsion – you get something that is unbearably funny, provided everything else works just right. There are only two movie moments in history where I was literally an inch from falling out of my seat because I was laughing so hard. One was the junction of these two elements.

    From Pee Wee’s Big Adventure: “And when they pulled the driver from the burning wreckage of the truck… he looked like THIS!”

  2. Another important factor in humor is incongruity. Hence, the reason why Ace’s humor formula works, along with a great many jokes – something comes along that doesn’t fit in, not really, but in an instant you realize it is appropriate and the surprise triggers a laugh. Such as in the joke that ends with Bill Clinton saying “Well there I was, sitting in this refrigerator, minding my own business…”

    Using incongruity is also tricky, but can pay off big time, too. The other cinematic moment that almost put me on the floor laughing uses it. That scene?

    From Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Right. One rabbit stew coming right up.”

  3. The rule of threes. Ever notice that it’s three nuns that walk into a bar? That the salesman tries three times to get into bed with the farmer’s daughter? That the penguin tries something three times before the punchline hits? That there are three guys standing in line to see St. Peter at the Pearly Gates?

    The rule of threes is important in terms of placing humor in context. In the case of the St. Peter joke, it gives you two perfectly rational explanations for why two men are waiting to get into heaven, setting you up for Bill Clinton’s story about sitting in the refrigerator. By pacing and timing the joke out, it sets you up for the incongruity.

  4. The power of humor mitigates grim circumstances. See again Jaws – the war stories sequence where three men on a boat compare scars. Right before the final battle with the shark. Or watch Robocop and think about what a grim, dark, unwatchable movie it would be if it wasn’t so bitingly funny. Incidentally, I had the idea for the Pembroke Hall novels for many years – but it wasn’t until I saw Robocop that I knew how to go about writing them. That film became my model for that project, using humor to disarm what was a very grim and unseemly premise.
  5. All the formulas work. Scott Adams’ is onto something with his formula. But so is Ace with his Premise and Tweak method. And so was Rowan Atkinson with the Rules of Comedy he gave in the PBS special Funny Business that I wish, I wish, I wish I could find on DVD.
  6. On the other hand, a lot of comedy seems to be instinctive. Some of us learn we can make people laugh and then we go back and analyze it. That’s what I’m doing in this series of posts. I suspect Ace was doing it before he realized he had a formula (if you see this, Ace, let me know). I would also bet that this is the case with Adams, too. Even Bob Hope had a formula (swiped by Woody Allen in his early, funny years).
  7. Edmund Keane was right: comedy is hard. Ask anyone that has done any theater. Which is why people who make it look so easy are gifted.
  8. For as powerful a tool as it is, humor is criminally undervalued. In my mind, two of the best film performances of 1984 were Steve Martin in All of Me and Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson. Both Oscar caliber performances, both ignored. George C. Scott was known for drama, but in my mind his best performance was brilliantly funny: as General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove. And as much as I don’t care for him, it’s a shame that audiences rejected Sylvester Stallone as a comic actor. His performance in Oscar should have taken his career in another direction.

    It’s just a shame that much of the literati rejects humor of any kind unless it is, well, woebegone.

The question is which formula works for you? Or do you have a formula of your own? If it makes people laugh, it no doubt is a winner. And if it’s something different than what I’ve discussed here, why not drop me a line and tell me about it? There’s always room in these pages for a Part 4.

Listening: Dandy Warhols, “Everyone is Totally Insane” (via iPod Shuffle)

PS. Highway Star by Deep Purple turned up in iPod Shuffle rotation while I was writing this post. Okay, okay, it’s another sign. I promise I’ll carve out some time and work on my new play this weekend.

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2 responses to “What Makes Something Funny? (Part 3)

  1. An amazing post Joe. You have the kind of wit that I appreciate the most – the kind that presumes your audience is bright enough to keep up with you – and I think that is sadly lacking in most comedy/humor these days. By reducing most humor to the basest of levels, there is no substance and therefore no real payoff. Cheap laughs are easy to get. Just look at this week’s central DVD release “The Dukes of Hazard” for example. What is overlooked so often in said examples is how quickly one tires of such obviously cheap gags. Yes, TDoH will sell in the millions but I doubt that many buyers will view it more than once. On the other hand, I have seen “Monty Python & the Holy Grail” dozens of times. Why? I hadn’t much thought of it before but I suppose because it combines at least three or four of the six elements you mention in your post.BTW, when the “Far Side” box came out, that was the only gift I wanted for Christmas that year. This year, there is already a big, HEAVY, cube-shaped present for me waiting under the tree. They know me too well, my friend! Now all we need is a Dilbert collection to match and we’ll be set…

  2. Thanks. I’ve often told my wife that I married her because 1), she got my jokes, and 2), she didn’t dump me.Interesting about “Dukes of Hazzard” and the like. At work we occasionally have a lunch hour movie, and this time it was “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” which, from what I saw of it, was an unfunny series of pratfalls – at least until Randy Quaid showed up (he and his brother are gifted, underrated actors for two different reasons). This inspired a mini-rant in the post about easy humor and slapstick. I cut it because it took the post off track.But generally speaking, I don’t care for slapstick unless it comes out of the plot (see <>Raising Arizona<>) or has some teeth to it (almost any pratfall taken by Rowan Atkinson). Having a plot exist simply for gags and pratfalls is not a good thing… but more on that in what will no doubt become Part Four.

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