What Makes Something Funny? (Part 4)

After all these words about writing humor, I still don’t know how I do it. But after some reader e-mails and comments, I realize there were a couple of things that I left unsaid about the subject of humor that perhaps should be addressed before I stick a fork in it. Namely, I have a couple of rules that I use when writing humor that have served me well.

1) Comedy exists to serve plot and not the other way around.

This assumes you’re not writing short pieces for the New Yorker or McSweeney’s, or gags for a late night talk show.

If I might begin like an infomercial, how many times has this happened to you. You go see the latest comedy at the multiplex and laugh your guts out. Coming out of the theater discussing it with your friends, you realize something. The first half of the movie was much funnier than the second half.

I call this Movie Comedy Phenomenon. And it happens because the writers get together in a room, toss these gags at each other, and start bashing out the screenplay. Then they get halfway through and realize that it’s been a gagfest with no real plot. So the second half of the movie has to carry the weight of the plot, which means there isn’t as much room for gags.

The Robert Zemeckis film Used Cars is a prime example of this. First half – loads of gags based on every crooked thing we’ve ever suspected a used car salesman of doing. Second half – patently unfunny and downright dumb plot about a mile of cars. Animal House is a classic comedy, but treads dangerously close in this area. The tires don’t start wearing thin until the third act, but the slam-bang finish with the destruction of the parade saves it. Barely.

The lesson? Tacking a plot onto a series of gags = bad.

Better instead to have the jollies come about as a result of the plot. Mel Brooks knew it. His best films did it. His worst, History of the World, Part I, didn’t. Ditto Woody Allen (in his funny years). Even Monty Python understood it – Holy Grail and Life of Brian both mine humor from plot, while The Meaning of Life had no real plot and, for my taste, not much else going for it either.

Looking at a sampling from my DVD collection, most of the comedies I see get their humor from the constraints of the plot, which exists from the beginning: All of Me, The Addams Family, Addams Family Values, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Caveman (yes, there’s a plot from the beginning), Chicken Run, Galaxy Quest, Get Shorty, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Oscar, Overboard, Raising Arizona, The Return of the Pink Panther, and even Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

In fact, the only comedy I own that is a first-half gag fest is The Party with Peter Sellers.

What should this tell you? Plot is crucial.

Maybe this was why the shorts from The Three Stooges hold up so well. Get in, do the gags, and get out before anyone realizes that the plot was threadbare. But it didn’t need to be much more. It was The Three Stooges, man!

And you and I ain’t.

2) Don’t rely exclusively on easy jokes.

Sometimes you have to take them. But don’t lean on them for your entire oeuvre. Easy jokes get tiring fast, and unless your audience is the type that rents Adam Sandler on Friday night to unwind after a long week, they’ll probably appreciate the kind of humor that takes a little thought. I know this for a fact. More than once critics or readers have said they appreciated what they saw as my intelligent use of humor. Not once has anyone ever praised me for any of the easy gags I have fallen back on.

Every now and then at the ad agency where I work, we get together over a lunch hour, eat pizza and watch a movie, usually a comedy. Yesterday the movie was National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I was pretty much bored with it, because until Randy Quaid showed up, it was a series of predictable pratfalls for Chevy Chase. My experience watching this for the first time was like this:

ME (thinking): He’s going to step on that board and it’s going to fly up and hit him in the face.

MOVIE: Chevy Chase steps on plank, which flies up and hits him in the face.

ME (thinking): Now he’s going to turn around and it’s going to happen again from the other side.

MOVIE: Chevy Chase turns around and takes another plank in the puss.

ME (thinking): Time for an electrocution gag.

Oh, but do I need to go on?

Excuse me, but doesn’t predictability belie one of the basic tenets of humor – the unexpected?

There’s nothing wrong with formula humor, I suppose, but there’s something wrong when it’s all you get. Hollywood is especially culpable in formulaing us to death. They took a perfectly nice holiday novel by John Grisham, Skipping Christmas, and turned it into Home Alone. And they’ve done that with a couple of remakes of some old movie chestnuts, too, namely Cheaper by the Dozen and Yours, Mine and Ours. As if there’s no market for a warm family comedy anymore, they John Hughes it up with a bunch of open paint cans, broken glass, and falling anvils.

Please. If I want to see that kind of stuff, I’ll watch some old Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons, which had pratfalls, but were Rube Goldberg-like in their genius.

But want to hear something interesting? I don’t find the Roadrunner cartoons as funny as I did up through my college years. If you gave me the Warner Brothers cartoon catalog and told me I could watch whatever I wanted, I’d pull out all of the Foghorn Leghorn and Pepe Le Pew cartoons. I hated them both as a kid, but as an adult, I think they’re brilliant. Yet, they’re the redheaded stepchildren of the Warner Brothers stable – probably because so many of the jokes sail right over the heads of the kids.*

I don’t mind a brainless laugh-out-loud comedy every now and then. But I like the plot to hold together from beginning to end (and I’d like the movie to have a plot from the beginning). I don’t mind a pratfall if I can’t see it coming, and believe me, I can be very forgiving of things if I’m enjoying a movie. I can really turn my brain off. Sometimes my wife will say “I can’t believe you didn’t see that one coming,” and so I don’t lose standing in her eyes, I lie and say, “I did, but it was still funny.” Although sometimes, that’s the truth – but because the gag was so well-crafted, I laughed anyway.

As long as people respond to easy humor that is particularly not well crafted and plays to the lowest common denominator, Adam Sandler will always have a job. But Sandler should also look to the career of Chevy Chase and perhaps feel a shiver of weakness run up his spine.

Meantime, pursue the easy stuff if you wish. You’ll do all right, but the satisfaction won’t be there. And neither will I, because I’ll be at home with my DVD’s of Rowan Atkinson, Raising Arizona and How to Murder Your Wife.

So there you have it. Not how I write humor, but how I don’t. In this case, it’ll have to suffice.

Listening: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (via iTunes)

*In what must be the first time Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle was ever used in humor (predating even Steven Wright), Foghorn Leghorn hides in a woodshed while playing hide and seek. The Genius Chick looking for him makes some calculations on a chalkboard, takes a shovel, digs a hole in the middle of a meadow, and pulls Foghorn out. Foghorn, baffled, goes over to the woodshed to open it, but pauses. “Nope,” he drawls. “I’m afraid if I open it, I just might be in there.”

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2 responses to “What Makes Something Funny? (Part 4)

  1. Joe said, “Not once has anyone ever praised me for any of the easy gags I have fallen back on.”I don’t know about that… killing Frank Hartung WAS pretty funny.

  2. Or, since you sort of brought it up…<>He was aiming with his left hand, so it took four shots to kill Bachman.<>

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