Monthly Archives: September 2012
The Funny Thing About Humor Part 3: Unexpected Humor in the Expected
This is Part 3 of my series on humor.
Let’s combine the previous two techniques, Humor in the Expected and Humor in the Unexpected.
So now, we have a character who reacts in an unusual way to a new situation, but it still fits the character.
For example, remember the scene in Friends where Monica and Chandler dropped a cheesecake so good they are willing to eat it off the floor? Joey catches them in the act, and the audience expects a look of disgust or a disparaging comment. Instead, after a dramatic pause, Joey whips out a spoon and says, “Ohh-kay, what’re we having?”
This being unexpected, the scene would be funny with any character in it. They could even drag in an extra from the street. However, it really needed to be Joey. Why?
Well, we know the character of Joey and we have an emotional connection with him (everyone loves Joey!). Plus, we know Joey thinks with his stomach. Thus the writers have met the three requirements of Humor in the Expected.
Now, the writers throw in something Unexpected. We have never seen Joey walk around with a spoon, but then again, why not? For any other character, the spoon and his reaction in the scene would have been funny. When it’s Joey, it’s funny, but more importantly it is memorable because it resonates with the audience.
So this is kind of like the Rule of Three on a much grander scale.
Incidentally, the reverse doesn’t usually work so well: when a character reacts unpredictably to a situation we have seen him or her in many times. This has the character breaking a pattern that is already set for him or her. In fiction, breaking a pattern already strains believability, and needs careful setup. Throwing humor in there is usually too much.
Having a character react unpredictably to a familiar situation is a popular way to create drama though, such as an incident to move us from Act 1 to Act 2, or to resolve a climax. Humor here would sap the strength of the drama.
For example, consider the climax to The Truman Show. Truman finally sails to the end of his world despite all the obstacles its creators have put in front of him. Most of the movie is played as a comedy, with various funny things happening to our hero (hell, it’s Jim Carrey) but with a serious undertone. This isn’t a farce or sendup, our hero is trying to accomplish something.
So instead of another gag, to resolve the plot, the writers want Truman to make a fundamental change of character. Therefore, it must be dramatic. Truman makes his decision, he breaks out of his world into the greater world beyond, and his life is changed forever.
Once the climax is over, the humor can resume. Truman’s reaction to this new world and its reaction to him could have been played for laughs and it wouldn’t have lessened the climax. Done right, humor after the fact could have cemented the character change and intensified the climax. But that’s another story.
Stay tuned for Part 4: Instant Humor…
Why I can’t watch (un)reality shows
Taking a short break from my series on humor for a quick rant.
Reality shows: love ’em or hate ’em?
I never saw Big Brother. The first reality show I remember is Survivor. The previews built up the show like these people were stranded on a desert island and had to fend for themselves. Except they didn’t.
Other than crowd pleasers like eating bugs and rats, there was very little demonstration of actual survival skills, such as building shelter and finding food. Instead, survivors spent their time performing contrived stunts for “immunity” and sitting around on the beach backstabbing each other. Which turned out to be the only really important skill, in fact.
The next season’s survivors learned from this. They started backstabbing right away. They were so good, in fact, they must have practiced backstabbing in the off season.
Then there was American Idol, which perfected The Reality Show Formula for all the imitators to follow:
(1) you need three judges: one nice, one neutral, one jerk.
(2) you start with The Freakshow. Each episode starts by showing you the line of hopefuls that stretches around the block. Focus on the ones with weird clothes and freaky piercings. Being a talent show, you would think they would only want talent. Nope. The horrible singers get equal time with the great ones. Remember William Hung? He made a career out of being gleefully tone deaf, launched by the show that searches for America’s best singers.
On The Freakshow, the judges have their roles: the jerk-judge cuts them down, the neutral-judge offers advice, and the nice-judge smiles a lot. Guess which judge everyone remembers.
(3) you move on to the actual competition. It’s part soap opera, part Gong Show. Each contestant tells a weepy story of how winning this competition will validate their life. Then they sing. The judges get to buzz them when the show starts to drag, and make up words like “pitchy”. The jerk-judge pulls out his most creative insults at this time. Then the cameraman zooms in to the contestants’ faces hoping they will cry.
(4) you introduce viewer voting. Ballot stuffing is inevitable and encouraged, since it makes more money for their sponsor AT&T. The judges can still insult the contestants, to influence viewer voting and make sure the correct demographic makes it through to the final.
(5) the last part of the formula is the results show. The contestants stand on a stage in front of millions of people and look anxious and uncomfortable while the host builds up tension through melodramatic background music and unabashedly artificial pregnant pauses.
They could just announce the winners, but they have to fill the hour, so they sort the contestants into groups and move them around, and throw in musical guests with their own albums to sell, all the while eliminating contestants one at a time. Of course, they carefully split the last set of results across a commercial break. Then the cameraman zooms in to the contestants’ faces hoping they will cry.
This formula made the Fox Network enough money to wipe out the national debt so naturally all of the other networks cloned it. They did play with the formula a bit. What that means is, they focused on the parts that appealed to humanity’s basest natures: eating testicles (Fear Factor), crying (The Bachelor), backstabbing (The Apprentice), screaming (Hell’s Kitchen), violence (Jersey Shore), and Parisites (The Simple Life).
I do have one guilty pleasure: America’s Got Talent. It’s pure formula, but through the magic of DVR I can fast forward through the artificial drama to get to the acts. Some of them are world class, and the producers make sure there is a lot of variety.
The show jumped the shark this year, though. They had less acts, and they spent endless time on banter between the judges and the host. Who tunes into a talent show to watch the judges?
Plus the shows got shorter and they kept repeating them. I assume that was to pay for the outlandish salaries these judges get. Ironic isn’t it? Reality show judges get $15-$20 million per season to do stuff we fast forward through.
The one that has impressed me so far is The Voice. They tossed out The Freak Show and the judges don’t get to insult the contestants. Plus the judges aren’t just talking heads — they are coaches who join in the competition. There is no screaming, backstabbing, eating of pig rectums…
Come to think of it, does The Voice even qualify as a reality show?
The Funny Thing About Humor, Part 2: Humor in the Expected
This is Part 2 of my series on humor.
As per Part 1 of this series, common wisdom says “humor is in the unexpected”. That is the most common way to create humor, but there is also humor in the expected.
Bet you didn’t expect that. Okay, given the title of this post, you probably did.
Yes, people can find predictable things funny too. It’s harder to pull off, it takes more work to set up, and it’s rarely good for more than a chuckle.
However, humor in the expected has a few bonus effects:
- it strengthens the bond between character and audience;
- it strengthens the bond between writer and audience;
- it can even, such as in the case of a long-running TV show or series of books or movies, create a bond within the audience itself.
For this to work, you need three things:
- the audience must be well acquainted with the character and his habits;
- the audience should like the character, or at least identify closely with him or her;
- the habit, trait, or reaction that you repeat must be at least passably funny to begin with.
Then when the character reacts to a new situation in exactly the way the audience expects, they laugh.
Don’t believe me?
Consider The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Remember that look Johnny gave the camera whenever a guest did or said something wholly unexpected? It often came up in the animal segments — an innocent “why me?” combined with “are you seeing this?”. He gave his audience that look at least once per show, and the audience knew it was coming, but it never failed to crack them up. It became a comic covenant between Carson and his long-time audience. Think of it: 30 years on, and people still laughed at it. Proof enough?
Such a running joke doesn’t necessarily take 30 years to set up, but it certainly takes more than two hours. So it is difficult to pull off in a short story, or even in your average movie. However, it works well in novels and sit-coms where the audience gets time to know the characters.
For example, the funniest television show ever made, The Big Bang Theory, has developed many running jokes over the years. These have the effect of binding the audience to the show. It even binds the audience to each other; check out a typical fan forum where people discuss said jokes.
So… a running joke keeps people running back. (No that’s not a football joke. Never mind.)
The other obvious example is the catchphrase. For example, who says “D’oh!”? Right! Homer Simpson. And what do you think of when I say, “I’ve got a ba-ad feeling about this.” Hint: it’s a catchphrase used in a series of six movies by just about every major character in them. After the first couple of movies, you were waiting to see who would say it in the next one.
How about, “Life? Don’t talk to me about life.” Hint: it’s the robot with “a brain the size of a planet” forced to do menial chores. Yes, it’s Marvin, who don’t get no respect. Oops, that’s someone else’s catchphrase. D’oh!
Interestingly, catchphrases work best when they don’t try too hard. When someone deliberately tries to create their own catchphrase, it never takes. The audience has to choose. Think about “I’ll be back”: do you think the writers of The Terminator ever imagined it would become Arnie‘s catchphrase? No way. The audience liked it, especially the way Arnie said it. So he adopted it.
Similar, but different: there is the in-joke for people who follow certain authors, or directors, or types of movies, et cetera.
For example, many film directors have certain shots or effects that become their trademarks, and fans look for them whenever a new movie comes out. As another example, every Marvel superhero movie has a Stan Lee cameo in it. Only the people who follow Marvel comic books (and recognize Lee) will get the joke.
Ever heard a Wilhelm Scream? Yes you have, but you probably didn’t know it. Check it out, it’s a fascinating bit of movie trivia.
So did you click on that link?
Good, now you are in on the joke too.
Stay tuned for Part 3: Unexpected Humor in the Expected…
The Funny Thing About Humor, Part 1: Humor in the Unexpected
The things that people find funny are subjective and cultural, yet the basic framework of humor is universal. I put them into categories and made them into a series.
Let’s start with Part 1:
Humor in the Unexpected
This most common form of humor comes from something unexpected. (I know, you expected that.) This comes from basic brain physiology: our brains see patterns everywhere and they constantly make predictions about everything. This allows us to keep most functions on auto pilot while we concentrate on important stuff. We couldn’t function otherwise.
- as you walk forward, your brain predicts when your next foot will touch down. If your foot lives up to your brain’s expectation, you keep walking. You can even add some gum chewing. If the prediction is off, because of a half inch deviation in stair height, for example, you stumble.
- if you hear someone humming a familiar tune, your brain predicts what the next note will be. If the note is right, you can hum along. If the note is wrong, you wince and say she is off key, or pitchy, whatever the hell that means.
- if you meet your sister’s boyfriend for the first time, you expect to see his eyes and nose and ears in all the usual places. If so, you can ask, “How do you do?” If he has two noses, you stare. You can’t help it.
If a prediction is met, you don’t notice. What is predictable isn’t very interesting. But when something unusual happens, you notice. Sometimes it makes you laugh. Laughing at someone with two noses is bad manners, but you can’t fight physiology.
Let’s apply this to stories. A story is a sequence of events. Naturally, your brain seeks patterns in the events and makes predictions. If you can predict the events, you get bored. If something unusual happens, it catches your interest. If it catches you the right (or wrong) way, it could make you laugh.
A common setup for a joke uses the Rule of Three. Once is an incident, twice is a pattern, and the third time you break the pattern. For example:
Three guys walk into a bar. The first guy orders a beer. The second guy orders a glass of wine. The third guy orders the bartender to drop his pants and whistle Dixie.
You were expecting the third guy to order whisky or something, right? Fooled you. The sudden jolt caused you to bust a gut, right?
The Rule of Three works in stories too. The setup can be in one scene or over several scenes. After you set the pattern, then you have an unpredictable outcome, or have a character do something unpredictable. You don’t always need the Rule of Three, of course, but it works.
Next, there is the degree of unpredictable-ness. Odd evokes a chuckle. Bizarre brings a laugh. Totally off the wall brings guffaws… so long as it still fits.
If the twist is a little unexpected, it’s drama. If it’s over the moon, it’s humor. If it has gone past Pluto, all you get are blank stares from the audience and it’s good night, go home.
Then there is the simplest way of all to get a laugh: shock effect. Use something taboo or risqué. For example, in the joke above, let’s make the third guy a Jewish priest, the bartender is a gay cowboy, and throw in some cusswords. Hell, you don’t even need a joke anymore, people will laugh at the cusswords.
Of course, this is risky. Say your audience turns out to be Jewish or gay and they brought a basket of overripe fruit. If your story has a PG rating or better, using sexual situations is safer. It worked for Monty Python and Benny Hill.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Humor in the Expected…
Writing from a strong foundation
Writing — any kind of writing — is like building a brick house:
(1) start with bricks;
(2) lay them across to make floors;
(3) stack them on the floors to make walls;
(4) arrange the walls to make rooms;
(5) dress the rooms up with electricity and plumbing and posters of Erik Estrada.
So I don’t really know how to build a house. So it reads more like Minecraft than Extreme Makeover. Hang with me for a moment.
If the bricks of our artificially simplified house are crap, the floors fall down. If the floors fall down, the walls fall down. If the walls fall down, the rooms fall down. If the rooms fall down, the posters of Erik Estrada get buried in rubble, and what a tragedy that would be.
Everyone has a basic understanding of what keeps a house from falling down. If you see a house with crumbly bricks, would you enter it? If was leaning like a palm tree in a hurricane would you even walk up to it? Assuming you weren’t Pisani.
Now let’s build a story. Note this applies to any kind of writing you expect people to read, even a friggin’ email, except for step 4 which is pretty much tied to fiction:
(1) start with words;
(2) lay them across to make sentences;
(3) stack the sentences to make paragraphs;
(4) arrange the paragraphs to make scenes;
(5) add posters of Erik Estrada.
If you see a bunch of misspelled words, would you read it? If the grammar looked like it came from a preschooler, would you take it seriously?
I’m not talking about style here. Writers can misspell words on purpose or chop sentences for effect. Breaking rules occasionally makes writing interesting. Breaking rules constantly makes writing unreadable.
I have a strange affliction that makes it worse for me. My brain identifies spelling mistakes in any piece of writing, even if I’m not reading it, and they immediately leap from the page and dance in front of my eyes. I have a hard time reading anything with errors in it. I would seek treatment for this disease but frankly, I don’t think it’s my problem.
Our writing skills have been degenerating for decades. People blame texting, emails, bulletin board flame wars, influence of non-English speakers, reliance on spellcheckers and grammar checkers, not enough emphasis on writing in school, et cetera. These all contribute to the problem, but the root cause is apathy.
Yes, apathy. We just don’t care enough about spelling and grammar anymore. Anyone who does is called a Grammar Nazi.
Well, I say we need a little more verbal fascism. Not 100% all of the time, but if you don’t follow the rules of a language, how do you expect people to understand you?
So let’s call it verbal feudalism. Everyone must maintain his or her own demesne in a presentable state, but we can overlook a few drunken peasants or tumbledown shacks. We keep our main roads free of debris and practice a common language so we can trade with our neighbors. We can all be Grammar Lords!
Actually that is kind of silly. Let’s all just agree to take better care of our English, okay? Language is beautiful. It needs love and protection.