The Funny Thing About Humor Part 4: Instant Humor
This is Part 4 of my series on humor.
The previous three parts of this series looked at creating humor in a scene. Now let’s look at instant humor, in other words, humor that you can create in an instantaneous. (That was an inside joke, for people following my blog.)
First let’s look at gags. Merriam Webster defines them as “a laugh-provoking remark or act”. In other words, gags are the bits of slapstick, the pratfalls, the good natured pranks. They could even be the one-liners, the clever puns, the side jokes.
They are quick to set up, they provoke a snort or a guffaw, and then they are gone.
On the upside, they are easy to write if you have any sense of humor at all. On the downside, they tend to be forgettable and are generally short-lived. Even the best gags are hard to sustain for more than a page or two. If you have too many gags too fast you will ruin your story.
But wait! you cry. What about The Three Stooges? What about Airplane!? What about Spaceballs? What about Scary Movie? What about…?
Yes, there are lots of movies that were non-stop gags, from the opening credits to the last few bars of the soundtrack. The examples above were basically a series of gags with a skeleton of a plot to hang them on. So what do you remember them for? The plot, or that they were soooo funny?
See? That’s my point. Plus they spawned the inevitable mass of imitators, most of which fell flat. (Did you know there were four, yes four, Scary Movies? And there’s another one coming out??)
As another example, gags are the basis of live comedy. Modern comics don’t tell you a story, they tell you jokes. People go when they need a laugh, once in a while. The rest of the time they want a story.
In fact, in yesteryear, comics like Newhart and Cosby did tell stories as part of their routines, but that style faded out decades ago. However, everyone remembers Newhart’s rookie security guard and Cosby’s Noah and Fat Albert stories. Who remembers all the jokes from Eddy Murphy’s Delirious? That’s my point, er, again.
Props can serve a similar function to gags. Think of Steve Martin clowning around with an arrow through his head, or Gallagher with a mallet ready to obliterate a pile of watermelons, or Howie Mandel’s entire act. With a funny prop, or a funny look for that matter, it takes no set up to get people laughing.
Props work especially well in a novel. Recall the scene in The Stainless Steel Rat when Slippery Jim fakes his death, and some unthinking orderly ties a toe tag on him and nearly amputates his big toe. Toe tags become the focus of the ensuing morgue scene, one of the funniest in the book for me (not just because of the prop, and not because I hate toes).
So in any form of fiction, throwing in a few gags can work. In humorous fiction they will abound, but you will see them in dramatic fiction as well, as stress relief (that’s foreshadowing for the next article in this series).
Now let’s look at situational humor. Like gags, the humor can be instant, but in contrast with gags, the humor can last for entire scene, or even an entire story. It can also build a while without the audience noticing. Have you ever been reading a story or watching a film and suddenly found yourself laughing hysterically for no apparent reason? Or maybe you started shaking your head and grinning, then said to yourself, “This is just… so… ridiculous!” That’s what I’m talking about.
To create situational humor, you take interesting or bizarre characters and put them in interesting or bizarre situations, and then let them do their thing.
The most obvious example is, well, situational comedies, otherwise known as sit-coms. They portray hopefully interesting characters in hopefully interesting situations. Ironically though, they aren’t the best examples because most of them end up relying on gags for humor. This is because it’s hard to keep the same situation funny after the first season. Plus most of them aren’t that funny.
A better example is the sketch comedy. These are like sit-coms in miniature, which means the characters and situations have to be even more bizarre to stand on their own. Look at the classics that people still watch in reruns like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, In Living Color, and one of the longest running TV shows of all time: Saturday Night Live.
One of my all-time favorite SNL skits is when Eddy Murphy teaches Stevie Wonder how to sing like Stevie Wonder. Just hearing the premise makes me giggle. Actually seeing it still puts me in hysterics.
Now that I think of it, I remember that skit better than any (or almost any) of the gags from Airplane! and it was probably easier, in the end, to write that scene than coming up with 50 gags back-to-back.
Situational humor is the basis for most comedic films. It is generally built into the premise.
- What movie had three handsome bachelors forced to adopt an adorable baby girl?
- What movie followed the biggest case in the life of the world’s best (in fact the world’s only) pet detective?
- What movie followed the life of a baby through the eyes of said wise-cracking baby?
- What movie(s) had a bumbling detective with an outrageous French accent solving crimes by accident, and being decorated as a national hero?
- What movie had a teacher obsessed with punctuality suddenly forced by circumstance to be late for everything? (That is for John Cleese fans, like me.)
We can find endless examples in novels as well. Harry Potter is a boy yanked from the muggle world to learn how to be a wizard. While not technically a comedic novel, this fish-out-of-water situation provides endless opportunities for Rowling to slip in humor when she needs it. Chocolate frogs and bogey-flavored jellybeans, anyone?
In one of my all-time favorite books, the knight-errant Don Quixote spends his entire eponymous novel firmly believing he is doing good deeds for everyone, but he is really a deluded and dangerous menace.
No one tells the reader this, of course, since we are seeing events through the hero’s eyes. That is the funniest part of all. We aren’t the only ones confused — no one stops Quixote because they quickly perceive he is mad, and they either try to help him or get out of his way, but he has periods of brilliant lucidity that make people stop and wonder if he is really mad after all.
Then there are the gags, like the windmill scene, and the regular beatings. The regular beatings only strengthen his resolve, and he has a devoted squire who shares in the mishaps that befall his master. The squire complains all the while of his lot yet he cannot leave because… well, I won’t spoil the book any further.
Suffice it to say, Cervantes put enough layers on the story to make the characters and adventures believable and interesting, while making the reader chuckle and shake his or her head all the while. The characters and their situations are remembered four centuries later. As proof: his name (as the adjective quixotic) and the phrase “tilting at windmills” are part of the modern English lexicon.
To conclude, if you want the ultimate giggle + belly laugh combination, go for the double whammy: set up your humorous situation, then let it simmer while you pepper it with gags. This is essentially the recipe of all the successful comedies mentioned above.
You can keep it simmering for as long you like, then let it boil over, then dial back the heat so your story can simmer a while longer.
Finally, to stretch this metaphor to its breaking point: if your base is good, you are more likely to over-season than to over-cook.
Stay tuned for Part 5: Humor Under Stress.