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Another humorous rule of three: characters

Regular readers may remember my discussion about the Rule of Three when it comes to humor, when I explored Humor in the Unexpected.

It occurred to me that there is another Rule of Three about humor: three characters.

For drama, the magic number is two: two characters discussing, arguing, competing, fighting, et cetera.  A third character disrupts the flow, and saps the energy from the conflict.  In drama, you do not want a “distraction from the action”.

However, for humor, a distraction from the action is exactly what you want.  A scene with two people joking back and forth can’t go on for long, because the scene loses focus.  No matter how funny the scene, it has to accomplish something for the story.  It has to advance the plot, or reveal something about a character, or both.

So a third character can add some levity to a scene while the two other characters keep the action going.  If the scene is tense, the third character can add some breathing room, otherwise known as comic relief (see Humor Under Stress).

For example, take C3PO in The Empire Strikes Back, when he is stuck with Han and Leia on the Millennium Falcon.  His constant nattering irritates Han in particular, which is amusing to us, and adds comic relief because our main characters are in terrible peril, being bashed about by asteroids and whatnot.  But then C3PO accomplishes something very important: he breaks up an attempted kiss between Han and Leia.  He brings great news, but the timing was terrible.  It’s funny because he has no idea what he did wrong — but the main purpose of his intrusion was to create a try/fail with Han and Leia’s romance, so Lucas and Kasdan could draw that subplot out for a whole other movie.

(What’s a try/fail?  Actually it’s part of another Rule of Three!  Stay tuned to this channel for more.)

Another example is Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace.  Unfortunately Jar Jar is only funny to audience members who haven’t outgrown Yu-Gi-Oh and Hello Kitty as high art, but without Jar Jar’s presence, the scenes would have been dry as dust because Jedi are supposed to be flat and unemotional.  And unfortunately, they were.

Oh what a movie that would have been if Lucas had hired a cowriter, like he did with Empire…. Sigh.

Of course, it is certainly possible to create an engaging and downright hilarious story where the two principals are flat and unemotional.  Take The Blues Brothers.  Jake and Elwood had a couple of weird habits, and a weird childhood, but that’s about it.  The humor came from the situations they created while they were “on a mission from gahd”.  Plus there were some wacky characters like Carrie Fisher’s character.

That’s right.  Princess Leia was in The Blues Brothers.

Conversely, if two characters are funny, add a third character to act as the foil.  The foil makes the funny characters seem even funnier.  He is the straight man… or woman, since in stories women almost never get to be funny.

As examples, Moe of the Three Stooges acts as the (relatively) straight man to his outlandish brothers, and Groucho fills the same role for the Marx Brothers (yes there were five of them, but you get the idea).

Note the second or third character doesn’t have to be an actual character.  It can be a thing or an obstacle, or even the goal itself.  Just something to lend a presence.

For example, take Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  If it was only Don Quixote versus a windmill, it would have been amusing.  But when Panza joins in and acts the foil while Quixote acts the fool (hey, that’s pretty good, I’d better trademark that), the scene is amplified to hilarious.  The scenes where they are traveling together move the plot and reveal character, but aren’t terribly funny.  However when they encounter other people, or windmills, that’s when the humor starts.

However, like I said above, even a humorous scene must accomplish something toward the story.  It should have some action or conflict to keep it moving, and it must advance the plot or reveal something about a character.  Or why not all three?

Scenes that accomplish several things at once and still get a chuckle out of the reader are the ones people will remember forever.  Like the aforementioned kissing scene in Empire.

As another example, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, there are several scenes when Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are talking with Marvin, the paranoid android.  These scenes are funny because Marvin is playing the straight… er… robot in bizarre situations while Arthur and Ford try to extract some information from him, or get him to do something.  With the humor Adams manages to advance the plot.

For example, remember the scene (one of my favorites) when they are plunging into the sun, with the dialogue:

Ford, how many escape capsules are there?


Did you count them?


It ends with poor Marvin being “volunteered to” …. well I won’t spoil it for you.

But wait!  You say.  What about a story told in first person by an amusing narrator?

Well, think about it.  A story told in first person involves a second person: you.  The narrator is including you in the story!  However, if all the narrator does is tell you jokes, it’s a comedy monologue, not a story.  How long would that last?

But now the narrator only needs one more person to complete the triad.  For example, Slippery Jim DiGriz in The Stainless Steel Rat series has a delightful narrative style that is amusing by itself and keeps the reader’s interest, but the scenes do not become actually funny until he encounters other characters.

For example, there is the scene where he is trying to steal Get-stuffed candy bars from a shop, and he is fighting his invention while his schoolmates are fighting the shop owner.  If it was only him stealing candy bars, it would not have been that interesting, no matter how clever the dialogue with you, the reader.  The other characters, the distraction to the action, is what makes the scene work.

So my point is, if a scene doesn’t accomplish something for the story, if its only reason for being is to get a snicker from the audience, it has to go, no matter how funny it is.

However, you can save it by introducing a third character to keep the focus on the action, where it belongs.

Can you be your own boss?

How many times have you heard people say, “I wish I could be my own boss”?

How many times have you said it?

Me?  Never.  I am a terrible boss.  I can’t delegate.  I don’t plan.  If I did accidentally create a plan, it would be out of date by this time tomorrow.

Worst of all, as the boss I would let me get away with anything.  I could spend all day surfing the web right under my nose and I wouldn’t say diddly.  I would constantly pressure me to give myself more time off with pay.  At least salaries would be transparent.  And sexual harassment in the workplace is totally up to me.  Annual performance reviews are still meaningless though.

But being the boss really is hard.  That’s why managers make more $$$ than employees.  It’s easier to be a follower than a leader.

Don’t believe me?  I remember taking a management course some years ago.  We each had to lead a blindfolded colleague out the door, around the parking lot, under some tree branches, and back to the conference room, all without letting our charge get a broken ankle or bruised noggin.  Then we reversed roles.

Once the blindfold was on, and the blindness-induced mini-freakout had passed, I found it really is easier to be the guy being led rather than the guy doing the leading.

Try the above experiment with a friend, or if you have no friends, imagine yourself in my shoes.  It drives home the fact if you are a leader, you have to watch your step and the steps of the poor blind schmuck you are leading.  If you are a follower, all you have to do is close your eyes and put one foot in front of the other.

Assuming, of course, that you trust your leader.  So I guess I should amend my previous statement: that’s why good managers make more $$$ than employees.  Bad managers make more $$$ for a while and then are forced into early retirement and given golden parachutes.  I guess the lesson here is, even if you are an idiot, life is better at the top.

Anyway, not wanting to be your own boss is a real problem for an aspiring writer.  I have never heard of a writer being under the thumb of anyone beyond an editor and a conscience, and perhaps a spouse or a bill collector.  Actually that’s the same thing.

We all need an inner boss forcing us to write.  It’s all too easy to find something else to do, and it’s not hard to find something more lucrative, like designing websites or holding bikini car washes.

Instead of sending your Girl Scout into the cold world to pound pavement and sell Thin Mints to raise money for her upcoming jamboree — assuming they have those — just tell her to write a short story and sell it to The New Yorker.  Yeah, that will work.

(No I’m not suggesting Girl Scouts should do bikini car washes.  The two thoughts were non sequitur.  Besides, I would take a box of Tagalongs or Do-si-dos over a clean car any day.)

Thus it’s safe to say a writer has to learn to be his or her own boss.

Like it or not.

Sadly, my boss-employee relationship has begun to deteriorate.  I demanded a new laptop because seriously, you can’t get the best work without the best tools.  But I told myself no, the money isn’t in the budget, sell a story first — to which I immediately retorted, I saw you going out for lunch every day this week, don’t talk to me about budget!  And how about taking me with you once in a while?  Calm down, can’t we just shake hands?  Hell no, I saw where you put that hand.  Then the argument just gets silly.

The Funny Thing About Humor Part 6: Un-humor

This is Part 6 of my series on humor.

What is un-humor, and why would I include it in a series on humor?

The easiest way to illustrate un-humor is by a joke.  Well, it’s sort of a joke.  Please resist the temptation to skip to the punch line (!!) or you will ruin the effect:

A guy goes to the doctor.  He says he is feeling terrible.  He hasn’t laughed in weeks.  He has tried going to see funny movies, live comedy, everything he could think of.

The doctor gives him a full examination and says, “Sorry sir, your sense of humor is dead.”

“Oh no!” the man cries.  “Is there nothing you can do?”

“I’m afraid not,” the doctor says.

The guy goes to another doctor and gets the same opinion.  He tries a third doctor and gets the same thing.  However, as he is leaving the third doctor’s office, the doctor adds, “Well, there is one thing that might help.  It’s just a rumor, but…”

“Really?” the guy asks.  “I’ll try anything.”

“You could try the great Kaping Kapong,” the doctor replies.

“Where do I find the great Kaping Kapong?”

The doctor pulls out a notepad and scribbles something on it.  “This is the address of an old friend of mine.”

“Is he the great Kaping Kapong?” the guy asks.

“No,” the doctor replies.  “But he can tell you where to go next.”

So the guy goes to the address on the paper.  It’s in a slightly rougher part of town.  He finds an old guy in a small office behind a massive oak desk.  He tells the old guy his sense of humor is dead, and he needs the great Kaping Kapong.

“Oh, I have heard the great Kaping Kapong is very powerful,” the old guy says.  “Here.”  He pulls out a notepad and scribbles something on it.  “You need to see this woman.”

“Is she the great Kaping Kapong?” the guy asks.

“No,” the old guy replies.  “But she can tell you where to go next.”

So the guy goes to the address on the paper.   It’s in a much rougher part of town.  He finds a wizened old woman working in back of a Chinese restaurant.  He tells her his story.

“I see,” she says.  “You seek the great Kaping Kapong.”

“Yes,” the guy says.

She pulls out a notepad and scribbles something on it.  “You need to see this man.”

“Is he the great Kaping Kapong?” the guy asks excitedly.

“No,” the old woman says.  “He is the Guardian.”

The guy rushes to the address on the paper.  It’s in a really rough part of town.  He enters a dingy bar and runs to the back.  There is an enormous figure in a gray, hooded cloak there.  From under the hood, a deep voice booms out: “So you are the seeker of the great Kaping Kapong?”

“Yes,” the guy says, trembling with excitement.  “Please hurry.”

The enormous figure swings its arm up and points at a door.  “Go through there.”

“At last!” the guy cries as he bursts through the door.  He comes to a landing at the top of a tall flight of stairs.  There is a shiny metal ball on a small table.  Next to the ball is a slip of paper with something written on it.  The guy snatches up the paper and reads:

For the great Kaping Kapong to appear, throw this ball down the stairs.

So the guy does.

And as the ball bounces down the stairs, it goes: Kaping! Kapong! Kaping! Kapong!

“Well,” you say, “that was actually kind of funny.”  To which I say, “Really?”

In that case, here is a better example.  It’s shorter, I promise:

This guy walks into a bar and asks to use the bathroom.  The bartender says, sure, it’s in the back.  So the guy goes in, comes out, and leaves.  A few minutes later, four pink flamingoes come strolling out of the bathroom and head out the front door.  Everyone watches this in shock.

The next day, the same guy enters the bar.  He asks to use the bathroom.  The bartender says sure, it’s in the back.  The guy goes in, comes out, and leaves.  A few minutes later, a two orangutans come swinging out of the bathroom and head out the front door.  Everyone watches in shock, but the bartender is getting suspicious.

The next day, the same guy enters the bar and asks to use the bathroom.  This time, the guy goes in, comes out, but the bartender stops him from leaving.  Sure enough, a few minutes later, five baby hippos squirm out of the bathroom and head out the front door.  The bartender rounds on the guy and demands, “Did you put those animals in there?”

And the guy answers:


What do these two jokes have in common?  Right!  They aren’t funny.

So what is un-humor?  It’s the joke that doesn’t happen.  All that build up, and then… nothing.

So when would you use un-humor?  Well, generally speaking, you wouldn’t.  For two obvious reasons: first, it’s not funny.  Isn’t the point of a joke to be funny?

Second, it’s breaking an implied promise with your reader or audience.  They will feel cheated if you don’t deliver.

For example, there is the dumbest, most hackneyed, saddest excuse for a plot device ever invented: the dream sequence.  (I would rate it even worse than deus ex machina only because people still use the former, and true examples of the latter have become thankfully rare since the Greeks stopped writing tragedies.)

You know how it goes.  You are watching a show, or reading a book, anticipating a big climax, wondering how the hell the hero is going to get out of this one, then bam! the hero wakes up.  Hahaha!  You fool, it was all just a dream.  Everyone is fine.  I, the writer, am feeling far superior to you and I am now laughing at your expense.

People want to get caught up in stories.  They expect them to matter somehow, even if it’s only to a fictional character.  The dream sequence is just a waste of time for everyone.

Now, I’m not talking about scenes where it’s obviously a dream, or it becomes obvious that it is a dream long before the audience becomes invested in it.  These are reasonable, if a tad too easy and cliché, ways to convey information to the audience.

I’m also not talking about yarns like Dreamscape or Nightmare on Elm Street which take place in dreams because, in fact, people can die in them.  (Otherwise they would suck too.)

Anyway, I have digressed.  My point is, un-humor is like a dream sequence — a joke played on the audience, and not for their amusement.  Mr. Writer, we are not amused.

However (you were expecting this, right?), there are two cases where un-humor can work.

Note that I’m not talking about a last minute twist on the joke, where a character tries something funny and fails, but it then morphs into something more unexpected and therefore even funnier.

I’m talking about scenes or dialog that end in a big… splat.

The first place you can use un-humor is where a character tells jokes that are so un-funny it’s funny.  For example, in How I Met Your Mother, Ted is famous for his lame puns.  His friends tell him to stop, but he never will.  Then there is Marshall’s fish list — his standup comedy routine that was simply reeling off names of fish.  He thought it was funny.

Or the character of Dug in Up, who told this kneeslapper in his hyperactive deadpan:

Hey, I know a joke! A squirrel walks up to a tree and says, “I forgot to store acorns for the winter and now I am dead.”  Ha!  It is funny because the squirrel gets dead.

The key here is, we already like the characters and so we laugh anyway.  Thus these are examples of Humor in the Expected.

The second place you can use un-humor is for dramatic effect.  You harness the letdown to play with the audience’s emotions.

For example, there is the scene — a cliché in Saturday morning cartoons — where the protagonist is failing and tries to win everything back with an elaborate stunt, and fails.  The hero doesn’t get the laughs she was expecting.  She comes off as pathetic, everyone abandons her for good, she is truly alone.  The audience is crying along with her.  Hopefully.  Plus they are mostly five year olds and near to crying anyway.

The failed humor dramatizes the fall.  It makes us feel rock bottom along with the character.

On the bright side, there is nowhere to go from here for the character, but…. up!  (no, not the movie)

Well, that wraps up my series on humor.  I hope you found it useful and, of course, amusing.

Think of any major humor types I missed?  Any more examples to share?  Sound off in the comments!

The Funny Thing About Humor Part 5: Humor Under Stress

This is Part 5 of my series on humor.

Have you ever been in a stressful situation where someone says something not-so-funny, and everyone has fits of hysterics, but no one really knows why?  You try to relate it to someone later but you give up before you embarrass yourself.  “Guess you had to be there,” you mumble.

I’m not talking about nervous laughter, exactly.  That is when people try to laugh to reduce tension, but they are not happy.  It doesn’t do much for the tension, either.

I’m talking here about a real laugh for real stress relief.  People laugh for many reasons.  To put others at ease, to create a social bond, to soften a harsh comment, et cetera.

In fact, laughter is such a part of our normal speech that we stick it in conversations that replace normal speech, such as texting, and even emails.  omg ew! lol 🙂

Consider two young people on a first date.  They are both nervous, so he tries a self-deprecating joke, like: “Sorry I’m late, but I had to run this shirt by my mom.”  She replies with a shy smile.  They drive to a restaurant.  He tries a couple more jokes in the car.  She smiles at the first and laughs the second.  During the meal he keeps the gigglefest rolling.  Later that night he drops her off and is rewarded with a peck on the cheek and a squeeze of the hand.

The next morning her friends swarm her for a recap of the previous night.  She says he has a great sense of humor, although she can’t remember any of his jokes.  That’s okay, they weren’t that funny anyway.  But they did their job.

That kind of humor typically doesn’t work in fiction, unless the audience is truly caught up in the scene.  It’s more of a visual thing too.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put that kind of dialog in your scenes — you should, because that is how people speak — but don’t expect your audience to find it as funny as you do.  Or you would, if you were there.

It’s like the irritating “laugh here now” cue, otherwise known as the laugh track.  It works in TV shows but books are spared this form of coerced mirth.

Hmm… maybe we could put it in a footnote?**

FYI, the laugh track was born on radio in the forties and found its way into television a decade later, where it became more and more popular, because it was cheaper than having a real audience.  By the sixties it was a sitcom staple.  It was even used in cartoons; they figured kids were too dumb to realize there could be no real audience for a cartoon.  Or they didn’t care what kids thought.

Think the laugh track is gone?  Sitcoms that are “filmed before a live studio audience” are still recorded, so they are not really “live”.  This allows sound engineers to use “sweetening”, where they add artificial laughter to saccharine up the real laughter, or they wipe out the studio laughter altogether then dub in a laugh track using the real laughter as a cue.  You would think that would hurt their critical potential, but even the Emmy Awards uses sweetening.  It’s all about control, people.

There is a physiological reaction to note here too.  Ever had the problem where you can’t stop laughing?  Laughter stimulates emotional and endorphin release, which makes us feel good.  This releases more endorphins, which makes us feel better.  We get high on laughter.  Jokes should be illegal.**

Anyway, what I’m really talking about in the context of this essay is the need to vent the pressure cooker of a tense scene or sequence of scenes, to let out a little steam before the pot (plot?) explodes.

This technique occurs all the time in fiction.  It’s called comic relief.

The simplest form of comic relief is tossing in a joke now and then.  The ideal timing is while the tension is building but not too close to the climax.  You can use Humor in the Unexpected or draw on Instant Humor.

Let’s take two examples from The Avengers.  In this movie, the forces of Earth face annihilation, and they are “hopelessly and hilariously outgunned”.  So they call on a group of “lost creatures” to save them.  Enter our superheroes.  They are as different as superheroes can be, they don’t get along well together, and they didn’t ask for this.  Oh, the possibilities for conflict!

First, recall the scene in Stark and Banner’s laboratory on the aircraft carrier, where they confront Nick Fury about what is really going on.  The rotating rapid-fire arguing ratchets up the tension, released periodically by Stark’s witty insults and the beginning of a grudge match between Captain America and Iron Man.

In the meantime, the real climax is building without anyone noticing.  This conversation is a distraction!  It ends with a bang (actually several, from without and within) and our heroes see how Loki has been manipulating them the whole time.

A second example is near the end of the final battle, when The Hulk confronts Loki in Stark’s tower / mancave.  Outside, the battle rages and Earth’s future is still in doubt, but the writers need the tension to last a little longer.  So they introduce a little comic relief.

I won’t spoil it in case you have not seen the movie yet (see it! it was an incredibly well written and directed film) but I will say I have never heard an audience laugh so hard in an action movie.  I couldn’t hear the rest of the scene.  For the writers, it was mission accomplished: this bit of comic relief allowed the director to keep the action going for much longer than an audience could normally stand.

Another popular reason for introducing comic relief is to liven up a story that would otherwise be bleak and uninteresting, either because of the setting, or because the main character is the strong silent type.  Many movies introduce a character specifically for this purpose.

A goofy sidekick is a popular but clumsy way to go.  If you are trying to create drama, a loveable moron can ruin all your hard work.  If you stick Harpo Marx into Unforgiven you get Blazing Saddles.**

Much better is to create comic relief from a “real” character based on his or her own traits.  It should be predictable in that it fits the character, such as Humor in the Expected, and/or unpredictable in that it doesn’t fit the situation, such as Unexpected Humor in the Expected.

For example, contrast the characters of Jar-Jar Binks and Han Solo.  Jar-Jar was a blatant comic relief character.  The story needed him because the other characters were so dour (they were Jedi, that was the point), but he was otherwise superfluous to the plot.  He was also dumbed-down for kids, and as a result most adult moviegoers hated him.  So let’s ignore him and move on.

Instead, look at Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.  He had a cavalier attitude toward life and was flippant in stressful situations.  He was integral to the plot, likeable, and he could behave unpredictably sometimes because that was part of his character.  Thus he was perfect for providing comic relief when the story needed it.

Remember when Princess Leia tells Han she loves him just before he was about to be frozen into an uncertain future?  He only responds, “I know.”  That’s Unexpected Humor in the Expected.  It lets a little steam out of the pressure cooker, and then the lid slams back down as the carbonite seals him in.  The climax of the scene hits harder because of that tiny release a minute before.

So in fiction, a little comic relief is not just for introducing humor for its own sake, it is to intensify the drama.  It is the calm before the storm.  It’s standing in the eye of the hurricane.  It’s getting a brief respite from the battering winds, enough to take a breath and inspect the damage, and then bam! they blow you over.

From cooking metaphor to storm metaphor.  I could write for Hell’s Kitchen.

Stay tuned for Part 6: Un-Humor.


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…

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