Teach Yourself to Laugh
Brain Storming: What is comedy? These are just a few thoughts to help me, and you the reader, understand what this most difficult of all the styles of the written word actually is. If I brain stormed the idea I would put down such words as absurd, juxtaposition, the unexpected, the stupid, slap stick, patter, satire, a romp and taboo. There are probably heaps more I could write down but that will do for now.
Tradition: Comedy is often defined as a domestic situation with ordinary people doing ordinary things, especially falling in love, and the definition states that comedy does not have to be funny. Well personally I think the above definition is crap, if a book or a play doesn’t make me laugh, or attempt to make me laugh, then for me it’s not comedy.
Let go: One interesting thing about comedy is that it means different things to different people. In my Death in the Australian Outback series I went the whole hog, the comedy comes first, then the story line, but when people review the these books some write that they are really really funny, others state that they are not funny enough and others say that they are not funny at all! This leads us to the fact that comedy, like sex, has a problem, you have to be in the mood. I think people are afraid of real comedy as they find it confrontational. They have to laugh at things which they have become comfortable with so they stiffen up and go po-faced and when this happens they can’t see the funny side, as my old mum used to say. Perhaps the reader of comedy should get half drunk before reading.
Translating from the Greek: If we translate the word comedy from the original Greek it means village revels and really that is a great description of what comedy should be: an unsophisticated gang of people having fun. We have all been in the situation where you are half drunk with a bunch of friends, having a bit of a chin wag or a sing song and everything but everything is funny. Charles says ‘soup’ and everybody laughs, Mary says ‘shoes’ and everyone cracks up laughing, for no real reason the laughter just rolls on. Real comedy is tied to laughter and we sophisticated, Western, educated, urbane, intellectuals would rather sit around being trendy and smart than give off a good belly laugh.
Infectious: Laughter, however, when it does happen is infectious so a comedian on a stage, if he can relax his audience and make them start laughing, has won the battle. So having seduced ones audience, got them drugged up on their own laughter adrenalin, and laughter does create joy releasing happy chemicals throughout the body, how does the comedian maintain this state of being? What are the weapons in his arsenal? This question takes us right back to my original brain storming.
Absurd: This is perhaps the same as silly or stupid and a stupid character saying stupid things is usually very funny. This is another point, comedy revolves around the human condition, so it needs people for us to laugh at whether they are government employees being officious about bits of paper that nobody reads or two half-witted blondes trying to change a punctured tyre on a car. Good comedy relies, to a large extent, on a bunch of stereotyped characters doing stereotyped things and yes stereotypes can be interesting and can evolve.
Juxtaposition: Juxtaposition is a big word and it means putting things together that don’t normally go together. Can I think of an example, perhaps a very tall thin man trying to kiss a very short fat woman, already this concept brings a smile to your face!
Well Rounded Phrase: I would have to reread PJ Wodehouse’s Joy in the Morning for an example of this, if you want one, you know where to find one. I try to use the well rounded phrase in my Jack Hamma series, (See Shakespeare on the Roof) the well rounded phrase beautifully states the absurd and there we are, back to silly again, have to look deeper into silly if I get time.
The Unexpected: The unexpected is a great comic tool. What the comedian does here is lead the audience down a fairly well-trodden garden path and then throws everything out of kilter by finishing with the opposite idea to the one the audience’s common sense logic has led them to. This is a great device, it jolts the audience and makes them sit up and think. It’s a device I often use, set up a subject, add a bit of matter, end up with a twist and the audience will not only be slightly shocked but amused.
Limericks: Limericks are rhyming versions of the unexpected, the last line of a limerick has to have an element of the unexpected or the unconventional, I use limericks in my book Murder Mayhem and Madness often you don’t even need the last line as the audience work it out for themselves and if it is a bit rude it can be very funny if not stated too explicitly. Rhyming works in limericks as it helps soften up the listener’s brain for the punch line. Music and dance are also useful tools in the comedian’s tool kit so light opera, such as a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, are perennially popular the world over. As I said music and dance soften up the brain and often act like alcohol releasing good fun vibrations and overcoming the modern person’s reluctance to enjoy themselves.
Stupid: The stupid character, saying and doing stupid things, is great in comedy as the audience quickly cotton on to the fact that this character is stupid and they are more than ready to laugh at them. The stupid character brings out another point, human weakness, stupidity, vanity, blindly in love etc, comedy takes advantage of human weakness and laughs itself to death at them. We have to face the fact comedy is malicious! In the old days people laughed at Jews, Arabs, black men, Chinese, women, the mentally retarded, even people slipping on banana skins, let’s face it comedy is often not one hundred percent nice. Audiences like to laugh at someone else’s expense so perhaps the cultural police should declare comedy illegal.
Slapstick: Slapstick, to put it in a nut shell, is people tripping on a banana skin, falling onto their bum or rough physical humour. I don’t know one single person who, at some stage, hasn’t laughed at a friend or relative when they have fallen over. As I said before we humans are malicious. We seem to find people bumping into things, dropping things, getting hit over the head with large German sausages, getting thumbs stuck in car doors and the like funny. Maybe there is something wrong with humans but if there is, laughing at ourselves would be the cure.
Patter: There is a bit of famous patter called Who’s on Third performed by Albert and Costello. If you understand a little about baseball it’s quite hilarious, it combines misconception, word play, and downright stupid characters who we laugh at but the patter, the repetition of the comic word formula, builds the whole sequence into a painful to listen to crescendo. Comedy at its best can be quite painful, as in the Fawlty Towers episode with the deaf old lady, Basil in this episode, ties himself into a painful series of verbal knots.
Satire: Satire is political comedy, or comedy of current affairs and current trends, usually satire takes a current politician and sends them up. So how does satire work? Often the audience has decided already that, mention a particular person’s name, and it, the audience, will laugh. So in England in the 1980’s a puppet satire on television often featured a Margaret Thatcher puppet and it was very funny. Basically people had already agreed to laugh at any jokes about Margaret Thatcher, and society does this, it agrees to make fun of certain people, however time moves on and thirty years later it’s hard to see what the joke was.
This brings up another point about comedy it can become dated. Comedy is often about the here and now, and things we find funny today are not necessarily funny to a new generation. Having said that comedy about perpetual themes can be laughed at by generation after generation such as Benedick and Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. A man and a woman mutually repelled and mutually attracted to each other is one of the greatest of comic themes, look at Pride and Prejudice for a good example.
A Romp: When I was a mere boy, television was full of slightly sexual romps, men with their trousers around their knees chasing big breasted women in bikinis. A quick innuendo: you have got a lovely banana there or what a lovely bunch of coconuts and then the chase. This type of humour is not popular today, especially with the cultural police, but it is actually essential to the comedy or the village revel and the first comedies were full of sexual innuendo and men with big dangling phalluses. So somehow, somewhere, sex is funny and we love to laugh at it, sex is one of the cornerstones of a comedian’s tool kit, don’t ask me why, perhaps it’s related to our next word: Taboo!
Taboo: Taboo, or we mustn’t talk about this, or say that word, is an area that is full of good possibilities for the comedian. Bodily liquids such as sperm and urine and bodily functions such as going to the toilet, farting, and not to forget having sex, are taboo in many cultures and the fact that they are taboo seems to make them funny. The words fuck, cunt, and mother fucker are some of the most taboo words in the English language today but fuck is used so often nowadays that it’s losing its impact. Still people often say fuck in the hope of raising a smile, to say the slang word for a woman’s vagina doesn’t seem to get the same laugh, perhaps there are taboo words and then there are taboo words, or perhaps the word cunt is very very taboo!
Ineptitude: So, strangely enough, no matter how civilised we are, we like to laugh at peoples ineptitude. Certain things comedians are allowed to make fun of and certain things they are not. If you can make up a joke about a white Anglo Saxon man you are on a winner, the whole world will laugh with you, but most other ethnic groups and sex groups are off limits, having said that the blonde joke is still very much alive and well and the Irish joke is impossible to kill off. In spite of the cultural police we still like to laugh at others.
Laughing Yoga: Laughing is an interesting phenomenon, you can actually do it without any jokes being made. In a therapy called Laughter Yoga people just get together and laugh and the laughter becomes infectious and each time the people get together it becomes easier to laugh and the laughter becomes more infectious and when the laughter is over the people feel good. So, we can listen to music, sing, dance, take drugs, get drunk or go to laughter yoga to chill out, but what about sitting down with a good humorous book (Death in the Sydney Opera house for example) taking a deep breath and then laughing and when you have taught yourself to laugh then you can begin to read, enjoy and relax.
All of the above: In my series of books Death in the Australian Outback I used all of the above Technics and more to create humorous situations but the problem is the reader has to play his or her part comedy is a live art form even as written word the reader has to be in the right frame of mind and ready to laugh, horror works the same way if you are not ready to be scared then a horror story won’t work for you. Word of mouth is a great tool if you recommend this book to someone and say: It’s very funny, then if that someone read it they are much more likely to laugh the problem is to get the reader to lighten up in the first place, as Bigfoot says to Sergeant Elizabeth West in the series Death in the Australian Outback: Chill out West.
Have a laugh on me
Cheers Anthony E Thorogood