In October of last year, I wrote a post called "Tragedy: The Backbone of Comedy." After showing how the basic structures of tragedies and comedies are the same, which is fairly "duh," I said, "A simple switch in tone and mood can flip one to the other."
When I wrote that post, I knew my attribution of humor to "tone and mood" was superficial. Comedies can have a dark tone or a light and fluffy one, and they work just as well either way. The wide variety of funny books and movies demonstrates how meaningless tone and mood are: Dr. Strangelove is slow and absurd, Airplane is zippy and zany, Charlie Chaplain films are sentimental, Lemony Snicket books are, as he warns the Reader, "filled with misery and woe," etc.
But I didn't know how to explain the real difference between tragedy and comedy, so I left it alone. And I kept plugging away at my work in progress, laboring under the assumption that comedy was something magical in the voice, something to do with pacing and word choice, something that was learned over time and couldn't be succinctly defined.
Then last week I discovered YouTube videos of an interview with Steve Kaplan, a seasoned comedy screenwriter/director and author of The Hidden Tools of Comedy: The Serious Business of Being Funny (you can watch the full-length video or pick and choose from segments by topic). Watching them during my lunch break, and adding what Steve says to my own understanding of the comedic, I had my "By Jove, he's got it" moment.
My new definition: Comedy is telling the truth when people expect a lie.
I've read advice from comedic writers who say you inject humor by throwing in the unexpected. This is probably why those writers' books aren't very popular. "Random" does not equal "funny." Sitting in my townhouse in my quiet suburban neighborhood, I don't expect gangsters to bust down my door and shoot me dead. But I wouldn't consider that terribly funny.
Other writers believe you can make anything humorous by quickening the pace. I was guilty of fueling that myth when I said, "Almost every 'serious' story turns comedic if you do it faster." But if a scene that's supposed to be funny isn't, you can't make it funny by doing it faster and louder. Walk into a movie theater and pick almost any big studio comedy, and you'll find oodles of fast and loud and very little funny (those horrible, horrible commercials for Sex Tape spring to mind).
Still other writers think you can turn anything funny by tossing in drugs, violence, and/or references to male genitalia. Sorry, but the word "testicles" cannot breathe life into a dead, rotting comedy.
No, the real backbone of comedy is truth. Specifically, the truth you're not "supposed" to say.
Heroic vs. Comedic Characters
In drama, both authors and readers operate under an elaborate conceit. Dramatic heroes are not real people. They're strong, sensitive, complicated, passionate, and oh so very serious. If they have flaws, they're chosen from a very specific set of acceptable ones: emotional vulnerability, stubbornness, hubris, etc.
They are not, for example, clumsy. Imagine if Hamlet walked out on the stage and said, "To be or not to..." and fell flat on his face.
The audience would burst out laughing. The conceit that Hamlet is an exclusively angry, philosophical, tortured prince would be destroyed—he'd be revealed to be a very real, red-faced young man in tights.
This is the real reason that playing Hamlet "faster" makes it funny. Fast, on its own, is not funny. But fast-forwarding strips away the conceit that this is a very important play about very important topics and it must be taken seriously.
A heroic character is one with all but one or two ignoble personality traits stripped out, leaving an ideal. A comedic character is one with the omitted traits left in. As the Average Joe or Jane, they can be weak, lazy, petty, oblivious, and downright silly.
Say a hologram of a beautiful princess pops out of a robot and tells the teenage hero he's her only hope to save the galaxy from the forces of darkness (or the old guy down the street is, whatever).
The heroic character thinks this is perfectly reasonable and promptly sets out with his trusty light saber to eradicate evil from the universe.
The comedic character says, "Heck no, I like my limbs where they are. I'm sure you're a very nice princess, give my regards to Dad, sayonara."
And a comedic scene is one in which people act like people, not like idealized heroes and heroines.
Say a ramshackle group of rebels invades the spaceship of the Big Bad Guy and takes over a control center. Central command calls the center to ask what's going on.
The heroic character prudently ignores the call or, being ever-prepared, cleanly impersonates a storm trooper and gives the appropriate response.
The comedic character answers the call nervously. "Uh...everything's perfectly all right now. We're fine. We're all fine here now, thank you. How are you?"
Surprise without Truth Isn't Funny
Imagine the following scene.
Guests in neat black suits and conservative dresses file into a funeral parlor. A portrait of an elderly man stands next to a casket heaped with flowers. His comparatively young widow cries quietly while her friends pat her on the back.
Then the door bursts open, and a beautiful woman marches in with a young boy in tow. The woman pushes past the other guests and stands before the casket. She holds the boy's hand firmly and tells him, "Tommy, say goodbye to your father."
Now let's predict how this scene would play out in different genres.
Soap Opera: The wife would faint dead away, her glamorous friends would react with stony faces and righteous rebukes, and the main players would take turns making eloquent and assertive speeches (e.g., "You will pay for what you've done to this family!").
Hard-Boiled Mystery: The detective would sit back and watch with a cold, critical eye as the pastor quietly leads the mistress and her son out of the parlor, the guests whispering behind their hands. He would think about motives and opportunities and how the man with his arm around the widow's shoulder is acting a little too familiar, and how the widow's show of surprise at the mistress's appearance was a little too practiced.
Blockbuster Hollywood Comedy: A cat fight would break out between the mistress and the widow, or the mistress and the widow's friends. A loud black or gay person would yell, "Oh HAIL no, she di-in't!" The casket would get knocked over and the dead man would come tumbling out with a hard-on under his burial suit, and someone would crack wise about rigor mortis while the guests held their noses and gagged at the smell.
In any of the above cases, the scene wouldn't be funny at all—especially in the comedy. Nobody acts like a real person. Nobody feels, for example, confused or out of their element. Nobody makes an authentically unexpected move. They all follow their established fictional roles to the letter.
How do you make it funny? Put a real person in. This person is, for example, the second cousin once removed of the deceased. He's never met the guy, but his dour Great Aunt Velma, who holds the family purse strings, has strongly hinted that anyone who fails to be convincingly heartbroken by the tragedy will be written out of her will.
He stands in line to pay his respects, but he has no idea what to say. He thinks he should probably pray with a somber expression. He rehearses in his head, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death... He can feel Aunt Velma's beady eyes boring a hole in his back as he steps up to the casket.
And then the mistress appears, shoving him out of the way. Our man watches, agape, as she makes her bold declaration. The funeral parlor falls quiet. He looks around, but nobody makes a move. The widow is blinking dumbly, shocked out of her tears, and Aunt Velma's beady eyes are popping out of their sockets.
So what does our man do? Does he draw himself up and declare the hussy will pay for what she's done to this family? Does he coolly and calmly take charge of the situation like a hero, or shout obscenities like a clown?
No. Instead, he does what many real people do during a crisis: pretend that everything is okay. He bows his head, and into the awkward silence loudly recites, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
Obviously, there's a difference between behaving realistically and behaving like a real person. Few people would make fools of themselves like our man above—most would stay quiet and do nothing. But that would be boring. A small amount of conceit is still necessary because this is, after all, fiction.
But the scene isn't funny when there's no authenticity at all. The people who made the Hollywood comedy version of the scene assumed the scene would be funny because it's wacky. But a wacky event isn't funny if the characters' reactions to it don't ring true.
Truth without Surprise Isn't Funny, Either
And the reverse, stating the truth when it's not unexpected isn't funny either. This is the fatal flaw of sophomoric humor. Crude humor is supposed to be funny simply because it's rude—it highlights things you're not supposed to talk about in polite conversation. But these days, "polite conversation" is exceedingly rare. Vulgarity is so far from unexpected that I'm actually shocked, shocked, when a so-called comedy for adults doesn't contain a single reference to defecation or penises.
Real humor isn't simply unvarnished honesty, but surprise honesty—honesty that defies the expectations that conventions have implanted in the audience.
In Dr. Strangelove, a nutcase US military officer sends his planes to attack Russia with nukes, which could trigger a Doomsday Device and end the world. American ideals and action movies have trained us to expect that, in this dire situation, the president will be very stoic and strong and do everything he can to stop the attack. Instead, while the world is about to end in 20 minutes, the president is on the phone with the Russian Premier saying, "I'm sorry too, Dmitri. I'm very sorry. All right, you're sorrier than I am. But I'm sorry as well. I'm as sorry as you are, Dmitri. Don't say that you're more sorry than I am because I'm capable of being just as sorry as you are. We're both sorry, all right?"
Or in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur prances up to a castle on an invisible horse, his servant banging coconuts together. Yes, it's silly and mildly amusing. But it's not really funny until, after Arthur gives his royal introduction, the castle guard says, "You're using coconuts! You've got two empty halves of coconut and you're bangin' 'em together!"
1. At the time the movie was made, radio and theater trained us to suspend disbelief and accept that the sound of coconuts banging together meant the actors were riding horses, even if that's not what horse hooves sound like and there was obviously no real horse present. You don't expect another actor to point out the coconuts, any more than you expect a gangster in a black-and-white movie to aim a toy gun at someone and say, "This is a prop, but you's gonna pretend it's real, see?" (This particular gag probably worked better on the stage than it does in the movie, since a theater audience would have accepted the invisible horse without question.)
2. Plays, movies, and fairy tales teach us that people are supposed to worship kings like gods, bowing and scraping and doing everything they command. You don't expect a loyal subject to talk back to the king, or to forget about him and get distracted by a casual discussion of whether a swallow could carry a coconut.
3. Medieval legends and their numerous retellings portray King Arthur as a great and powerful leader. You don't expect Arthur to be a fool himself, plainly admitting to the coconuts with "So?" but continuing his royal speech anyway. The camera angle downwards also destroys the conceit—he's just a regular bloke in a funny hat, tiny and powerless compared to the castle wall and the empty fields around him, which makes his posturing all the more ridiculous.
That's what the "truth" part of comedy does—exposes people to be regular blokes even in the most dramatic situations. The funniest character isn't the zany or quirky or crazy one, it's the average one freaking out. John Cleese explained the evolution of Monty Python's acts, "We used to think that comedy was watching someone do something silly...we came to realize that comedy was watching somebody watch somebody do something silly."
The Secret to Funny: Stop Being Funny
So how do you write comedy? Stop trying to be funny.
When you're trying to be funny, it's very easy to fall into the trap of being fake. If there's a blank spot in your story and you ask yourself, What would be funny here?, you'll probably come up with something wacky. But wacky for the sake of wacky isn't funny.
What you should ask instead is the same thing you'd ask yourself when composing a dramatic story, What would my characters do here? The difference is that, when you're composing a drama full of heroes (or villains), you answer with what they should do. But in a comedy, you answer what they would do. What they would do might not seem funny at first, but rest assured, the funny is in there somewhere.
Example: A heroine wakes up with a hangover and finds her boss, whom she's always hated, in bed beside her.
What Hollywood says she would do: Scream her head off and hit him with a pillow.
What she should do: Be a calm, rational adult and wake him to discuss what happened and how they're going to deal with it.
What she would do: Blink at him, uncertain whether this is a dream or reality. She'd prefer to believe it's a dream. She'd lie back down and squeeze her eyes tight, hoping he'll vanish before she opens them again. When he wakes up and taps her on the shoulder, she'd curl up and ignore him. He'd ask, "Where's your bathroom?" and, after an awkward pause, she'd eek out, "Down the hall to the left."
Only the last option has the potential to be funny. Because people are so accustomed the Hollywood version, the "what she would do" scene subverts conventions with the unexpected truth that people avoid upsetting issues to the point of being ridiculous.
Sitcoms and movies can lazily fall back on loud-mouthed fools telling fart jokes, and people will laugh because decades of exposure to bad comedies have trained them to think "flatulence equals funny." But in written humor, there is no laugh track. There are no actors with bug-eyed expressions and flailing limbs. You have characters, word play, and truth—that's all. But really, that's all you need.