Let’s start off with a test. A Comedy Perception Test, to see if we’re perceiving comedy with 20-20 vision. Below are seven sentences, seven word?pictures. They don’t mean anything other than what they are. There’s no back story. Read them carefully.
A. Man slipping on a banana peel.
B. Man wearing a top hat slipping on a banana peel.
C. Man slipping on a banana peel after kicking a dog.
D. Man slipping on a banana peel after losing his job.
E. Blind man slipping on a banana peel.
F. Blind man’s dog slipping on a banana peel. and
G. Man slipping on a banana peel, and dying.
So, you have these seven sentences, word-pictures that contain no hidden meanings or narratives. Now answer these four questions: Which of these statements is the funniest? The least funny? The most comic? And which one is the least comic? Now one of you might be thinking to yourself, “Comic and funny—isn’t that the same thing?” Excellent question, thanks for asking. But just for now, let’s stick to selecting which one you think is the funniest, the least funniest, the most comic and the least comic.
Let’s start with the funniest. Which one did you pick?
A.) Man slipping on a banana peel? How about
C.) Man kicking a dog or
D.) Man losing his job? (OK, that one only a boss could find funny.)
Was your choice E.) Blind Man? (And if it was, shame on you! You’re sick, you know that?)
So, which did you decide was the funniest? The answer to which is funniest is, of course . . . you’re right, no matter which one you picked! Don’t you feel affirmed? You were right because the difference between what’s funny and what’s comic is that funny is subjective. If you’re laughing at it, to you, that’s funny. End of story. End debate. Period. If you’re laughing at it, it’s funny to you. And by the same token, if you’re not laughing at it, no matter how learned a review in The New Yorker, to you, it’s not funny. I have a three-year-old nephew. And if I took like my keys and started shaking my keys, I can make him laugh. So to him, that’s funny. But would you give me $600,000 against a million option to buy those set of keys?
One of the biggest mistakes that writers make is that they’re worried whether the script is funny or not funny. But funny, as we’ve said, is subjective. What comedians will tell you is that you can’t live or die by whether this person or that person laughs. You have to do your material and just trust that it’s creating a comic picture, a comic portrait, and that comedy is not predicated on how many jokes there are on the page. The worst sitcom you can think of, the worst comic movie, the worst RomCom, is chock full of moments that they’re trying to make funny.
So what’s comedy? In my seminar, we watch a lot of comedy clips, but one of the most important clips we watch is from a daytime soap opera. When I show it, occasionally people laugh. Taken out of context it’s pretty funny. OK, it’s very funny. But why would we want to watch a soap to learn about comedy? Here’s the thing: Everybody involved in this—as writers, directors, actors, designers and craftsmen—is usually dedicated to not making you laugh. So I think it’s instructive to pay attention to what are they doing and the choices they’re making. Take a look at almost any soap scene. The first thing you have to notice about people in soaps is that they’re more than just good-looking, they’re almost supernaturally attractive. People like this just do not exist in nature. And the combination of writing, directing and performance is designed to communicate a specific set of qualities. Even when the behavior is extreme, i.e. adultery, murder and deceit, the staples of daytime drama, the actors rarely act in an inappropriate manner, such as that would tend to mock the characters. The actors playing the characters are subtly saying to us: Look at me, look how sensitive I am, how much I’m suffering, how deeply I feel, how intelligent I am. And I’ll turn to the women in the audience, and I’ll say, “Ladies, is this what your significant other is like?” There’s often a big laugh because obviously, they’re not.
The point is that drama helps us dream about what we can be, but comedy helps us live with who we are.
Comedy helps us live with who we are because while drama idealizes man’s perfection and the tragedy of his falling short, comedy operates secure in the knowledge of man’s imperfection: insecure, awkward, fumbling unsure—all the core attributes of comedy. Doesn’t this really describe us all? While drama might depict one of us going through a dark night of the soul, comedy sees the dark night, but also notices that, during that dark night, we’re still wearing the same robe we’ve had on for a few days and eating chucky peanut butter out of the jar while sitting and watching Judge Judy. It’s still a dark night, but one that comedy makes more bearable by helping us keep things—like our life—in perspective.
Comedy tells the truth, and specifically, it tells the truth about being human. A comedian is simply the courageous person who gets up in front of a group of strangers and admits, confesses to being human. In that if you have the courage to tell the truth, and mostly the truth about yourself, and the truth about the crazy things that you do, and the crazy way that you see the world, then you have a good head start in creating comedy. So what’s comedy? The paradigm of comedy is an ordinary guy or gal struggling against insurmountable odds without many of the required tools with which to win, yet never giving up hope. It can almost be stated as an equation:
An ordinary guy or gal—Jackie Gleason used to call him a moke—struggling against insurmountable odds, without many of the required tools with which to win, yet never giving up hope. From this paradigm or equation, we can draw we can draw usable, practical tools, what we call the Hidden Tools of Comedy. The tools are:
- Positive (or Selfish) Action
- Active Emotion
- Metaphorical Relationship
- Straight Line/Wavy Line
First there’s the tool of Winning. Winning is the idea that, in comedy, you are allowed to do whatever you think you need to do in order to win. Comedy gives the character permission to win. In winning, there are no “shoulds.” Even if it makes you look stupid, you can do what you think you have to do in order to win. You’re not trying to be funny, just trying to get what you want, given who you are.
Next is Non-Hero. Non-hero is the ordinary guy who lacks some, if not all, of the required skills with which to win. Note that we don’t say comic hero, but a non-hero. Not an idiot, not an exaggerated fool, but simply somebody who lacks something. Or many things, but is still determined to win. The more skills your character has, the less comic and the more dramatic the character is. This is how you can shape the arc in a romantic comedy: in the romantic moments, the heretofore clumsy or obnoxious hero becomes more sensitive, more mature. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
Positive Action, or selfish-action, or hopeful action, is the idea that every action your character takes, your character actually thinks is going to work, no matter how stupid, or foolish or naive that might make him or her appear. It also takes the nasty edge off of characters such as Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers or Louie DePalma in Taxi.
Active Emotion is the idea that the emotion that occurs naturally in the course of trying to win. The emotion that is created simply by being in the situation is the exact right emotion to be having.
Metaphorical Relationship is the tool of perception. It’s the idea that beneath every surface relationship is a true, or essential, metaphorical relationship. Each character perceives others around him, and the world itself, in specific, metaphorical ways. Think about the couples you know. Some fight like cats and dogs, some coo to each other like babies and some are like business partners: “OK, I can’t have sex with you this Thursday, but if I move some things around, I might be able to squeeze it in Sunday afternoon, barring no further complications.” Even thought they’re a married couple, their metaphorical relationship is that of nose-to-the-grindstone business partners. It’s Oscar and Felix, two middle-aged divorced roommates, acting like an old married couple. And it’s Jerry and George, sitting in the back of a police car, acting like kids: “Hey, can I play with the siren?”
And last, but not least, the tool that challenges the conventional view of comedy: Straight Line/Wavy Line. John Cleese once said that when they started Monty Python, they thought that comedy was the silly bits: “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.” There is the mistaken belief that in every duo there’s the funny guy and the straight guy. In “Who’s On First?” it’s obvious that Lou Costello, the short, fat, roly-poly bumbler is the funny man of the team, whereas tall, thin, severe Bud Abbott is the straight man. This misconception misses the essential truth about comedy—that it is a team effort, where each member of the team is contributing to the comic moment. The real dynamic is that of watcher and watched, the one who sees and the one who does not see; the one creating the problem and the one struggling with the problem. Think of Kramer in Seinfeld. The comedy isn’t just watching Kramer behave in his typically outrageous fashion, the comedy requires Jerry or George or Elaine to watch it in bemused amazement. The tool of Straight Line/Wavy Line recognizes this. It’s the idea that not only do we need someone, some funny person, to do something silly or create a problem, we also need someone who is acting as the audiences representative to watch that person do something silly or struggle to solve the problem that has been created. The other character might not be as verbal, might not be doing the funny things, but because the other character is also a Non-Hero, he or she sees the problem, but doesn’t have the skills to solve it. The Straight Line creates the problem, like he has blinders on, and is actually blind to the problem or is creating the problem themselves. The Wavy Line struggles, but is unable to, solve the problem. So what the Wavy Line does more than not is simply doing a lot of watching. Watching without knowing what to do about it, so there’s confusion. There’s consternation. Whereas the other characters are doing something – as John Cleese would say—silly. And it’s that combination that creates the comic moment, as opposed to somebody simply getting hit with a pie in the face.
With these six hidden tools, we can begin to unlock the secrets of comedy.