The Why of Funny #6: Sounds-A-Bit-Rude

Posted on August 1st, 2011 in Culture | 2 Comments »

In Chris Morris’s Jam, a plumber is informed by a housewife that her baby is right upstairs. “Did I say boiler on the phone? I meant baby, sorry.” As the plumber’s confusion deepens, the housewife explains. “The doctor says he’s dead or something, but I know he can be mended, it’s just tubes really, isn’t it? I’m sure you could have a go… for a thousand pounds an hour.” Just daring to deal with the taboo topic of cot death in the context of a comedy show makes us giggle nervously, and the dark juxtaposition plus the shift in status occasioned by the plumber’s greed keeps this groundbreaking sketch just the right side of sick.

The previous theories have all dealt to a greater or lesser extent with structure. This time, we are looking entirely at content, for which reason Sounds-A-Bit-Rude can be added to any of the preceding elements at almost any time. The extent to which you use it depends largely on your target audience and the mood of the times. Comedy has always pushed at the boundaries of acceptability. Recently, a screening of Jerry Springer – The Opera created protests outside the BBC. In the 1970s Monty Python’s Flying Circus was prevented from presenting a sketch about an undertaker arranging for the deceased to be cooked and eaten, unless they also filmed the audience walking out in disgust. And the last word of a quiz-show contestant’s list of hobbies was cut altogether (“Golf, strangling animals and masturbation”).

In the 1960s, radio show Round The Horne delighted in filling its scripts with filthy double-entendres and then denying the fact (double-entendres of course, combine Sounds-A-Bit-Rude with Oh-I-See). Hence, Julian and Sandy (one of radio comedy’s first depictions of homosexuality), posing as barristers, could turn down a case commenting “We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most our time,” without being taken off the air.

In America, however, on his radio quiz show You Bet Your Life, Groucho Marx was faced with a woman whose only excuse for her prodigious brood of children was to say “I like my husband”. Groucho responded “I like my cigar too, but I take it out once in a while.”1 The remark was never broadcast.

In the theatre, of course, there was somewhat less restriction (notwithstanding the Lord Chamberlain’s best efforts). Max Miller would walk onstage and stride directly towards the most attractive woman in the front row of the stalls, while peeling a banana and counting the peelings aloud: “One skin, two skin, three skin… here, lady, want a bite?” And no doubt the same testing of the boundaries can be found back through the ages. Swift’s A Modest Proposal also springs to mind, as do some of the easy-to-miss death jokes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“Well!” thought Alice to herself, “after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs! How brave they’ll think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!” (Which was very likely true.)

Most comedians know this, which is why material about sex, death, disease and so on is so popular. Faced with a dog, Larry David doesn’t get bitten on the hand or the ankle, he manages (through some contrivance) to be bitten on the penis. And then treated by the gay Doctor his choreographer is trying to set him up with.

Including taboo material can make the audience start giggling even before the real comedy begins, and thus is a very powerful tool. Also, Just-A-Flesh-Wound can make it possible to deal with important issues more honestly in a comic form than in a dramatic form. Doctor Strangelove, a brilliant black comedy, tells the truth about nuclear deterrence: that in all likelihood whichever side launches a nuclear attack first will exterminate the human race. Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, a tense drama released in the same year, for all its committed acting, leaves the audience with the weak reassurance that one almighty act of contrition will bring us back from the brink. Many doctors have commented that, despite its surrealism, Scrubs is a more accurate portrayal of hospital life than the overwrought ER or the soapy Grey’s Anatomy.

However, just as surprise, bathos and surrealism on their own can lead to weak comedy, so including shocking material for its own sake can drag a piece of comedy down rather than elevate it to new heights. Constantly including taboo material has a deadening effect. If it’s the truth that your characters would swear and curse, then you should include that and hope your intended audience understands what you are aiming for. But if you think a joke about a bunch of flowers will automatically become funnier if it’s a joke about a bunch of fucking flowers, then you’re mistaken. Pushing the boundaries is about more than choice of linguistic register. American 90s comic Bill Hicks certainly set out to shock, but he also wanted to provoke thought as well as make his audiences laugh.

By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself. Just a little thought. I’m just trying to plant seeds. Maybe one day, they’ll take root. I don’t know. You try. You do what you can. Kill yourself.

Seriously, though. If you are, do. No, really. There’s no rationalisation for what you do, and you are Satan’s little helpers, okay? Kill yourself. Seriously. You are the ruiner of all things good, seriously. No, this is not a joke, if you’re going: “There’s going to be a joke coming.”

There’s no fucking joke coming. You are Satan’s spawn, filling the world with bile and garbage. You are fucked, and you are fucking us. Kill yourself, it’s the only way to save your fucking soul. Kill yourself.

Planting seeds.

I know all the marketing people are going: “He’s doing a joke.” There’s no joke here whatsoever. Suck a tail-pipe, fucking hang yourself, borrow a gun from a Yank friend – I don’t care how you do it. Rid the world of your evil fucking machinations.

I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now too. “Oh, you know what Bill’s doing? He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market, he’s very smart.” Oh man. I am not doing that, you fucking evil scumbags! “Oh, you know what Bill’s doing now? He’s going for the righteous indignation dollar. That’s a big dollar. Lot of people are feeling that indignation, we’ve done research. Huge market. He’s doing a good thing.” God damn it, I’m not doing that, you scumbags. Quit putting a goddamn dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!

Hick’s refusal to release the tension here is key to the routine.

  1. This story has attained the status of myth, and every telling of it is slightly different. Sadly the tapes of the show in which it is most likely to have occurred have been lost, although as noted it would have been cut before transmission in any case.

The Why of Funny #3: Just-A-Flesh-Wound

Posted on July 12th, 2011 in Culture | 4 Comments »

King Arthur faces the fearsome Black Knight in mortal combat, and through superior swordsmanship, manages to slice his opponent’s arm clean off. Assuming that the fight is his, Arthur prepares to continue his journey, only to be told by the Knight that “It’s just a scratch” and “he’s had worse”. The fight continues until all four of the Black Knight’s limbs are removed at which point, he reluctantly agrees to call it a draw. The pain and dismemberment is presented unrealistically and we feel able to laugh at it, and not withdraw in horror. (Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

This theory presents two opposite strategies for dealing with emotion in comedy. The first, and most common, is to minimise emotion – particularly negative emotion – for the simple reason that we won’t laugh if we sense real pain.

Consider again the oldest joke in the world, the king falling over. One additional reason why the old lady falling over is not funny is that there is a much higher chance of genuine injury in the case of the old lady. We are amused by the king’s humiliation much more than his hospitalisation. If the King staggers to his feet and then collapses, his legs bending impossibly under him, and blood spewing from his lips, then all comedy is gone: we are horrified or disgusted. Clowns appear to suffer appalling injuries, but bounce back to their feet again (although they may be very disoriented, to heighten the effect of having their status lowered). Cartoon characters are the apotheosis of this technique, being essentially impossible to kill or even injure severely.

A promotional film made to publicise the James Bond film Thunderball and called “A Child’s Guide To Blowing Up A Motor Car”, showed Dennis Norden taking his young nephew to see a stunt being filmed. At the climax of film, Norden returns the boy to his home and drives away, only to discover that the boy has learned his lesson too well and has rigged the car to explode. After the flames start to subside, we cut to Norden in a hospital bed, covered in cartoony bandages, and a look of mild irritation on his face. Without that final shot, this is a horrific story of an innocence destroyed, a horrible death, a senseless loss of life. With the final shot we establish “only joking”, due to Norden simply having to be bandaged up in order to recover, and in particular due to his emotional suffering being very minor. The comedy sound effects added to shows like You’ve Been Framed, which depict possibly life-threatening accidents, serve a very similar purpose.

John Cleese realised the importance of this, working on Fawlty Towers. Basil can say anything he likes to Sybil provided that the insults never seem to strike home. If Sybil were genuinely to be wounded by Basil’s bitter sarcasm, we would lose all sympathy for him as a character and the engine of the plot would be destroyed – we would no longer want Basil to succeed.

However, as has been noted, characters reacting to events is a major plank of good storytelling, and so the over-use of Just-A-Flesh-Wound, particularly in the form of bathos, can wreck good comic stories. If characters drift through plots where major events take place, and are only minimally affected, the overall effect is brittle, remote and superficial. It lacks the universality of great international comedy, and is very reliant on constant invention. Just-A-Flesh-Wound is generally better suited to sketch comedy than sit-com, when used in this way.

Here’s how Dave Allen brilliantly uses a combination of Just-A-Flesh-Wound and Saw-It-Coming to play with the audience’s expectations and create a classic piece of sketch comedy.

A little girl, playing with her toys in a clearing, is juxtaposed with a Frankenstein-style monster, lumbering through the forest. As we sense him getting closer and closer, we introduce a third character in yet another part of the wood: a mother, calling out for her 7-year-old child. “My baby! My baby! Where is my baby?” Finally, the monster approaches the little girl, who looks up at him with innocent wonderment. He reaches out a hand, and just as he is about to grab her, the mother also bursts into the clearing, rushes over and scoops up… the little girl into her arms. She turns to go and then turns back to the camera and, pointing at the monster, demands to know “Okay, how many of you thought I was going to take him home?” Very slowly, with a crestfallen expression, the monster raises his hand.

Notice that by the end, the whole world of the sketch has been dismantled. In order to dilute and make the threat acceptable (and comic), everything we were being asked to believe in has been removed, including the fact that the “fourth wall” has been broken. This is dangerous stuff for a sitcom, which depends for its success on the audience buying into the story and the characters – although some sit-coms can get away with it (The Young Ones) or even make a virtue of it (It’s Gary Shandling’s Show). What I particularly like about this sketch though, is the flash of genuine emotion at the end and I think that’s why it stuck in my mind.

Which brings us onto the other use of emotional juxtaposition. Whereas over-use of bathos to make dark material palatable can render a sit-com dry and low-stakes, a great many sit-coms rely on exactly the opposite approach to create stories and comedy: picking a low-stakes situation and having the characters over-react. Thus, when Joey Tribbiani reads “Little Women” for the first time in Friends, he doesn’t scoff at it – it reduces him to tears. When George Costanza loses at Trivial Pursuit to a boy in a protective sterile bubble in Seinfeld, he isn’t annoyed, he is enraged (to the point where the bubble bursts!). Taken to extremes, this procedure again can result in a “dry” feeling as the plot disconnects with reality but it has the advantage that the characters are genuinely affected which tends to open up storytelling possibilities, which a lack of reaction shuts down. The hardest version of Just-A-Flesh-Wound to get right is Black Comedy. In Black Comedies, people really do get hurt and die, and the challenge is to make that funny. In classic Black Comedies like Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove (wherein the world is brought to nuclear armageddon due to the sexual inadequacies of American generals) the forces are exactly balanced, so the viewer is appalled one moment and laughing the next. Modern American “gross-out” comedy movies exploit this plus Sounds-A-Bit-Rude for most of their effects.

The Hierarchy of Storytelling Ideals

Posted on March 31st, 2009 in storytelling | 1 Comment »

The first draft of this was written some years ago, in response to a perfectly idiotic book about storytelling, which I shan’t name, in which a lot of badly-researched synopses of famous stories were marshalled in support of a predetermined idea of what stories ought to be – a regrettable example of opinion presented as fact. What struck me most about this nameless book and its anonymous author is that he (yes, it was a he) seemed to be examining stories and trying to expose their workings like a Martian who had never seen a story before and didn’t quite “get” it. Humans do get stories, we communicate all the time by telling each other stories, so I thought it would be interesting to go all the way back to first principles and looking at what makes a story a story (as opposed to not-a-story) and to keep adding qualities until we reached the very best that a story can be. Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and you’ll get the idea. I ended up with seven qualities, and here they are…

1.    Coherent

  • The story should be clear. We should understand its setting, its characters and its events. There should (almost) never be confusion in the mind of the reader, only curiosity.
  • The timing and construction should be such that we learn new information as we need to.
  • The choice of characters, settings and events should be purposeful.
  • Without coherence, a “story” barely even qualifies as such (although humans tend to use justification to provide coherence where it has been omitted).

2.    Consistent

  • The story should make sense. Later events should not contradict earlier events.
  • The theme of the story should be apparent throughout. This is a more stringent requirement than mere coherence.
  • Cause-and-effect drives the narrative. The characters, especially the central characters take action to achieve their goals.
  • Reincorporation should be used to strengthen and make consistent plot, character and theme (e.g. second appearance of witches in Macbeth).
  • Lack of consistency makes for episodic or confusing narratives.

3.    Convincing

  • The story should be believable on its own terms. This is a more stringent requirement than mere consistency.
  • The story should never provoke a reaction of disbelief from the audience which causes them to reject the story.
  • The story must not rely on coincidence.
  • The story must evince sufficient detail to paint a vivid picture.
  • Unconvincing stories do not engage the emotions since the failing cuts off empathy. It is possible to tell very simple stories which lack convincing detail (e.g. fairy stories) if the human drama is sufficiently accessible.

4.    Transforming

  • The characters or setting of the story must be transformed over the course of the story. Ideally the hero is transformed in a life-changing manner (and in a way which is also coherent, consistent and convincing) but even a restoration of the status quo for both heroes and setting– as in a James Bond film – may be sufficient if…
  • The hero is made to suffer.
  • Moment-to-moment transformations are as important, if not more important, than story-long “arcs”.
  • A story may even sacrifice consistency for transformation very occasionally (e.g. The Big Sleep).
  • Failure to transform, especially characters, may make a story seem inconsistent (because there is no cause-and-effect as measured by reactions to events), unconvincing (because transformation is likely given the events and setting of the story) or dull (because without transformation the story seems ‘pointless’ – and therefore incoherent).

5.    Surprising

  • To the extent allowed by being coherent, consistent, convincing and transforming, the story should be surprising.
  • This can mean that the story’s structure, theme, setting or style are novel at the time (Pulp Fiction, Citizen Kane, Look Back in Anger) or that…
  • The events of the story are not easily predicted.
  • A story may be surprising but lack transformations and thus seem “flat” (The Village).
  • It may be more important to surprise the characters than the audience. (“I am your father, Luke”).
  • Without surprise, a story is dull through being overly predictable (although audiences will take a lot more ‘obviousness’ than some writers believe).

6.    Ironic

  • An additional layer of interest and meaning can be provided by dramatic irony, wherein the audience has information that the characters do not. This can be at the cost of surprise so the choice as to whether to surprise audience and characters simultaneously (“I am your father Luke” or to withhold information from the characters only for the purpose of irony (any number of mistaken-identity plots) is a matter of style.
  • Ironic resolutions or situations may seem richer than their simpler counter-parts, (the B52’s desperation to reach its target in Doctor Strangelove, compared to many similar race-against-time situations).
  • Without irony, a story is dull through being too simplistic. An ironic layer (or more than one) creates a sense of complexity more readily than multiplying elements in a story does.

7.    Subtle

  • Audiences appreciate being allowed to come to their own conclusions. Finding room for subtlety among the earlier constraints is the mark of a great writer.
  • Subtlety allows for the possibility of personal interpretation on the part of the audience, giving a story richness and enduring power.
  • Subtlety may allow a writer to create irony, surprise and transformations, without sacrificing coherence, consistency and verisimilitude.
  • Subtlety may even allow for ambiguity if there is enough of the foregoing to occupy the reader.
  • Without subtlety, a story may be entertaining, even enduring, but also crude and simplistic.
  • Unsubtle writing may also seem expositional or “clunky”.
  • Some very crude and simple stories nonetheless contain subtle imagery which elevates them – often transformational (The Ugly Duckling, Jekyll and Hyde, Cinderella’s coach and horses)

These are all things that stories need to be. Stories can of course be any number of other things as well – funny, true, political and so on, but they still need to have the qualities on this list. Sometimes, other forces conspire to promote or demote one or more of these qualities.

The ACTION story or the MUSICAL are often coherent, consistent and convincing but rarely surprising or more than moderately transforming. ACTION SEQUENCES or MUSICAL NUMBERS distract the audience from the paucity of story. (Marx Brothers films for example often function as MUSICALS, whether or not there is much music in them).

The THRILLER, compared to the ACTION story, contains more surprise, but sometimes at the cost of being convincing. PLOT TWISTS keep the audience guessing, and distract from the paucity of transformation.

The ROMANCE, compared to the THRILLER story, contains more transformation (unless it is constructed as a thriller, like Romeo and Juliet) but often less surprise.

More thoughts on some of the details herein to follow in future posts…

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