The Why of Funny #5: Saw-It-Coming and Balloon-Go-Bang

Posted on July 22nd, 2011 in Culture | 4 Comments »

In the trailer for the Simpsons movie, Homer is seen working on the roof of his home, with Bart in attendance. He carefully positions the next nail and holds it in place with one hand, his thumb sitting right on top of the nail head. He pulls the hammer back with his other hand, preparing to pound the nail home. He draws back the hammer once, twice, and then – this time with extra vigour – buries the claw of the hammer into his eye. A second later, that section of the roof collapses and he plunges two storeys. Our delight at the extent to which we were right and wrong about Homer’s fate makes us laugh: we thought we knew what was coming, but the detail was better than we had anticipated.

That comedy has to be surprising is no revelation. We all know that a joke is funniest the first time you hear it, and so pretty much every example we’ve seen so far has had some element of Balloon-Go-Bang in it. If you begin the Spike Milligan joke with: “Here’s a story about how a guy kills his best friend,” you ruin the effect of the punchline. However, it’s also true that surprise by itself is not enough to be funny. A surprise can also be shocking or just confusing, like a sentence that ends with a word that doesn’t seem to make grammatical floorwax.

What is also interesting is the extent to which some comedy depends on the audience knowing exactly what is coming next, why sometimes you have to set up an expectation in order to subvert it, and why sometimes an audience can see even that coming.

Cause-and-effect drives every kind of story from a simple sketch to a great epic. Removing cause-and-effect makes a story seem episodic, surreal or rambling. In the Simpsons example above, the set up makes a promise to the audience: Homer is going to hurt himself. The existence of Homer in the scene already suggests this, since we know what Homer’s character is, but by putting him in a high place and giving him a hammer, the promise is made more explicit. The audience will feel cheated if the promise is not fulfilled, unless they get something better than they had anticipated.

When Homer puts his thumb over the head of the nail, again we have that same feeling of “we know what’s going to happen”. This time, however the promise is more specific. Homer will bang his thumb. And now, we’re a bit disappointed. We’re being palmed off with a cliché we’ve seen before. Surely The Simpsons can do better than this? But as Homer lines up his first pound of the hammer, we can’t see any alternative until, suddenly, the hammer smacks into his face, delivering the general promise perfectly, while still surprising us. While we are still recovering from this, the roof gives way and Homer is even more severely hurt, to our continuing delight.

Balancing these two forces of anticipation and surprise is the art of comic timing. And part of this is sustaining an absence of comedy within a comedy form, because of the release that the audience will experience when something funny finally happens. Both the Dave Allen “Frankenstein” sketch and the Smith and Jones sketch already quoted make great use of this effect. And here’s a famous example from Peter Cook, attempting to explain to a one-legged man why he will be unsuitable for the role of Tarzan.

COOK: Now, Mr Spiggott, you, a one-legged man, are applying for the role of Tarzan.
MOORE: Yes, right.
COOK: A role traditionally associated with a two-legged artiste.
MOORE: Yes, correct, yes, yes.
COOK: And yet you, a unidexter… are applying for the role.
MOORE: Yes, right, yes.
COOK: A role for which two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement. Well, Mr Spiggott, need I point out to you with overmuch emphasis where your deficiency lies as regards landing the role?
MOORE: Yes, I think you ought to.
COOK: Perhaps I ought, yes. Need I say, without too much stress, that it is in the leg division that you are deficient.
MOORE: The leg division?
COOK: The leg division, Mr Spiggott. You are deficient in the leg division to the tune of one. Your right leg I like. It’s a lovely leg for the role. As soon as I saw it come in, I said, “Hello! What a lovely leg for the role!”
COOK: I’ve got nothing against your right leg.
COOK: The trouble is… neither have you.

The whole sketch an elaborate repetition of essentially the same exchange (neither party is affected by the encounter, and the status relationship is completely static). Once the surprise of the initial juxtaposition has worn off, all the emphasis is put on the insights generated by Peter Cook’s way with words, which luckily does not desert him here. Each time Cook speaks we know he is going to find another way of putting the same information, and towards the end of the sketch, he delays, by means of nearly half-a-dozen straight lines, his final glorious pun. A very similar engine drives both The Parrott Sketch and The Cheese Shop sketch as well as, no doubt, very many others.

It is this combination of anticipation and surprise which is at the heart of the Rule of Three. A perfectly dreadful joke from an old BBC sketch show called Three of a Kind will nonetheless exemplify the form (I may have misremembered the details).

ULLMAN: I’ve just accidentally drunk some petrol. I washed the taste out of my mouth with lemonade.
HENRY: I’ve just accidentally drunk some petrol. I washed the taste out of my mouth with fruit juice.
COPPERFIELD: I’ve just had a cup of coffee in the BBC Canteen. Anyone got any petrol?

This is a lousy joke, because its moment of insight is trivial and the satire is weak, but structurally it is perfectly formed. The first two iterations establish the expectation. The third iteration is the earliest moment where one can violate the expectation (and so the most efficient). This one, two, three structure appears in numerous guises, and not just in comedy.

Sometimes, the humour lies in the mere fact of repetition. Laurel and Hardy spend 20 minutes trying to get a piano up a flight of stairs in their Oscar-winning short The Music Box. The sight of it sliding back down the seventh time is arguably funnier than the first time. Or, take Steve Coogan’s monotone swimming pool security guard from The Day Today.

COOGAN: This pool’s been open nearly forty years and, in all that time, I only slipped up once, to my mind. I was engaged in a particularly tricky word puzzle and forty people had broken in and were in the pool, playing around, ducking, bombing and doing all manner of prohibited activities, and eventually someone was killed.
INTERVIEWER: But given that your sole responsibility is to maintain the security of the pool, isn’t that an indictment against yourself?
COOGAN: Well, I would say this – I’ve been working here for eighteen years, and in 1975 no one died. In 1976, no one died. In 1977, no one died. In 1978, no one died. In 1979, no-one died. In 1980… some one died. In 1981, no one died. In 1982 there was the incident with the pigeon. In 1983, no one died. In 1984, no one died. In 1985, no one died. In 1986… I mean, I could go on.

The mere fact of repetition here is funny. Slapstick often strikes us a funny because we see a person become a mechanism, or an object (Del Boy’s famous fall through the bar is justly famous because David Jason’s body is entirely rigid, pivoting exactly at the feet). Repetition (and also rhyming) creates a similar effect, verbally.

A character trait is a deeper and more effective way of delivering the same combination of surprise and anticipation. If set up, it feels like Saw-It-Coming. If it comes as a surprise, then it feels more like an Oh-I-See reincorporation. When Larry David can’t get rid of a cocktail stick at a party, we are just waiting and waiting for it to injure someone or otherwise embarrass Larry (it ends up scratching Ben Stiller’s cornea). Conversely, during a tense battle of wits in an episode of Friends, anal-retentive Monica hides in Joey’s bathroom while Chandler attempts to seduce Phoebe (on Monica’s orders). Briefly returning to the bathroom for a pep talk, Chandler looks around him. “Did you clean in here?” he asks in disbelief.

Given a character with a famous catch-phrase, an audience is often waiting in delicious anticipation to finally hear the words they know are coming. And once a character and a catchphrase has been established, artful comedians will delay, and delay, and delay the moment when they finally come out with it, perhaps leading the audience to conclude that it will never be said, or that the character has changed fundamentally, only to reveal it again at the last moment. The Fast Show, Little Britain and Catherine Tate all use this very successfully.

Building up, sustaining and then releasing tension is a fundamental aspect of storytelling of all kinds. Particularly obvious is the way it is often combined with dramatic irony to sustain suspense, and the same mechanism is at work in constructing farces, where tension is created through a secret being sustained (sometimes unwittingly). Eventually the secret must come out and the tension can be released.

Perhaps the best combination of these two elements is the first one discussed, where the general promise is kept in a way more satisfying or original than the specific promise. Del Boy and Rodney taking down the chandelier in “A Touch of Glass” is another famous example of this. Having hubristically volunteered their services as expert chandelier-cleaners, Del finds himself and Rodney up a pair of stepladders, stretching out a blanket underneath 200lbs of cut glass. In the floor above, Grandad has undone the fastenings and is ready to release the final bolt. “Right… brace yourself,” Del tells Rodney as Grandad knocks the bolt through the ceiling. We cut back to a long shot of Del and Rodney only to see a second chandelier in the distance plunge to the ground and shatter. The specific promise (that they will struggle to support the chandelier in the blanket) is swept aside in glorious furtherance of the general promise (that they aren’t competent to take down a chandelier).

Notice as well that here the tension is released and the stakes are raised as opposed to the bathetic examples discussed under Mangos-In-Syrup where the tension was released and the stakes were lowered. The former is of much more use for sit-coms or comedy movies, whereas the latter can be used more safely with sketch comedy.

The Why of Funny #1: King-Fall-Over

Posted on June 30th, 2011 in Culture | 2 Comments »

If a meek old lady falls over, we rush to her aid, but if a boorish and arrogant king falls over, we laugh uproariously. The old lady has no status to lose, but the sight of the king suddenly stripped of his status is the oldest joke in the world (probably).

Although status is related to wealth, class, beauty etc it is independent of all of these. There exists high and low status behaviour and people who are naturally high or low status, but these things are not fixed. Although status may be illuminated by dialogue, it is principally something that people do, so it is easy to see even in a foreign language. Great stories, whether their tone is dramatic or comic, will almost always involve status transactions and – if well-acted – these will be apparent whether one can hear the dialogue or not.

Nervously preparing for a boxing match, Charlie Chaplin helps himself to the previous boxer’s lucky charms and visibly grows in confidence. When the previous boxer is brought back into the dressing room on a stretcher, Charlie’s confidence evaporates instantly, and he furiously tries to rid himself of the trinkets he has stolen (City Lights).

The opposite is also (sometimes) true. When, in Steamboat Bill Jr, the side of a house falls on Buster Keaton, a perfectly-placed window saving him from extinction, his failure to lose status as expected is also funny (adding both Saw-It-Coming and Oh-I-See to the mix).

As a rough rule of thumb, sudden changes of status will be funny (especially drops in status), whereas sustained changes of status will be dramatic (Macbeth’s gradual descent from noble warrior to suicidal lunatic). Big status gaps will be funny (Blackadder and Baldrick) whereas small status gaps will be dramatic (Josh and Toby on The West Wing).

Having characters shift status in reaction to events is a part of the general principle of storytelling that characters are affected by the events of the story. Balancing this principle of storytelling with comedy needs of Just-A-Flesh-Wound is one of the hardest things to get right. Too much emphasis on Just-A-Flesh-Wound generates superficial comedy that will likely not travel well. Too much emphasis on King-Fall-Over and the general principle of characters being affected can tip a comedy into drama or leave an audience unduly disturbed at the implications of what is being depicted. The romance between Tim and Dawn in The Office has a character depth that the superficial zingers of (especially early episodes of) Will and Grace can’t match; but some later episodes of Friends were criticised for being amusing soap opera rather than laugh-out-loud sit com.

Status can be employed for comic effect in (at least) the following ways…

  • Sudden drops in status.
  • Attempts to raise status.
  • Playing the wrong status.
  • Established gaps in status.

The status gap that exists between Blackadder and Baldrick (Blackadder), Mr Burns and Smithers (The Simpsons) and Bob Kelso and Ted Buckland (Scrubs) drives a lot of the comedy therein, and is almost never challenged. Ted and Baldrick are the archetypal low-status characters. Often cheerful (Ted is less cheerful than Baldrick, but takes enormous pleasure in tiny victories) they have little or no interest in raising their status. Smithers adds the extra dimension of unrequited love – which is never articulated, only hinted at (touching on Mangoes-In-Syrup, Just-A-Flesh-Wound and Oh-I-See).

Jeeves and Wooster play the wrong status. The formal relationship is that of master and servant (presented here as gentleman and valet), but Jeeves, the servant, plays high status to Bertie Wooster, the master. Blackadder the Third has a particularly pleasing version of this. In the kitchen, Blackadder plays unbridled high status to Baldrick (correct status), whereas in the Prince Regent’s rooms, Blackadder has to play a more restrained high status to the Hugh Laurie’s happy-low-status Regent (incorrect status). This structure allows us to see the false face and the true face of our lead character as well as presenting both kinds of status relationship simultaneously.

Many characters strive for status which they are unable to achieve. In some cases, this is a permanent uphill struggle, as for Martin Bryce in Ever Decreasing Circles or Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. In other cases, it is a back-and-forth tussle as between Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister or Sam Malone and Diane Chambers in Cheers.

Note finally that although British sit-coms are famously more class-obsessed than American sitcoms, that doesn’t make American sit-coms any less status-oriented. In Only Fools and Horses, both Del and Rodney aspire to wealth and class, but the status mechanism is that Del’s high status is unwittingly undercut by Rodney. Likewise, in M*A*S*H, Radar – playing low-status – is nonetheless constantly undermining Colonel Blake’s authority despite the fact that class and aspiration has little to do with this relationship or this sit-com.

Whole books could be written about status. Much of this thinking is due to British improvisation guru Keith Johnstone whose book “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” would be an excellent place to start for more on this topic.