The Why of Funny #7: All-Laugh-Together

Posted on August 18th, 2011 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Professor Robert R. Provine tried applying his training in neuroscience to laughter 20 years ago at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He carefully observed thousands of “laugh episodes” in real social situations – city sidewalks, suburban malls and the like. His conclusion about almost all of the utterances which triggered laughter in these situations? They weren’t funny.

Oddly, it seems that the laughter reaction engendered in a studio audience, or a family at home watching Only Fools and Horses, has little or nothing to do with what makes people laugh socially, and therefore why laughter exists at all (after all, laughter almost certainly predates comedians by some way, and since babies laugh it obviously predates language). In all probability, modern comedians and comedy shows have hijacked a response which evolved for another reason altogether.

“Laughter is an honest social signal because it’s hard to fake,” Professor Provine says. “We’re dealing with something powerful, ancient and crude. It’s a kind of behavioural fossil showing the roots that all human beings, maybe all mammals, have in common.” Laughing together is a way of saying: we are the same. We’re part of the same gang. When I laugh with you, I’m saying “I get you.” That’s why we laugh more in a big audience than we do on the sofa on our own. And that’s why so many comedy shows have a laugh track.

The drawback of the laugh track is the same as discussed under Just-A-Flesh-Wound – it reminds the audience at home that they’re watching a TV show, and this may wreck the tone (and pace) of your show. But the advantage is clear to see: it can make a show seem funnier.


Asking why we laugh doesn’t really tell us what will be funny, and analysing humour doesn’t necessarily make us better “laughter technicians”, since comedy is so fragile. But here at least are eight tools to use in the creation of comedy, which have fairly predictable effects.

Comedy based on STATUS seems human and universal. Comedy based on JUXTAPOSITION can seem obscure, but can also be a great vehicle for SATIRE. Comedy based on WITHDRAWN EMOTION can help make extreme situations acceptable, broadening the range of possible topics. Comedy based on HEIGHTENED EMOTION may end up seeming silly, but can have very broad appeal. Comedy based on INSIGHT seems clever and may provoke admiration rather than gales of laughter, whereas comedy based on ANTICIPATION or SURPRISE (which includes almost all slapstick) seems more simplistic but is likely to appeal to more people. Combining these elements creates the strongest effects. Here’s an example from Scrubs which is by no means exceptional for that show.

The Janitor tells JD he is no longer pursuing his vendetta against him, and quietly returns to painting an X on the surface of the hospital car park. Later, JD drives his scooter away, not noticing the heavy iron chain around the rear bumper. Suddenly, the chain tautens, and JD is flung over the handlebars, landing exactly on the Janitor’s X, besides which sits the Janitor in a deckchair, sipping a cocktail. “Bullseye!” he cries. “We’re not done yet, are we?” asks JD, spread-eagled on the floor. “No, my friend, we’re just getting started,” remarks the Janitor, sauntering happily away.

JD’s loss of status, combines with the mix of surprise and anticipation that the Janitor has not in fact turned over a new leaf, and the twin insights of the meaning of the X and the fact of the chain. JD’s reaction to this horrifying injury is one of withdrawn emotion; we don’t believe he has been seriously hurt and so we are free to laugh.

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 #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 #4: Oh-I-See

Posted on July 18th, 2011 in Culture | 5 Comments »

George Constanza finds and arranges to buy a Frogger machine which still records a high score he attained years ago. If unplugged, the high score record will be lost, but a battery is rigged up to enable him to transport it home. With only minutes of battery power remaining, he must negotiate the heavy arcade machine across lanes of traffic. As he struggles, we cut to an aerial shot of the busy street and realise that George has become the frog in his beloved game. When the machine is crushed by a truck, Jerry comments “Game Over”. The insight we experience creates an extra comic level to the story. (Seinfeld, season 9, episode 8)

The comedy we most admire is often associated with a rush of insight. The art of developing a moment like that described above consists in assembling the required elements, making each in turn appear to have a real purpose either in advancing the story or being funny in their own right, until you are ready to unleash the insight. Unlike the techniques described under Saw-It-Coming, a successful Oh-I-See moment absolutely depends upon the audience not getting ahead of you.

Another sophisticated example from a recent American sit-com and then we will look at some more common and trivial (but no less useful) examples of this technique. The 100th episode of Scrubs, “My Way Home”, as is usual for this show, presents four major plot lines. JD, who was relaxing in the bath listening to Toto on his iPod is summoned into work and is desperate to avoid anyone who might give him more to do, so he can get home. Turk is eager to persuade the father of a terminally ill patient to donate the boy’s heart in order that he, Turk, can assist in the operation. Carla is wrestling with her feelings of parenthood and worries that she doesn’t have the courage to be a good mother. Elliot fears that she lacks the intelligence to lead the Q&A session on endocrinology she is suddenly faced with. All four plot lines develop smoothly, until as all four characters are marching down the yellow stripe the Janitor has painted on the hospital floor, JD’s voice-over sums up the situation. Elliot wants a brain, Carla wants courage, Turk wants a heart and he wants to go home. In a sudden rush of insight, half-way through the episode, we realise this is an homage to The Wizard of Oz.

This technique is all about “clever” comedy, of which Seinfeld is the apotheosis. The Scrubs episode is exceptional because it combines character development, feeling, and social issues with a brilliantly constructed Oh-I-See moment without allowing any element to swamp the others. However, Oh-I-See also drives what is often referred to as the lowest form of humour too – puns. Here’s college professor Groucho trying to guess the password required to gain admittance to a speakeasy, with Chico on the door.

GROUCHO: Let me see: Is it “sturgeon”?
CHICO: Hey, you crazy. Sturgeon, he’s a doctor cuts you open when-a you sick. Now I give you one more chance.
GROUCHO: I got it. “Haddock.”
CHICO: That’s-a funny. I gotta haddock, too.
GROUCHO: What do you take for a haddock?
CHICO: Well-a, sometimes I take-a aspirin, sometimes I take-a Calamel.
GROUCHO: Say, I’d walk a mile for a Calamel.1
CHICO: You mean chocolate calamel. I like-a that too, but you no guess it.

In a good pun (if such a thing exists), we experience a rush of insight into the two different meanings that the same or very similar-sounding words can have. Sometimes, we see the connection instantly, other times it’s a slow burn. “Sturgeon” above, generally elicits groans since sturgeon-surgeon is at once too clumsy and too obvious to be a really good pun. “Haddock” typically takes two or three repetitions before the audience re-analyses it as “headache”. Some people don’t get it until “aspirin”. Part of the Marxes’ appeal, of course, was in the sheer rate of punning. They get you laughing at the good jokes, so you still giggle madly through the duff ones, until they hit you with another belter. The good jokes are funnier because they are surrounded by weaker jokes. Compare this with the effect discussed under All-Laugh-Together.

Not all verbal comedy is, strictly speaking, punning. When Groucho, at the end of a bizarre ramble tells Margaret Dumont “You know, you haven’t stopped talking since I got here. You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle,” we appreciate the status juxtaposition and the surrealism of a record needle used for vaccination to create verbosity, as well as the double-meaning of the word “needle”. And for The Goon Show by way of James Joyce, here are Vivian Stanshall’s astonishing opening lines from Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.

English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal water, nestling in green nowhere, armoured and effete, bold flag-bearer, lotus-fed Miss Havishambling opsimath and eremite, feudal still reactionary Rawlinson End. The story so far…

The body of Doris Hazard’s Pekinese, unwittingly asphyxiated beneath her husband’s bottom during a wine and middle-aged spread do at the great house, after the ritual fortnight in the Rawlinson fridge, has been given over to Old Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer, for indecent burial under Sir Henry’s giant marrow. This monstrous jade zebra veg is the master’s puffed pride, and by his stern instruction, the greedy gourd is daily drip-fed with a powerful laxative. Thus “should some rascal half-inch the blessed thing and eat it, it’ll give him the liquorice for weeks!”

Now think on’t. Dot dot dot…

But these kind of linguistic pyrotechnics are not needed for a verbal insight. What about a simple joke?

Q: According to Freud, what comes between fear and sex?
A: Fünf!

The mention of Freud here is brilliant misdirection, surreptitiously setting up the idea of German-speaking in order to unleash the insight that fear (vier) and sex (sechs) are also numbers in the German language.

Sketch comedy “quickies” often exploit this principle. A situation is set up, often sustained for some time and then, for the punchline, is revealed as something rather different than we were led to believe. Whether this makes us groan, gasp in admiration or laugh out loud depends on how “cheated” we feel (does the false set-up really match the revealed situation?), and whether the joke is also a vehicle for another kind of humour: satire for example.

In a Smith and Jones sketch, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones are seen parked outside a house, watching through binoculars and sipping coffee from a thermos. Tension rises, they complain about the waiting. Griff wants to make a break for it, but Mel restrains him. They have to wait it out. Finally the moment comes, their target leaves the house and they slip outside the car. We cut to inside the house and see a card fall through the letter box. It reads “We called to read your meter, but unfortunately you were out”.

This combines a second kind of insight, that beloved of many stand-up comedians, the insight of recognition. And provides a surreal explanation to account for the observed behaviour. Hence in its construction, the sketch uses one version of Oh-I-See in order to deliver a second kind of Oh-I-See. It is also a bathetic ending, using Just-A-Flesh-Wound to substitute the high-stakes stake-out with the low-stakes meter-reading, which in turn is a surreal juxtaposition. Less successful “quickies” generally just depend on the cheap surprise of the Oh-I-See moment for their effect. Some radio comedy is particularly prone to this: “But Captain, why have you given the briefing entirely naked?” That kind of thing.

The dialogue in farces is often designed to sustain two different beliefs simultaneously. Done clumsily, this can strain credulity, but done elegantly, and combined with appropriate juxtapositions and status transactions, the results can be spellbinding – as in the classic Frasier episode “The Matchmaker”, wherein Frasier tries to set Daphne up with a date, Tom, who is actually interested in Frasier himself. All of the dialogue between the two of them enables Tom to believe that Frasier is gay and trying to seduce him, while Frasier believes that Tom is straight and interested in Daphne, with a moment of insight for the audience each time. Finally, the penny drops and each character experiences a rush of insight which deeply affects them.

Also under the umbrella of Oh-I-See is the mechanism of the spoof. Sometimes, the intent will be clear from the outset, as in films like Scary Movie or Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Other times, the spoof will creep up as in the Scrubs example above. The laugh of recognition is useful and important, but once again works best with an element of satire included. It is not enough to include an element borrowed from another work, it is also necessary to comment on it in some way. It is also interesting to note that allowing the audience to reach their own conclusions is funnier than spelling it out for them. This “protects” the moment of insight. This joke, attributed to Spike Milligan, topped an Internet poll to find the world’s funniest joke.

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing; his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, and then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?”

Two further variations on this theme need to be addressed. The first has as much to do with storytelling as comedy: reincorporation. Elements from earlier in the story reappear towards the end to provide structure.2 However, the reappearance of an earlier element creates a similar moment of insight and can provide a comic highpoint. This is not quite the same as catchphrases and repeated patterns, which are dealt with under Saw-It-Coming. John Cleese stresses the importance of not letting the audience catch you setting up the elements you are going to depend on later, and explains that he and Connie Booth would cover their tracks by putting all their best jokes into the set-up scene.

In the Fawlty Towers episode “A Communications Problem”, an entirely superfluous scene sees Basil reminding Manuel that his visit to the betting shop on Basil’s behalf is a secret. The scene contains not a scrap of new plot information but is stuffed with brilliant one-liners to ensure not just that we remember it, but that we also don’t realise why we have to remember it.

BASIL: You know nothing about the horse.
MANUEL: Which horse? Which horse I know nothing?
BASIL: My horse, nitwit.
MANUEL: Your horse “nitwit”.
BASIL: No, no, “Dragonfly”.
MANUEL: It won!
BASIL: Yes, I know.
MANUEL: I know it won too. I go to betting shop for you…
BASIL: Yes, I know, I know, I know.
MANUEL: Then why you say I know nothing?
BASIL: Oh… Look, you know the horse?
MANUEL: Er, Nitwit or Dragonfly?
BASIL: Dragonfly! There isn’t a horse called Nitw… You’re the nitwit.
MANUEL: What is “witnit”?
BASIL: It doesn’t matter. Oh, I could spend the rest of my life having this conversation. Please, please try to understand before one of us dies…

And so on, for another minute or so. At the end of the programme, Basil needs to prove to vile Mrs Richards that the money is his, and so summons Manuel to explain where it came from. Manuel clears his throat, and to Basil’s horror, proclaims “I know nothing!”

A similar mechanism is at work when one situation is treated like another. In “The Initiative”, an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, vampire Spike has just escaped from a research lab and is lying in wait for Willow. When she lies down on her bed, he pounces and we cut away. When we cut back, Spike is sitting on the bed next to Willow, his head in his hands. “This has never happened to me before,” he complains. “Maybe we could try again in half an hour?” suggests Willow. In fact, Spike has been “chipped” to prevent him from biting people, but the scene plays out like a couple dealing with erectile dysfunction.

Finally, let us also mention practical jokes. Watching a show like Candid Camera we appreciate the additional insight we have which is denied the victim of the prank. When the truth is revealed, we experience the victim’s rush of insight vicariously and so we laugh.

  1. “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” was a popular advertising slogan.
  2. This is another way of describing “Chekhov’s gun” – the observation attributed to playwright Anton Chekhov that “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” See Uncle Vanya for a literal use of this device.

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 Why of Funny #2: Mangoes-In-Syrup

Posted on July 7th, 2011 in Culture | 3 Comments »

If an instructor is teaching a self-defence class, then there is nothing in the situation which is inherently funny. However, if the class revolves around the defending oneself against the threat posed by soft fruit, the juxtaposition of the nature of the class and the harmlessness of the fruit creates comic possibilities, enhanced by the instructor’s total commitment to the fatality of mangoes in syrup, correctly wielded. (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, season 1, episode 4).

Mangoes-In-Syrup can represent total surrealism at one extreme. In the “Across the Andes by Frog” episode of Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ Ripping Yarns, the substitution of frogs for more common beasts of burden is the principal comic idea. Because this seems an arbitrary choice, and it is never questioned or justified within the context of the story, it stands out as surreal. This kind of choice can mark a programme out as being very original and different, but may isolate those who feel they “don’t get it”. The Goon Show, Vic Reeves Big Night Out and Bo’ Selecta all provide numerous examples of this, what we might call “zero tolerance” Mangoes-In-Syrup – creating odd juxtapositions simply for the sake of it. It is far more common, however, to see juxtapositions with some kind of non-arbitrary choice (which can develop very satisfying satire) or where an apparently arbitrary juxtaposition is questioned by a “straight man”.

So, what governs choices of juxtapositions? Even when the choice is arbitrary, it is clear to see that the more different from the expected item, the better (up to a point). Self defence against mangoes is more satisfying than against paper-knives, since while a paper-knife is not much of a threat, it is closer to the anticipated flick knife (or pointed stick!). Similarly, a frog is about as a different an animal from a horse or camel as it is possible to get, and so “Across the Andes by Frog” is an amusing prospect. A frog is still an animal, however, so the nature of the substitution is clear. “Across the Andes by Biscuit” is more obscure, and may be more confusing than funny. There is also the risk that this will be a funnier prospect than it will be when played out. Only if the idea can be continually developed in new ways will it sustain a long sketch, let alone a sit-com episode or comedy film. For this reason, “pure” Mangoes-In-Syrup humour may not travel well.

Very visual surreal humour can be the exception, as Mr Bean proved. The juxtaposition here lies in the extraordinary lengths that Mr Bean goes to to achieve perfectly ordinary ends. Faced with his train reading disturbed by a noisy fellow passenger, he doesn’t simply leave the carriage, he hunches over, sticks his fingers in his ears, and then has to turn the pages of his book with his elbows or his tongue.

Bean carries on the tradition, not I think of Charlie Chaplin, but of Harpo Marx. So, when Chico whispers “Hide!” to Harpo who quickly scampers to the middle of the room and stands on his head (Animal Crackers) we laugh out of sheer confusion. Less arbitrarily, when a hobo asks Harpo for a cup of coffee and Harpo produces a steaming hot cup full of coffee from his trouser pocket (Horse Feathers), we laugh at the juxtaposition of the physical reality we know and the event just depicted. (Also at work here are Saw-It-Coming and Oh-I-See.) Surrealism is threatening, however, and it is interesting to note that when the Marxes moved to MGM, who were after bigger audiences and more accessible comedy, Harpo’s “magic powers” were scaled back. So while in Horse Feathers (Paramount, 1932), he accedes to the request to “cut the cards” by producing an axe from a hidden pocket and severing the pack in two, by the time of A Night At The Opera (MGM, 1935), although he still uses an axe to slice a salami, now it is lying handily on a barrel instead of being secreted mysteriously about his person.

Most juxtaposition is not arbitrary, however. The sight of King Arthur’s knights “galloping” about the place while making “clip-clop” noises with two halves of coconut (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) is undeniably surreal, but the reason is clear. The On The Hour headline “Headmaster uses big-faced child as satellite dish” is a wonderfully surreal image but rather more accessible than the sheer madness of Spike Milligan’s Goon Show scripts:

SEAGOON: He was a tall, vile man, dressed in the naval uniform of a sea-going sailor. Under his left arm he held a neatly rolled anchor, while with his right he scanned the horizon with a pair of powerful kippers.

Making purposeful juxtapositions can open the door to some brilliant satire. When South Park depicts a lone head-louse desperately warning his arrogant fellows that the end of the world is coming, they brilliantly juxtapose the themes of disaster movies, the environmental movement and the mundane treatment of head-lice as a medical condition (see also Just-A-Flesh-Wound). When That Was The Week That Was presents a buyers guide to religions, they juxtapose the triviality of consumer magazines with the reverence in which belief is generally held, and satirise both brilliantly (“The best aspect of the Church of England is that it doesn’t interfere with the essentials. All in all, we think you get a jolly good little faith for a very modest outlay, and we have no hesitation in claiming it the Best Buy.”)

Another way to make surrealism more palatable is to provide a non-surreal point-of-view within the story. The difference between these two approaches can be seen by studying the difference between Father Ted and The League of Gentlemen. Father Ted creates a self-contained surreal world, in which – generally speaking – the characters accept that certain things which we, the audience, know to be abnormal or impossible are normal and everyday. This extends to characterisation as well as to plotting. Father Jack is not a pitiable alcoholic, he is a man pickled in drink, reduced to a few repetitive guttural utterances (in fact, better than that – he’s a priest pickled in drink, adding a further layer of Mangoes-In-Syrup plus a level of Sounds-A-Bit-Rude). Father Dougal is not a bit slow, he is monumentally stupid, unable to work out the difference between small, toy cows near to him and full size cows far away from him. The surreal world allows the writers to use Just-A-Flesh-Wound to include potentially serious elements like alcoholism and mental illness without falling into the trap of bathos. However, it is rare for any of the surreal elements to be seriously questioned by the characters. They are the “norm” and so the “out of the ordinary” has to be built on top.

The League of Gentlemen is far more likely to present bizarre characters whose behaviour is juxtaposed again with the reaction of a straight person. Tubbs and Edward, whose insistence on “a local shop for local people” is a juxtaposition in itself become far more effective when their lunatic behaviour is questioned by someone the audience can identify with. Note too, that further layers of weirdness are revealed in Tubbs and Edward over the course of a number of episodes, again dealing with the “Across the Andes by Frog” problem.

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.

The Why of Funny #0: Introduction

Posted on June 27th, 2011 in Culture | No Comments »

Some years ago I was invited to write an assessment of what made people laugh and why. I was given eight categories to work through and then a further, longer list of comedy types and examples. Now, as Barry Cryer once said “Disecting comedy is like disecting a frog. No one laughs and the frog dies.” My lofty aim was to write a piece that would be genuinely insightful, genuinely funny and not result in even a single amphibian fatality. With permission of the original commissioners, I am reproducing it here, with just a few edits, in a serialised form.

The following eight descriptions are intended to shed light on to some of the ways in which successful comedy programmes achieve their aim of making the audience laugh. The list is not exhaustive, nor is it an infallible recipe. Comedy is a delicate art and a small misjudgement can mean the difference between hysterical, amusing and tedious. John Cleese has described spending hours finding the perfect branch with which to beat his recalcitrant car in the “Gourmet Night” episode of Fawlty Towers, believing that if it were too flimsy then the scene would lack power, but too rigid and the scene would be grim.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that great comedy moments and certainly great comedy stories are almost invariably combinations of more than one of the below elements, and their relative strengths will also to some extent determine how funny a given audience finds the scenes presented.

I hope this is useful and interesting.

The Eight Theories

  1. Superiority Theory, which I call King-Fall-Over, which is really about STATUS.
  2. Incongruity Theory, which I call Mangoes-In-Syrup, which is really about JUXTAPOSITION.
  3. Ambivalence Theory, which I call Just-A-Flesh-Wound, which is really about EMOTIONAL RESPONSES
  4. Configuration Theory, which I call Oh-I-See, which is really about INSIGHTS.
  5. Release Theory, which I call Saw-It-Coming, which is really about TENSION and ANTICIPATION.
  6. Surprise Theory, which I call Balloon-Go-Bang, which is really about SUDDENNESS.
  7. Psychoanalytic Theory, which I call Sounds-A-Bit-Rude which is really about SOCIAL TABOOS.

And, standing on its own slightly

  1. Biological Theory, which I call All-Laugh-Together, which is about WHY PEOPLE LAUGH IN GROUPS.

We’ll look at the first of these in part one, in a few days’ time…