Writing With My Colored Pencil (For writers of humor fiction, stand-up and general comedy) discussion

Just what *is* comedy?

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message 1: by Carla (new)

Carla René (carlaren) | 33 comments Mod
Now that I'm no longer participating in, or writing a novel for NaNoWriMo, I have a little more time to devote here.

I figure if we're going to embark on the tools of how to create comedy, we'd first better know what it is.

What's comedy? Simply put, this: it's TRUTH AND PAIN. Did you catch that? TRUTH AND PAIN. John Vorhaus (whose book I put on our bookshelf in case you wish to get it, and I HIGHLY recommend it--get it from half.com if you're po' like me.) demonstrates this concept beautifully with the old traveling salesman jokes. The truth is, he wants something. The pain is, he's never going to get it. Or every dirty joke on the planet is predicated on this idea, because sex is a frightful experience we all share. As Vorhaus puts it: "The truth is that relations between the sexes are problematic. The pain is that we have to deal with the problems if we want the rewards."

In fact, the birthday card I received tonight from my folks (it's not until the 11th, so don't worry--you have plenty of time to get me a present), is a beautiful example of how the billion-dollar-a-year greeting card industry operates on this principal alone: "I was going to give you money for your birthday." *open the card* "But mall security yanked me out of the fountain before I was able to scrape up a respectable amount."

In stand-up comedy, this is what we call a classic set-up/punch format. The front of the card is always the set-up to the joke, and the pay-off, or punch, is always inside. (We'll discuss stand-up in more depth as well later on, because if you write comedy, you need to know joke structure inside and out.)

One of my favourite quotes on this comes from Mel Brooks:

"Comedy is when you fall down a manhole. Tragedy is when I fall down the manhole."

So comedy is also a BIG part Point-of-View. We, as comedy writers, need to keep this in mind each and every time we sit down and endeavour to make something funny.

If we recognise what comedy is, then it will be easier to create it. Did you know the Secret Service's original job was that they catch counterfeiters? It wasn't the job of the Treasury Department to catch criminals who counterfeited money--it was the job of the secret service, and I've heard men interviewed who worked this job say that the way they learned beyond a shadow of a doubt which bills were real and which weren't, wasn't because they studied the counterfeit money. It's because they learned what the real thing was so well, they could identify it in their sleep.

Learn what's authentically successful about comedy for yourself, and you'll have less problems in recreating it on paper.


message 2: by Richard (new)

Richard Daybell | 1 comments "Comedy is when you fall down a manhole. Tragedy is when I fall down the manhole."

What if we both fall down the manhole?

message 3: by Gayle (new)

Gayle (gayle_carline) | 4 comments The hardest thing about comedy is that it is so subjective. What is funny to me might not be funny to someone else. The worst part of the equation is, if someone doesn't share your sense of humor, they don't say, "Gee, I'm just not into slapstick." They say, "That's not funny." Meaning YOU'RE not funny. I think it's the hardest genre to write and gets the least amount of respect because "making people laugh is easy." Yeah. Right.

message 4: by Carla (last edited Mar 25, 2011 04:24AM) (new)

Carla René (carlaren) | 33 comments Mod
Gayle wrote: "The hardest thing about comedy is that it is so subjective. What is funny to me might not be funny to someone else. The worst part of the equation is, if someone doesn't share your sense of humor, ..."

Wow. It's SO funny you say this, because now that I'm nearing the end of my first rough draft with A Most Devout Coward, I'm finding that putting it out there for critique is proving to be extremely difficult, especially from those reviewers in the UK. Clearly, our cultures preclude us from being privy to all the inside idioms in vernacular speech, and that's what's proving to be the challenge when accepting critique from someone who just hasn't grown up with your humour and doesn't "get" it.

So then, what do we do, toss out everyone who says "The comedy just didn't work for me?"

Well, according to the Vorhaus book on our shelf, yes. He suggests that when seeking beta readers, you be very selective and take the needed time to find those who share your sense-of-humour, for this very reason. Every now and then you'll find someone who knows comedy well enough to discuss it in an intelligent manner AND be able to articulate what you need to do to make improvements, but according to Vorhaus, they will be rare gems and hardly ever found.

I've been beating myself up and my head against a rock for over 10-years about the critiques on my comedy, and I think you are the first person to put it succinctly into perspective. When someone says the comedy didn't work, it IS like them telling you that it was you that didn't know how to work it.

I've asked others seeking to give me critique about my work if they would refrain from using that phrase and opt, instead, for suggestions in how to make it better. But do you know what I'm met with each and every time? Silence. Because they're not equipped with the proper tools for writing comedy and the pitfalls that goes along with it, they've no clue how to offer CONSTRUCTIVE critique, and isn't that what we're all about? The constructive?

Comedy, whether it be performing or writing, is THE hardest genre in which to write for this very reason, folks. Because how many times have you actually said in a critique of your own on someone else's book, "The drama just didn't work for me. I didn't cry here?"

Never. But THAT is funny.

message 5: by Carla (new)

Carla René (carlaren) | 33 comments Mod
Richard wrote: ""Comedy is when you fall down a manhole. Tragedy is when I fall down the manhole."

What if we both fall down the manhole?"

Make a sandwich. You'll both be there awhile.

message 6: by Gayle (new)

Gayle (gayle_carline) | 4 comments Carla - that is why you've got to find the correct beta readers, who share your sense of humor. I'm not a fan of scatalogical humor. I can watch a comedy or read a story and know: this is where I'm supposed to laugh. But it's not funny. I can critique the scene in literary terms. Is it sensory enough? Do I relate to the characters? But I can't tell you whether you've gotten the funny right.

That actor was right: dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

BTW, if you stop by Regan Black's blog (http://www.reganblack.com) this Tuesday (March 29), I discuss the difficulties of writing humor a little more.

message 7: by Carla (new)

Carla René (carlaren) | 33 comments Mod
Yep; I agree on the sense-of-humour, but one of the main reasons I started this group was so others could learn that lesson much sooner than I ever did, along with learning how to effectively write comedy.

I've been performing/writing professional stand-up and improv comedy (with Second City) for over 16-years and not once did anyone ever tell me when seeking a comedy writing partner, which they suggest when beginning to write stand-up, that you seek someone who "gets" your humour.

Goethe said one of the three things to keep in mind while giving a critique is to know if the author accomplished his goal. Not if he accomplished OUR goal. (Can't find the actual quote now, but will post it once I find it again.)

message 8: by Andy (new)

Andy (AndylikesBooks) | 9 comments Correct Beta Readers??!! Goethe? Here's my resume so I'm funny?!!

Intentionally saying or doing something to make people smile, laugh, or feel lighter than they did before.

What is comedy? C'mon people.

message 9: by Carla (new)

Carla René (carlaren) | 33 comments Mod
Wow. I can't even begin to decipher your post. Did you even bother to read all of it, or just skim?

message 10: by Gayle (new)

Gayle (gayle_carline) | 4 comments Carla wrote: "not once did anyone ever tell me when seeking a comedy writing partner, which they suggest when beginning to write stand-up, that you seek someone who "gets" your humour"

I think that's because everyone assumes a "comedy is universal" thing, even though people in stand-up should know better. I think Andy is a perfect example, "Intentionally saying or doing something to make people laugh..."

But not everyone WILL laugh at the same something.

Dissecting humor is a difficult process. I try not to get too caught up in it, because it's like peeling an onion looking for a seed. But a certain amount of study is necessary for people who write comedy, if only to understand how to make our stuff funnier.

message 11: by Carla (last edited Mar 27, 2011 08:52AM) (new)

Carla René (carlaren) | 33 comments Mod
The main reason I began this group was two-fold. First, I wanted a place where veteran comedy-writers could get constructive critiques from like-minded individuals.

But the main reason was so that those numerous people who always tell me that they wish they knew how to write comedy could finally have a place to do just that: Dissect it and learn the tools. If you've not read the Vorhaus book, you really are missing out, because I have always felt the same way he does about this. That comedy writing isn't some ethereal gift that is bestowed only on the most beautiful, it is the hard work of an individual armed with the right tools. If I took a wrench and just went at the Space Shuttle before having a working knowledge of how it was designed and its purpose, then I'd get laughed off the launch pad.

Well, dissecting comedy is a little like that. Unless you know what comedy's heart is (truth and pain), and then build on that with what tools you have at your disposal for how to create it, you might as well be standing on the launch pad with a broken pencil...it have the same effect in trying to fix the Shuttle.

And dissecting humour is absolutely essential when you're writing a piece of humorous fiction. You don't have that immediate response of feedback from an audience, so therefore you can't rely on something so inept as "intentionally saying or doing something that will make people laugh." That's ridiculous where comedic fiction-writing is concerned. It takes more work than your own instincts that something is funny in order to pull that off.

And this group wasn't titled "For PERFORMERS of humour...", it was for WRITERS. Doing or SAYING something funny is bordering on the danger area of indication, but isn't even applicable when writing comedic fiction.

message 12: by Gayle (new)

Gayle (gayle_carline) | 4 comments Thanks for recommending the Vorhaus book. I'll definitely get it. You can't have too many tools in your magic writer's box.

message 13: by Carla (new)

Carla René (carlaren) | 33 comments Mod
Gayle wrote: "Thanks for recommending the Vorhaus book. I'll definitely get it. You can't have too many tools in your magic writer's box."

It should be on our shelf. You can get it there.

message 14: by Daren (new)

Daren Doucet (daren1) | 10 comments I love Bill Cosby humour, just as much as I love Chris Rock humour. The Monty Pythons Search for the Holy Grail does not make me laugh as much as Dumb and Dumber. But, I do enjoy watching it. I think everyone has a different style of funny bone out there, and some comedians are lucky enough to hit a large segment of the world. When Eddie Murphy released his vhs tapes, I remember kids at school would make fun of buckwheat for days and months after.

Vorhaus is right, in finding people with the same sense of humour. Some people love shock humour, and some people do not, for example.

message 15: by Carla (new)

Carla René (carlaren) | 33 comments Mod
Daren wrote: "I love Bill Cosby humour, just as much as I love Chris Rock humour. The Monty Pythons Search for the Holy Grail does not make me laugh as much as Dumb and Dumber. But, I do enjoy watching it. ..."

Dumb and Dumber made me definitely laugh out loud, but as I think back on it, I'm convinced it was more due to our instinct to laugh at all things inappropriate and at inappropriate times. I knew when seeing that movie for the first time I would never be able to handle a steady diet of it or I'd rot my brain.

I, personally. have always tended to go for more intelligent humour that makes you think. And I adore Python, although if you haven't seen The Life of Brian, THAT is the one you will love. The irony is dripping and brill.

But I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Eddie Izzard for this reason. Aside from the basic high-school French I had, when he launches into his routine in French with the mouse, I have no clue what he's on about, but I'm laughing so hard I'm blowing stuff out my nose.

Which also proves to me that it isn't so much the language as the comic filtering his words through his attitude. One thing I learned from my friend Judy Carter is that all comics (stand-ups as well as comedic writers) have effectively learned about comic timing and how to convey that to the written word, but all major comics with big names have also learned that secret second component of any success: Which POV to adopt that will drive that material home in the best way.

You mentioned Bill Cosby, and he's a great example that she uses in The Comedy Bible. Lots of people love to go round quoting and performing Bill's routines at parties and in Wal-mart parking lots at midnight. And most folks who might laugh do so not because the guy delivering Bill's material is a genius, but because they've heard and recognise the material.

So why doesn't that hilarious material usually garner the same response? Because the person doing the telling hasn't clued in that it's not necessarily Bill's words that make it funny, but rather his Point-of-View during his delivery that drives it home. He brings his personal biases and life-experiences to that stage, and when you hear him say, "I brought you into this world so I can take you out," it also comes with his entire line of personal of baggage. Do you think any old comic could get up there on stage and do an entire routine based on a one-sided phone conversation? No. But Bob Newhart's very unique attitude (POV) lent itself to something fascinating and hilarious to watch that literally put him on the map and in the living rooms of folks everywhere.

And especially when writing fiction, this POV is so crucial anyway, that you really must allow the comedy to spark between that comic gap that arises from the comic premise and the POV. Vorhaus does a brilliant job at spelling this out in his book, step-by-step and with examples of how to work it so you learn how to consistently do it when you need to.

BTW, I thought I'd mention, since I'm stinking excited about it, that a few weeks ago he agreed to write the forward for my upcoming release, "A Most Devout Coward." He read my short pitch back in the spring and said he laughed out loud in several places, so I'm very honoured and terrified at the same time to let him see my ms. But, at least with him, I know he's not going to say something boneheaded like, "This comedy doesn't work for me," without at least giving me a suggestion for how I can up the ante and increase the stakes (risk) which will make it funnier.

I think that seems to be the most common thing I see in comedy writing: The author was just afraid or too timid to toss every single stinking thing that could go wrong at that character and then have the onions to flat out make fun of him for it.

Anyway, I'm loving this discussion.

message 16: by Carla (new)

Carla René (carlaren) | 33 comments Mod
Daren wrote: "I remember being in the theatre during Dumb and Dumbers release. I cannot remember a theatre being so roaring with laughter.

You must also remember that for the majority, especially men, base humour appeals more than comedy that makes you think. Men respond more to "bathroom" and "blue" than women, IN GENERAL. That's not to say there aren't exceptions. My comedy has been called Jerry Seinfeld on crack, so it's quite obvious in some regards, I skew more male than most women. So, depending on my mood, I seem to respond to that male bent of humour.

And re: Bill Cosby, you are exactly demonstrating my point: It's all about POV in the delivery, which is why it would be absolutely impossible for another comic to regurgitate Bill's material and then make it as successful. All those things you mentioned are merely symptomatic of his POV.

You misunderstood as I probably wasn't as clear with it as I should've been. John Vorhaus and not Bob Newhart (I wish!) is doing my forward and blurb. John's The Comic Toolbox is what we have on our shelf. If you've been flying by the seat of your pants, then it would behoove you greatly to pick up this book. I can't stop recommending it because he has essentially taken something that's been assigned a sort of mysticism, endowed only by the comic Gods to those worthy enough to receive it, and boiled it down to a science of practical how-to application. In fact, posting to Sally's WIP and offering a critique has inspired me during my next study break to post his first exercise. We might as well go through it in a practical step-by-step manner and see what comes of it, eh?

All In the Family is a perfect example of the Clash of personality types, and the characters were so distinct it's quite easy to break them down into their various types and figure out what they were fighting for. Archie was fighting to be taken seriously as a bigot--he srsly wanted to change the world. Some might call him a comic White Supremacist. Edith was fighting for Archie to be normal and for peace in the house. Meathead was fighting for constant respect and love from Archie, and Gloria was fighting for her daddy's love and to be taken seriously as an adult.

However, there was another component to the mix: Archie, Gloria and Mike were all the crazies and Edith was the "straight man" dumped into their crazy world. This is another way to think of your characters when writing. In Seinfeld, Jerry was the sane one dumped into a batch full of crazies. In one of my favourite episodes, the tables are turned and Jerry, due to lack of sleep from a neon chicken sign, turns into the insane one, and Kramer, from an abundance of peaceful sleep, since he and Jerry switched rooms, turns out to be sane. Brilliant move in my opinion. In my favourite sitcom of old, Wings, Joe was the sane one, dumped into an airport full of crazies, including his brother, Brian. In my current favourite comedy (and one CBS is waiting on for a spec script from me), The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon thinks he's the only sane one, but really he's the crazy dumped into a roommate situation with Leonard, the sane one, and their Indian and Jewish professor friends--also insane at times. Penny, the neighbour and Leonard's ex, is the other sane one, but because she's as dumb as a bag of hammers and not a physicist, they treat her as if she's crazy.

So it's not just about character types, but also the sort of situation in which you place them that will determine the kind of comedy gold you will mine for. I demonstrated this in Sally's critique, since a wedding is a perfect opportunity to exploit those character types and differences to the fullest. And not surprisingly, John outlines in great detail the various types of stories that exist within the bounds of comedy.

If you're ever interested in revisiting your book with a revision and want some input, feel free to post a small excerpt of it here. We'll do our best to steer you in the direction to make it as funny as it can be.

message 17: by Andy (new)

Andy (AndylikesBooks) | 9 comments I think straight comedy writing like "Cruel Shoes", and literary Gregory MacDonald stuff gives me some ideas on pace/timing/funny in writing. Bob Newhart, Maria Bamford, Louis C.K. in voice. My question is how do we bottle a great set into a chapter? Haven't seen it done yet.

message 18: by Carla (new)

Carla René (carlaren) | 33 comments Mod
Andy, it sounds like you're seeking an author that embodies all those qualities. I'm sure there are some, but you're mentioning something subjective to your particular tastes only, and that's an automatic niche market.

But if you're wanting that model for your own writing, then you need to get to the place where you're writing so much that you begin to find your voice. I've been writing comedy since 1994 and just last year with my blog as well as A Most Devout Coward, feel I finally found my voice. I know, because I'm starting to get comments on it from my readers. But it took a long time, so keep at it, but you have to keep failing in order to get there. As soon as I locate my copy of Comic Toolbox (I just moved, it's still in a box somewhere), I'll post one of John's first exercises, since it's absolutely brilliant.

message 19: by Andy (new)

Andy (AndylikesBooks) | 9 comments Thanks Carla!

message 20: by Katherine (new)

Katherine (muse-thalia) | 2 comments This is a quote from my comedy blog:

When a child falls down, looks startled for a moment, then runs off laughing—that’s comedy.

When a child falls down, breaks its spine, and must live in a wheelchair for the rest of its life—that’s tragedy.

It’s only comedy when the consequences are trivial and/or temporary.


message 21: by Mataos (last edited Jan 04, 2012 12:24PM) (new)

Mataos Ponticello (MattPonticello) | 1 comments I wrote my book, "How to Beg for Cigarettes," as a comedy and I describe it as one business man's hilarious laugh-a-mile-a-minute romp through America's Inner Cities. My website is: www.mattponticello.com I truly believe good comedy comes from everyday events which brings us to drop all guards and laugh at ourselves.

message 22: by Daren (new)

Daren Doucet (daren1) | 10 comments Comedy. Some people are naturals at telling funny jokes, while others are good at describing funny, or awkwardly funny, situations that shell out good times or bad to a character.

I think everyone has their own slant on humor. A friend of mine, loved shock humor. Some people love, love humor. Some people like, slapstick humor.

Choose your funnybone of choice!

message 23: by Daren (new)

Daren Doucet (daren1) | 10 comments Oh, I forgot, the sexual humor is out there, too!

message 24: by Margaret (new)

Margaret Radisich (maggy77) | 1 comments I write short humor stories, mostly family humor of what goes on around the house. I have published 7 ebooks of Twenty Stories each on both Kindle and Smashwords. I started out self-publishing the first two which had 40 stories in each, although I love a real book, ebooks are selling much better. I agree that humor is a really hard sell since every person has a different view. I like the Dave Barry type humor the best, but everyone has their own style. My home page has a couple of sample stories in case anyone would like to check them out. http://veryfunnystories.webs.com/inde...

message 25: by Wesley (new)

Wesley Clarke | 1 comments I happen to think the best comedy comes from a dark place. Gallows humour. I'm a love black humour and now a massive fan of Jonny Gibbings first book because it is remarkably funny, but also very black. I was lucky to go to his talk on the book in London, and he touched on writing funny. He says that true comedy is brave, that you should be able to say anything. his blog is fantastic too, and you can tell he is just fantastic too: http://jonnygibbings.wordpress.com/20...

I'd love to write comedy and am trying, but some are just funny. Jonny Gibbings has, surprisingly, a system for writing funny that made a lot of sense, that I am adopting now, but he is just funny.

Two of the best lines from his talk, a woman said "Why do you drink so much?"
He replied "Because every morning I wake up, look in the mirror, and I'm still me!"

And the other: "I like to write self-depreciating humour, but I'm not very good at it"

You can't beat a funny book.

message 26: by Christamar (new)

Christamar Varicella I agree with the various funny and unfunny things said here and elsewhere. I also run a blog that contains many funny and unfunny things. For the most part the things are funny, or maybe unfunny, depending on how you look at it. http://dailybrass.blogspot.com/.

message 27: by Christamar (new)

Christamar Varicella I wish to retract the word "said" from my previous post and replace it with the word "stated." Revision is important.

Also, I request that you please go back and read all prior posts before you read mine in order to maximize effect. Laziness will not be tolerated.

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