The Secret of Being Funny

There is something about a certain type of writing that inspires physical change in readers.

The process begins with a pleasurable sensation in the brain, leading to the spasmodic contraction of the intercostal and abdominal muscles and the emission of inarticulate noises from the larynx. In extreme cases the eyes squeeze shut, tears roll down the cheeks and there may even be a temporary loss of balance (so it is best not to read standing up).

This phenomenon is called laughter, and there are few (if any) more enjoyable things for humans to experience. Laughter is part of the universal language with numerous health benefits (both physical and mental) and is an important social bonding tool – but why and how does it happen? What triggers the brain into firing off impulses to the various laugh muscles?

And more importantly, how can we make it happen to others by using writing?

* * *

You often hear people say the hardest thing to write is comedy.

Now, if I do say so myself, I’ve never found writing comedy difficult. It just naturally happens in my writing. Even my law school essays were vaguely humorous, but I’ve never tried to analyse the style or the process.

But what makes something comic? What is the essence of humour? Like pornography, it’s difficult to define, but we certainly know it when we see it.

One interesting theory posed first by Schopenhauer and later developed by Henri Bergson is that the mechanism underpinning most comedy is a sudden breaking of the rigid rules of normal life or expectation. We are socialised to expect the normal course of life to proceed along certain paths, and when the path suddenly deviates to an unexpected but ironic, clever or embarrassing result, our innately unsocialised self rejoices. We obey The Rules to survive (and thereby become socialised) but deep down we resent The Rules and are briefly released from them while laughing. In Freudian terms, it might be suggested therefore that laughter is a temporary return to the id state in which we were born. (Babies start to laugh at about 17 days.)

If we consider the standard joke, it can be broken up into the premise, the narrative and the punch line. The premise (especially in contemplation of the fact that we have all heard a million jokes) is typically a one sentence introduction that alerts us to the fact that we are about to hear a joke and frames the joke reality and context: eg,

There was a Scotsman, a Cuban, an Australian and a Kiwi all flying along in a plane together…

Already there is a level of expectation in the mind of the audience and the subsequent narrative confirms those expectations while simultaneously setting up the punch line:

Shortly after take off, the Scotsman pulls out a bottle of single malt, rips the top off, takes one sip…and then chucks the bottle out the window. (Such things are possible in jokes.)

The others are all horrified and they say: ‘Mate, what did you do that for?’ And the Scotsman replies: ‘Well, back home in Scotland, we’ve got so much Scotch we can afford to chuck it out the window.’

So after a while the Cuban pulls out this beautiful, big Havana cigar. He trims it, lights it, takes one delicious toke…and then chucks it out the window.

‘Oh mate,’ the others cry, ‘…what’d you do that for?’

‘Well, back home in Havana we’ve got so many cigars, we can afford to chuck them out the window.’

So the Australian threw the Kiwi out the window.

Behold the punch line! The premise and the narrative, combined with our socialised experience of the normal course of events has set up an expectation in the mind of the audience; ie, that the Australian will have something to throw out the window and then the Kiwi will have something to throw out the window. The early disruption of that expectation in a way that still makes sense within the reality of the joke (ie, dealing extravagantly with a surplus), and is also meaningful in some other context (ie, the patronising amusement some Australians feel that so many Kiwis leave their country for better opportunities in Australia), is funny. Whereas, conveying the same message without the premise and narrative: ie, ‘There are too many Kiwis in Australia, we should throw some out of aeroplane windows,’ is not. (Well, not as funny.)

Obviously a short joke is a massive oversimplification – especially when compared to a novel – but it seems to me, at least superficially, that the basic principle holds true. Comic writing is about setting up an expectation in the mind of the reader and then disrupting that expectation in a surprisingly ironic, clever or embarrassing manner. (There are many more aspects to comic writing – not least authorial voice – but for the sake of simplicity, let’s stick to the main principle.)

This theory of comedy certainly seems to hold a bit of water when I contemplate my own work. If I try to analyse my own writing, I can see immediately that it is anarchic and glories in the subversion of convention – leading to numerous comic possibilities.

In Straight Jacket, much of the comedy stems from Morgen being a senior and successful lawyer. We have certain expectations of such people but Morgen’s appalling attitude and behaviour shock readers into laughing despite the fact that such a character in real life would be regarded as dangerously antisocial.

But if the comic theory holds true for Morgen, how does it apply to Eric Judd in Mr Cleansheets? While Morgen is an elitist arrogant bastard (albeit funny), Eric is a top bloke – a loveable larrikin. One way in which the theory might work is that Eric, despite his removalist and goalkeeper demography, is highly intelligent with an excellent capacity for smartarse wisecracks which disrupt the expectations of those who underestimate him. For example, when a wealthy producer is making a big fuss about opening a bottle of Penfolds Grange, Eric asks for a Grange and Coke. Another aspect of Eric’s condition which seems to obey the theory is that he does, from the very start, what no-one else would do. He decides to go to England to follow his dream even though such a course would be foolhardy in the extreme (by most people’s standards) and means totally disrupting the established pattern of his life. No normal, sane person would do that, no matter how much we might like to in our heart of hearts, so we vicariously enjoy Eric’s outrageous choice and consequent adventures.

Another character who is unreasonably diverted from the course of his life is Lasseter in THEM. His life seems to be proceeding evenly towards moderate bourgeois satisfaction when it suddenly all falls apart and he heads off into the desert on a bizarre treasure hunt. Again, no sane person would do that in real life so the reader can vicariously enjoy his decision which has the effect of liberating Lasseter from the rigidity of bourgeois existence and this is the source of much of the humour.

Another trademark comic feature of my writing (which also obeys the theory) is the setting up of a dickhead character – establishing his/her goals – and then thwarting them. Don Affridge (Jock) in Straight Jacket, Miss Palmer in Mr Cleansheets, and the Commissionaire in THEM are all characters the reader regards as bathetic. They have clear goals, somehow in conflict with the protagonists’ goals, and the readers thoroughly enjoy seeing those goals dashed in some spectacularly ironic or embarrassing fashion. The comic theory is fulfilled here because I am putting rigid characters in testing situations which threaten their tiny self-obsessed worlds.

For example, Jock expects to be made head of the department in Straight Jacket and flaunts the trappings of his successful self-image in front of his minions (expensive imported coffee and medieval Asian war philosophy pretentiously applied to business). It is those very trappings which Morgen uses to disrupt Jock’s expectations and the result is comedy.

What about other forms of humour? Puns for example – do they fit the theory?

Arguably, yes. Puns (in their finest form) subvert an ordinary (expected) figure of speech or expression with a clever revelation or twist appropriate to the context. For example: ‘A bun is the lowest form of wheat’, rather cleverly mocks the lazy criticism of puns as the lowest form of wit. (Mind you, bad puns probably are.) One of my finest moments on this planet occurred when I was introduced to Slim Dusty’s son (Dave Kirkpatrick). He was telling me about his childhood and how he’d been sent at a very tender age to boarding school because his parents were always on the road so he never had a chance to put down roots and make friends.

‘You were a bub with no peer,’ I replied.

Another way of trying to understand how comedy works is by looking at what doesn’t work. I can’t bear those pathetic types who think something is funny just because it is sung, or made to rhyme, or delivered with faux portentousness, or spoken in a Scottish accent. And the use of swear words for sudden shock value can only be funny once (I’m looking at you Maggie Smith).

Writing which is unoriginal, indirect or confusing will never be funny (unless there are other interpretive factors – like the quality of performance required to make funny the text of Waiting For Godot). The audience must not be in any doubt as to your meaning or they’ll be wondering when (or why) they’re supposed to laugh, and will soon put your book down (in the unlikely event it ever got published).

Probably the most common mistake new writers make when trying to write comedy, is trying too hard to be funny. They don’t appreciate the process of premise, narrative and punch line (however construed) and so try to get a laugh with every sentence. That makes sense doesn’t it? The more punch lines the better?

If you want to be funny you have to understand the mechanics of humour and have the patience to put in the deft and painstaking work required to neatly carry out the comic effect. There are numerous jokes in all of my books which were slowly set up over many chapters.

What about subject matter? Are there some subjects incapable of being funny? I firmly believe that there are no sacred cows. Anything is capable of being funny if handled tastefully and cleverly, but the more potentially taboo a subject, by god you’d better be tasteful and clever if you hope to get away with it.

So there you have it – my brief analysis of writing comedy and the fundamentals of premise, narrative and punch line delivered in a surprising manner revealing an apposite come-uppance.


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