from John Pellegrini, Production Director/WKLQ, Grand Rapids, MI
So, why is something so funny? Have you ever tried to figure that out? It's a bit like trying to explain Steven Hawking's book, "A Brief History of Time." Got a couple of decades to spare? Well, pull up an alternative life and sit down. Maybe we can get through this in one sitting.
What is humor, and what determines whether something is funny or not? You do. You and whoever you're telling your joke to are the deciding factors as to what is or is not funny. If you think something is hilarious, but no one else gets it, it probably needs to be re-examined. Maybe you're not telling it the right way. Maybe you need to shorten it. But, and I stress this fact, it's not because you're not funny.
I had the good fortune to study comedy and improvisation at the famous Second City Theater in Chicago for a year and a half. Although I never made the cast (that really wasn't my goal anyway), I did learn a few things about how to write better comedy. And they insist that everyone is funny. You just need to learn how to tell your funny stuff correctly.
Writing is the key. That's where it all starts. The best improvisations are not improvised, nor are they written perhaps word for word. But, everyone participating knows what the subject is and knows which way to take the scene.
To achieve this, the biggest thing to remember is: The word "NO" does not exist. To make things happen, you must never deny anything. Arguments are not funny. The best offense is a good defense. Everything must be accepted, no matter how absurd. Exaggeration should start slowly and build. How's that for just one thing to remember?
There are, of course, exceptions to everything, but what's the point in breaking the rules if you don't know what they are or why someone put them in practice in the first place? Chaos must have order to react from. The absurd lies in reality and truth.
Get to know all the styles of comedy. Satire, parody, pathos, irony, metaphor, puns, word-play, sarcasm, etc.. You'll also find that increasing your vocabulary and knowledge of the English language will enable you to come to humor and funny situations faster by changing the structures of sentences. For example, this quote was attributed to Winston Churchill: "This is precisely the sort of English, up with which, I will not put."
The following is a quick list of guidelines to be used when examining your comedy. Some of this is from experience at Second City, some is from personal experience trying to get humor across. All of it will work. Number seven may be a personal opinion, but I think you'll agree with me.
1. Ignore All "Acceptable Behavior" As Dictated By Miss Manners Or Ann Landers. Politeness isn't funny. Humor comes from rudeness, and anger. Give me an example of one really funny joke that isn't offensive to someone, or doesn't insult or put down someone or something. There aren't any.
2. Comedy Can Smell Fear. If you hesitate, or worry about your joke, it will not be funny. But, that doesn't mean your stuff is funny just because you're confident.
3. Brevity Is Next To Godliness. Just like writing copy, the best humor uses the same acronym: K.I.S.S. -- keep it simple, stupid.
4. Topical Humor Has Deadlines! If you're writing from the news, a story has only a twenty-four hour relevance factor. If the story makes national features on the networks or CNN, it's good for a week. If Time or Newsweek pick it up, you've got two weeks. If Rolling Stone or SPIN carries it, you've got a month, and so on....
5. Irony Is The Best Approach. Every audience will respond to irony. Satire only works if your audience is hip -- doesn't always catch with the teenyboppers.
6. Keep Your Mind Open To All Possibilities! Never ignore anything. Don't just look at the obvious. Spike Milligan once said, "rain is the way it is, because the holes in the clouds are so small." Learn to look at the molecules, all the parts that make up the whole. Sometimes comedy has to be found, like buried treasure. Other times, life writes its own punch lines (like Dan Quayle -- who can add anything to that?).
7. It Is Possible To Do Anything On Radio. And I mean anything! Stan Freberg turned Lake Michigan into a giant chocolate pudding. Douglas Adams blew up the planet earth to make way for a hyper-space bypass, only to discover that the earth was in fact a giant computer working on a ten million year program, and mice were actually the smartest life-forms, dolphins were second, and humans third. Let's see some smart aleck try doing that on TV! For under a hundred bucks in production costs!
Comedy writing is serious business. It's not easy, it doesn't always work, and there's no way of knowing how individual audiences will respond to it. Ask any stand-up comic how different people can be. Go with yourself as the best barometer, but if you're one of those types who just loves everything you write, you probably need work. A comedy writer has to be an actor, director, and most importantly, your own worst critic. If you can't be honest with yourself and admit a joke sucks when it does, you probably will only keep yourself laughing. Get as many opinions as you can. The bigger your audience, the better. If it's for a client, hopefully they'll like it. Your Program Director, sales people, fellow disc jockeys and co-workers, the janitor, the guy down the street schlepping burgers.... All of them know funny stuff when they hear it.
Masters of comedy to research: S.J. Perelman, Robert Benchly, Douglas Adams, Hunter S. Thompson, Bob and Ray, Stan Freberg, The Firesign Theater, Spike Jones, P.J. O'Rourke, Peter Shickle, Spike Milligan, Rowan Atkinson, Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Harry Shearer, Jay Leno, Doug Kenny, Dorothy Parker, plus the Funny People book series by Steve Allen.