S2_E34 – Why Comedy Feels Dangerous and How to Avoid Crossing the Line
In the conclusion of this series on Writing Funny, Zena addresses two final types of tools or comedic devices (puns/dad jokes and the reversal), and uses those as an entry point to discussing why people are often afraid of comedy, and for good reason.
Since comedy can be used to malign the dignity of the human person, it can be a dangerous device. However, by applying a proper theology of humor, and learning when and under what circumstances it might be appropriate to use humor (like sarcasm), we can experience greater freedom in the area of humor, both in our writing and in life.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
S2 E34. Writing Funny: Why Comedy Feels Dangerous and How to Avoid Crossing the Line
Published April 21, 2022
INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: For the last few weeks, we've been engaged in a series on how to write funny. And for some people, this might be dragging on too long, you're like, "I don't care about how to construct a joke." And yet, this is actually really important to me personally, because I feel like we're missing out on an opportunity here. The fact of the matter is, comedy makes up a great deal of the kinds of entertainment we subject ourselves to. Maybe you don't think of yourself as a comedic writer, but I promise you, as a consumer of entertainment, you often gravitate towards things that bring humor and levity to your life, even if it is just in conjunction with a dramatic story or a thriller, or what have you. Whenever there is an element of comedy in something, we are naturally more attached, more aligned, more connected to the characters within that story. Because we like humor that much. And it does that much for us. There are all sorts of psychological benefits to human beings as a result of humor.
So, as storytellers, learning how to construct a joke, is actually not a waste of time. Learning how to include comedy -- now, maybe you're not writing the next Naked Gun, maybe that is not quite your area. And by the way, I think that if you have that ability, you just kind of have that ability. I love those types of movies, I don't know that I could write one. Nevertheless, I love to go to them. And I certainly love to go to movies that have characters that are making me laugh even if the story is more serious. Look at Guardians of the Galaxy, it was so much fun. Now, nobody would say it was a comedy. It was a fantasy action adventure, right? Nevertheless, because there was so much humor in it, we loved it to a degree that we wouldn't have otherwise. If it had taken itself too seriously, we just wouldn't have loved it to the same degree. So, this is good for you to learn, even if you're a little resistant or if you're a little bored. I'm spending this much time on it because I want you to know how to do it.
If you can infuse humor into your story in some way, it will make that story better, it will make your audience more emotionally connected to the material.
That's why we're spending so much time on this. And if you happen to be somebody that's focused on creating comedic material, well, hopefully this will help you to know how to construct some jokes, although I would recommend that you get even more training than what we're talking about here.
REVIEW: Now, last week, I went over some of my very favorite tools to do this, some of my very favorite techniques. We talked about the literal truth, and how Steve Martin is a master at that. The non sequitur or associations where you pair things up, you put two things together that haven't previously been associated. But when you pair them up, it's humorous because of the juxtaposition between the two elements. And lastly, we talked about exaggeration, and how the basis for comedy is found in reality, but then you take it to this absurd, exaggerated degree and all of a sudden, it can be humorous.
PRESENTATION: Today, I want to just talk about a couple of more types or tools for comedy. And these are things that you're probably familiar with, and they might be things that you're grappling with.
1. For example, let's start with one of the more popular types of jokes, certainly in Christian circles, which are puns, or dad jokes, puns and dad jokes go hand in hand.
And what is a pun? A pun is when there is a cliche, and the humor comes from altering a word or even one or two letters in a word of a cliche, so that you arrive at a twist. And that cleverly changes the point of view. So for example, there's a tire ad that I saw recently that said, "We skid you not." Okay, instead of, "We kid you not," "We skid you not." That is just adding a letter in one word and it changes the meaning and it makes a pun. Puns are great. We love puns and dad jokes are full of puns. It's why we love them. How does a rabbi make coffee? Hebrews it. Rest in peace, boiling water, you will be mist. How do you throw a space party? You planet. Okay, those are some dad jokes.
2. Now, there's another tool that is called a reversal, which is actually a change of point of view, you basically pull the old switcheroo. That's the important part, it actually changes the meaning, it's a change of points of view, we see it from a different direction. So, you have a character, for example, hijack the cliche from another character. Now don't get hung up on the terms here. The idea is simply that you have a character who could hijack something from another character -- an insult, for example, this is how we often see them played out. For example, Chandler's character in friends often used this type of humor, it's often retaliatory humor, because they're able to hijack what the other person has said to them, and turn it around and make it insult them back. So for example, maybe somebody says, "What did the doctor say about the pain in your neck?" "I don't know, your name didn't come up." Something to that effect.
Since surprise is one of the basic elements of comedy, the reversal becomes a basic tool. For example, Oscar Wilde wrote, "When I was young, I thought money was the most important thing in life. Now that I'm old, I know it is." So that's a reversal. It's a change in point of view, hijacking the ending, if you will, to put a different spin on it and make it say something else. So for example, Rodney Dangerfield, "I said to my wife, all things considered, I'd like to die in bed. And she said, 'What again?'" He's really good at this. Now, ironically, what he does is he pairs it, or he turns it into a bizarre reference. So he completes the cliche with a bizarre reference. For example, one of Rodney Dangerfield's jokes was, "My father never liked me. For Christmas, he gave me a bat. The first time I tried to play ball with it, it flew away." Okay, so in that case, the key is to write a clever and surprise ending to the cliche opening, where you reverse the point of view, you get us to look at it in a slightly different way.
Now, there's all sorts of other tools, by the way. This list is by no means exhaustive. However, I mentioned these particular ones here because while puns are fairly safe, reversals are often dangerous. And it's because of how they are used. Even though both of them kind of change the point of view, or do the twist at the end, or that sort of thing. One of them does it in a way that's hostile, where the other one does it in a way that's just surprising. And by the way, hostility, again, is a critical element of humor. It's an inherent part of humor. But there's a reason why many of us avoid it wholesale, because it feels so mean.
And this is why we need to go back for a second to look at a proper Christian worldview. And we need to understand that so called negative emotions are not necessarily negative. Anger, as I've talked about in another podcast, is not inherently bad. Rage is bad, or anger unleashed, uncontrolled is bad. But even Jesus was angry. He overturned tables in the temple. Imagine that. And he was angry when he did it, but he didn't sin in his anger. So anger is not bad. It's when anger is out of control that it's bad. When you're giving into the anger, when it's rage unleashed. And the same, I believe, is true with hostility in comedy. Some uses of it are not bad.
Some uses of it are not causing dissension or stirring up division and hate. Rather, the proper use of hostility in comedy can actually draw people together. It could cause people to feel known, to even feel safe. Not so alone in this world. It can trigger empathy and understanding. It can cast off the shackles of perfectionism or legalism, or the heavy burden of keeping up appearances. Making others believe that we have it together when we really don't. It can allow us a chance to breathe, to let our hair down, to not take ourselves so seriously. So hostility is not necessarily a bad thing that must be avoided altogether.
Having said that, there is a potential, a risk, a temptation to slip into types of humor that actually emphasize hostility to a degree that I believe is damaging. And one of those is again, the reversal, because you're taking the insult and you're turning it back on the other person and you're insulting them greater.
Now, there are times when it feels like justice, there are times when even that can be done well. For example, in the film, The Fugitive, where Tommy Lee Jones' character comes upon the scene of the train wreck. And there is a sheriff who's in charge of the scene, and he is interviewing a another policeman in front of a crew of television cameras, and Tommy Lee Jones walks up and says, "Hey, you know, I'd like to intervene." And the guy said, "Uh, I'll be with you in just a minute," and holds up his finger. He's clearly an arrogant schmuck, this guy. He's an arrogant schmuck. But what we like about Tommy Lee Jones is, while he could have unleashed on this nincompoop at any time, he doesn't. He doesn't until after the guy insults him. He says, "Okay, everybody gather around. Wyatt Earp is here to clean up this mess," because Tommy Lee Jones has to take over the investigation because clearly this guy isn't going to do his job. But Tommy Lee Jones isn't rude to the guy until after the guy insults him, puts him down, tries to make fun of him, is hostile towards him. At which point, "Hey, we're always a bit confused when we find leg irons with no legs in them," right? And he kind of dishes it back out and makes fun of the cop or the sheriff. But he only does that after the guy himself is completely rude to Tommy Lee Jones.
And so that, to us, feels like justice. Plus, he doesn't take it too far. See, he doesn't keep it personal. Tommy Lee Jones is a professional. So even though he lets that out a little bit and puts the guy in his place, he immediately goes back into his professionalism, which is trying to solve the problem. He doesn't actually stay in judgment. He doesn't stay angry. He doesn't keep feeding the dissension, and that is appropriate.
So he's using a type of humor here that we call sarcasm.
Sarcasm is a type of humor that emphasizes hostility. It's meant to cut the person down to size. It's like a heat-seeking missile set to destroy. Now, most of the time, I hate sarcasm, because it makes me feel stupid, because it's meant to. And also I'm a literalist. I have this weird thing where I believe people, I take them at their word, so I don't always get it when they're being sarcastic. Sarcasm is meant to make people feel stupid. But there are times when that can be appropriate. I would argue even the Lord Jesus Himself employed sarcasm. Now I can't prove that. And we certainly don't have an audio of some of the things that Jesus said in the Bible. But there are times where what he says, it's meant to cut people down to size. It's meant to humble them. But it's for a purpose. It's meant to break through layers of pride and arrogance. It's meant to reform the heart. So there are times when sarcasm can be appropriately employed, I believe. But delivery matters. Intention matters.
There was one time... I forget even what had happened exactly, but I was on a film set. And I was working as a script super. And apparently I said something multiple times. And so this gal in the camera department says to her entire department right in front of me, "Thank you for calling the Department of redundancy department. Can I help you? Can I help you?" Now, that's actually funny the statement itself. "Thank you for calling the Department of redundancy department. Can I help you? Can I help you?" That is a funny statement. However, the way she said it was really mean. It implied that I was an idiot and I hadn't done anything to "deserve" to be cut down to size.
She could have said this in a way that was still funny, but implied solidarity. Like, "You spot it, you got it." Like, "Look, hey, we're making fun of ourselves. Oh, yeah. Look, you're being repetitive. I'm repetitive. Hahaha. We're the same." She could have said it in a way that brought bonding together between us. But instead, she cut me down to make me look stupid. She said it at my expense. And the other people in her department laughed. So I would argue that anytime we're using humor to do that....
Now, here's the other thing. This comes back to our humanity. Remember? Our frail beings as humans, and in this case, she attacked my dignity. She attacked my dignity rather than my depravity.
KEY POINT: See, when we use sarcasm to point out something depraved in our human-ness, I think that can be appropriate. But when we're using it to attack somebody's dignity, and make them less-than, that, I think, is where the problem is.
But again, it's important to remember that all jokes, all of them, have an element of hostility. And you're thinking, "Well, what about dad jokes? Or what about puns? Who's the target? Where's the hostility? How is this based on our flawed humanity?" Well, again, it has to do with the ever changing state of things, our temporal nature, and it has to do with the tendency of humanity collectively to get things mixed up.
I remember my mom once told me, when she was a little girl, it was her turn to pray at the table, and she prayed, "Frowie, frowear, thank you, Lord, Amen." And her family's like, "What?" Well, she had only ever heard her brother say this prayer. And he said it really fast. And what he was supposed to be saying is, "For all we eat, for all we wear. Thank You, Lord, amen." But because he said it so fast, he said, "Frowie, frowhere. Thank you, Lord, Amen." And that's what she thought the words were, frowie frowhere. That's funny, because it's based on our flawed humanity, our tendency to get things mixed up.
I don't know if you know the song, Jump. "Jump! Might as well jump." Well, when I was young, I thought the words were, "Maxwell jump." I was convinced that he was saying, "Maxwell jump." And I kept thinking, "Who is Maxwell? And why should he jump?" Literal truth, right? Like, I believe things literally. And so I kept trying to figure out who Maxwell was and why he should jump. Or I had a friend who thought the words were, "Big old Judy, left the light on, don't carry me too far away," instead of, "Big old jet airliner." Those are funny things. And when we share those types of things, we are sharing in our mutual fragility, and brokenness and flawed humanity. And it is only fragile beings who can find humor in these things.
But that brings us back to puns. Where's that in puns? Well, puns are the playground of mortal beings, because we are looking at temporal things. And we're finding humor in the change to something that's lost its punch. It's a cliche, that all of a sudden has a slightly different meaning. And we find it humorous. But usually we don't laugh out loud, right? So here's the thing, puns typically aren't so hilarious that it's, "HAHAHAH!" that we're dying, laughing. They're more amusing than they are comedic.
Dad jokes, on the other hand, can be either way. A lot of dad jokes are groaners. That's why we call them dad jokes. And yet there are some of them that are really funny, that make us laugh out loud. And I would argue that where the target is, and the hostility is and that sort of thing, it's... dad jokes are basically self deprecation. A good dad who tells dad jokes is essentially making fun of himself.
So once again, when we think about the theology of humor, and the psychology of humor, and the philosophy of humor, I think the best place for us to start is with the Christian worldview and a proper understanding of human beings, that we are both flawed and created in God's image, that we are both depraved and we have inherent dignity and worth. And when we attack the dignity, it's a problem. It can cross the line.
When we're attacking the inherent worth of another person, and we're making them feel less-than, not because of their character flaws but because of their essential being, I think that's when we've crossed the line.
So, to me, that is the acid test. That is the acid test about what kind of jokes I feel comfortable telling or repeating or hearing, for that matter. And in that, that gives me a lot of freedom, see. Because I don't have to be afraid. A lot of people are just so dang terrified of jokes, because they're afraid to offend. They're afraid that they're wrong. They're afraid that somehow they're violating some sort of rule or moral standard. But this, I believe, gives you a good gauge, it gives you evaluative criteria for you to be able to determine what kind of jokes are appropriate. And it is okay if sometimes a person seems to be attacked if they're not being attacked in their essential personhood. But rather, their flawed humanity is being exposed in a way that creates connection, rather than true division. Rather than you versus me, us versus them, one up one down, it should be the great equalizer. I think good humor does that.
Now, don't forget that you have to know your audience. There are some jokes that are going to be appropriate for me to tell to the writers conferences that I attend, that wouldn't be very funny if I was doing stand up in a bar. You have to know your audience and craft jokes that are appropriate for that audience.
Nevertheless, there's a lot more freedom and humor than I think we have allowed ourselves to experience.
CLOSING REMARKS: All right. So this, then, sums up or finishes, completes our series on humor, but you should be advised that there is so much more that we could do or say, so many more examples I could give. There is a lot more material, even, that we could be covering. This information is by no means exhaustive.
Comedy may have general rules or guidelines. But these rules can be broken. And they often are. And it's impossible to teach an exact formula for how to write funny, it's also impossible to be able to lay down every particular criteria of what is appropriate to laugh at. Even here, the ideas have weaved in and out of one another as if they're two sides of the same coin. And sometimes I don't even know if I could tell if something's a non sequitur versus an association versus something that's just absurd or whatever. It's principles. Principles. Not exact science.
But the acid test of comedy is always, "Does it make them laugh?" And if it does, you're a successful comedic writer.
And conversely, the acid test of appropriate comedy, I believe, is, "Does it promote connection, rather than truly denigrate the value of another human being?" Even if it does temporarily cut them down to size. That can be for the purposes of their character flaws, not their essential nature.
My last thing that I want to say is that comedy is harder to write than drama. Now you might be like, "What?!" But it's true. It is hard to write comedy. Very, very difficult. If you're writing a screenplay, for example, the basic rule of thumb is that you have to have three laughs per page. Do you know how hard that is to construct an actual fluid story where you're trying to get people to laugh three times on one page? That's three times a minute. Imagine that. That is very, very hard. That's why we have to rely on things like exaggeration. You have to have actors who can carry on that exaggeration, be so fully committed, that it makes us laugh, just they're very delivery, but it is hard to write.
CALL TO ACTION: Nevertheless, you can write it. So, go back to the well. Keep practicing, dig deeper for those truths. And you'll find a way to turn them on their head. Look for the realism and then flip it. Find the absurdity, the exaggeration. Don't try to recall the specific terms that I'm talking about. The terms aren't important. It's the principles, the principles, and if you can just sink your teeth into one or two of these principles, you'll be well on your way to constructing good comedy.
Okay, well, I hope that this has been helpful to you. It's been a privilege to break down how to write funny with you over these last few weeks. Next week we will launch into a new subject. So I hope you will join me then.
OUTRO: In the meantime, thank you for listening to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.