Mar 10 2009
Comedy and humor are notoriously hard to teach, but here are some tips.
1. Conciseness is essential. Cutting out empty lines in a joke usually makes it funnier.
2. Exaggeration is usually helpful. It makes the exchanges more memorable and helps keep readers on your page. For example, if I want Agent Orange to come off as comically paranoid, I might have him do a rant about the critical danger presented by squirrels, those sinister vagrant rodents. In contrast, if his bogeyman was something like terrorists or global warming, it wouldn’t be as clear that I was trying to make him seem ridiculous.
3. The most successful comedians vary their levels of wackiness. Unwacky humor is usually more dry/wry and more subtle. Wackier comedy is usually in your face. For example, Dave Chapelle’s wackiest humor is best when it comes out of nowhere. Check out his Sesame Street sketch. He talks soberly about how Sesame Street is teaching kids bad things. “It teaches kids how to judge people, how to label people. They judge Oscar right in his face. ‘Oscar, you’re so mean. You are such a grouch.’ ‘Bitch, I live in a f***ing trash can!’ ”
4. Jokes that are hard to follow are awful. Jokes that disrupt the flow of the story are also usually awful.
5. The best kind of humor advances the story, develops the cast and entertains readers. As a rule, I recommend staying away from comic tangents. If you absolutely have to take us on a comic tangent, try to keep it as connected to the here-and-now of the story as possible. For example, if we had a mad scientist character reminiscing about one of his spectacularly bizarre experiments, he might say at one point in the story “This reminds me of my hybrid elephant-jellyfish. I miss Sparky.” Please don’t go off on Family Guy-style tangents that derail the story. Novel readers (and even comic book readers) tend to expect more cohesion than the typical sit-com viewer does.
6. Two main skills distinguish good comedians from the rest: delivery and material. First is delivery. A good writer will pace out a joke well, in a way that’s easy to follow. Give the readers pauses as necessary. Second is the quality of the material. A good comedian can look at scenes and figure out some funny situations that might arise. The best way to learn this skill (besides practicing) is to watch/read a lot of skillful comedy. What sort of situations did these other writers use for comic effect?
SUPERHERO AND SUPERHERO-LIKE SHOWS:
–Kim Possible, all seasons
–Justice League/JLU, particularly the episode with Booster Gold.
–Jackie Chan Adventures, particularly season 1
–Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, particularly seasons 1-2.
–Heroes, season 1.
–Maybe the later seasons of Teen Titans. I don’t think it works particularly well for older watchers, but I’ve noticed that kids seem to like it a lot.
–Calvin and Hobbes
–Chapelle Show, particularly seasons 1-2. Also, his stand-up stuff’s pretty good.
–The Office (U.S. and/or U.K., depending on your market).
–Austin Powers 1 and 2
–The Big Lebowski
–Thank You for Smoking. It’s not as good as the book, though.
–Monty Python, particularly the Holy Grail.
–Men in Black
–My Fellow Americans
–Monsters, Inc. and maybe the Toy Story movies
–Lilo & Stitch, particularly the Man in Black social worker character.
–Harold and Maude
–The 40 Year-Old Virgin
–The Hudsucker Proxy
–Princess Bride (both the book and movie)