Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Humor Writing - Finding the absurd truth

It is thought that the funniest writers are angry. Anger is a good strong emotion that can push stories and scenes beyond polite boundaries. Often humor is not fair, gentle, or generous.

We writhe when a comic protagonist suffers unjustly -- so writers need to cheat them. We protest when the hero or heroine faces harsh, demeaning circumstances -- so the context, often a maniacal social system, must crush him or her. We cringe when the character's mentor sets him or her up for failure or the well-meaning sidekick makes a bad situation worse. (Later, the bad situations will probably turn in a surprising direction, and part of the laughter will come from relief.)
 Of course, any of these sufferings and bad breaks could be applied to drama as well. As with all fiction, humor is driven by conflict. Battles draw us in and keep us engaged. Anything that comes easily is boring. But, in my opinion, anger is only one emotion that can fuel comedy.

Why do we laugh at cat videos? Why do people make them? Is there a secret animus against cats? I think it is more because there is affection for cats than anger against them. Any cat lover will tell you how he or she marvels at the grace and dignity cats show most of the time. And yet, the most popular cat videos are at odds with the noble sense of "catness," showing vulnerability... I suspect that's why they are funny. Along with a baseline affection for felines. 

What sets humor apart is an off-center point of view. Though we cheer on the comic protagonist, we often don't see him or her as our equal. This superior position is one way to provide enough distance to turn tears into laughter.

How do you make a comic protagonist inferior? Establish a personal quality that is ridiculous. Taking one of the Seven Deadly Sins and making it a bad fit for the character almost always works. An unattractive character who is vain, an angry character who is powerless, or a greedy character who does not have the knack for making money provides a good starting point for humor. Often, because the need is so great, the character will go to extremes -- including humiliation -- to hold onto a delusion or get what he or she wants.

The delusion can be tied to positive traits, too. Many great comedic characters are insanely optimistic and determined. Some are naive and unable to turn away anyone asking for help, no matter how they've been abused. Here, it is often a weakness in one social survival skill that makes the behaviors funny. (In fact, this seems to be the basis for most of the humor in The Big Bang Theory.)

Another rule of comedy is no one really gets hurt. For black humor, this rule is bent and even in straight comedy, there may be a dark moment that has pathos. But too much pain can make it too real and immediate. Again, distance gives us permission to laugh at misfortune, and violating that guideline by getting too close can be treacherous. While "too stupid to live" is a disaster in drama, it can be an asset in comedy, where no one dies.

Comedy is not of one type. A good comedy will go beyond characters, tasks, and situations to include high wit and gross-outs. These are spices to sharpen the humor (and some people like more spice than others).

But the base of comedy is characters with contrasts and delusions, goals that don't match the challenges to their achievements, and systems that work at cross purposes to reasonable human aspirations -- in short, the absurdity of life, fully true, but presented in a safe way to us. And these absurdities can be funny if they don't touch us too deeply and if the consequences are never as cruel as those we experience in the real world. Comedy allows us to thumb our noses at the gods.

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