They say that you can’t truly understand something until you have torn it to pieces, kicking and screaming, until it is no more. (In this case “They” are the voices in my head when I forget to take my pills.) Since I am interested in comedy, which hopefully has become at least somewhat obvious at this point, I figure comedy itself should be the next victim. In reality, this won’t be the first time. Way back in the days of my education, I was asked to write a twelve page essay on the teachings of my favorite philosopher. I chose George Carlin. I got an A. In college, I did it again. Another A. It was then that I realized that comedy can be almost entirely boiled down to two concepts. Exaggeration, and the unexpected.
Exaggeration is easy. If you’ve ever told a joke, you probably used this one. “Your mother is rather portly” in and of itself isn’t funny. “Yo mama so fat she jumped in the air and got stuck,” aside from being adorably Ebonic in phrasing, is at least somewhat funny. Why? Because of exaggeration. Exaggerating stupidity, stereotypes, and stereotypical stupidity is the driving force behind 90% of humor. The key to using this properly is exaggerating the right thing. In the “Your mother is fat” category, you would be better served exaggerating the fat part than, say, the mother part. “Your fat mother is so maternal that she made you a hot breakfast before school every day and knitted you that sweater” just doesn’t rate too high on the haha scale. Worse, an offshoot of Exaggeration is repetition, which is even more difficult to pull off well, as Family Guy has illustrated time and again… and again. I am reminded of a time I was playing an online game and, owing to inept flying, I killed much of my team. One particular member, a stranger plucked from the idiot cluster that is XBOX Live just to fill out a foursome, proceeded to remark that they should never let me fly again. Ever. Ever. He began to repeat the word “ever” for the next three or four minutes, at which time we finally decided to kick him. It is one of the many times I have wished that kicking someone was more literal.
The unexpected is a smidgen more difficult to get a handle on. It can probably best be summarized by the “comedy triple.” In this structure, you list a mundane, unremarkable item, then a second, similar item to establish a pattern. This creates an expectation in the listener. You then defy that expectation with the third element. “Date rape can happen with anyone, be they friend, coworker, or batman.” You can get away with the comedy double, or even the comedy single, as long as there exists an expectation. “Achoo!” “Mexicans!” If you don’t set an expectation then you are just being random, which can be funny… sometimes. Frankly, most of the people who hate Monty Python hate them because of their tendency to degenerate into raw randomness. A more difficult but ultimately very fruitful alternative is to carefully phrase something such that something else is part of an unexpected pattern. More of an abstract concept, maybe, but try adding “in bed” to the end of your next fortune cookie fortune and I think you’ll get the point. My personal favorite? “You are the master of every situation… in bed.” Classic.
There are other things that are funny, and while you can usually trace them back to the big two, a few bear mention as separate entities. Schadenfreude is an old German word that means “LOL Sucks to be you!” This is what makes us laugh at people getting hit in the balls, slipping on banana peels, and otherwise suffering pain, shame, or misfortune. This is funny… well, because it isn’t happening to us. Our brain says, “That could have happened to us and it didn’t! Woohoo!!!” and presses the “joy” button. America’s Funniest Home Videos owes its success to this type of humor. Then there’s observational humor. As near as I can figure, this hinges on us suddenly realizing how random and unexpected we are actually being. Sort of a switcheroo on the unexpected style of comedy, where rather than tossing in something to break a pattern, you illustrate how idiotic the pattern itself is. “Hey, yeah… why DO we park on driveways and drive on parkways…” In the words of Carlin, observational comedy is “reminding you of things that you already know, but forgot to laugh at the first time.” Pepper it liberally with exaggeration and you’ve got a laugh riot.
As illustrated above, comedy seems like it is pretty easy, but it can go wrong. Very wrong. For example. Picture a dumb jock. He doesn’t understand comedy one bit, so he keeps his mouth shut so no one figures how how dumb he is. Now along comes a nerd. He thinks he’s on to something. He saw a show where this particular phrase got huge laughs. He waits for an opening.
Random Crowd Member: Yeah, so it was a lot smaller than I expected.
Nerd: THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID!
Slowly he realizes he may, perhaps, have suggested he has a small penis. The jock isn’t quite so slow. Now THIS is comedy he understands. He starts mocking the intrepid little nerd relentlessly, and the crowd erupts in a torrent of schadenfreude. The nerd is humiliated, the jock is adored, and the vicious cycle repeats.
Well, as I stand here with comedy’s still beating heart in my fist, I hope its death will not be in vain. The next time you find something funny, try to figure out why it is funny. Once you do that, you can replicate the laughs without necessarily imitating the the words. You will be funny, you will be fun to be around, and no one will think you have a small penis. Until you show it to them. And as for you people who read that little vignette up there and thought, “Oh my god, that’s me!” Well, I hope you learned something today. For those who read it and said, “Oh my god, that’s you!” I say, SCREW YOU! I’m not the jock, the nerd, OR all of the other reindeer who used to laugh and call him names. I’m one of the pathetic unmentioned fourth group, the guy who watched that happen and said, “Doyeeeeeee, I’m gonna write an essay on the Internet about that. THAT will make me cool.” Duh.