Throughout any age in American culture, humor is the one constant. And, usually, every form of humor still translates right up until this very day. When you go back and watch romantic dramas from the 1930’s they’re strange, almost laughable in how they’ve aged but watch a Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy flick and you’ll find they still work today, no problem. Humor is our much-needed cultural constant and long as it works, it will nearly always work. But what is humor anyway?
Loss + Time
Many comedians have said that humor is their coping mechanism. That really good comedy comes from loss and tragedy plus time. It’s all about being able to find a perspective on things that have happened, to look at the “loss” through new lenses. Humor is about being able to find a way into a situation that seems almost inaccessible. Comedians like Chris Thayer and Marc Maron often deal with personal trauma in their acts. They use loss and change as their main topics of discussion. Dealing with loss by utilizing an interesting perspective on it is an intrinsically human pastime.
Subversion of Expectation
So much of comedy is about subverting expectation. Whether it’s writing a scene in which a charcter suddenly disappears or in which someone says something unexpected, establishing an expected outcome and then subverting it is the cornerstone of good comedic writing. When asked about how he structured the third act of his film Don’t Think Twice actor, comedian, director Mike Birbiglia said it was simple. The ending needed to be “surprising, yet inevitable.” Which is exactly what good comedy should be—surprising yet inevitable. A perfect example of this is one of Lenny Bruce’s best jokes, “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” It’s perfect. You don’t see where it’s going until you’re there and there’s not where else you could have gone.
Incongruence Coupled With Fact
So much of making anything funny is making everyday life extreme or the extreme everyday. It’s all about creating a simple understandable set up then turning it on its head. Or making an incredibly extreme situation instantly relatable and simple. These are the status quos that good solid comedy comes from. They provide the springboard for good stories.
Simple Unobserved Universal Truths
Jerry Seinfeld has made an entire career pointing out inane and banal things. He’s turned the phrases “have you ever noticed?” and “What’s the deal with…?” into virtual catchphrases. And with good reason. He’s the master of discovering universal truths that no one has explored in humorous ways. He’s the king of shining a light onto micro behaviors that we all enact and then questioning the motivations behind our actions. Another master of this is the late, great George Carlin. Take for instance this quote, “The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.” Okay. Maybe that’s not funny. Hee hee.
The root of most comedic moments comes from anger whether it’s righteous indignation or petty grievance. It can be something as big as the U.S. invading Iraq or as trivial as someone cutting in line. Think of our shared angers and frustrations between “us and them” and “us and us” as the the fuel that powers the comedy machine. It’s the means by which the great lumbering mechanism moves from topic to topic, collecting laughs.
Comedy is all about timing. It’s all about knowing when to let something breathe or knowing when to let things unfold rapidly. It’s all about working within the proper timeframe from the material you’re delivering. Are you making jokes on a stage? Are you filming things for a film? Or are you just delivering an observation to a friend? Comedic timing is an essential component to humor. Without it, even the best jokes and best sketches will sadly fall flat.
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