If you’re anyone who has ever wanted to be witty—writer, preacher, teacher, politician or panhandler (sorry about the redundancy)—this article will help.
Or I’ll refund every penny you’ve paid!
My first career was about funny. I spent 10+ years in sketch comedy (Isaac Air Freight, Mitch & Allen, National Lampoon Players). But even after 22 albums and 7 videos, I had no concrete theories about why funny was funny. Natural comedians start by doing “research” as class clowns. By the time they’re adults, they’ve developed a sophisticated but unconscious expertise. When asked how to be funny, they often give weirdly subjective answers (“use the word ‘weasel’ as often as possible”). So when I started teaching writing and public speaking classes, and students began to ask how to “funny up” their material, I started researching the nature of humor. And now “for less than the cost of a pack of cigarettes a day” you can reap the benefits of my research! And not die of cancer.
“I don’t get no respect” was Rodney Dangerfield’s signature line. But it’s also humor’s. Humor has never gotten the respect it deserves. The ancient Greeks performed tragedies at prestigious festivals, making heroes out of playwrights…and, oh, yeah, there were comedies too. We see drama as “real life,” but humor as escape from real life, and therefore as less important (only 5 comedies versus 80 dramas have won the Academy Award). But humor isn’t simply escape, it’s an escape valve, a way of coping. There’s a reason the Greeks performed comedies between tragedies, thus originating the idea of “comedy relief.” Psychologists say that those who laugh often live longer. Heck, the writer of Proverbs figured that out 2,500 years earlier: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” (Proverbs 17:22).
So what makes funny funny, and how does it help us cope? One word: truth. The best comedy, just like its handsome, dashing leading-man brother, drama, is rooted in truth. Good drama rings true, good comedy tweaks true. In doing so, both reveal the trueness of truth. But how? By giving us insight into the big and little crises of life. E.g.:
Drama: A woman who feels like a failure tries to put on her lipstick, telling herself that she’s attractive, worthy, but then, hating the way she looks, takes out a bottle of prescription pills. “Don’t!” we shout, recognizing her loss of perspective, her obsession with the small but symbolic act of getting her lipstick right. We hope she’ll find a way out of this tailspin because, as readers or watchers, we are taking the journey with her.
Comedy: A woman who feels like a failure tries to put on her lipstick, telling herself that she’s attractive, worthy, and then, lo and behold, succeeds in getting it perfect! She starts out of the bathroom only to discover she has applied her lipstick to the mirror. Absurd, yes. Pointless, no. The absurdity is a metaphor for how we allow symbols to take on too much meaning, to take away our perspective. We’re still on this journey with her. But now, with a little perspective, we can step back and laugh–at her and at ourselves.
OK, so funny helps us cope and funny is rooted in truth. Thanks for the lecture, Professor Teemley, but how do we make funny? We’ll talk about the Four Key Elements of Humor in Part Two.
And it won’t cost you a penny more than you’ve already paid!