Why Funny Matters
Whether you’re a writer, teacher, politician or mortician, this three-part series will help you be wittier–or I’ll refund every penny you’ve paid!
My first career was about funny. I spent 13+ 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. 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 give weird, subjective answers like, “Use the word ‘weasel’ whenever possible.”
So, when I started teaching writing and public speaking, and students began asking how to “funny up” their material, I decided to do some research. (Always make a point of learning a subject after you’ve been hired to teach it). 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.
Funny matters: “I don’t get no respect” is humor’s motto (Rodney Dangerfield). Humor has never gotten the respect it deserves. The ancient Greeks created huge festivals to stage tragic dramas, slipping short comedies in between them as “comedy relief.” We tend to see drama as “real life, ” but humor as mere escape, and therefore less important (83% of the Academy Awards go to dramas). But humor isn’t simply escape, it’s an escape valve, a way of coping. Psychologists say those who laugh live longer. So does a much older source of wisdom: “A merry heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22).
So what makes funny funny, and how does it help us cope? In a word: truth. Yes, good drama rings true, but so does good comedy. How? By tweaking truth’s nose.
In a drama, a distraught woman tries and fails to get her lipstick right, hating the face she sees in the mirror. She takes out a bottle of pills… “No!” we shout, recognizing her shattered sense of self. We pray she’ll find a way out, because as readers or watchers we’re taking the journey with her (dramatic catharsis).
In a comedy, the distraught woman puts on her lipstick–and gets it perfect! But then, as she’s leaving, we realize she has actually applied her lipstick to the mirror! Absurd? Yes. Pointless? No. It’s metaphor for how we let superficial things steal our identity. We take a step back and laugh–at her and at ourselves (comedic catharsis).
Yeah, yeah, so much for theory, Professor Teemley, but what about How to be Funny? We’ll talk about that in Four Key Elements of Humor. Class dismissed.
Don’t slip on the banana peel on your way out.