Sunday, May 18, 2008

Comedy and Karma

Human beings are social creatures, and that means we have in-built mechanisms that protect and nurture society. We have a sense of fairness, and we're usually kind and generous. We also are capable of empathy--we can look at another human being and see ourselves there, or at least see what we might have been had we lived that other person's life.

When a writer creates a story, that writer must establish the reader's empathy with the protagonist. If the audience doesn't connect via their hearts to the hero, they can't sustain the energy required to keep reading the book.

So you always want to go groping after reader empathy, right? That's always a good thing to get? Not always, actually; there's one important exception.

If you're writing comedy, reader empathy can be a bad thing. No one laughs if they believe someone innocent really got hurt.

The film A Fish Called Wanda has a scene where a concrete block falls on and kills a small, yappy dog. The director filmed two versions of that scene, one where you see a lone paw twitching under the massive block, and another where you see the same thing except with blood and guts leaking out. When the movie was shown to test audiences, the “clean” version got laughs. The gory version made the audience go utterly silent. “Poor doggie” was the wrong response, so the tidier death is the one featured in the finished movie.

Humour is very often about rage and pain. Think about Dennis Miller's routines--the guy is furious and he's verbally attacking everything that makes him angry. Now think about John Cleese's skits, many of which investigate all the myriad, humiliating ways in which life hurts. No wonder comedy is tricky; you have to take anger and turn it into someone else's laughter. You have to depict pain and evoke derision, not sympathy. People are basically nice, so this isn't easy.

If you want your readers to laugh, you have to communicate that the comedy didn't really hurt anyone who counts.

“[D]idn't really hurt” means it's fine to drop the loveable protagonist into the piranha tank if she comes out with only a single fish attached to her nose. It's okay for the hero to get frothing mad if he externalizes his anger and goes on an absurd attack; the reader knows he isn't going to have lasting psychological damage from his anger.

“[A]nyone who counts” means if the villain is so nasty we think he deserved his pain, we don't feel bad about giggling at his grisly downfall. If the person who blundered into the wedding cake and came up slathered in icing with a small groom sticking out of her ear is so ridiculous that we have no empathy for her, then we'll happily guffaw at her humiliation.

Which brings me back to humanity's innate sense of fairness. Jim Butcher's excellent articles on writing note that the key to delivering a satisfying conclusion to the reader is to deliver poetic justice to your characters. Those who make selfish or stupid decisions are punished. Those who make wise and selfless decisions are rewarded. Humans really are built to believe in justice, and we love to see stories where our sense of what is right is upheld. We like seeing karma in action.

So when you write comedy, think carefully about how much audience empathy each character has, then deliver no more misery than what the audience believes that character deserves. If you don't provide poetic justice, then no matter how wonderful the rest of your story was, the reader puts your book down with the nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right. It can kill the positive word-of-mouth your writing might have elicited from that reader otherwise.


How have you handled humour in your writing? In your stories, what got the laughs? Did you show ridiculous behaviour, or did you skewer ridiculous behaviour? Did you let the reader recognize something familiar but funny, or did you show them the familiar and then twist all their perceptions, i.e. deliver the equivalent of a punchline? What humour techniques work for you?


Mom In Scrubs said...

Since about the only comedy I write is stories about personal experience, I've never really had to think about this. It makes total sense though, and shows what an art there is to comedy writing. The best make it seem so effortless!

Stephen Parrish said...

Don't forget: anniversary tribute to Miss Snark on Pat Wood's Blog starting May 20th.

Ello said...

comedy writing is definitely not for everyone. Even in writing, it's about timing and placement. I've seen funny ideas sucked dry of all humor by a writer's shoddy execution and I've read pieces where the subtle wry humor has me rolling on the floor. ANd you have to be careful on overkill, like the dog story. The guts was overkill. Same in stories, there is a point where you go too far and it becomes no longer funny. Too much detail, one too many insults, etc. I love comedy but it's not easy, but when it works it garners the best reaactions.

McKoala said...

it's fine to drop the loveable protagonist into the piranha tank if she comes out with only a single fish attached to her nose.

And leaves no scars, of course. Or, unless it's a comedy scar in the shape of something embarrassing. And she's still pretty.

Any comedy in my writing is usually in the words of the characters. What's happening is seldom funny, although I do sometimes play around with misunderstandings.

writtenwyrdd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Travis Erwin said...

I am nearly finshed wiht a humor novel and it has been much harder that I ever thought. I guess the jury is still out on how well I've done my job since I have yet to begin querying.

Merry Monteleone said...

Like McKoala, my humor tends to come out in the dialogue... so it's not really me that's funny, it's my characters.

But I do agree with you, if you push it too far, it's going to upset the audience rather than amuse them... but it also depends on your audience... I tend to like black humor but occasionally the things that make me laugh wouldn't amuse polite society.

Bernita said...

Small absurdities, I suppose.
I don't strive for it.

ChrisEldin said...

Hi JJ,
Sorry this is unrelated to your post, and even sorrier because this is my first time here....

But I wanted to know if I could add your name to an email group that I have. I use it for announcing upcoming "Author's Weeks" on my blog, and that's the only purpose I use it for. The announcements are sent as a BCC so nobody can see anyone else's email address.

If I may do this, could you drop me a line?


If not, that's okay too!

ChrisEldin said...

Okay! So your post is about humour!

That's all I write. I will never win the Newbery because those books make you cry.

I don't like to use scatalogical humor (although Ello's stuff is an exception!!). I think you have to have been beaten up a little bit in life to have a sense of humor about things. This is just my opinion of course. What I'm saying is, if anyone wants to ramp up their humor, I'm willing to beat you up. For free.

writtenwyrdd said...

Humor is harder than regular 'straight' writing. But the need for empathy runs throughout.

Sarf's Travels. said...

Hey sis, good blog post.

Lisa said...

I just trailed you here from a comment you left elsewhere. This is a great post. I don't incorporate much humor into my own writing and when I do, it's usually one character's self-deprecating views or banter between two characters. I find humor a very difficult thing to do well. I don't care much to read work that's cynicism disguised as humor and meanness just turns me off entirely. Glad I found you. You've got some great posts here.

jjdebenedictis said...

Mom in Scrubs: Comedy seems an innate skill. The more you analyse something, the less funny it seems, so the best comedians are the ones who just instinctively know how to do it.

Ello: You do humour so well! I actually thought of your blog stories several times while I was writing this, and kept wondering how I could weave in a reference to one of them. In the end, I just used made-up examples, but I definitely had you in mind as a good role model for humour writers!

...although I do sometimes play around with misunderstandings.

Those can be fun! It's great when the characters are merely confused, while the reader is laughing his/her head off because they can see the big picture.

Travis: I'm certain Plundered Booty will be hilarious, just because your blog always gets me laughing! You do humour extremely well.

Merry: I like dark humour also, but I know I've got a line, and when it gets crossed, I not only stop laughing, I start frowning.

Bernita: Some stories, and types of story, just don't lend themselves to humour. It depends on the mood you're striving for, also.

Chris Eldin: If I ever need to get beaten up for my art, I promise to call you! (And by the way, that picture of a rhino in a thong that you use for your user pic makes me giggle every time I see it. :-D)

Writtenwyrdd: I think you're correct, but I also do think the writer has to think harder about which characters they've established reader-empathy with when they're aiming for laughs.

Sarf: *waves* Hey, bro! Good to see you here!

Lisa: *waves more* Hi and welcome! I think what's funny depends sensitively on who the reader is, too. I like a bit of snark, but as you say, it can be too much.

I remember being quite put off by a sitcom that had one character who was consistently, and for no apparent reason, insulted by all the other characters. Then someone who watched the show regularly explained that character had been quite villainous at the beginning of the series. In other words, the show's writers were continuing to use that character as a whipping post without showing why it was "justified" anymore, and so to a new viewer, the nastiness didn't make any sense. To long-term viewers, however, it did.

stephe said...

I am terrified to try comedy and always will be, and admire those who do. That's one tough horse to ride.

Reader empathy being a bad thing where comedy is concerned... I've never thought of that. Makes perfect sense, though, the way you explain it. Thanks!

john g said...

I agree there is a limit to where viewers will find something funny if you can see someone is really getting hurt. It's all got to be balanced, but it's knowing the limit that takes experience through trial and error

jjdebenedictis said...

Stephe: I only try to be funny if it comes spontaneously, because otherwise I'll just overthink the situation until it's not funny. As you say, it's a tough horse to ride--and I'm willing to stick to the tame pony at the petting zoo!

John: *waves* Hi and welcome!

I remember a fellow once describing an indie cartoon he'd watched that had offended him even though he wasn't an easy person to offend. His comment was, "I wasn't aware I had a line, until they crossed it."

What makes comedy really tricky is that everyone's line is in a different location. As you say, it takes experience, and trial and error, but even then, there's always the possibility your jokes will fall flat if you've got a different audience than the one you thought you'd have.

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