Sean McMullen|9 May 2015
Some years ago I was in the green room at a World SF convention when an organizer dashed in and asked me to chair a panel on comedy. Someone else was double booked, as I recall. I didn’t like the idea of doing something like that with no notice at all, but then I heard Terry Pratchett’s voice behind me. I turned around and called out:
“Hey Terry, want to chair a panel on comedy?”
“In about thirty seconds.”
“Oh good, let’s go.”
We set off, preparing as we walked. More and more people fell in behind Terry as we made our way to the room, all looking very eager as the word spread: Pratchett’s going to talk about comedy! It was a bit like being in a Diskworld adventure … or maybe we really were there. The panel also featured George R.R. Martin and David Langford, and it went over very well. This may sound strange coming from a panelist, but I actually learned a lot about comedy in that hour.
What makes things funny? One theory says that laughter is always at someone’s expense, but I think that’s a bit extreme. Years ago, driving in America, we passed a sign that said BEAR TO THE RIGHT, and on the right was another sign warning about forest fires – featuring a bear in a funny hat and holding a shovel. The driver laughed so much he had to stop the car. This was laughter at nobody’s expense.
So funny does not have to mean ridicule. Things can be funny because they are incongruous, or even clever. I’ve seen a motel built into an old aircraft fuselage with the wings removed. That’s funny because it’s something very obviously in the wrong place. On a recent television show about the mega-rich I saw a two million dollar watch. It was so encrusted with gemstones that it looked like a piece of tacky costume jewelry from a two dollar shop. That was also incongruity at work, but I will admit there was probably a trace of ridicule making me laugh as well.
In March 2003 Rowan Atkinson appeared on the Parkinson show. In response to Parkinson’s comment that there was a “narrow gap between tragedy and comedy”, Atkinson said “the darker, the more serious the backdrop into which you let your comedy, sometimes the brighter your little sparks of comedy are set out against it.” This was certainly the case in the fourth season of Atkinson’s Blackadder series, which was set during World War One, in the trenches of the Western Front.
In his 1992 documentary, Laughing Matters, Atkinson pointed out that the deflation of the pompous is particularly effective comedy. This is ridicule at work, but it is ridicule that the victims bring upon themselves. Lately, I have been seeing an example of this in real life.
When I go jogging at night I run along a street with a bridge over a creek – except that the bridge is currently under repair and blocked off. That doesn’t worry me, the creek is only a metre wide and there’s no water in it, but for cars it’s no go without the bridge. Every night I see at least three of four cars streak down the street, ignoring the ROAD CLOSED signs until they come up against the barriers across the road. The drivers then have to turn around and go back, often amid clouds of burning tyre rubber while referring to the people repairing the bridge as various bits of human reproductive anatomy. My fellow joggers and people walking dogs find it hilarious. I’ve even seen kids hanging out at the bridge, watching the drivers being forced to turn around, and laughing.
Apart from ridicule and incongruity, what else raises a laugh? When Oscar Wilde told the customs man he had nothing to declare but his genius, this was wit. The same applies in the Sherlock Holmes episode The Empty Hearse when Mary Morstan, referring to Sherlock’s ‘resurrection’, exclaims “Oh my God!”, and Sherlock replies “Not quite.” Some of this is incongruity at work, but mainly we are laughing at their wit. Someone is being clever, and we approve.
Sometimes wit works particularly well as comedy because it hits a sympathetic chord with the audience. When Bron asks Tyrion Lannister if Littlefinger has been stealing in an episode of Game of Thrones, Tyrion replies “Worse, he’s been borrowing.” If you have a mortgage, it’s a real challenge not to laugh at that line. If you don’t, you may just scratch your head. This is an important point. People’s taste in comedy varies considerably. I like my comedy clever, so slapstick does not do it for me, yet slapstick can have others doubled over in their seats.
So where did the members of that hastily assembled panel on comedy raise their laughs? Check the Ansible Link column in any issue of Interzone, and you will see that exposing incongruity and deflating pomposity works for David Langford. George and I tend to favour the Rowan Atkinson approach of sparkles of wit against a dark background, although we occasionally deflate pomposity as well. Terry was a keen observer of what is ridiculous and incongruous in the world around him, and while he made people laugh, it was often while making serious points about people and institutions in the real world. I do this too, but not nearly as well.
When I do workshops and courses on writing, the second most common question I get (after Where do you get your ideas?) is How can I make my writing funny? The answer is quite simple: you should not try to make comedy. Forced humour is a close relative of slapstick, slapstick is hard to do on paper, and television is already jammed solid with it. Instead, observe what the audience laughs at when you go to the movies. Better still, try looking at everything that makes you laugh (or at least shake your head) in the world around you. Our world is a funny place, all you have to do is point that out. What’s that? You think the world should be taken seriously? Remember what Terry Pratchett said on this subject: the opposite of funny is not serious.