Today I have to be funny.
Writing humor is hard, but kids (and adults) love it! I would say it’s almost a requirement in children’s books, to have at least some humor woven throughout even a serious story.
I’m no stand-up comedian, but I’ve been known to pull a laugh or two out of my kids. However, writing straight comedy is a zebra of a different stripe.
Today, I’m going to write skits for my kids’ upcoming talent show. When I was asked to do this, I said, “Sure!” knowing full well I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was doing. The kids are beyond excited, eagerly demanding roles and providing suggestions. For my part, I’ve sketched out some story lines, checked out the stage and placement of microphones, and wondered what my young talent will be capable of delivering on-stage. I knew not to underestimate them, but they still surprised me. When I provided my boys with a few Boy Scout skits, to get an idea of timing and duration of a page of written material, they were fantastically capable of delivering lines with great comedic timing.
I quietly realized there is an art to comedy, and I’m a novice at best.
Fortunately, story is at the heart of everything, and I do know something about that. And I had just finished reading Robert McKee’s Story, where he talks a bit about humor in writing, and what makes it funny.
According to McKee, there are myriad subgenres of comedy: romantic, screwball, farce, black, parody, sitcom, satire. They vary by the focus of the comic attack (bureaucratic folly to teenage courtship) and the degree of ridicule (gentle, caustic, lethal). It was fascinating to see comedy described as a vicious attack – what, did you think it was funny? The one overriding requirement, to make comedy funny and not horrific, was this: Nobody gets hurt.
No matter how much the characters may scream and wail, in the end, Wily E. Coyote always dusts himself off for another go at the Roadrunner. McKee illustrated this with an example where two versions of a scene were screened for an audience. In the scene, a piano falls on a fluffy white Persian cat. In one version, the little paw sticks out from underneath the baby grand: the audience roars. In the second, a small trail of blood leads away from the paw: the audience is deathly silent. Lesson: Don’t hurt the cat.
Confident that I already knew not to kill fluffy creatures for my K-6 skit, I was more interested in what did work. According to McKee, all drama lives in the gap created between expectation and reality, but comedy uses this unexpected change to produce that strange thing we call laughter. Where drama says that under the worst of circumstances, the human spirit soars, comedy points out that in the best of circumstances, human beings find a way to make a mess of things. So, the comedy writer goes on the hunt for an institution filled with folly and launches a vicious attack, laying bare all the hypocrisy it contains, served up in tiny morsels of funny.
I had no idea there was so much anger in comedy.
I’m off to write something funny. Wish me luck. Or possibly send condolences.