The other night, my husband and I went out to eat at one of our local favorites, a family oriented sports bar. (We don’t really care that it’s a sports bar–it’s close by and happens to have pretty good food and we can almost always grab a booth, even on a really busy night, because they know us there.) As soon as we sat down, though, the waiter warned us that it was “Trivia Night.” We’d somehow managed to miss this phenomenon last spring semester, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect. There was the typical out-going party-hearty Young Guy (backwards baseball cap) who joked with the crowd as they were giving everyone a chance to go sign up for the game, and there was a constant mention of various drinks they had at the bar that was on special for the night. But they handed me comedy gold with the next thing…
It seems they decided to give out a free shot of JÃ¤germeister to a “much deserving” young woman whose birthday was that day. She was finally 21 and after three years of getting kicked out of the bar for drinking underage…
We just have to stop right there for a moment. Three years. Three? She is a college student, who kept going to the same bar, a place which knew her by name, and tried to drink illegally, even after they’d thrown her out before? Three years? At this point, I am expecting someone to walk up with the IQ of a garden hose. I am worried that she drives. Or votes.
…and now that she’s 21, they are going to give her a free shot. Because seriously, that’s what we want to do here, we want to take the person with the least common sense in the room and compromise the two brain cells that are still operating.
So they call her name and as soon as she walks past us, I realize why the cute young stud who was in charge wanted to give her the free shot. I happened to look at her face, which was sweet and demure and she looked as if she could be teaching Sunday School. I’m pretty sure not a single man in the place managed to glance all the way up to her face: this is a girl whose boobs were so large, they had their own gravitational pull, and there is going to come a day when she realizes that gravity is not her friend. I probably should have stopped her and thanked her for choosing “clothing” as one of her options for the evening, though we might need to discuss whether or not something see-through that is tied around things the size of Jupiter qualifies as actual clothing. I was quite impressed, however, with the symmetry of the tattoo around her left nipple. Good steady hand for that. My compliments to the artist.
Seeing her there reminded me of two different motorcyclists, probably a couple of months apart. The first was a super bad ass Harley dude. We were stopped at a red light and he pulled up even with me. Typical tats, worn biker boots, leather jacket, beard that implied that he hadn’t shaved or bathed in months. Truly, a gritty looking guy. And as the cars in front of him inched up a little, he inched up, too, and I saw something pink and red out of the corner of my eye, so I looked back at him…
And he was wearing a backpack made of red fur. RED FUR. With pink tassels. RED FUR, PINK TASSELS, people.
Last week, I was alone about three cars behind a motorcyclist who was stopped at a red light. He was in the left lane, I was in the right or I’d have never seen him. He was a relatively small guy on a big Harley, dressed in typical biker gear, though I have to confess, I didn’t look that closely. What I saw, instead, was that he had glued big plastic spikes to his helmet. Imagine the Statue of Liberty kind of pointy spikes with a wider base, pyramid-style, but arranged like a mohawk. These things were big ass spikes, too–at least ten inches, all the way from the front of the helmet to the back. Ten. Inch. Spikes. The spikes were bigger than he was. I desperately wanted to pull alongside and tell him that it’s called “overcompensation.”
Comedy is everywhere.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked (here) about how to utilize humor in your writing, and to set the stage for the actual methods, we talked a little bit about the goal and purpose of humor: to illuminate character, show the irony of the situation and to set up for something else more humorous down the line.
There are a ton of reasons why you may want to utilize humor, even if what you’re writing is a very dark story. (Unrelenting darkness can overwhelm the reader and cause them to put down the book for a respite; humor, however, can provide that respite and keep the reader reading.)
Comedy writing–the actual words on the page–depend on rhythm, pacing, style of language, imagery. Like music–staccato rhythm = fast song. Comedy has a rhythm. The set up to the joke has to pace just right, and you have to know when to stop.
But first, you need to know where to start.
There are a lot of different methods that can be used for comedy. Very few people are truly without humor–even your darkest protagonists. Even your darkest villains. You have to simply find the right kind of method to illustrate their particular kind of humor. (And when you do, it’ll add a layer to that character, a way for you to show us an element about him or her that will illustrate what matters to them, as well as their world view.)
In Bobbie Faye’s second book (Girls Just Wanna Have Guns), the opening sentence is:
Bobbie Faye Sumrall was full up on crazy, thank you very much, and had a side order of cranky to spare.
That sets the tone for the book — we know this is going to be a whacked out crazy book — and it uses exaggeration as a technique. If there’s any doubt, this paragraph follows soon after:
Bobbie Faye and the Universe were like warring spouses locked in an eternal battle, trying to blow each other up rather than admit that the other was savvier. (The Universe, by the way? A big fat cheater.)
I purposefully chose hyperbole as a voice for Bobbie Faye because I knew when I first started writing the series that there were going to be elements of the fantastical — exaggerated action scenes, huge set pieces, crazy, physics-defying moments. Those things would have floundered if Bobbie Faye herself used normal language and never resorted to exaggeration.
Here’s a short list of mechanisms I use for humor. (This isn’t an exhaustive list.)
Incongruity — if what the character gets is different than what they expect. In MEN IN BLACK, when Jay (Will Smith) is going to get the super-terrific laser from Kay (Tommy Lee Jones), he’s expecting to be handed the biggest baddest alien killing gun in the arsenal. And Kay hands him something the size of a tiny water pistol.
Rule of Three — three examples are generally a great rhythm, but you have to make sure they appear in order of least-to-best, smallest-to-largest. In other words, if you have three examples, you don’t want the best example first because the other two will then suffer by comparison and the schtick won’t be as funny. Rule of three can be seen as something spread out over the course of the story… with the third either being an exaggeration or a reversal from the other two, causing the reader to be caught by surprise. That third example generally illustrates some hidden truth.
Here’s an example of a Rule of Three in action. It’s from GALAXY QUEST (one of my favorite comedies of all time). Sir Alexander Dane is played by Alan Rickman as a classically trained “important” actor who got stuck playing this popular character on a cheesy sci/fi (a la Star Trek) TV show. Fred Kwan was once the “cute precocious kid” who “flew the ship” and is now grown up and Jason Nesmith is played by Tim Allen.
Sir Alexander Dane: I played Richard III.
Fred Kwan: Five curtain calls…
Sir Alexander Dane: There were five curtain calls. I was an actor once, damn it. Now look at me. Look at me! I won’t go out there and say that stupid line one more time.
then a minute or so later…
then a beat later, when Sir Alexander Dane won’t go on stage:
Truth — telling the fundamental truth in the moment that most people won’t admit out loud. (An example of this is in PRETTY WOMAN, when Julia Robert’s character is at the polo match, and the two snooty women point out to her that she’s just the girlfriend du jour, that everyone’s after Richard Gere’s character for his money. She says, “Really? Well I’m just here for the sex.”)
Lies — the audience has to be in on the lie and how that lie is a twist in the moment. In MEN IN BLACK, when Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are discussing the “flashy thing” that can erase a person’s memory, they have this exchange:
Situation — physical comedy that stems directly from the situation itself, and usually illustrates a truth. Using PRETTY WOMAN again, that moment in the restaurant when Julia is trying to figure out how to eat the escargot, and she has no idea, but she doesn’t want to embarrass Richard by asking. She does her best to follow the lead of the men around her, and still, as soon as she does what they’re doing successfully, the snail shoots across the room and a waiter catches it. “Slippery little sucker,” she says, covering, and they all agree. Situational comedy can run from the slapstick (Jim Carrey in many of his movies… for example, in LIAR LIAR, when he cannot tell a lie for 24 hours due to his son’s birthday wish, one of the scenes demonstrating it is him walking out of an elevator where everyone is making a horrible face, holding their nose and when he’s out, he turns around and brags, “It was meeeeee.”) But situational comedy can run all the way to the sublime, the subtle moments. I loved the humor in the moment in SENSE AND SENSIBILITIES when Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) shows up in London to visit Miss Dashwood (Emma Thompson) and has already gotten all of the way into the room before he realizes that the woman to whom he is engaged (but has not seen in a very long time), is also present. It is awkward and funny and a little heart-breaking at the same time.
Reversal of Expectations — The name says it all–the character expects one thing but gets something else entirely. In LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (a movie built on reversal of expectations), the entire family has traveled across several states in order to take the daughter to a beauty pageant that none of them really believe in, but they’re doing it to be supportive of her. They have no clue about the beauty pageant culture, and the movie is really about them coming to terms with certain truths about themselves and each other and finding a way to be a family. Once the competition has begun (and this is a SPOILER if you haven’t seen the movie), the daughter has to perform her talent for that portion of the contest. Her grandfather (who has died along the way on the trip) had been teaching her the dance, and she’s very very proud of what she’s learned. It hasn’t occurred to the mother or the dad to check to see what kind of dance the grandfather taught her…
And so, when the music starts, it’s SUPERFREAK and Olivia (who is 7) start performing an outrageous strip-tease/pole dance/slutty girl grind that is so horrifyingly cringe-worthy, and so hysterical. The other mothers are hiding their girls’ eyes and the woman in charge is very snottily trying to stop the dance and evict Olivia from the contest. But her dad runs up on stage and starts dancing and soon enough, the whole family is up there, and it’s terrible and funny at the same time. But the moment of the reversal of expectations–when that girl rips off her “tear-away” pants (I think she has gym shorts on underneath) and tosses them out to the crowd? Utterly brilliant comedy.
Okay, I’m going to stop here for this week–I have a bunch more for next week, which will be the last comedy week. I’ll have a bunch more examples of comedy mechanisms (like the above) and we’ll talk about tone (wry, black humor, ironic, dry, hyperbolic) and literary means (analogies, similes, metaphors, etc.).
For now, how about a fun game: tell me an example of humor. Any example, any movie, book or BLOG. Anywhere. And I’ll see if I can name the mechanism at work. [I’ll be checking in about lunch time.] I’ll also be really curious if anyone can name a funny moment in a darker film (any genre). And just to make this fun, all commenters are eligible for a $15 Amazon or B&N gift certificate. So getcher examples cracking!