As a super villain might say to the protagonist, “We are very much alike, you and I.” (The bad guy—usually flaunting a British accent—always has to tack on that ‘you and I’ as if it weren’t obvious already). But if it’s a good story, that statement is usually true because that’s part of what makes it a compelling yarn: The hero and antagonists are from similar backgrounds, the latter choosing to use his or her abilities selfishly. Such is but one of the thousands of techniques a storyteller must know to entertain a reader. When I fiddle with humor, the super villain’s maxim rings in my ear because, as I give it my all to make you laugh, I realize that there’s a lot going on behind a simple joke just like the inner-workings of a plot.
For instance, if you’ve been scribbling for any time at all, my author friends, no doubt you’ve been taught to answer these questions when starting a story usually in the first paragraph: Whose head am I in? Where am I? And what’s about to change? By addressing these prompts, the book will be more engaging immediately and that’s important when a potential reader knows little about the title and is trying to decide whether to get on the ride or not. In other words, hook ‘em. Well, just like that my comedian friends are taught to GET TO THE FUNNY. Don’t take a mike and blather on about yourself without at least saying something that is meant for a laugh in the first 10 seconds. If you think ‘a funny thing happened to me today’ is the way to tickle the crowd’s funny bone, you better wear a cheap shirt because you’re going to sweat your ass off when your boring life bombs up in front of the pack.
It astounds me. The most common problem I see with amateurs is they’re so full of themselves, they forget that they’re actually servants. Yep. Servants. They want to get paid to be entertainers. Customers are only going to pay for what they want. Amateur comedians and writers are so broken, so in need of approval and love, they forget to ask: what would my customers love? I used to sit in critique groups and try to tough down a hack’s boring story. When we gave so many of them constructive, courteous feedback, they’d reject it. It’s almost as if they were bursting to say, “I’M NOT GOING TO PLAY WITH YOU ANYMORE!” The conundrum to me was: If they just want to write for their own satisfaction, then why the hell are they joining a club to learn how to craft a book for commercial submission? They must have thought: I'm so amazing they're going to worship me and call their industry contacts to gloat about this unfound author!
But there's a lot of work before you get there. This leads me to the great Robin Williams. Watch him and his comedy seems effortless. Seems. It's not easy. Sure, he was gifted, but Robin employed the comedy technique to the T. Lest we forget, the master improviser studied Drama at Julliard. He originally wanted to be an actor. Comedy, one of his natural inclinations, came as a path to stardom. John Houseman (The Paper Chase) was one of Robin’s mentors. Anyway, one can see Robin’s formal theater training when he launches into voices. Countless hours of practice preceded those gags that looked breezy. Also, most bits have these element: Attitude, topic, setup, literary device, and act out. Robin always executed his jokes precisely to the technique.
Attitude: The comedian takes the subject and applies one of these attitudes to it: Hard, scary, stupid, or weird. The attitude can be implied, but is often times stated outright.
Topic: It could be relationships, politics, religion (all commonly used), or cars, astronomy, whatever.
Setup: A statement that’s NOT humorous, meant to inform the audience what the joke is specifically going to exploit.
Literary Device: a simile, metaphor, or some clever play of words to look at the setup differently.
Act Out: Pretending to be a character with physical movement and or saying something.
Here’s one of Robin’s jokes (keep in mind it was performed in the 80s):
“Piercing is weird. I come from San Francisco where there are a lot of people into body piercing. They got to where they look like they’ve been mugged by a staple gun. Fifteen earrings here, a little towel rack there.”
I won’t belabor you with pointing out all the initial build up—most of it is obvious—but the gag is a simile or literary device (LIKE they’ve been mugged), and can’t you see him pointing at his ears and body for the imaginary piercings, using one of his thousands of voices? That’s the act out.
There’s discipline behind any art or performance that isn’t readily noticeable by the masses. If you don’t know these and you’re wanting to make a living in entertainment, and you think you're already great, try some humble pie. Learn your craft.
Another similarity. As writers, we are taught to watch word repetition. The best comics are mindful of this as well. When I go to an open mike, an obvious amateur will beat certain words to death. Profanity is common. I don’t find profanity offensive, but what the hacks don’t understand is if you lean on the F bomb in every sentence, it actually bores the audience just like using ‘was’ too much in a manuscript bores a reader.
George Carlin, one of the filthiest stand ups of all time, of course flung the dirty words around. What most people don’t know is he loved language. When he used profanity, it was always ALWAYS for effect, most of the time when he was performing an act out. George pained over every word he put in a routine and polished them for optimal laughter. If it didn’t work, he cut it. Yes, he edited just like any well-rounded author should do. Less is more.
There are lots more similarities between comedy and fiction. My next observations will be in the actual industry; who you know, average time it takes to become a pro, getting paid (Now that’s hilarious!), and more on the lovely subject of arrogance.
Evado Tsug (Gusto Dave backwards)