Saturday, September 26, 2009

Comedy: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

Please join me in welcoming the very cool, very funny, very fabulous Lucy Woodhull to our humble blog. Take it away, Lucy...

I feel terribly humbled to be blogging on behalf of Gemma today, like a rookie who is batting in the majors for the first time! If I can get through the post without being whalloped in the head by a fast ball, so much the better. And so endeth the baseball metaphors.

When I said to myself, "Self, whatsoever shall I blog about?" And Self replied, "Verily, Lucy, write what thou knowest." (Apparently when I speak to myself it sounds like Peter O'Toole.) I am a comical girl, not a tragical one, so I shall expound upon a subject near and dear to my heart: the funny, as it relates to writing. A lot of us find humor innately, but I think it's incredibly helpful to study why something works the way it does. Because I am a nerd.

I come from an acting background. The first time I was taught, formally, about humor was in a comedy-specific acting class. That was when I learned one of the basics of humor: incongruity.

Incongruous: adjective
1. out of keeping or place; inappropriate; unbecoming: an incongruous effect; incongruous behavior.
2. inconsistent: actions that were incongruous with their professed principles.

Basically: behavior that is unexpected, opposite, inconsistent.

Here is a perfect representation of incongruous humor - a still from Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles:

Our hero Bart the Sheriff rides through the sage brush in this Western movie parody, the music swelling in the background to thrilling effect! Then, he passes Count Basie and his orchestra… who are actually sitting in the desert, playing his soundtrack live. Classic and silly and perfect. That is incongruous humor. Brooks is a pro at it; so is Monty Python.

How can you apply this to your writing to make it new and fresh? By defying expectations. Say your hero is desperately trying to impress his beautiful, proper, demure paramour. He wines her, he dines her, he blows an entire paycheck attempting to impress her because she is the hoitest toit in town. During dinner, through which the hero sweats buckets, she accidentally dribbles salad dressing on her thousand dollar silk dress... and proceeds to cuss like a drunken sailor, scream banshee-style at the wait staff, and destroy the restaurant’s prized collection of risqué antique bar glass. Incongruous, and, potentially, awesome. It's all about setting up an expectation then destroying it utterly.

In my comedy class, one of our assignments was to create a Commedia Del Arte character. I became Yoplait, a silly French maid who would continually get English words wrong in a ludicrous accent. My improvised scene might go something like this:

Il Capitano: Yoplait, silly girl! Where is my butler?
Yoplait: Oh, yez, Le Capitain! He eez in your... what is zee word? He eez in your wife! No, zat's not eet. He eez in your woom! No, I make miztake... he eez een your wife's woom! Yez!

1) First, Yoplait tells the captain the butler is in his wife. Wink wink.

2) Then she tells him the butler is in his "room" (it sounds like "womb" with the terrible accent) but the captain interprets it as his own bedroom. It sounds as if Yoplait has corrected herself and she never meant anything dirty in the first place.
3) Then she tells him, no, his butler really IS in his wife's womb, except this time it's a double entendre, meaning a) his wife's bedroom and b) her womb.

This is another of my favorite tricks - the threes. 1,2 are the setup - 3 is the punch line. But basically it's incongruity rearing its silly head - building an scenario then turning the tables.

I do this 1, 2, 3 a lot - here's an example from my rom-com sci-fi novella* Ragnar and Juliet:

“The more time that passed, the lower Juliet’s stomach dropped into her dirty feet. To know that, at midnight, she would no longer be in control of her own mind was the most horrifying thing that had ever befallen her, and that included battles with ex-boyfriends, battles with evil aliens, and the last season of Battle of the Network Stars.”

1 is bad, 2 is worse, 3 is a catastrophically bad show full of reality TV stars! A fate worse than death, that.

*I especially enjoy sci-fi for comedy. From Star Trek to comic books it has a wonderful history of poking fun at itself.

Sometimes you must break the rules to get the comedy done. For example, the rule that you're never allowed to repeat words. If I substituted "fights" and "conflicts" for two of the three uses of the word "battles" above, the joke is ruined.

Another thing to consider in a rom-com: running themes/ jokes. You can establish a theme for laughs just as you can establish one for emotion or any of the other great building blocks of romance writing. And every time you wield it, your reader will not only get a chuckle, but feel happy that they "got it."

The pinnacle of running joke-dom was the late, lamented (but soon to be a movie!) TV show Arrested Development. If you want a Comedy 101 class, please rent these DVDs. One of the best was the "I've made a huge mistake" joke, wielded by just about every character at the perfect time when they realized they have contributed to their own downfall. For example:

Steve Holt: I've made a huge mistake.
Gob: I know the feeling. I had you. I'm your father, Steve Holt. I can't hide from it any more.
Steve Holt: I won't forget this... Dad.
Gob: [swallows roofie] I will. I will.

One of the best parts of this joke was that we, as the audience, know way before the character that they are doomed (so to speak). The validation of the character coming to realize what we already understood is very satisfying. A comedy version of the Ah-HA! moment.

Elizabeth Peters does the running joke to wonderful effect in her Amelia Peabody books: “Another shirt ruined!” cries Amelia every time her husband’s shirt is destroyed by an errant mummy or an evil Egyptologist. Bad enough Emerson almost gets killed – but his wardrobe suffers most grievously, too.

Now, lest you think that comedy is a terrible thing only good for witty banter and writers who can’t “write serious”… well, that’s poppycock! Comedy is a fantastic way to make social commentary without being heavy handed. I used Blazing Saddles as an example above – the movie, which is very silly, is about the terrible plague of racism.

In my parody Love’s Bountiful Bulge (in edits now, co-written with Fellatia Langley) we use comedy a lot to play up social ills, such as equality…

(A male character says) “Her virginity, and therefore her entire worth as a person, is in peril! Well, I mean if women were people, which they’re not, but you know what I mean.”

Obviously we mean “sexism is totes bad, yo”, but there are better, more fun ways to say it.

Even when you’re not going for a belly laugh, turning the tables on the reader makes for a fun and lively read. Comedy is your friend in more ways than one!

What are your tricks for bringing the LULZ?

~Lucy Woodhull

Lucy Woodhull has a background as an actress and producer as well as writer. She loves to laugh and to make others laugh, especially at her own expense. Red lipstick and vintage clothing are amongst her favorite things, as well as a shameful enjoyment of the teenage angst show Gossip Girl. Her favorite non-shameful authors include Elizabeth Peters, Anne Perry and Alexander McCall Smith. In her spare time Lucy enjoys out-punning her friends and inspiring her wonderful husband to call her “weird”. She owns a cat. A very fat, rather bitchy, cat.

She is finishing edits, together with her writing partner Fellatia Langley, on her first complete novel, a romance parody called Love’s Bountiful Bulge. Recently she completed a sci-fi rom com novella, Ragnar and Juliet, which she would love to sell you. Learn more at or her blog,


Inez Kelley said...

Comedy is hard, make no mistakes about that. But it looks like you have your feet firmly entrenched. Great post!

Flicka Holt said...

Comedy is one of those things that, when done right, looks absolutely effortless and I-could-do-that but which in fact requires a lot of deep thought and hard work.

About incongruity being funny - I once heard John Cleese say that having a character act mad isn't very funny. Add one sane person watching the crazy person act out and suddenly it's hilarious. Sort of the same thing, IMO. Serves to underline the incongruity.

Trisha said...

I don't get it.

NONONO, I'm just kidding! I do get it. I think.

NONONO!! I do! Get it, I mean. I wasn't, you know, agreeing to marry anybody or anything. I happen to already be married, and he loves me despite my constant splitting of infinitives. Almost as much as I love Lucy. Wait, someone's already used that line. Ummm, OK, almost as much as I love Miz Woodhull. There.

Anonymous said...

Lucy is a very funny lady! Thanks for the comedy lessons!

Lucy Woodhull said...

@Flicka - Yes, so true. This is Jim and Pam's function on The Office. They are the everypeople there to raise the eyebrow at Michael.

Fellatia Langley said...

Are you sure that comedy is not one of the Seven Deadly Sins, like adverbs and the passive voice?

Anonymous said...

Knock knock.

Jackie Sanders said...

i ve found this very attractive... i guess those where sexy costumess...