Are You as Funny as You Think You Are?

Not everything is equally amusing in the comedy writers' room.

Posted Dec 10, 2011

Tim & Annette/FreeImages
Source: Tim & Annette/FreeImages

What's humor for? How does it happen? And when you get right down to it, what's so funny?

An unusual book offers a practical, pop-culture approach to humor. Containing about two dozen interviews with sit-com writers, Show Me the Funny!: At the Writers' Table with Hollywood's Top Comedy Writers is edited by Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis.

FUNNY TV

Show Me the Funny! is unlike most interview books (or any I've ever read). The author/editors provided each of the interviewees with a comedy premise and set them free, right then and there, to develop it. Rather than asking the usual "how do you write," the comic writers were asked to show how they create comic situations.

The premise involves a single working woman with relationship difficulties, whose recently widowed mother comes to live with her. As a skeletal premise, there's nothing especially funny about it. (And you may feel it echoes some not-so-funny sitcoms you've watched or heard about.) But these successful comedy writers use it as jumping off place for creativity.

Short video excerpts of each writer have been posted online to enrich the written interviews. You'll also find some additional interviews that weren't in the book.

I can't do it, but I know some funny people who have a rare ability to improvise cleverly and quickly for a small and appreciative audience of friends. It's definitely a special talent.The ones in the book have made a good living out of doing it around a writers' table.

Whether or not you intend to try out for that writers' room yourself, these interviews offer a look at how television shows get made, how ideas are fleshed out around the table. For example, David Breckman, whose writing and executive producing credits include Monk and Saturday Night Live, explains the process. Once Andy (who created Monk) approves a story, then

We typically spend five or six workdays outlining these stories, and putting note cards up. It's five cards per act. Four acts, roughly twenty sequences. And you've got to bring the funny, but you've got to also bring the heart, although heart is a word I despise when it's bandied around writers' rooms and executives' offices because there's something almost calculated about it. "Where's the heart?" If you have to impose it like that, if it's artificial... you're talking about an artificial heart.

Ed Dector, whose credits include There's Something About Mary, The Santa Clause 2 & 3, and The Closer, among others, talks about how the networks want the writers to target a certain young audience. They have to think like comedy writers and, at the same time, marketing strategists. "So all that fear and business stuff creeps into what you need to do for a pilot. Your show doesn't exist without it."

An interesting insight offered by the editors of the book was that, generally, the writers began with neither character nor story. They began with conflict. Of course, character and story are what create the conflict.

Some writers, note the editors, don't like modern writers' rooms as they are too much like creating by committee. Others love working collaboratively, though no one wants his joke to be credited to someone else.

NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Consider another book one that tackles humor from many angles, both amusingly and with academic rigor. For the jokes alone, it's worth reading Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, by Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett, and Reginald B. Adams, Jr. (The MIT Press).

Some of the quoted jokes are old, some not as widely disseminated, most smile-worthy, a few clinkers. But the latter are acknowledged as falling flat, and are discussed, like the successful examples, in terms of the many theories of humor. 

Some I especially liked:

Man is the only animal that chews its ice cubes.

What has two legs and bleeds?
Half a dog.

Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die. (Mel Brooks)

I celebrated Thanksgiving the old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house and we had an enormous feast, and then I killed then and took their land. (Jon Stewart)

Unlike some other academic books, this one isn't a compilation of disparate research studies. Rather, it's a cohesive whole written, for the most part, in intelligent but not jargony academic language. It's plenty thorough, with sections on the phenomenology of humor, a brief history of humor theories, the role of emotion, higher-order humor, bad jokes and nonjokes, and more.

Its very comprehensiveness keeps me from trying to reduce it to nuggets of info. But next time I laugh, I suspect I'll be meta-laughing too.

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry, author of the intermittently darkly funny novel Kylie's Heel

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