S2_E27. Writing Funny
For the past few weeks, we've been talking about how to use visual cues to enhance the meaning of your story. Today we launch a new series that explores the tools and principles associated with writing comedy, which is another avenue available for us in order to convey deeper levels of meaning to our audience. But to explore this topic, we need to get beyond our own preconceptions. Christians tend to assume either A.) comedy is less than, or less important than drama, or B.) Comedy is dangerous and should be avoided. But comedy is not the opposite of serious; it's the opposite of despair.
In the opening session of this series on comedy, Zena explores the importance of humor in God's creative design, and ponders why He gave us this gift in the first place. She also lays a foundation for some of the key principles we need to keep in mind as we dive deep into this subject matter.
And here's the good news. You don't have to be funny to write funny. Humor can be taught since it has a structure. It follows certain patterns, rules, and formulas that we can emulate to construct funny stuff. So, join Zena as she unpacks the tools and principles of comedy, and explores the philosophical principles that can guide us into creating the kinds of comedic material that doesn't cause harm. , there are principles that we can learn to help us construct humor consistently. We can get really good at it if we learn what these rules are. And that's what we're going to be talking about. That's what this series is about. Zena will be teaching you some tools and principles that you can adopt and apply in order to write funny.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
S2 E27. Writing Funny: Foundational Tools and Principles for Using Humor in Story
Published March 3, 2022
INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: For the past few weeks, we've been talking about things like visual metaphors, or how to use visual cues to enhance the meaning of your story. And today, I want to change gears ever so slightly. What I want to talk about today is how to write funny. Now you might be thinking, "Slightly? It seems like a pretty big turn." But the truth is, there's something here for us to be able to convey to our audience on a deeper level.
Now, this is tricky for Christians because Christians tend to fall into one of two categories when it comes to comedy. Either A.) They think it's less than, or less important than, say, a drama, or B.) They're terrified of it because comedy is dangerous. (See? Lulu agrees.) And you know, they're not completely wrong. Comedy is dangerous, which is something we're going to continue to unpack over the course of this series as we learn certain tools and principles and rules for how to write funny.
However, I do want to dispel outright the idea that comedy is less important than writing something dramatic. Most of us try to write something dramatic. In my class at covenant college, for example, when I have my screenwriting class, and my students have to pitch their story ideas to me, it is unbelievable how the first time, it's all so heavy. I mean, it's about abortion, and same sex attraction and child sex trafficking. And these are short films that they want to write, you know? So, everybody approaches it, they go to the big, big subject right away, because somehow they think that that is where the meat is. And that's the important stuff. And they tend to think that if they're going to write something in this medium, it better be important, which means it must be dramatic. But the truth of the matter is, comedy has its own depth and power, that those that go straight for the so called dramatic thing might be missing.
For one thing, comedy is not the opposite of serious, it's the opposite of despair.
Where there is laughter, there is hope. When we can laugh in the face of a world that is clearly unjust, in the face of all sorts of evil, in the face of all sorts of hardship and suffering, we're actually shaking our fist into the universe and saying, "I will not give in to despair!" Comedy makes life palatable. Comedy makes it possible for us to live and enjoy a life that is in a fallen world. Without comedy, without laughter, this would be too much to bear, it just would be too much to bear. So I want Christians to change their ideas about comedy. I would like to see us embrace it. I would like to see us engage it on a deeper level. Because the truth is, if you can infuse comedy into your story in some way, you might have the potential to actually even address something more serious than your serious idea could without you writing melodrama.
So comedy makes it palatable for us to look deeply at ourselves. It makes it okay to be flawed. It makes it okay for us to be broken because we can laugh in the face of our foibles or our flaws, or all of those things that makes us human. We can actually laugh at that and it doesn't make it so painful to admit that, "Oh, that's me, I do that, too." Comedy allows us to look more clearly at ourselves sometimes. So it is not less than. And there are all sorts of people who would agree with me in the entertainment industry. And I have lots and lots of quotes that I could give you of people talking about the power of comedy and laughter, and humor. But I'm not going to go into all those right now. I just want to challenge you. If you're a Christian, to think a little differently about this thing called comedy. It is not something to be shunned. It's something to be embraced. It's something to be explored.
And here's the good news. You don't have to be funny to write funny. In fact, I would argue that if you're a writer, you're probably funnier after the fact than you are in the moment. And that's one of the great things about being a writer. If we weren't quick enough on our feet when that person sent an insult our way, and we couldn't think of a comeback, but then later, we're like, "Oh, dang it, I should have said that." Well, that's the great thing about being a writer, is that we can construct it later. So, I'm not very quick in the moment, a lot of times, but I sure like to write my jokes later. And boy, can they be some zingers if only I could have used them in the moment! So, the good news is, you do not have to actually be funny or think fast on your feet to be able to write comedy, or to write funny. There's a way to do it. And part of that is because humor can be taught, since it has a structure.
Humor follows certain patterns. There are rules that play into it. There are formulas, there are principles that we can learn to help us construct humor consistently. We can get really good at it if we learn what these rules are. And that's what we're going to be talking about. That's what this series is about. I'm going to be teaching you some tools and principles that you can adopt and apply in order to write funny.
Now, before I get into these principles, let me also say that I want to challenge you in two ways in the course of this series. First of all, I want to challenge you to keep an open mind.
Keep an open mind. Again, a lot of people are nervous about humor. And for good reason, which I'll get into when we start breaking down what humor is. There's a lot of dark humor out there. There's a lot of gross humor, there's a lot of potty humor, there's a lot of sex humor, there's a lot of humor that makes us uncomfortable, that makes us squirm. Right? And there's a lot of humor that we question, "Is this okay? Can we laugh at this?" And I would argue there is humor that we ought to avoid if we're trying to honor God in our storytelling. So there's a reason to be careful.
However, we also can't shut ourselves off from it altogether. We have to keep an open mind. We have to learn these things so that we can use them to our advantage. We have to explore and fulfill our creativity and let our imaginations soar. I want to encourage you to use your imagination during this series, to have fun with this, to practice, to play games with yourself, to let your imagination play.
One of the ways that you can do this as we go is you can start asking yourself some "what if" questions, what if...? I can't think of any. I had a bunch going through my head, but I couldn't think of any good ones. I mean, what if every time you walked around, there was literally a rain cloud that followed you? Every time you stepped out doors, there was a rain cloud? Or what if you suddenly grew gills? What if the moon was really made of cheese? I don't know. The idea here isn't to criticize your own ideas. It's to explore, to just give yourself free rein to encourage your imagination to come up with stuff. So "what if" ideas are often a basis or a starting point for a lot of comedy that we can develop. And so I'm going to encourage you over the course of this series to play with it, come up with some "what if" scenarios, see what happens.
The other thing I want to encourage you to do is observe. Over the course of this series, I want you to observe the world around you. The fact of the matter is comedy is always based in reality in some way. Now, it's exaggerated, but it's based in reality. So I would like to encourage you to look around, observe the world, focus on the realistic or the logical problems that come up in the various situations you find yourself. What happens when you're at the grocery store, and you're standing in line to check out your food. What do you hear? What do you see happening around you? And what might that do to a comedic situation? Where's the comedy in that? What can you come up with? You want to focus on these realistic situations, identify them because you've observed them, and then we'll try to undo them. Whatever you do, you want to allow yourself the freedom to brainstorm. Don't judge yourself. Don't be inhibited. Don't stifle yourself at this stage. We can always edit ourselves later.
Now, the other thing I want to say before we get started in this series is, I'm interested in the philosophy behind humor. I've often wondered to myself, will there be humor in heaven? Now I know that there's going to be joy, I believe there's going to be laughter. But will there be humor? Because part of humor is that it's an attack on our depravity. Part of the reason why humor exists, I believe, is that God gave it to us to be able to survive, to be able to enjoy life, in spite of all the suffering that we go through here on Earth. So I wonder, sometimes, will there be humor in heaven? And I want to explore that topic deeper. But I don't want to address that here. I want to first get into all the principles and tools about how do you even write comedy, and then use that to evaluate that question.
So in other words, we are going to explore some philosophical issues in the course of this series. And we're really going to look at what kind of humor glorifies God, if any. What would that look like? And I believe that God has a sense of humor. And that's why I think humor is absolutely open and accessible to us as human beings. We wouldn't have a sense of humor if He didn't. We were created in His image. He gave that to us. But I do believe there's a way to use our sense of humor in a way that doesn't honor Him, and in fact, damages culture and society around us. So there's got to be a good way to use humor. What are those good ways? What can we look at? How can we use it well? How can we use it wisely? So these are some of the philosophical questions we're going to get into.
Now, another thing I want to say is that you might not consider yourself a comedic writer. Maybe you have no interest at all in how to write funny. But I want to encourage you to keep an open mind about that, too. Because I really believe that comedy is not the opposite of serious, it's the opposite of despair. So if we can start infusing some comedy into our work, I think it's actually going to make our work deeper, more memorable, more valuable, more accessible, more poignant, all of those things. It's going to make it better. So even if you've never thought about comedy writing, I think this is going to be a fun series. And I want to encourage you to join me.
Okay, and the final thing, just as part of this introductory session, because I know I'm not really saying anything terribly profound yet, but one of the other things I want to say is that I'm going to steal from somebody. Now I'm not really stealing, because I'm giving them credit here. But I'm basically borrowing from a gentleman named Melvin Helitzer, who wrote a book called "Comedy Writing Secrets." And what he does is he creates an acronym that is based on these comedy principles or formulas of comedy that he believes exists, sort of like ingredients in a recipe. Now, Melvin says that the formulas of comedy can be summed up with six criteria. And he says that these essentials appear in all manner of humorous writing, whether they be one liners, or stand up comedic acts, or three act screenplays or whatever the case may be. If it's comedy, somehow these six essentials appear in the work, which is pretty amazing. They consistently appear in the work.
Now, what's really interesting is that a lot of the ideas that I have had about comedy that I wrote down and took my own notes, actually matched his even though he's coming at it from a totally different point of view. But his acronym is way better than mine. So I am going to adopt his. I will of course expand on his words with some of my ideas as we go, but I want to give him credit for this because it's really quite good. He has an acronym. And he says that these essentials, the acronym makes up the essential ingredients of comedy, that these six criteria are: Target, Hostility, Realism, Exaggeration, Emotion and Surprise, and they spell the acronym T.H.R.E.E.S. So we are going to start back here next week, and we're going to break down Melvin Helitzer's acronym.
CLOSING REMARKS: Alright, I want to thank you so much for joining me. I hope that you WILL join me on this sort of an interesting exploration of comedy, and what that means in story and how we can use it well in the Christian community or otherwise.
OUTRO: In the meantime, thank you for listening to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe and may you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.