S2_E29 – The Presence and Purpose of Hostility in Comedy
This week in our series on writing funny, we're talking about the second letter in Melvin Helitzer's acronym THREES, which makes up the six primary ingredients of all comedy writing. H = Hostility, because all comedy is intrinsically hostile. Humor is meant to eradicate many of the hostile feelings we have in our daily lives. So, what are we hostile towards?
Sex, authority, financial concerns, family affairs, angst and technology, physical characteristics -- pretty much anything that makes up our normal, everyday human experiences can become fuel for hostility. Hostility is going to be there no matter what we write. The key is to allow humor to become a cathartic and cleansing experience, rather than something that feeds the deep seeds of rage and division and turmoil. Even though hostility is always going to be an inherent part of comedy, it can still be used in a healthy and constructive way.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
S2 E29. Writing Funny: The Purpose and Presence of Hostility in Comedy
Published March 17, 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 through story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: We are launched into a dynamic series on how to write comedy. We're learning comedy principles, but we're also learning some philosophy elements about comedy. When does comedy go too far? What is okay? What isn't okay? What could be glorifying to God? And what crosses a line? What should we avoid? And we're trying to explore all of this at once, even as we learn comedy tools and principles, so that we can infuse more comedy into our stories, because let's face it, comedy helps make the medicine go down. It is what makes this world palatable. There's a lot of suffering here. And boy, comedy was a gift from God given to us, so that we could live out in this world without despair, we can laugh in the face of adversity, we can raise our fist to the universe and feel like it's okay, we can still have joy, even in the midst of the suffering.
PRESENTATION: All right, so what we're doing is we are going over an acronym that was created by a man named Melvin Helitzer, who wrote a book called Comedy Writing Secrets. And we're stealing from him, we're exploring a lot of his ideas. And then we're talking about some of these things from a Christian point of view as we go. So, he has an acronym called THREES, where he breaks down six criteria of comedy. And according to Melvin, any comedy at all is infused with these six ingredients. It's just naturally a part of the structure of comedy. And that's what we're learning, we're exploring. So last week, we talked about Target, how comedy actually has a target. And that's one reason why it's so scary or potentially dangerous. And today, we're going to talk about a another potentially dangerous or scary element of comedy. And that is an element of hostility.
Hostility. Fact of the matter is that most comedy is cruel.
It isn't kind. Now, according to Melvin, he says that humor is a powerful pesticide that's meant to eradicate many of our hostile feelings in actual life, in daily life. So, it's sort of a way to air out all of our general hostilities and sort of get it out there so it's not bothering us anymore. It's sort of like cathartic, right? It gets it out, and we can laugh at it. And now we can move on. And he may be right. I do know that there is a lot of hostility in a lot of humor. So, what are some of the things that we see?
What are some of the things that we're typically hostile towards?
Well, I would argue that this is why there's a lot of sex jokes. There's a lot of hostility towards sex. In fact, sexual frustrations make up close to 50% of all humor, imagine that. 50% Of all the jokes you've probably ever heard have sex at their core, isn't that something? Now, men arguably suffer from greater sexual anxieties and societal pressures to perform, or sexual frustrations, that sort of thing. Or to be a certain size or to be a certain skill level, or whatever the case may be. There's a lot of anxiety. It also seems to be one of the things that of course drives men a lot. And so, there's that element. And so, men use their sex drive as a basis, I guess, for a lot of the humor that they tell. But it's why it's such a great source for material. Now, I'm not a big fan of a lot of this stuff. When I listen to Sirius XM, and I go to the comedy station, I just don't find that stuff very appealing. It's usually mean to a point that doesn't feel uplifting or make me feel like I'm somehow getting to make fun of myself and I'm being invited into conversation. There's just something about it that feels a little icky to me, but I think it could be done right. I just don't think a lot of the people I've listened to do it, have done it right.
So, one of the persons that I would say has sort of tackled this particular subject a little bit more humorously than others would be like Woody Allen. He has a tendency to do it in a way that doesn't feel nasty, or like... I guess part of the reason why a lot of the sex jokes don't work for me is because of the inherent anger directed towards women in the process of telling that joke. And that is what I find it because that is denigrating then a gender, a complete female part of the equation, basically targeting them and saying they're to blame, like somehow women are causing all of this strife. It sort of feeds that angst, that dissension, that anger, that hostility, that hate, that rage. And I don't think that's the purpose.
If the purpose is to sort of eradicate certain negative feelings, then it should be a cathartic experience, rather than something that stirs up resentment.
And that's the kind of joke I don't particularly like in this area. But I do think there can be some funny jokes with this particular subject matter at its basis. I'm trying to think of one... Oh, here's one that I think I can tell. For example, one thing I posted once on social media that I thought was really funny is that I had a new favorite Pickup Line, which was, "Does this rag smell like chloroform to you?"
Now, it's not totally a sex joke, but it is, it's kind of funny. It's meant to be humorous. Maybe it's offensive, I get scared telling these jokes on this format, but I'm doing it. I'm taking a risk here. So be gentle with me. But the point is, is that, to me, that's not denigrating anybody, it's sort of that self-deprecating humor even in the midst of that, but it is taking that particular subject and sort of highlighting it in a humorous way. And I think that works.
Okay. But we can also be hostile towards other things besides sex, for example, authority. We invariably ridicule upward, right? We attack those that we perceive to have better or superior power, or authority over us. We attack bosses, we attack certain institutions, you know, maybe the priesthood or some sort of Pastor jokes. We attack people that are in a position of authority, maybe cops or government officials, certainly politicians, right? We attack those people. General MacArthur's wife once asked him to convert to a religion in which he no longer believed that he was God. There's an example of that kind of a joke. So, we attack authority, we are hostile towards authority, especially those that we deem in superior authority to ourselves.
What about financial concerns? Now, while men are primarily concerned about sex issues, I find that women are often concerned about financial ones. They are much more worried about financial ones. So, for example, a joke that would target finances, a one liner, might be something like, "I've got all the money I need in the world, if I die by four o'clock." So, something like that. I mean, I'm not saying that these are good. I'm just saying, here they are. And by the way, delivery is everything. And I'm probably not delivering them very well. All right.
Another area would be family affairs. You know, family affairs, family dynamics. Boy, there are some stories in my family that we laugh and laugh about, because it's so funny. But really, we are hostile towards the dysfunction of my family, or of the family of origin. So even in telling some of those stories about my family, even though it's meant to be funny, it is hostile, because there is a clear understanding that it was wrong. This is both in terms of authority and in terms of family affairs, right?
So, for example, there's a story in our family about how I missed the bus. And as my mom was driving me to school, and I was probably nine years old or so at the time, she is driving like frickin Medusa. She's driving like a bat out of hell, right? She's just going going, she's furious. She's, Whoa, she's just so mad at me. And as she's driving, she keeps looking over at me and I'm this little girl, I know she's upset, and I'm sitting in the passenger seat. And so, she starts beating my seat. Just whack, you know, whack and all this dust is going up and floating through the air. And she's saying, "Now I understand why some mothers beat their children," which is very funny... Now. Wasn't very funny back then. And I just remember watching the dust particles because there wasn't anything I could do to promise that it would never happen again because I hadn't meant to do it in the first place. So that's part of the sadness of that. Nevertheless, it was funny. So, there is a hostility against family responsibilities and restrictions, roles, competing interests within the family. It's a goldmine of material. I'm sure if you have a colorful family of origin, you have plenty of material to work with. Woody Allen has a joke where he says, "My parents had a meaningful relationship and stayed together for 40 years. Out of love? No, out of spite." And that's very, very funny.
Okay, so the idea, then there, would be to try to find those stories in the family of origin or just the family affairs that you can target that other people can relate to, too. If you're the youngest child, I'm sure there are jokes that are specifically geared towards being the youngest. I mean, how many times do we hear stories about how the oldest had to do all these things. They had all these rules, they couldn't do this. And by the time you get to the youngest child, the youngest child is like, running around on the gymnasium, walking everywhere, like there's no supervision whatsoever, right? Like, those are the types of things. You can find jokes there.
Another area of hostility, and boy, can I relate to this one, is the area of technology. Angst over technology, angst and technology, man. Angst is an intellectual observation that fairy tales aren't true. Furthermore, it's the acceptance, the fearful acceptance, that it is going to happen to you, too, that somehow you are not immune, it will happen to you. There is an end to every happy ending, instead of there is a happy ending for everybody. It's the reverse of that. It is the belief that the other shoe is going to drop and just waiting for that to happen. It's that fear and trembling that we go through in life just, "Ahhh!" The angst and insecurity. It's just not quite right.
Woody Allen has popularized angst. He is by far the most popular. Well, actually, that's not true. Woody Allen did popularize it, but also the Zoolander guy. I really need to look him up and figure out what his name is. He really, he does a good job with angst, too. So Woody Allen actually once said, "I merchandise misery. When I named my movie Love and Death, the commercial possibilities were immediately apparent to me." He goes on to say that, in his mind, he saw sight gags and slapstick sequences about despair and emptiness, dialogue jokes about anguish and dread. And finally, mortality and suffering, anxiety. In short, the standard ploys of the funny man. Woody Allen concludes by saying, "It's not that I'm afraid of death. I just don't want to be there when it happens."
Angst and technology. I'm here to tell you, nothing brings me to tears faster than all of this technology. Every time I sit down to record, something else goes wrong. It's a nightmare. And I'm sure you can hear glitches, there sound problems, there's probably lighting problems, you probably hear the planes going overhead. There's all sorts of issues that happen when you're trying to do something like this. I don't even know what this lighting is like, what my frame is like at this point. I just needed to get this recorded. And I just about want to cry every single time. So, I get technology issues. Do you know who popularized anxiety over technology? It was Charlie Chaplin. That was the whole industrial era that he was part of. There's... you just go back and watch some Charlie Chaplin stuff. And there's so much in the industrial revolution where this guy is trying to keep up with the assembly lines or whatever. And then you have I Love Lucy, and we have those episodes where she's trying to keep up and she can't keep up and she's trying to eat the grapes. You remember that? And all these things, like, that's part of that anxiety of technology. In the film, Armageddon, there's that great Steve Buscemi line, where the rocket is just about to take off. And he says, "How does it feel to know that it was all built by the lowest bidder?" Something to that effect, he says it much better and it was very, very funny. We all can relate to that sort of thing. And when that happens, that hostility, it can be very high.
One of the things that I had to do recently is get a new washing machine because my washing machine broke and they're expensive. And I actually brought out the technician to look at it and he said it was gonna cost $1,100 to fix it. Can you believe that? Well, of course, I can get a new one for that, which is the point. They don't make them to last anymore. But my mom had the same washer and dryer for probably 40 years. I wish I knew where those ended up because I would take them now, because those cannot be replaced. They just cannot be replaced. Today they break down. So, things like that, people are making fun of. Of course, they're targeting those. And they are showing hostility, which we can all relate to. I saw this great sketch with Ellen DeGeneres, where she said something about how... Oh, it was so funny. She, all she was doing was talking about being at the airport and going to the bathroom, and how the toilet, those automatic flushing toilets, like it would never flush at the right time. Like, she'd be sitting down and it would flush and splash water on her. Or she would be getting up and then it wouldn't flush. And she would be like, "Well, what do I... What do I do?" And then she tried to find the button. But how do you do it? It's an automatic flusher, and then it was awkward or like, then it would just always go off in the wrong time. So she was just talking about that. And I was dying laughing. But that is about technology. Great, great humor.
Okay, there's also hostility towards particular characteristics. And this comes back to people groups a lot. This comes back to a lot of stereotypes or prejudices. This is the kind of jokes that maybe cater to racism, or sexism, or ethnic jokes. And as Christians, I would recommend that we stay away from this form of hostility unless there is a way to do it where it is truly self-deprecating and one of the cliches that is "acceptable." I hate to say that because it's too nebulous. And it's hard to actually make that clear what I'm actually trying to say. Trying to think if I can think of one. Oh, here's one. So, a lot of times, jokes that target or highlight hostilities towards certain physical characteristics, a lot of times they do cater to ethnic jokes or racist jokes, or sexist jokes, that kind of thing. But they don't have to. For example, I'm sure we've all heard about like, "Well, what do you call a woman with one leg? Eileen. Right. Or how do you get a one armed? Actually, I think that one is, "How do you get a one armed North Dakotan out of a tree? You wave." "What do you do with a dog with no arms and legs? You take him for a drag." That sort of thing. Okay, so I mean, those are definitely physical characteristics, but they're not really targeting a particular people group or denigrating their humanity. They're just sort of doing that. I'm sure we've all heard of the what do you call a man with no arms and legs in a hot tub? What do you call a man with no arms and legs blah, blah, blah, what do you call them? You know, all those types of things. So that's physical characteristics.
And I think, this is my view on this, I think that we are hostile towards those things because it seems so horrible to us. So, in laughing at it, it makes it less scary. I mean, the idea of being a person with no arms and legs... I don't know if you saw the Ballad of Buster Skaggs or whatever that was called, it was a really interesting, disturbing film. But there's a character in there who has no arms and legs, and he's just at the mercy of other people. And it's horrifying. It's horrifying. So the idea of being a person who actually has no arms and legs is pretty horrifying. Therefore, we're hostile towards it. Therefore, we can make those jokes and make light of it and blah, blah, blah. And that's what we try to do. It makes it more palatable or less scary.
If we can laugh at it, we can have less fear over something as horrible as that happening.
Okay. So again, this is just hostilities. All we're doing here is we're identifying the things that we're hostile towards. How many jokes do you hear about ex-husbands and ex-wives, right? Or how many jokes do you hear about kids, even, or being a parent or how your kids won't listen to you or how you're failing as a parent. Sometimes you're turning it into a self-deprecating thing, but it's still a hostility or failure, right? Business failure, or not becoming the person that we're supposed to be or not being able to get everything done. I have a lot of ADD jokes that have to do with this. I have attention deficit disorder. So, we tell those jokes about squirrel, or even learning disorders. Did you hear about the Dyslexic atheist? He didn't believe in dog, things like that. That's still hostility, right? Even something like Cannibalism can be one of those things that we're hostile towards in a weird kind of way, because it's so revolting to us. But we can tell the joke and make it funny. So, there's all sorts of hostilities. I can tell you this, there are a lot of religious jokes, right? A lot of religious jokes, a lot of, "So a rabbi, a priest and a so and so walk into a bar," or whatever, you know, those types of jokes have hostilities in them.
CLOSING REMARKS: We have to be very careful because we are hostile towards things. And it's okay to try to lighten things or to try to make them less daunting and less scary. That's a legitimate thing. It's also okay to have some catharsis over those things that we're hostile towards. What's not okay, again, is when we come up with the hostility in a way that actually denigrates the value of the humanity of the person, the dignity of the human person, or the dignity of any creature, really. We have to be careful. So that's all. We just have to be careful, but it's gonna be there. Because hostility is part of it. That's why we're telling jokes. It makes the medicine go down. Alright, I hope this has been helpful. And next week, we're going to get into the next letter of the acronym. We're going to talk about realism and exaggeration. So, I'm looking forward to it. And I hope this is helpful.
CALL TO ACTION: I would love it if you have any jokes that came to mind because of this, if you would share them with me. I love jokes. I collect them. I really really love them. I think they're so great. I love humor in my life. I love to post those types of things. And whoever sends me the best jokes I will share them with the world. So please do send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will share it on our social media. So be sure to subscribe to The Storyteller's Mission on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and you can follow some of those jokes. I'll try to share as many as I can.
OUTRO: Okay, thank you so much for joining me on this episode of The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.