In this week's episode, Zena continues to unpack Melvin Helitzer's acronym THREES, which encompasses the six primary ingredients of all comedy. We've already covered the first two, target and hostility. Today, we address realism and exaggeration. These go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other.
Realism - The best comedy is based in reality. If it isn't based in reality, then we don't connect to it. We don't resonate with it. Realism means it's based on something that we can all relate to because it's realistic or true to the human experience.
Exaggeration - However, while it must be based in reality, it also has to be exaggerated. Comedy is just reality turned up a notch; it's taken to an extreme degree, and that's what makes it funny.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
S2 E30. Good Humor is a Combination of Realism and Exaggeration
Published March 24, 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: For the last few weeks, we have been talking about principles for comedic writing. And I have been arguing that this is something that we should master. Even if we're not trying to write comedies per se, it is a good thing to try to infuse comedy into your work. Because comedy has a power all to itself that can actually magnify or increase the power of your own story if you learn how to use it well in your story. So it's a good thing to try to master these techniques. And the best thing about comedy is that you can actually learn to write it. You don't have to be a natural born comedian to learn how to write funny, because comedy has a structure, it has built in principles that are inherent into the formula that you can learn, you can adopt, and then you can apply to your own story. So it's a great thing we can learn to write comedy.
PRESENTATION: Now, I have been borrowing from a gentleman named Melvin Helitzer, who wrote a book called Comedy Writing Secrets. And Melvin came up with an acronym THREES that he says encompasses the six primary principles or ingredients of all comedy, no matter what kind of comedy it is. So we've already covered the first two, which are target and hostility. Today, what I want to address is realism and exaggeration. And these go hand in hand. So I'm covering two points at the same time, because you can't have one without the other.
So, realism, what does that mean? Well, in essence, it might seem paradoxical. But the truth is the best comedy is based in reality. If it isn't based in reality, then we don't connect to it. We don't resonate with it. So the truth is, that's how we make it a universal thing. It's something that we can all relate to. The flip side of that, is that while it's based in reality, it has to be exaggerated.
See, comedic characters don't hold back. Think about your favorite comedic characters, they are over the top. They do absurd things; they do the kinds of things that maybe we've thought of doing or that we would love to do, but we would never have the guts to do it. And yet, because they're comedic characters, they do it. They go the extra mile, they go all in. It's exaggeration. So comedy is reality turned on its head, it's taken to an extreme degree. That's all you do. In fact, here's the real truth.
Comedy is actually found in tragedy. If you take something tragic, something painful, your worst moment, but then you make it absurd. You exaggerate it to its nth degree, all of a sudden, it becomes funny.
Here's an example. Think about the movie Meet the Parents. By the way, I kept mentioning Ben Stiller, and I kept forgetting who he was. But he is a modern day, every man, right? Who is self deprecating, and he's a master comedian. He knows how to construct comedy. He is the modern day Woody Allen, if you will, because it's so much angst and ennui that he's in, but he takes it to this absurd degree. So this is a perfect example of this, the film Meet the Parents.
First of all, you've got this scenario that we can all relate to, right? Like that meeting the in laws, but it's already taken to an extreme degree because who is the father? He's an ex CIA guy. So that just heightens all that anxiety that we would all feel about meeting the parents for the first time. It's already heightened and made absurd, but then everything that can go wrong does go wrong, to an absurd degree. Not only does the suitcase get lost, but the suitcase he gets is full of like this s&m attire, it's the worst, most disgusting thing ever for him to have when he is meeting his in laws. And then on top of that, he's got the vase with grandma's ashes, right? And he ends up knocking it off and it spills, and then the cat -- as if that's not enough that he spilled grandma's ashes, that cat has to go and use it as kitty box. And then as he's trying to escape and just get up out on the roof and smoke a cigarette in a quiet, like that's the one thing, the one vise that he has. He's trying to hide it, but once again, everything goes wrong. And the next thing you know, he's caused a big fire and this has happened. And that's happened. He tries to get competitive and volleyball, and he ends up giving his bride a black eye. I mean, it's just everything possible.
You take this very real, anxiety ridden situation that is actually really painful and full of suffering. But then you make it absurd at every point and it's hilarious. And that is what comedy is: realism married to exaggeration. It has to have both, you cannot have just one. There are many times when I see people who are trying to write comedy, but they don't allow it to get to the absurd. A lot of times this happens with actors. They feel awkward going there. They don't know how to sustain that level of intensity. But you have to. Comedy is about being up here. Your level of intensity is up here all the time. You're always in crisis. You're always in crisis. I mean, really, story is that way, too. But with comedy, it's even more important. You're just right on the edge at all times.
Now, it's also the unexpected juxtaposition of the reasonable next to the unreasonable that makes a situation funny, because it's surprising. This is why we can have even very serious films that will juxtapose the unexpected, or the reasonable with the unreasonable, and all of a sudden, we'll be crying one minute and then the next thing we know, we're laughing. If you remember the film, Steel Magnolias, if anybody remembers that scene where Sally Field has just lost her daughter, Julia Roberts, and they're all there at the burial. And Sally Field starts out on this speech about how she's fine, she's fine. But her daughter couldn't do anything because she was weak. Her whole life, she was sick. And she's going through this speech, and we're crying. There wasn't a dry eye in the house, we're crying. But then Sally Fields says, "I'm just so angry, I want to hit something, I want to hit something until it feels as bad as I do." And then one of the characters says, "Here, hit Weezy," and pulls her in front. And it makes the characters laugh. But it also makes us laugh. Because it's the reasonable next to the unreasonable. And it's the surprise. See, that's part of it. In fact, that's a huge part of it. In fact, it's probably the biggest part of it.
The number one reason why we laugh at something is because we're surprised.
So when you put those two things next to each other, all of a sudden, it makes it surprising, it's refreshing. Because in real life, see, we've learned to control ourselves, we've learned to practice restraint. There are things that we wouldn't allow ourselves to do, no matter how bad it got. And yet in comedy, we see the characters going to these places that we couldn't do. But it's almost delightful to see them do it. And it's hilarious, and it's awkward, and it's painful. But it's surprising, because we're not brave enough to do it. Now, the truth of the matter is, you can do this in scenarios, like we just talked about with meet the parents, or you can also do it even in one liners. It is the same thing. It is the same principle. Most good jokes state a bitter truth, if you will. There has to be some basis in reality. If there isn't, then there's little with which we can identify because it's all about identifying the truth. Everything in story is about truth telling, and jokes and comedy are no exception. The difference is, you take that truth and then you make it absurd. And suddenly it's funny instead of a tragedy.
Okay, so one of the things that you can do in this particular step is, when you're looking at the realism and the exaggeration, there is something called a two step in humor. And what it is, is it's when you state some commonly identified problem, but then you change it at the end and you do something different. So that's what's happening here in the Sally Field example or whatever. It's a common problem, right? The anger that we feel, the frustration, the existential crisis, if you will, that's the common problem. But then we do something different with it. We turn it on its head, and now all of a sudden, it's comedic.
If you're doing it in a joke, it might look like you start with a cliche, but then you change the last word or two. That surprises us. This is why we laugh at things like puns, because puns are basically cliches, if you will. Or they're set up expectations where we know how it's supposed to go. And because of the surprise, because of the change, the minor change, all of a sudden, we're amused by them. Maybe they're not laugh out loud funny, but we're like, "Haha. That was clever," right? I even have a new game at home that's all about creating your own puns by just changing a word or two. And people love that. It's fun. It's a fun game. But it's all about changing something. So you take something that's common, like a cliche. And then in the last word or two, you change the expected ending, what we think is coming is changed. And that's what makes it comedic.
Now, to be most effective, the facts of the humor should be logical, it should be reasonable. The relationship between the people, the situation, it should be clear. There shouldn't be any confusion there. We should know, for example, grandma, and grand son, or husband and wife. We shouldn't wonder, "Now is that his sister, or is that his wife?" We shouldn't be confused about that. It should be clear, clear, clear. And then the time and the place and the location, all of that should be really, really clear. To make a good setup for a joke or a comedic situation, that all has to be clear, there can't be confusion, even if there's confusion on the part of the character.
So there's a lot of comedic stories that are based on misunderstandings, where characters have the wrong idea about each other. But we the audience can't be confused about that. We have to know clearly, "Oh my gosh, he thinks that she is the mail order bride, when really, she's the boss's wife, oh my gosh!" And now it's funny because we know clearly what the relationship should be even if the characters are confused.
So, in any case, this is a fundamental principle in creating a joke, the realism and exaggeration, but also in that, the two step, which is, you set up the cliche, and then you put a twist on the end. And when you twist it on the end, it suddenly becomes funny.
So let me give you some examples. Judy Tenuta once said, "My mother always told me I wouldn't amount anything because I procrastinate. I said, just wait." The nice thing about karma is that I can rest assured knowing that all those people I was nasty to had it coming. That's a twist on what we typically think of about karma. Okay. I saw this one on Twitter. Do you ever wake up, kiss the person sleeping next to you, just feeling happy to be alive? Well, I did. And now apparently, I'm not allowed to fly this airline again. This one made me laugh out loud. I also saw this on Twitter. It made her laugh out loud too. My dad and I went to a restaurant. And the waiter pointed at the QR code on the wall and said, "That's our menu," and left. And my dad looked at it really close and said, "Is this some kind of joke?" So I love that. Because that is our new normal, right? That's our new cliche, if you will, that we have these little QR codes and you have to take your phone and pull up the menu. And so here, the twist at the end, is that the dad looked at it really close. Is this some kind of joke? That's funny.
I once saw a marathon t shirt that said, "Those shorts make your butt look fast." Once again, it's a twist, right? It's the surprise ending on the cliche. Of course, women are always, "Does this make my butt look fat?" But this is, "Those shorts make your butt look fast." I mean, that's great. It's a twist. I do not discriminate based on race. I judge everybody. WC Fields once said, "If at first you don't succeed, try try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it." So we took that famous saying and then he put a twist on it. I really hate it when people exaggerate. It's like 10 billion times worse than anything. Sometimes you meet someone and know immediately you want to spend the rest of your life without them. I love this. I saw this on Twitter, I love it. I got called pretty today. Well, actually, the full statement was you're pretty annoying, but I only focus on positive things. Alright, you get the point.
The idea is, again, you take the realism, the cliche, and you put an exaggeration or a twist on it, you do something new with it. And clearly, these are just one liners I'm using because that's the only time that we had for some of those examples. But I'm hoping that they give you some ideas. And we'll get more into this in the next episode. Why couldn't I finish that thought? And we'll get more into this. We'll give more examples. As we keep going. This is supposed to be fun. So I hope that this has been helpful to you.
CALL TO ACTION: And if you would, I want to challenge you to try to come up with some of these. Think of a cliched situation that you find yourself in -- what is something that you do all the time that everybody relates to -- and then see if you can come up with that twist. See if you can figure out the realism or a realistic scenario. It doesn't even have to be a one liner, like a realistic scenario, and then see what the twist would be. What would be the exaggeration, what would be the surprise that we don't expect? See if you can come up with that. And would you post it on our social media, post it on Instagram, post it on Facebook and tag us so that we can be part of that and I can share it on the show. That would be amazing. I would love to be able to do that.
OUTRO: So alright, in the meantime, I want to thank you for joining me on The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story. ( So awkward.)