The Storyteller’s Mission with Zena Dell Lowe

Writing Funny: 2 Rules and 3 Tools to Build Suspense and Create Anticipation in Comedy

March 31, 2022 Zena Dell Lowe Season 2 Episode 31
The Storyteller’s Mission with Zena Dell Lowe
Writing Funny: 2 Rules and 3 Tools to Build Suspense and Create Anticipation in Comedy
Show Notes Transcript

In this continuation of of the Writing Funny series, Zena unpacks the last two letters in Melvin Helitzer's acronym, THREES, which make up the 6 primary ingredients of comedy writing. 

Emotion refers to creating anticipation and excitement on behalf of the audience -- basically building the tension and getting them to invest in the joke or story or scenario. This is done through setups. 

Surprise refers to the payoff, where you deliver the punchline or the outcome that you've built up to, but in a way in which the audience is surprised, and therefore delighted. Emotion and Surprise work together through good setups and payoffs.

To achieve it, there are several comedy rules and tools that you can use, such us: 

1. Whatever can go wrong, must go wrong.
2. Comedy must come from the character.
3. Use "The Pause" to create emotion and build up suspense.
4. Utilize the rule of three's. 
5. Tell a joke on the way to a joke.

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S2 E31. Writing Funny: 2 rules and 3 tools to build suspense and excitement in story



Published March 31, 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 your story.



TOPIC INTRODUCTION: So, we're in a series on how to write comedy, how to write funny, and we are going over Melvin Helitzer's acronym THREES, which he wrote in a book called Comedy Writing Secrets. And it's all about the six primary ingredients that exist in every single piece of comedy, no matter what kind of venue that it is. 



Now, we've already gone over Target, Hostility, Realism and Exaggeration. Today, we're going to do the last two in that acronym, we're going to talk about Emotion and Surprise.



PRESENTATION: Alright, so Emotion. It's kind of a tricky word that he's using there to make the acronym THREES. I mean, basically, what he's talking about there is the idea that there has to be build up, there has to be anticipation, you have to be able to set up a good joke. That's what that means -- or a setup a good scenario. 



Now, here's the thing. Tthis can work in a number of ways.



When somebody tells you just a good story, and they're a good storyteller, you get drawn into their story, you're interested, it doesn't even matter necessarily whether it's funny or not. If it's a good story, you're in it, you're waiting to see what happens to the people that are part of that story, or whatever's happening. You're in the story. Have you ever had somebody tell you a story who goes off on tangents? And you're like, "What? Wait, what are we talking about now?" And you have to get them back on track and tell them like, "What's the point? What's the point." 



So, the truth of the matter is a joke, or a funny scenario, or a story or any of those things, it's all about the delivery. It's about the emotion, it's about the anticipation that you're able to create in your audience so that they're tracking with you, so that they're sucked in to whatever it is that you're telling them.



This is the writer's venue completely. If you have this ability, then you can pretty much do anything you want. It's called setups and payoffs. And this is important because here's what happens. 



A lot of times, depending on the type of story that you're telling, people have the misguided notion that you can sort of go off on tangents, or that you can have these red herrings, things that don't have anything to do with the story. But that's not true. Even in a good novel, every single thing that you include in a novel should somehow play into the narrative in some way. There should be nothing superfluous or unneeded. Anything that you describe in the character should play into the narrative in some way; it should matter. It shouldn't just be a throw away, no matter what it is, even if it's what the character is carrying around in their pocket, a lucky coin, or what have you. It all has to play into the narrative. It can't just be random and not have anything to do with the story. The trick in any kind of writing is to make sure every single thing has to do with the narrative. There's nothing unneeded, there's nothing superfluous.



This means that every single thing that you bring up in a story is ultimately a setup, which means that it ultimately has to have a payoff. 



See, that's what we have to understand. Anytime you're talking about things that are in the character's pocket, or even how they look or how you're describing the building, or describing the environment, or whatever the case may be, those are all setups. Everything is a setup, every single thing is a setup, which means it has to have a payoff, because that's how it plays into the narrative. 



So jokes and funny stuff work the same way. We have to have good setups and payoffs.



For example, Ben Stiller's Meet the Parents, part of the setup is that his luggage was lost. We don't find out for a while what he got instead, what was in his luggage instead. So that pay off comes later, but the setup was that his luggage was lost. The payoff is that he got somebody else's piece of luggage and it was full of all this weird stuff. Sex stuff that his CIA future father in law, of course knows all about, which is awkward, awkward, awkward turtle. So that's a setup and that's the payoff. 



Now, for screenwriters and for novelists, I'm going to give you two clues of techniques that really do help you to set up the right emotion or produce anticipation in your audience -- In comedy. This is specifically having to do with comedy, although I suppose you could extrapolate it for the other. But right now we're talking about comedy. So let's just apply it here. And you can do with it what you will.



RULE #1: The first one, and one of the main rules of comedy, is that everything that can go wrong must go wrong. 



This is how you take things to that exaggerated degree, right? We know that you have to have reality, but then you take it to an exaggerated degree. And that becomes funny. So that's why comedy can be tragedy. But because it's so absurd, it's funny. And that's what we're trying to do. So again, in Meet the Parents, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. 



I'm trying to think of another example. (Thank you, Lulu). 



So, one of my favorite guilty pleasures is a movie called the Three Amigos. I think it's hilarious. I love Steve Martin. I love Chevy Chase. And I love Martin Short. And they are all hilarious in this film. And they do so much in that film to utilize the tools of comedy that we're talking about in this series. So, one of the things that happens as part of this structure of everything that can go wrong does go wrong, is they have to go on some sort of adventure. And I can't remember exactly what they're doing. But they crossed the desert. So of course, they are dying of thirst all the cliches, all the realism that we would expect from being in the desert and riding in the desert, and they're dry and cracked, and their lips are terrible. They're parched. All this. And there's a funny little triplicate joke that happens right there that we'll come back to, then they have to go find the singing Bush. And it's absurd. And it's crazy. And the bush is singing, "She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes." And they're like, "Are you the singing Bush?" which is really funny. And then they have to summon the invisible swordsman. And of course, whoever is firing that weapon to summon him ends up not shooting straight up in the air ends up shooting the invisible swordsman, I mean, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, as they're on this pursuit. This, on top of the fact that they got fired from their job, they're out of work, they get this letter from a village, they think it's a gig, they steal their clothes to go down to Mexico thinking they're just doing a show, and it's going to be great. And it turns out, no, this village is actually under attack. And this group of people thinks that the three amigos can save them. So everything that can go wrong does go wrong. 



And this is the premise of a lot of comedies. That's what we like. The film Noises Off, the play Noises Off, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Tootsie. And it leads to a natural crescendo, it leads to the inevitable climax, where now everything is out on the table, and there's no turning back. It has to be dealt with once and for all. It's a very, very fun thing in a comedy, when you get that, when it's a good comedy. You get to the point of no return, where it's all or nothing, the stakes are super high. And that is because of good setups and payoffs. But it's also because of this principle: whatever can go wrong must go wrong.



But the other place that comedy comes from, and this is very, very important: Comedy must come from the character.



Comedy must come from who that character is uniquely. Or, if you're the character, because you're writing stand up or you're writing a joke for a sermon or whatever you're doing, it has to come from you. It has to fit you, it has to be right for you. Woody Allen discovered that stand up is a funny man doing material, not a man doing funny material. The personality of the character is key, its primary, not the joke. 



And this is why different types of characters can do different types of comedy. This is where we have the guys that stutter, right? The Bob Newharts and that sort of thing. That was his shtick, but it worked for him. Whereas you have Johnny Carson who does something completely different. Or Rodney Dangerfield, who does something completely different. I know these are very old school examples, but they're classics, they're classics.



You have to know who your character is to be able to write comedy for them. You put the wrong thing in the wrong character's mouth and it's not going to be funny even if it's funny on its own. It has to come from the character him or herself. 



That said, there are three techniques that can be used to construct a good joke, and maximize emotion.



The first one is the pause.



The pause, it's a classic bit of technique that you can use. It's the most common. And the basic pause is to pause before the payoff, right? You set it up, you set up the joke, you pause, and then you pay it off. That's why the joke that I told, "Why can't Norwegians tell good jokes timing," is kind of funny, because there is no pause. And yet we expect the pause. In fact, a lot of people when I tell that joke, they don't actually hear the punchline, because they're waiting for the pause. And they miss it. So that's kind of fun. But the pause is a powerful, powerful tool. 



Let me just deliver a couple of jokes here and give you some examples. Keep in mind, these are not necessarily great jokes. But here's a couple of jokes.



What kind of exercises do lazy people do? Diddly squats.



What do you call a pony with a cough? A little horse.



What is Forrest Gump's password? One forest one.



Let's see, what are some of my favorites...?



What's the last thing that goes through a bug's mind when he hits the windshield? His butt.



Okay, let's do some without questions.



I invented a new word today. Plagiarism. 



So they don't actually have to be questions, like the setup doesn't have to be a question. And then the pay off. It can also just be a statement like, I hate Russian dolls. They're so full of themselves. Or, remember, you're unique, just like everyone else.



When someone asks me what I did over the weekend, I squint and ask, "Why? What did you hear?"



That's just a slight pause. Well, here's a couple more. Okay. So, for example, I know a lot of you want to hear the latest dope from Hollywood. Well, here I am.



Or... would you be so kind as to help a poor unfortunate fellow, out of work, hungry? In fact, someone who has nothing in the world... except this gun?



Actually, you probably get the point. Okay, the pause. The first and most common is to pause just before the payoff. It's just an easy, easy way. And it's a common way to do this. And it's what everybody expects. 



Alright, so the second one is triples, rule of threes, right? You've heard this, this is even the acronym that we're using, because it's such a common tool in comedy, the rule of threes. And I'm going to get more into this in another episode. But I want to mention here, just a little bit about the rule of threes. 



The rule of threes works in so many scenarios, it's almost too common, like, you're so used to it. It's already in your subconscious, like you're already so used to using this. It's the rule of threes. And the reason the rule of threes works so beautifully is because it's a natural build. First you have this, then you have this and it builds on the last one. And then you have the exaggerated finale. It's the boom, boom, boom, it's the three step. And you get to show that, but it works in so many scenarios. 



So I gave the example of the Three Amigos. Well, you've got the desert scene. This is a perfect example of that, where they're riding across the desert. They're super, super hot. They're parched, their lips are chapped. They're dying. And they finally stop, and you start with Steve Martin, who goes to drink out of the canteen, and he sets the realism bar. He sets the standard for realism. He goes to drink out of his canteen, and then there's "A" drop of water. And he's dying of thirst. 



And then you cut to Martin Short, who goes to drink out of his canteen, and it's all sand. And he gets sand in his mouth. And he's just like, "Ugghghh," sand everywhere. So that's an exaggeration, after the realism 



But then you have the next exaggerated level, which is the payoff, and this is when we show Dusty Bottoms, played by Chevy Chase, who does a twist on the end. It's not only exaggerated (because where do you go from having dust come out of your canteen? I mean, that's the worst thing that could possibly happen in the desert. Now you have a mouthful of sand). And there's one of two ways that the writers could go. 



They could try to top that by making it even worse than sand in the mouth. Or they could do a reverse. 



And so, what they do is they show Dusty Bottoms, who guzzles, you know, water down, and then he rinses his mouth and swooshes it around, and spits it out, and he throws this canteen and this water is seeping into the dry, cracked ground. And he's got some chapstick that he's putting on and he sees Steve Martin and Martin Short watching the water drip out on the ground. I mean, this wasted water that they would have killed for (they're dying just watching it). And he looks up at them and says, "Lip balm?" So that is the reverse that's the opposite of everything we've come to expect from this sort of scene, which has been set up appropriately. So it's the triple that helps play that joke. It's the build on the build, and then the payoff.



Okay, and I'll get into more details about how to do that effectively later, too. And then the final one is, a joke on the way to a joke. 



Now, again, we just saw this, that's what this was in the example of the desert. The joke on the way to the joke when he has sand in his canteen. That's a joke on the way to the joke. But the ultimate joke is the payoff with Dusty Bottoms and the fact that he has a canteen full of water, and he's oblivious to what's going on with his buddies. So a joke on the way to the joke is a great way to build, and it adds humor and all of those things. This is often used in sitcoms, such as Friends. Course it's used in comedies. I'm thinking right now, I just saw the other night, I saw The Other Guys again. And oh my gosh, it is so funny. Like, I don't know why I don't quote that whole movie because it is hilarious. And I always forget how funny it is. There is a joke on the way to the joke all the time. 



I'm trying to think of an example. Oh, here's an example from it. I mean, this isn't a great example from it, but it's one that comes to mind. One of the jokes that sets the tone for the whole movie is you've got Samuel L Jackson, and the Rock, who are the hot shot cops. And I mean, these guys are over the top, talk about exaggeration, right? It's so exaggerated from the get go. They're the hero cops of the city. And I mean, they are causing destruction everywhere. They're doing crazy, crazy things. They live through it. I mean, there's the scene at the beginning, where they're chasing this car, the Rock is on top of the bad guys' car. Samuel L. Jackson is in the car behind them chasing, and they're shooting and shooting. They're avoiding it. And then the Rock jumps back on Samuel L. Jackson's car, somehow manages to get inside, they're shooting with the bad guys, the car gets flipped over, they go into the air, they go right into the side of a tour bus. But instead of that being the end of their sequence of chasing the bad guys, now, the Rock is driving the tour bus and still chasing. And then as if that's not enough, then they swing around. And now Samuel L. Jackson comes out of the car that's been stuck in the bus, guns a blazing, going into a building, shooting it up from the driver's seat, there's no roof, I think anymore, or the windows been crashed out, I can't remember. But now he goes into the building, blows up the building, he of course manages to get out. And they have now caused a devastating amount of damage, millions and millions of dollars of damage. And it turns out that it was just a misdemeanor, what the guys had on them. And so it's crazy, right? It's absolutely crazy. And they're like, "Yeah, we did, we're protecting New York, law and order," all those things, but they've just, they're crazy. Well, the joke comes to a peak. Actually, if you haven't seen it, I won't tell you. But the joke even comes to a peak. All of these are jokes on the way to the joke that finally ends up getting these guys dead. So it's very, very funny stuff. And it's a joke on the way to the joke. 



CLOSING REMARKS: So these are just three techniques that can be used to construct a good joke and maximize the emotion. Setups and payoffs, setups and payoffs. Anticipation. Building the anticipation. Okay.



Next time we're going to talk about the most cardinal rule of comedy, which is surprise.



CALL TO ACTION: But in the meantime, I would like to encourage you to practice this. See what you can come up with. Can you come up with a little story where you have a triplicate or where everything that can go wrong does go wrong, or where you tell a joke on the way to the joke? What can you come up with? And of course using that pause, just using that pause. Now, again, the surprise part is really important. And this is where we're really going to get to practice. But we'll deal with that on the next episode. 



In the meantime, I would encourage you to try to do something with this, try to write some stuff, and then post it on social media and tag us. The Storyteller's Mission is on Instagram we're on Facebook or on Twitter as STM command, tag us. Tag us! We would love that. Let's share our jokes that we're coming up with as we're listening to this podcast, as we're learning these principles and tools, how fun! And it doesn't matter if it's bad. That's part of fun. It's part of the fun. So let's start a new tag. Hashtag STM jokes. There you go. That'll be our tag. And follow us on social media. Okay. 



OUTRO: In the meantime, I want to thank you for listening to the storytellers mission with Zena Dell Lowe. Me you go forth inspired to change the world for the better