S2_E33 – Three Favorite Tools to Create Comedy in Story
In this current series on Writing Funny, Zena shares three techniques that can specifically be used when working with cliches to create comedic moments in story.
1. The simple truth.
Break down the literal meaning of a phrase or a key word so that it's simply true, rather than interpreting the expression according to its traditional reference. For example, Steve Martin's joke, "I love a woman with a good head on her shoulders.... because I hate necks."
2. The Non Sequitur.
The illogical pairing or juxtaposition of two elements. The humor comes from pairing the two ideas next to each other, which don't seem to fit, but actually do in an absurd kind of way. For example, Leslie Nielsen's line, "The truth hurts. Sure. Not as much as jumping on a bicycle with no seat, but it hurts."
3. Exaggeration in the form of understatements or overstatements.
Taking something normal to an absurd degree, either by downplaying it or by overplaying. For example, the doctor's statement to Goldie Hawn's character in The First Wives Club is an overstatement: "If I give you any more halogen, you're going to be able to blink your lips." Monty Python is famous for understating the self control of the British. "It's just a flesh wound," etc.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
S2 E33. Writing Funny: My Three Favorite Comedic Tools
Published April 7, 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 for story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: For the last few weeks, we've been in a series on how to write comedy, how to write funny, and we've been using Melvin Helitzer's acronym "threes" from his book, Comedy Writing Secrets. And we've been basically breaking down the six primary ingredients of comedy. And then last week, we talked specifically about surprise as being the essential or cardinal rule of comedy. Furthermore, we've talked about one of the primary techniques to achieve surprise, which is utilizing cliche, because cliche automatically sets expectations in the audience's mind. And then if you can twist that and deliver something different, it's surprising and therefore delivers comedy. My hope today is to go through a few more key techniques or tools that you can use to construct comedy in your projects. And then next week, to do a final evaluation of comedy in terms of what we should be using in our stories, what's appropriate for us and that sort of thing, looking more at the theology and philosophy of humor. But again, before we get there, we're going to look at some of the primary techniques.
PRESENTATION: We'll start with a review of cliche, what is cliche? Well, cliche is an expression that has lost its original impact. And the value in it is that the ending is predictable, which makes it the easiest vehicle to use in order to achieve surprise. And I gave several examples. But now I want to keep breaking that down and go over three more techniques that use cliche to accomplish just that.
1. And the first one is the simple truth.
Now, the simple truth is just that: it's simple and true. You're actually taking the literal meaning of a phrase or a key word. And by doing so we surprise the audience. And the reason that happens is because we have automatically interpreted the expression in its traditional reference. The simple truth or the literal truth is one of my favorite comedic devices. And you're probably familiar with it if you've seen any silly comedies, say, Airplane or Naked Gun, or Young Frankenstein, a lot of Mel Brooks' humor uses the literal truth.
So in Airplane, for example, there's that whole scene where the character comes in and says, "Surely, you don't expect me to land this plane?" "Yes, I do. And don't call me Shirley." That's the literal truth. Or also an Airplane, the guy that's the pilot, he flashes back to him trying to drink a glass of water, which he throws over his shoulder, and he has said, "I have a drinking problem." Well, that's funny, because we think drinking problems -- somebody that has a problem with alcohol, not somebody who can't even drink a glass of water properly, because they keep throwing it over their shoulder. In Young Frankenstein, you have the Igor character say, "Walk this way." And everybody literally does. Instead of taking the traditional interpretation, which is simply follow me, everybody actually walks like him, which makes that very funny.
Now, this seems very simple to do. But it's actually really difficult to retrain ourselves to examine every major word in a cliche and reject its most common connotation, and then go back to the basic English to reconstruct it.
One of the masters at this, in my humble opinion, is Steve Martin. If you've ever seen Steve Martin's opening monologues that he delivers when he's a guest on Saturday Night Live, for example, you're going to see a lot of literal truth or simple truth. He's just a master of it. One of the things he says, for example, is, "I like a girl with a good head on her shoulders, because I hate necks." Well, that's funny. Or, "Boy, those French. They have a different word for everything."
It's really, really difficult to do this. There's a great line in Ted Lasso where he's asked, "Ted, do you believe in ghosts?" And he says, "You know, I do, but more importantly, I think they need to believe in themselves." It's great because that's the literal truth, that's taking the word itself, "Do you believe in somebody," differently than do you just believe they exist, but do you have faith in one's abilities, or whatever the case may be. It's hard to do this, but it's really fun. And I love literal truth jokes.
For example, did you hear the one about the traveling cannibal? He passed his brother in the woods. This is the kind of joke where somebody says, "I don't like the looks of your husband." "Neither do I, doctor, but he's good to the children." Some of my favorite types of movies are comprised of these types of jokes. And I have more examples for you of the simple truth.
2. But first, let's go ahead and get into the second of my favorite tools for writing comedy, and that is the non sequitur.
Which is similar to a cliche, but it's slightly different because it's an illogical statement, which is humorous because of the juxtaposition of two elements. So I love juxtaposition, by the way, in story, I think it's a fundamental tool, and the better we get at it, the better our stories will be. But in this context, we're talking about pairing two ideas next to each other, that don't seem to fit. It actually becomes sort of absurd when you do it, because they don't belong together.
For example, Groucho Marx said, "I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I'll never know." Or in the movie, City Slickers, when they're fighting, and the wife says, "I hate you." And he says, "I hate you more. If hate were people, I'd be China!" Which is an unlikely or an illogical juxtaposition. I mean, hate can't be people, right? Now, one of my favorite types of humor is this dumb, absurd humor that you would find in shows like Naked Gun. I just love them. I think they're so funny. Well, one of the things that Frank Drubbund or Lesley Nielsen does so well, is these odd pairings, where he pairs things together that are just awkward and illogical. For example, he'll say something like, "The truth hurts. Sure. Not as much as jumping on a bicycle with no seat, but it hurts." Or even something simple like, "Frank, when Hightower told you, 'I love you,' he was telling you the name of the boat." "I realized that... now."
Now, this can also be paired up, by the way, with literal truth. So for example, in Naked Gun, there is a scene where they're in a sex shop investigating things. And Frank Drubbond says, "What would somebody be doing in a sex shop in the middle of the day?" And his partner says, "Sex, Frank?" And Frank says, "Not now, maybe later." So that's both absurd, and it's also literal truth. One of my favorite lines that I used to say all the time is actually from a different movie with Leslie Nielsen called Spy Hard. And he's in a tough situation. He's about to go out and he says to the gal, played by Nicollette Sheridan, "Cover me. I'm going in." And she says, "That's crazy!" And he says, "Crazy. I'll tell you a crazy. Crazy is a man walking down the street with half a cantaloupe on his head saying, 'I'm a hamster.' 'I'm a hamster.' Now that's crazy." And then, of course, he goes and fights. Now that's absurd. It's illogical. It doesn't fit. It's ridiculous. But there's something about those odd pairings that's really, really funny.
So, you want to look for associations. You're basically trying to put together two things that haven't been previously associated into a plausible but audacious scenario. It's a teaming up, a pairing things up. So combine two simple elements that are logical but impossible. So, in The First Wives Club, the doctor says to Celeste played by Goldie Hawn, "If I give you any more halogen, you're going to be able to blink your lips." Or in City Slickers, Billy Crystal says to his buddy, "If your girlfriends get any younger, pretty soon you'll be dating sperm." These types of exaggerated pairings are just a lot of fun. And they're fun to come up with. They're fun to try to find. So, did you hear about the two worms in the cemetery who made love in Earnest?
3. Now, this leads us to the third element that I want to talk about today, which is called exaggeration, and you're probably seeing that there is an exaggerated element here, right? There's something normal paired up with something absurd or exaggerated, because comedy is just truth with a curlicue, as Sid Caesar said. Realism is what sets up the joke. The joke is sprung loose by exaggerations. Now, here's the thing. There are two types of exaggerations. There are overstatements, and there are understatements.
So we've heard overstatements, like in The First Wives Club, "You're going to be able to blink your lips," or City Slickers, "If hate were people, I'd be China." But understatements are another type that are just hilarious. Monty Python is famous for understating the self control of the British. One could even argue that most of Monty Python's humor is found in just this fact, this understatement ability. What does the guy say when he's had his arms and legs cut off, "It's just a flesh wound." Or in The Meaning of Life when the woman is having a baby, "Oh, another one just popped out," and she keeps going and doing dishes and that sort of thing. Or at the dnd of Life of Brian, where everybody's being crucified, and they're singing, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," and whistling. Right? Like that is true understatement. And it's funny.
So, exaggeration is embellishing that which we have seen and heard. The basis is realism. But then it becomes larger than life, and it's often the matchup, the team up between those two that brings humor. So for example, every episode of I Love Lucy, it begins with a logical premise. In essence, Lucy wants to be a singer in Ricky's band, and she's suspicious that he might be philandering. Only after a plausible foundation has been established is the element of absurdity introduced. Then exaggeration continues to inflate the plot until the inevitable physical slapstick climax is reached. And this is true in almost every comedy we know. Whether you're writing a novel or whether you're writing a screenplay or a TV show, you have to start with the realism and then allow it to be taken to an absurd and exaggerated degree. And it is the pairing of those things that brings humor.
Okay, so even though I have been giving a lot of one liners, as you can see, this is also plot driven. These tools that we're discussing can be used to construct comedic plots. Exaggeration, absurdity, but grounded in realism. The literal truth. Now the non sequitur is often associations that are paired up as one liners or just lines. But a lot of the ones I've used for examples were from films. So this is how a lot of comedies achieve their comedy is by using these things.
And by the way, this is also puns, right? A pun is where we have a cliched understanding of some sort of saying or phrase. And then we alter one or two letters in a word or a word itself. And we arrive at a twist, which cleverly changes the point of view. And change of point of view often becomes important, which we will talk about next week. So stay tuned for that. But we'll talk about puns and dad jokes next week and changing the point of view with something called reversals and how that becomes retaliatory humor. For example, Chandler's character from friends often used retaliatory humor. And then we'll talk about how to use these things appropriately. We'll get more into the theology or philosophy again, as we wrap up this series.
And by the way, if you're one of the people that finds Lulu's snoring in the background hilarious, which a lot of people do, including myself, it's probably because it's a non sequitur. It's an unlikely pairing between two things. This is a professional podcast, and yet there's dogs snoring like crazy in the background. And she's loud. It's absurd. It's exaggerated. I couldn't have a louder snoring dog if I tried. So there's a lot of comedy in that just by her presence.
So as I wrap up this particular episode, let me just give you a few more examples of one liners or jokes that rely on one of these three techniques. I saw this one on Twitter, a guy wrote, "As a kid, whenever I'd get mad at adults, I'd tell them I was going to beat them up when I got older. So anyway, that's what I'm doing this week." So that's an understatement, right? And it's absurd. All right, but it's an understatement. So casual. So anyway, that's what I'm doing this week.
There are two types of people in this world, those that can extrapolate from incomplete sentences.... Now that's funny because it's the literal truth, in a way. It's like, leaving the rest of it off which you have to supply and interpret, which I happen to find very funny. Here's a literal truth one. Her: so are you seeing anyone? Him: You mean like a therapist or hallucinations?
I also saw this on Twitter. Therapist: How did you feel when you first realized you had a Gloria Gaynor obsession? Me: First, I was afraid. I was petrified.
By the way, a lot of times kids get a huge kick out of literal truth, right? They think it's so funny. Like, for example, what's red and moves up and down? A tomato in an elevator. That's the kind of joke a kid would tell. They love that kind of thing. Or I remember when I was little I told this joke. What do you call a boomerang that doesn't come back? A stick. Right? Haha. Or this one: You know what I saw today? Everything I looked at. Well, that's pretty funny. Simple truth, right? Simple truth. I was wondering why the Frisbee was getting bigger, and then it hit me. Simple truth. Here's an incongruity one. Time flies like the wind. Fruit flies like bananas. Okay, that's kind of incongruence and simple truth combined.
Okay, here's an understatement. That's a terrible idea. What time? Here's another literal truth from Steve Martin. A day without sunshine is like, you know, night. Or, my new thesaurus is terrible. Not only that, but it's also terrible. Alright, anyway, you get the point. Those are a bunch of examples, hopefully, some of those help. And next week, we will wrap up this series by talking about a few more tools, but then really talking about the philosophy behind humor a little bit more.
CALL TO ACTION: In the meantime, I encourage you to practice these tools. You've learned three today. 1. The literal truth, one of my favorites, 2. the non sequitur, where it's the juxtaposition of two incongruent elements. 3. And finally, exaggeration, which is either overstatement or understatement. Practice, practice, see what you come up with. And as usual, tag us #STMjokes. I hope this has been helpful.
OUTRO: And I want to thank you for joining me today on The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.
Thank you, Lulu.