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The Art of the Joke (or the Joke of the Art): What Makes it Funny

chatterteeth By Marcus A. Hennessy

“Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.”
–Mark Twain

“I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.”
–Woody Allen

Has it ever occurred to you, as you’re viewing the latest Judd Apatow or Farrelly Brothers movie, “Why is this scene funny?” Or, more often than not, “Why is this not funny?” Another question might be, “What puts the comedy in comedy writing, and why?”

Perhaps our modern sense of humor evolved from the stand-up schtick of Susarion, generally believed to be the first of the Greek comics who worked the Dionysian festival crowds back in 580 BC. Or maybe it was Epicharmus, who wrote funny little plays for the folks in Syracuse around 490 BC. Aristotle argued that comedy evolved from popular Greek phallic processions (go figure!), and the word “comedy” itself comes from the Greek “komos,” meaning reveling band, plus “aeido,” to sing.

But that was 2500 years ago and those Greek jokes have become a little stale. I need to tap into a more contemporary resource to satisfy my curiosity—today’s comedy writer. So I asked a few, all of whom have found professional success in their chosen field, and who currently teach this summer for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

“Tell the truth!” says Lisa Medway, TV sitcom writer, responding to my broad inquiry about how to write funny, and who’s teaching “Beginning Writing for the Half-Hour Comedy—Building the Story and Outline” this summer. “Only the truth is funny. Emotional truth is fundamental to all writing. Comedy is the truth stretched to the edge of reality. If a character lies, he must lie, truthfully. I know, it’s confusing. It’s oxymoronic. But it’s the truth.”

“Comedy is based on surprises…like the fact that I’m actually teaching a class in anything,” notes Howard Leff, essayist and humorist, who’ll be conducting “Writing the Short Humor Column (Online)” later this month.

Instructor Beth Lapides has a somewhat unorthodox approach to comedy writing: “First write unfunny, then make it funny. Usually, I end up writing the set-up after the punch. I have to flip much of what I write. In fact, even this answer is backwards!” Lapides is an author, performs in L.A.’s popular Un-Cabaret, and is slated to teach “Free Range Comedy Workshop” at the end of July.

I’m getting some interesting answers here, but I still feel like that guy at the party who’s waiting for the chardonnay to kick in so he can loosen up and tell a few jokes. I mean, what is it about wanting to tell a great joke?

“Comedy is probably the least universal art form,” notes Greg Miller, multi-media producer, co-producer of the stand-up show, Un-Cabaret, and teaching the Free-Range Comedy Workshop with Lapides in late July. “It is highly subjective, so reaching people with humor is tapping into a more personal level.”

Medway has a different perspective on the comedic muse. “It isn’t possible to learn how to be funny. It’s possible to learn about the craft of comedy and analyze why something is funny or not, but being funny is who you are. It’s how your brain works. If you can balance an ice cube on your nose or juggle porcupines, you have a clown gift. But being the clown does not a writer make.”

At this point I’m starting to feel like that guy at the party who’s so eager to tell his favorite joke that he instantly blows the punch-line and simply embarrasses himself. Why bother to tell a joke at all? Why not just impress everyone with that story about how your grandma got abducted by aliens, or play the sympathy card and describe how your dog was run over by a dump truck? Isn’t that more dramatic and sensational? In other words, why do people prefer good comedy over good drama?

“Ideas and images can come with any kind of writing,” says Lapides. “What comedy is better at is helping you laugh through the pain. Or feel superior. But try to stay away from that kind of comedy…it’s toxic.”

“The difference between comedy and drama isn’t a chasm, it’s a crack,” Medway contends.   “Stories are partially plot, but predominantly about flawed characters. In a comedy, a character’s flaws may create obstacles, but they don’t destroy her. In drama, her flaws are fatal. The raw material of humor is pain—or fear or loneliness or rage or despair or alienation: all so not funny.  I haven’t tested this theory on rats, but most (not all) dramatic writing has the potential to be comedic.”

Leff has a markedly lighter perspective. “Comedic writing is 28% more effective than dramatic writing,” he says, “even more so when the comedic writing is actually funny—which in my case is a total crapshoot. Here in America, citizens are rapidly losing interest in dramatic writing since it doesn’t go over well as a text message.”

Okay, I’m at the party again, and I hear a guy telling this amazing joke, telling it perfectly, and everyone laughs. The guy thinks he’s funny—no, he knows he’s funny—and I start to think, “How does someone become funny? Is it something you’re born with, or is it an acquired trait, like eating with a fork?”

“Pain and shame,” says Medway, as if reading my mind. “I was ten years old when I got a bone disease in my foot. I was on crutches all of fifth grade and for three years I wore grotesque, enormous, white orthopedic oxfords with two-inch heels. I was the only lonely guest at my own, private pity party. Everybody felt uncomfortable around me and sorry for me. Sitting on the bench, weeping, watching a game of dodge ball, I figured out the magic trick to get people to relax: make a joke. I made fun of the absurdity of my shoes, my pain, my luck. It was the awful truth. I had stumbled upon the power of humor and it was empowering.”

Leff had a somewhat different epiphany as a child. “Wistfully speaking, I remember getting some laughs while reading a fourth-grade composition in front of the class. I only wish I had written it.”

Lapides’ story sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. “My writing wasn’t actually funny but it was comedy-adjacent. I was a performance artist with no craft, so I decided to take the hero’s journey down to the bowels of dark smoky rooms. I lived to tell the tale.”

So there was Susarion 2500 years ago, and there’s Larry the Cable Guy today—not to mention all the other folks throughout history who’ve been labeled as humorists, satirists, comedians, clowns, jesters, and game show hosts. So if I were to model myself after the funniest person to ever live, who might that funniest comedy writer be?

Leff’s choice: “Woody Allen. Why? ‘It is still hard for me to believe Needleman is dead. I was present at the cremation and at his son’s request, brought the marshmallows…’ (from Side Effects).

Lapides’ candidate is somewhat more ubiquitous, to say the least. “God. Or source. Or whatever you want to call it—him, her, them. Once you finally get life, you die. Ha ha!”

Miller’s response was by far the most diplomatic: “The person who makes me laugh next is the funniest person, because comedy and laughter are about recognizing a moment that opens a window to a bigger truth.”

“There isn’t a funniest writer,” Medway says. “In ancient Greece, Aristophanes satirized government (Athens), war (Peloponnesian), intellectuals (Socrates), and his peers (Euripides). Following in the subversive spirit of Aristophanes a bunch of centuries later, was Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales is a work of genius and the genome of modern literature—and porn. Cervantes, Shakespeare, Moliere, Swift, Wilde, Twain, Parker, all mocked the sacred cows of their day. Because of them we have Letterman, Sedaris, Vowell, Rock…and Stephen Colbert!”

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Marcus Hennessy is a member of the Writers’ Program staff.

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