Thursday, June 30, 2011

What Do You Think is Funny?

In our course we have a subject on writing comedy. Although many of our students never study this, saying that they are not funny enough, others give it a go, just to see what they learn. One of the writing how-to guides that I recommend is The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus, because I have used it myself with some of my children's story ideas. There are most definitely tools that we can use to develop a story idea into something funny. But ultimately, I always come back to thinking about that question - what is funny, and why do we differ so much in our answers?

Years ago, I attended a screenwriting conference on sitcoms, and the first question in the very first session was "What is your favourite sitcom?" Of course, everyone had a different answer. Mine was "Cheers". But other people loved "Fawlty Towers". Some loved "Friends". Now I'm sure some would answer "Two and a Half Men" or "The Office". Comedy also shows up great divides, in that those who love one show will loudly scoff at others who love another!

A writer friend of mine attended all three Robert McKee seminars last weekend (I'll post soon on the one I went to), including the comedy day. She told me McKee had said that a comedy writer is someone who hates the world, and writes from that perspective. While you might disagree, I thought about some of the comedy writers I have known, but more than that, a lot of the comedy that I have seen and heard. And I think I agree, for the most part. Not necessarily that a comedy writer hates the world, but that perhaps he or she has a more cynical or pessimistic view than the rest of us, and uses that as a basis.

Because, let's face it, a lot of comedy these days is pretty cruel. In our newspaper, The Age, there was a piece last week about an Australian comedian who is currently popular in the US, but most of his comedy routine is based on being sarcastic/nasty/horribly funny (you choose) about a company in Adelaide that he used to work for. Obviously, his time at this place was not good for him, and he's now paying them back big-time for it. And everyone is falling about laughing at his routine. Although the comments section on the article suggest about 50% of people are not.

And I thought - huh? It's meant this company has suffered quite a lot of backlash, the owner has received hate mail, and so far has been unable to defend himself. Maybe he deserved it - I'm not going to get into that argument! But I'm still wondering what really is funny about this? And when is the comedian going to move on? Or maybe he can't move on? So what is that saying about him?

I think there is a lot of very funny comedy around - I've seen and heard stuff that I thought was hilarious, while understanding that not everyone would agree with me. That's the nature of comedy, as I said earlier. But I'm starting to wonder about "funny" stuff that is basically an excuse for an attack on someone as a way of getting back at them. And then I wonder about comedians whose routines are all about attacks on themselves. Before I get too darned serious altogether, I think I'll go and watch a re-run of "Cheers"!


Snail said...

Comedy is such a tricky thing. I admire Ricky Gervais' skill, but there have been times when I have not been able to watch whole eps of 'The Office' and 'Extras' because of their accuracy in recreating the petty cruelties in interpersonal relationships.

Sherryl said...

I think that's why Kath and Kim make me cringe so much. With the added factor of the middle class laughing at the working class with such glee, and saying how clever it is (is this sneaky superiority?).

Lisa66 said...

I used to love a series on the ABC called Grass Roots. It was about the inner workings of a local council and I thought it was hysterical. My partner, who has worked for local council in the past, couldn't watch it. He said it was less a comedy and more a documentary!

Your point about Kath and Kim is interesting. I really enjoy it, but have never thought of K&K as working class. I see them as middle class bogans. Then again I guess it depends on your definition of bogan! I see myself as laughing along with K&K and embracing a bit of my inner bogan at the same time!

Mortgage Choice at Sutherland (9521 1611) said...

Thanks for this, Sherryl.

Cheers is being rerun on channel 11 here at the moment. I've caught it a few times and apart from the good memories it brings of my Dad and watching all the originals, it's still funny. Roseanne, which comes on after has been a revelation to me. I hated the original, but can now see how painfully raw and edgy it was at the time. So very working class and bleak but spot on. Personally my favourite funny man is Danny Bhoy, the scottish talent whose stand up is witty, clever and accurate, yet always gentle and respectful. He does swear a little but so in context you hardly notice. He makes fun of himself but never attacks himself. We took our 14 year-old to see him back in May and never once felt uncomfortable with the content even though he was playing to an adult crowd at the Enmore. Google him and catch a few of his Ozzie observations on utube. To me he's just a natural story teller and that's pretty much what he does for two hours on stage, complete with digressions and ad libs. Simply brilliant.

Sherryl said...

Lisa - can you be a middle class bogan? That's an interesting question!

I must go and look up Danny Bhoy - thanks for the suggestion. Yes, I agree - comedians who can tell a story definitely top those who rely on one-liners!

Mo Johnson said...

That last comment about Danny B was from moi - Mo. For some reason I came up as my work. Trying to fix it now. x

Nathan Luff said...

Hi Sherryl,

interesting post and comments. I've never really thought about comedy coming from a place of hate or cynicism but I can see that a lot does. I guess it fits in with that idea that it is better to laugh at something (or yourself) than be bogged down in depression over it. Of course there are so many different types of comedy and the trick of writing it is you will never be able to make everyone laugh, so you can only really focus on making yourself laugh.

When thinking about some of the comedy I like, particularly comedy for a younger audience, I'm reminded of the Oscar Wilde quote – "life is too important to be taken seriously" – I think a lot of comedy writers have that motto.

I do enjoy the ridiculous especially when it comes from a real place (Fawlty Towers does that well). Sadly John Cleese's latest comedy efforts are all anger about his ex-wife (and he performs only to pay for alimony).

Sherryl said...

Nathan - I had heard that about John Cleese's show. And also heard that audience reaction wasn't very positive.