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"!