“Your audience has got to find it funny and that’s really the only rule you’ve got.” – Edward Aczel
I came across an old essay written in the New Yorker by Zadie Smith called “Dead Man Laughing”.
She describes her family’s relationship with comedy, her brother’s venture into the craft and her father’s sense of humor. In it she said something that really hit me:
It was strange to see my brother, previously a member of my family, becoming a member of this family, all his previous concerns and principles subsumed, like theirs, into one simple but demanding question: Is it funny? And that’s another reason to envy comedians: when they look at a blank page, they always know, at least, the question they need to ask themselves.
She goes on to describe the difficulty with forming these kind of questions when it comes to writing, comparing comedy more with music where you can miss a beat or a note.
I somewhat disagree with her point of view. While the question “Is it funny?” seems like a simple one, it is deceptively so. There are natural follow up questions that need to get answered.
I think that in writing it seems harder to find and ask ONE question because the first aim of a book isn’t that “simple”. For example, one might ask “Did you enjoy the book?” but depending on the intent of the book the word “enjoy” might not be the right choice. After that question we can get down to business, what specifically was it that was “right” or “wrong” in the book and go on from there. It might be technique, delivery, language, premiss or whatever your critics heart desires!
The most important thing is to find the right questions for each craft and hone them. Zadie Smith might not have had the opportunity to ask a lot of others who spoke the same language as her on the craft and that might seem a reason for her experiencing that it takes longer to evolve as a writer than a comedian.
In that respect she’s right though. Comedians could have something of a simpler learning curve since they have such a honest and immediate feedback loop. Something that writers currently do not have to the same extent. Although, go check out cowrite.net if you want a head start on that!
Let’s take a look at what comedy has going for it and how we could apply those techniques into other areas. In other words: “Let’s make something that is fun fucking BORING! Yaaay!”.
So, much like with writing (books, music, whathaveyou!) a “joke” has some different parts to them. Basically it’s the “beggining, middle and end”. The formula might look different, the beginning and middle are called the “set-up” and the end is called the “punchline”. We’re pretty familiar with those, but there are others too!
Act-Out: When you act out the joke in some way. Doing voices, running around the stage, basically acting it out.
The Mix: When you take the joke and put a different spin on it by asking “What if this happened instead?”.
Callback: When you repeat the punchline to a previous joke or reference back to a bit you did earlier in the show.
There are probably tons more but just take another look at those. We’ve doubled the amount of tools in our comedic vocabulary. We get a deeper understanding of the craft!
This is what I mean, even when the end product we want is laughter there are more things to consider than “was it funny?”. Some comedians stretch even further and want to incorporate questions like “did it make you think?” and “did you learn anything?”. But now we’re getting deeper into the rabbit hole than intended, let’s get back to the subject shall we?
Questions! These things come in handy when we’re stuck on something, need to polish our work and especially when we want to take our craft to the next level.
Caveat! Make sure to keep the questions seperate from the actual performance. The last thing you want to do in the middle of that wonderful piece of music you wrote is to start thinking: “Is this 5 bpm’s too fast? Should I change the key to C# minor instead? What if I set the piano on fire?”.
Come to think of it, maybe I should’ve chosen a profession that wasn’t as heavy on the improv?