Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Comedy Is Hard

They say comedy is hard, and they’re right, but why? I think it’s because there is no universal understanding of what is funny. Everyone agrees that the death of a child – particularly if it is horrific – is tragic. The loss of a beloved pet or an ill-fated romance (Romeo and Juliet), the undeserved bad outcome for a good woman or the success of a monster: all these are tragic in some way and understood by the vast majority of the population as such.

However, there are fewer examples of universal comedy. Slipping on a banana peel is one of the most obvious; cream pie in the face is another. But even these don’t draw laughs from everybody. A few find the scenes unpleasant or too close to what happened to them in similar situations. Those past experiences make comedy more difficult to appeal to all.

That said, there are three standard methodologies one can employ to derive laughs. First is cruelty: slipping on the banana peel, a football to the groin, a cream pie to the face. Think Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges. Their humor is mostly physical, mostly cruel. What makes it funny for most is that no one is seriously hurt by the torture inflicted, so we can watch it without feeling sadistic.

Second is exaggeration: think of Maxwell Smart eyeing a magnet the size of a house and saying, “That’s the second biggest magnet I ever saw.” Or think of the piano in the Laurel and Hardy film that magically stays on the stairs as it descends back to the street, bouncing and jouncing and ending up where it started.

Third is the unexpected: I recently saw an episode of Will & Grace, where Karen’s maid Rosario dies. Karen is standing next to the casket speaking in a heartfelt way when she notices a spot on the exterior. She rubs at it for a moment, then reaches into the coffin and pulls out a spray bottle. She sprays the spot, replaces the bottle, then reaches into the coffin again and pulls out part of Rosario’s dress to wipe down the area.

Not everyone will find these examples funny, but you get my point. By doing the unexpected, or doing the expected in an exaggerated way, you can impart humor. However, there’s one final element required for comedy, and that’s the ability to see the world in a twisted sort of way.

It derives, often, from twisting anger into humor. You see something stupid and instead of getting mad, you exaggerate or twist it into something funny. This is a gift shared by the best stand-up comedians.

Rodney Dangerfield saying: “I stuck my head out the window and got arrested for indecent exposure.”

This is a gift not all possess. I certainly don’t have it. I occasionally try to write something with a little humor, but for me it’s a struggle. I just don’t see the world that way. When I get angry, I don’t immediately deflect that anger in a way that others find humorous.

It takes work to get there. And sometimes it takes more effort than I’m willing to put into it. So, hats off to those writers, like Christopher Moore and Douglas Adams, who can pull it off. But if you’re not one of those types, like me, then if you want to write something funny, you at least have to know the structure you need to follow.

Now get out of here, I’ve got serious work to do.

Where’s my manuscript? Who stole my manuscript? If somebody destroyed my manuscript, I’m gonna go absolutely … oh, there it is.


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