Yesterday’s Malice in Memphis meeting’s speaker was one of our founding members who spoke on writing humor. One great actor (whose name I can’t remember, but I suspect George Burns) said that ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard.’ Boy, is that true. In my younger days when I did a fair amount of acting with a couple of our local theatre groups, I hated being cast in a role that was supposed to be funny. I do think I can write funny, but I sure as shootin’ can’t act it. I am entirely too self aware. You can’t worry about holding your stomach in and be funny.
Someone else (I think it was James Thurber, but don’t quote me) said that ‘remembered disaster is funny.’ Frankly, that’s the best definition I’ve ever heard. But only if it is survived disaster as well. He wrote a series of essays on remembered disasters. My favorite is “The Day the Pig Fell in the Well.” Now, that’s funny.
I love the great slapstick comedies. There is something about a pie in the face that makes me laugh. The stuffier the receiver of the pie is, the funnier it becomes. Laurel and Hardy did the ultimate pie-throwing scene in which one small accident with a pie ends up resulting in a giant crowd flinging pies at one another. Okay, you had to be there. But look it up some time on Netflix. You will laugh. I especially like the woman who winds up sitting in a custard pie, gets up, wriggles her skirt down to cover the mess, and walks off without a care in the world.
Hyperbole is funny. The worse things get, the better.
Logic is funny. Punch lines must be surprising, but they must also follow logically from what went before.
Misunderstanding is funny.
Chaos is funny.
What is not funny is being mean-spirited. There is a thing in TV comedies called “Jumping the shark.” That’s the moment when something happens that so doesn’t work that it destroys the characters. The classic is the scene in which Fonzi actually jumps a shark in Happy Days. The show went on for a long time, but it never recovered.
Comedy that is happy, funny, clever, smart, sassy can be destroyed by one moment in which it becomes mean-spirited. Hurting people is not funny. Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey can be absolutely vicious, but she is never mean-spirited. She pokes fun at people’s pecadillos. She pokes holes at stuffiness. She does not laugh at dire poverty or physical handicaps. The people she goes after deserve to be taken down a peg. We love her first because she says things the rest of us would like to say and dare not, and second because down deep we know she’s a sweetie.
I have always thought that Northern Exposure, one of my all time favorite shows, was killed in its last season by mean-spiritedness. I’m sure you can name others.
I wish I could tell you how to think funny. I just know that my friend Phyllis thinks funny all the time. The rest of us have flashes, but most of us are no Buck Henry. So, remember, dying is easy, comedy is hard. And go for it, baby.