META: The Problem of Humour

Gary St. Lawrence saint763 at
Fri Feb 29 21:18:50 PST 2008

Ohhhh ... I don't know about that.

I used to be quite good at humor, back in the day.

Ummmm ... wasn't I?

On Mon, 25 Feb 2008 05:20:21 +0000 (UTC), Martin Phipps
<martinphipps2 at> wrote:

>In the past, when I've waxed philosophically about humour, it has been
>in the context of stand up comedy.  In this context, jokes are
>expected and TIMING is important.  Like a magician, a comedian uses
>MISDIRECTION: the comedian starts by telling a seemingly serious story
>so the audience is fooled into being surprised by the punchline.  The
>story is the SET UP.  All jokes follow the set up - punch line format:
>not enough set up and the joke is LAME; too much set up and the
>punchline loses its element of SURPRISE.  We are less likely to laugh
>at a punchline that we can predict: the comedian might as well just
>skip to the punch line sooner and get the joke overwith and move on.
>Thing is, and maybe this means I'm really slow sometimes, but it
>occurs to be that very little of the above applies to written humour.
>In written humour, misdirection is more important than timing: a slow,
>deliberate reader can see a joke coming a mile away.  Perhaps that is
>why humourist Dave Barry uses the phrase "But seriously" so often: you
>know there's a joke coming so he will actually lie and tell you he's
>being serious right before he tells the next joke.
>Humour in the context of a story doesn't follow the set up - punchline
>format at all: instead, you are given a situation, either a ridiculous
>situation that is funny in itself or a serious situation in which a
>joke is completely unexpected (and hence potentially much funnier).
>Humour in a serious story is refered to as "comic relief".
>One good question is this: when does a drama with comic relief become
>a comedy?  If a drama makes you laugh out loud then is it still a
>drama?  I think we touched on this question before when we discussed
>genre: if genre is a function of how it makes the audience feel then
>what is a comedy to you is not a comedy to me and vice-versa.  The
>Scream movies could be either seen as serious horror movies or laugh
>out loud comedies, depending on whether or not you think the effect of
>the comedic elements outweighed the effect of the dramic elements.  I
>think the same could be said of the Final Destination movies: the
>death scenes are straight from slapstick comedies except they end in
>brutal death.  It's almost as though Moe had stabbed Curly with a
>knife instead of just poking him in the eye.  Would it still be
>funny?  People are going to disagree.
>Sometimes too much comedy can ruin a drama.  Take CSI: Miami.  Fans
>call CSI: Miami "a parody of regular CSI with blatant homages to Miami
>Vice".  CSIs arrive back at the lab with their beautiful designer
>outfits and inform the lab techs that they just recovered some trace
>evidence in the swamp.  Horatio begins each episode with a bad pun and
>then puts on his sun glasses.  The lead detective in the case always
>looks confused and has to ask the CSIs what they are doing (which is
>good for exposition but it makes the character look like a dufus).
>Worst of all is how cool Horatio acts, such as the time he casually
>walked away from a car bomb.  (The bomb was on a timer and there was
>no way to disarm it so Horatio drove it out to a field and walked away
>as the car exploded behind him.  Okay, so Horatio is the man.  We get
>In writing, there is also a lot more opportunities for humour beyond
>the set up - punchline format.  For one thing, you have more CONTEXT.
>An entire story can be the set up for a joke and this works
>particularly well if the story is satisfying in and of itself.  Other
>jokes take the forms of PUNS, NON-SEQUITORS, WIT, HOMAGES,
>A pun is the lowest and yet potentially most effective form of humour:
>if you are writing a Star Trek: The Next Generation comedy and you
>call Picard "Prickhard" then it's a lame joke and yet you'll get a
>laugh every time.
>Non-sequitors are considered funny by some but lame to others.  A good
>example of a non-sequitor from an LNH story is the use of the Solid
>Platinum Dancers in the Swordmaster series.  A non-sequitor is the
>kind of humour that causes some people to laugh while other people
>just look confused and say "I don't get it."
>Witty jokes tend to follow the set up - punchline format.  Sarcastic
>remarks are most effective when they are witty: a serious comment by
>one character becomes the set up that inspires a sarcastic punchline
>from a second character.
>Homages usually have to be used in conjuction with puns to avoid
>copyright infringement: basically the idea is to take a character like
>Superman and put him in a situation that you'll never see Superman in,
>such as being accused of negligent homicide after having sex with an
>ordinary human being.  I'm sorry but that just makes me laugh to think
>about that.  Call me sick if you want. :)
>Juxtapositions are funny when you take iconic characters and play them
>off of each other.  I thought the X-Men / Teen Titans crossover way
>back in the eighties was hilarious and I would have loved to have seen
>the Justice League / Avengers crossover.  In the case of parodies,
>doing homages of iconic characters, giving them funny names and having
>them play off each other is potentially so funny that you can go ahead
>and write them into an otherwise serious story and still have it be
>hilarious.  Your mileage may vary. :)
>Finally, in-jokes run counter to the notion that humour should be a
>surprise: people laugh at an in-joke because it is familiar and often
>even predictable.  Catchphrases like "Eat my shorts!" or "Doh!" or
>"Cowabunga!", all from the Simpsons, all qualify as in-jokes.  It's
>worth noting that little kids respond the most to this kind of humour:
>I've noticed that kids will laugh at the same joke 100 times, which is
>98 times after most adults would want to hear it.
>Most of what I've said above is arguably factual.  What follows now is
>just my opinion.  I find drama without comic relief boring.  But I
>also find comedy without context lame.  It's like eating fried chicken
>with rice: too much fried chicken and you worry about your fat intake;
>too much rice and and you worry about not getting enough protien in
>your diet.  When it's right is a matter of personal taste.  I hate to
>say it but I probably enjoy rereading my own stories better than I
>enjoy reading stories by other people, simply because I try to strike
>the balance that works for me.

Signed affectioNETly,
Gary "Pocket Man, Sarcastic Man, Elvis Man" St. Lawrence

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