Q: What is a pirate’s favorite letter?
A: You may think it’s ‘R’, but nay, his first love be the ‘C’.
The first rule of stage combat is: maintain a safe distance and eye contact.
The second rule of stage combat is: never fall down onto your knees.
The first rule is basic communication and safety type stuff for the actor; you don’t want to get hurt for real of course. The second rule might not make as much sense unless you’ve been there, but during a death scene, or a scream to the heavens, and you fall down to your knees on a wooden stage? It makes a very painful sounding noise.
It may not actually hurt at all, but the damage is already done; if the audience thinks you’re in pain, then suddenly, the combat isn’t any fun anymore. It may sound counter-intuitive because isn’t stage combat just a long series of pretending to hurt and be hurt? Yes. But ‘pretending’ is the keyword there. It’s stage combat. It’s literally called a play. As soon as the danger seems real, it does not play anymore.
A lot of that stage combat philosophy also applies to comedy, and they overlap a lot.
Slapstick is a type of staged combat that means to be funny. See?
He twisted that guy’s nipple clean off! That would be wild painful in real life. But the victim just looks extremely offended, and returns the favor… by twisting the other guy’s nipple off, too.
It dissolves into a slap fight.
Home Alone is not nearly as funny if you think too long about an actual nail going into someone’s foot, or about concussions, or being branded and assaulted. But in the movie, they just keep on going—and their keeping on going isn’t the funny part. They never appear so harmed that it’s impressive they can even stand afterward. It’s the creative traps that are funny, and how bad these guys are at avoiding them.
Much against popular opinion, my favorite is Home Alone 3, because the idea of super-secret spies accidentally losing their luggage and being annihilated by a toddler is hilarious to me. Even with actual accidents, as long as they are prefaced with ‘this person is fine now, actually,’ things can still be very funny.
That’s the entire premise of America’s Funniest Home Videos, the spiritual predecessor of the YouTube Fail Compilation.
Yes, an entire basketball team wiped out because of a particularly well-waxed part of the gym, but that is hilarious and they’re all fine enough to submit it to AFHV afterward. Yes, he did lose control of his four-wheeler, completely fail to get back on it, and then was flung into a tree while it sped off into the ether of the outer culdesac. Now he’s in the audience with his family cracking up. Things are okay.
When this feeling of safety gets taken away, even things that should ‘theoretically’ be funny can fall flat, or even be derided. Dead baby jokes are one thing, because they’re often so over-the-top it’s hard to take them seriously, but things like joking about raping someone— you’re unlikely to find someone who paints a wall by throwing babies at it, but you are in fact very likely to find a rapist or rape victim in real life. It’s hard to joke about an actual danger.
Dark humor is a pretty obvious exception— dark humor is, pretty indicatively, a more niche form of humor, and not everyone is expected to enjoy or even feel comfortable with it; it’s not even always welcome. I pretty regularly have to tell someone about the death of a sibling, and telling them he was run over by a helicopter is generally not the most obvious way to do it.
Even then, on the first day of college, someone asked me if I wanted to hear a joke. I said, ‘not if it has airplanes in it,’ because I really wasn’t feeling aviation-related humor after, again, run over by a helicopter. Can you guess the response?
“Actually, well, yeah it does! So a plane is going down, and there’s a hijacker, a student, and a pilot—“
There are only two parachutes. The hijacker mistakenly steals the student’s backpack instead. But also, you didn’t need to tell me that joke. And what was the point of it anyway?
You had an audience of one. And I didn’t find it funny.
Q: What’s red and bad for your teeth?
A: a brick.
Audience is, obviously, fairly important in comedy; and not only when it comes to banging your knees in fake danger, but also about what they think is even danger in the first place. If the audience doesn’t think the jokes are funny? Then it’s not funny.
That’s probably part of why there’s a tension between comedians and colleges. Colleges are fairly capricious audiences on a good day, especially depending on which one you’re in. My college, in particular, was a frog pot. It slowly turned up the heat and you either hopped out or got used to it. No one was ever happy, and someone was always ready to bite your head off. It was really great for learning how to navigate workplace aggression! 🙂
But it would probably be a better place to give a speech than a comedy routine.
We really liked speeches that had jokes in them, but maybe that was because we knew speech-givers a lot better than we knew comedians. If someone was coming to give a talk, people were informed by their clubs and friends who already had an interest in the talk, and so the people who already knew a little brough along people who might be interested, and a good target audience was formed. It’s a lot harder to know if you’ll like a comedian, though.
Sure, if someone currently popular like John Mulaney or Amy Poehler showed up, we’d probably have a pretty good crowd, but all I know about Jeffrey Seinfeld (who swore off visiting college campuses because they were ‘too PC’) is that his name lines up with that old comedy show, and I do not know if that’s a coincidence or not.
Maybe that’s part of why people are more aggressive towards strangers telling a bad joke. It’s less threatening if you know the person it’s coming from. Are we close enough friends for you to talk about your taint issues in front of me? One on one, probably not, but also if a person walked up to me in a grocery store and told me a bread pun, I would be equally put off. Comedians are supposed to be able to bypass those boundaries because they’re comedians.
Maybe the hardest thing with movies or books being comedies is the makers don’t know if it’s going to be funny until it’s out there. Test audiences can help a lot, but it’s not infallible, and not all films use them or take any feedback to heart. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s very much not. I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007) is a movie that slipped into my family’s Netflix queue back when we all still got them in red envelopes. All I remember is a joke early on in the movie that went something like…
Man1 (I don’t recall who is who) : Hey watch this. [calls out to lots of bikini-clad women around his fridge] The beer’s on the bottom shelf!
Bikini women: Ooh! [all bend down so that only bikini butts are visible]
Man1: nice, right?
I do not recall if Man2 replied ‘wow’ or something along the lines of ‘you’re a pig’.
Here’s the thing: even though I called it a joke earlier, I genuinely have no idea if this was meant to be a joke. Is it supposed to be a commentary on Man1’s character? Is it supposed to make it ironic that a super dudebro sexy-loving kinda hunk’ a hunk is going to now pretend to be gay so that Man2 can stop his kids from being taken from him? Is it a butt joke? I do not know. All I know is I have seen so many movies with this exact shot of butts so often that I have no idea if it’s a joke or if it’s just like… film shorthand, like getting a phone call that says ‘turn on your tv’ and the channel is already the right channel or running through airports without even worrying about security to declare your ever-loving affection, and never mentioning the sunk cost of the plane ticket. Is it just a thing that happens in movies? Or is it a joke?
What I do know for sure is that one failed presumed-joke was enough to really put me off the movie, and I wandered back about half an hour later to see them trying to figure out how to behave in a church while pretending to get married. Presumably, one was in a wedding dress and had trouble walking in heels. While maybe not as overt as jokes about killing off a whole group of people who you might be a part of (if you know what “‘down with cis!” means…. haha, you used tumblr?) but even if those jokes aren’t as overtly threatening as assault or rape jokes, it’s still that same type of feeling of ‘unsafe’ that makes them… not really funny.
That was one of the handfuls of criticisms of The Big Bang Theory, that the jokes felt like they were aimed at geeks, rather than just geek jokes. This resulted in a lot of people who didn’t like niche culture so much really liking Big Bang Theory, and lots of people in more niche cultures very much hating it.
Making the humor feel safe to an audience is probably more important than the content. When you feel safe, you can even take criticism well, or handle hard topics. That’s how Mel Brooks managed to make something like Blazing Saddles (1974), which for some people may not have aged well, but it’s a bit like Loony Toon’s humor, or an Anansi tale. Bart is very much in danger… but with wit and charm, he’s going to be just fine, and be beloved by the end.
It also works in part because of certain lines that are not going to be crossed. In a 2006 interview about The Producers, Brooks talked a bit about how while you can mock people and cut them down to life-sized levels, there are simply some things that you cannot make into jokes, like a film about life actually being pretty okay inside holocaust death camps. The referenced film’s jokes weren’t meant to be safe for Jewish people like Brooks or other target groups, but for a mostly Christian American audience who didn’t want to feel guilty about something so terrible happened in the world.
“In 1974, I produced the western parody ‘Blazing Saddles’ in which the word nigger was used constantly. But I would never have thought of the idea of showing how a black was lynched. It’s only funny when he escapes getting sent to the gallows.”
That boundary line makes things, for a given value, safe. There are some things we won’t be asked to laugh at, so we don’t need to worry about it. We follow comedy filmmakers the same way we follow book authors, and public speakers, and comedians. So we know what we’re in for. So it’s safe.
What do you call a Frenchman who always wears sandals?
Even with the perfect matchup in the audience, you still need to get them good jokes out there.
Slapstick humor is a golden cornerstone of a good laugh, but it isn’t what people tend to remember most of the time. Admittedly, I can call up just about any Tom and Jerry cartoon from before the early 2000s on command, but those aren’t the kind of jokes I would share much around. It’s very hard to imitate being flattened into a pancake and waddling angrily around the house. Except with gifs, which are a delightful renaissance of physical comedy, and I will keep a three-second clip of Batfleck visibly falling in love with Superman from Justice League (2017) in my folders for all time, just in case I happen to spot something I like very much.
Verbal comedy is… maybe harder to do. It’s one thing to make a hilarious face. It’s another to intentionally write a joke that someone else can deliver and make it funny.
I have heard… maybe a very unusual amount of theories on what makes something funny, for someone who does not, in general, think much about how to make a joke beyond gut feeling and bravado.
I’ve heard that perhaps shock, or the destroying of expectations, is what makes a joke. That’s why you get things like a bait-and-switch. A guy is waiting to meet up with his friends, some of whom are girls, for a day at the beach. One by one the girls come in in their swimsuits, each more revealing than the last… until the girl, he has a crush on enters, in a full body wetsuit and scuba gear.
Sometimes, people take a shock to the far unfunny corner and just become random, lolz xD i like tacos!!1!, because it is… surprising? But there’s a bit of a difference between confused or startled laughter vs Regina George being hit by a bus to cut off her curse word.
Verbal comedy seems to work out the best when you point out a connection where it may not have been noticed before. Not because people are unobservant, but more because at the moment, it just hasn’t been observed yet. Kindergarten humor is probably the earliest form of this developing, so, “I’m as old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth,” when you don’t want to tell someone your age, and every variation of a knock knock joke out there, including the timeless gem of:
“Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“To get to the idiot’s house. Knock knock”
As much as it is an absolute delight the first time you make the connection between the joke setup and the twist ending of good wordplay, it is to the benefit of everyone that kids stop telling them after about the tenth prideful demonstration.
Movies do not have that same advantage. Chemistry between actors can make a joke last much longer, just because it’s fun to watch them interact, like the discussion on marriage and sex in Wonder Woman between Diana and Trevor. Knowing the actors had a good time as well is also helpful, because then the laugh becomes more genuine and easier to laugh along with—the theory behind laugh tracks—like in Life of Brian (1979), where the Pilate’s friend, Biggus Dickus, had his name changed in every take to keep the guards on their toes and make their struggle to keep a straight face more real. It’s easy to laugh when someone is genuinely having a good time.
For planned jokes though, it’s kind of hard to make a quip come out just as funny the tenth time as it was the first; hence the age-old complaint, “they put all the good jokes in the trailer.”
That is just a lot of why, even when the joke maybe lands, it doesn’t land well, or it doesn’t have much staying power. Live, a joke can be a little bit different each time, but in a film, you have the exact same performance every single time. It’s hard to land a joke for an audience you can’t read, with limited time to change things, and then having that immortalized as the only delivery, ever. Even tired memes reemerge as new pictures and reimaginings.
Individual jokes just can’t be retold over and over and expect to survive, especially if a joke is released in reference to something fleeting. Black Panther (2018)’s Shari shouting ‘what are thoooose’ might have absolutely busted me up in the theater, but it was mostly the surprise of even having a meme referenced word-for-word in a movie, when even TV shows are already too late to capitalize on a meme as soon as they think about potentially capitalizing on a meme. I never even laughed in the original ‘what are thoooose’ memes, and even kind of felt sad about it, when it came to a vine of an older lady being shouted ‘what are thoooose’ at. Even if she was fine and going along with it, I am an absolute coward and project super hard about being around loud yelling for no reason.
So shock value worked at least one time for Black Panther, but maybe it’s wrong to think of it as how to make a joke in a comedy stand on its own.
If a rooster lays an egg at the top of a barn, what side does the egg roll down?
Roosters don’t lay eggs.
The question maybe isn’t how to make a joke in a script individually funny, as much as how do you make a good script that happens to have jokes in it?
In the 2003 dramedy Secondhand Lions, after asking what his great uncles do for fun, we get an immediate montage of them shooting at door-to-door salesmen until the pushy vultures flee the property, swearing they will return one day and get that gosh darn money. It is a very good summation of what they do in their spare time, considering the uncles have no telephone, no tv, live in an age before rural internet access, and also have a magically endless supply of door-to-door salesmen. It serves the story, introducing the gold the uncles are rumored to be sitting on, while also being funny. It’s rooted in-universe, and so it’s not really a repeatable quip. It will only really work in context—so it will only come back when the film is being played.
It’s also not something that has to stand on its own. With things like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry or Holmes & Watson (2018), the films rely on almost skit-like goofs, which the plot just there to shuffle us from one gag to another. It’s a bit like the concept of railroading, not allowing a story to go where it wants to because you have a set destination in mind. Unfortunately, in this case, the destination is a final gaff—instead of letting funny things evolve alongside the story and letting the gags carry the story along.
An easy way to fix Holmes & Watson would probably be for them to just… stumble into the correct answers to a mystery, instead of being obviously rude and dense, and people just… acting as if that is barely even happening. Good natured accidental plot development from a buffoonish character would be a very simple fix, but…. does that sound familiar?
Admittedly, it is also maybe Mr. Bean, but that’s too much secondhand embarrassment for me.
Comedy can take all shapes and forms. Chaplin himself is more than enough proof that it doesn’t need to be verbal, and it doesn’t need to be shallow, or shy away from difficult topics. But it does need to be rooted in something. Relatable situations, or wild accidents, or a stable, good plotline.
Dyeing a man blue, trapping him in his boxers, and wrecking his car, would not be funny at all… unless you have set up the plot of Big Fat Liar (2002) and your victim is a Hollywood producer who has just stolen a teenage kid’s lit assignment to turn it into a zillion-dollar property, with no royalties, and all the kid wants is to fix the zero on his homework.
It’s not something that could happen every day. It’s not something we have to worry about feeling bad over. By the end of the story, the whole audience is primed for some schadenfreude.
And it is hilarious.