Death and Comedy

A popular saying among writers is, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Chicken soup for the would-be comedy writer’s soul.

I know comedy is hard. When I think about things that genuinely, truly make me laugh, they are few. And even fewer are intentional – most of the comedy I experience is the day-to-day variety of non sequiturs and slapstick that is all part of the funny world in which we live.

We’re at the rough draft stage in my screenwriting class (yes, that’s still going on), and so far I’m reading what I have and I’m thinking, Yes. This is funny. Only time will tell if the people who live outside my crinkly little brain will agree.

But in keeping with the Philosophy of Screenwriting tips I learned back in November (ie: Brain Training), I recognize the importance of learning and growing in all aspects of writing. So let’s look at three entertainers that are never not funny. Will we spot a theme?

The “good parts” version, from William Goldman

1. The Princess Bride (the movie and the book)
A family favorite from early childhood. I don’t even remember not loving this movie. Flip to any page in the screenplay, it’s funny.

Check out this conversation between The Man in Black and Fezzik. The Man is in pursuit of his hijacked honey, who has been secreted away by a super smart guy that left his goons to deal with their pursuer – one of whom is Fezzik, played by Andre the Giant.

THE MAN IN BLACK is racing up the mountain trail. 
Ahead is a bend in the trail. He sees it, slows. 
Then he stops, listening.

Satisfied by the silence, he starts forward again and as he
rounds the bend -- a rock flies INTO FRAME, shattering on a
boulder inches in front of him.

                                            CUT TO:

FEZZIK

He moves into the mountain path. He has picked up another
rock and holds it lightly.

                         FEZZIK
             I did that on purpose. I don't
             have to miss.

                         MAN IN BLACK
             I believe you -- So what happens
             now?

                         FEZZIK
             We face each other as God intended.
             Sportsmanlike. No tricks, no
             weapons, skill against skill alone.

                         MAN IN BLACK
             You mean, you'll put down your
             rock and I'll put down my sword,
             and we'll try to kill each other
             like civilized people?

                         FEZZIK
                  (gently)
             I could kill you now.

He gets set to throw, but the Man In Black shakes his head,
takes off his sword and scabbard, begins the approach toward
the Giant.

                         MAN IN BLACK
             Frankly, I think the odds are
             slightly in your favor at hand
             fighting.

                         FEZZIK
             It's not my fault being the
             biggest and the strongest. I
             don't even exercise.

What’s funny?

The situation, the dialogue, and the characters. First, you have this huge fellow with hands as big as the boulders he’s throwing, reasoning with a comparatively tiny hero. I love Fezzik’s character – gentle giant, not too bright, but he gets to say some really funny lines. “I don’t even exercise.” I die.

2. Jim Gaffigan
Always. Always funny. One of the few comedians who is – maybe I’m just picky. What am I saying, I’m horribly picky. I feel an apology to the entire population of humorists is in order. But that just serves to underscore how truly excellent Jim is.

Probably best known for his hot pockets bit, this man could draw belly laughs from Mister Spock. If I could summon a genie to reassure me that some day I’d be half as funny as Jim, I’d be so excited.


What’s funny?

Too much to mention. The voices (“Sincerely, Water Chestnut the Third”), the profound explorations of a topic we universally love… even vegetarians. Yes, vegetarians love bacon. Perhaps that’s part of the irony that makes bacon funny. Thanks to modern health studies, we’re all convinced bacon is so bad for us and yet we love it so completely.

3. Hyperbole and a Half
Leave it to Allie to make anything funny. Literally anything, even extremely unfunny things – like Depression. I didn’t think it was possible, but I was shaking with repressed giggles by the end of this read. I’ll just give an excerpt:

It’s weird for people who still have feelings to be around depressed people. They try to help you have feelings again so things can go back to normal, and it’s frustrating for them when that doesn’t happen. From their perspective, it seems like there has got to be some untapped source of happiness within you that you’ve simply lost track of, and if you could just see how beautiful things are…

But people want to help. So they try harder to make you feel hopeful and positive about the situation. You explain it again, hoping they’ll try a less hope-centric approach, but re-explaining your total inability to experience joy inevitably sounds kind of negative; like maybe you WANT to be depressed. The positivity starts coming out in a spray — a giant, desperate happiness sprinkler pointed directly at your face. And it keeps going like that until you’re having this weird argument where you’re trying to convince the person that you are far too hopeless for hope just so they’ll give up on their optimism crusade and let you go back to feeling bored and lonely by yourself.

And that’s the most frustrating thing about depression. It isn’t always something you can fight back against with hope. It isn’t even something — it’s nothing. And you can’t combat nothing. You can’t fill it up. You can’t cover it. It’s just there, pulling the meaning out of everything. That being the case, all the hopeful, proactive solutions start to sound completely insane in contrast to the scope of the problem.

It would be like having a bunch of dead fish, but no one around you will acknowledge that the fish are dead. Instead, they offer to help you look for the fish or try to help you figure out why they disappeared.

The problem might not even have a solution. But you aren’t necessarily looking for solutions. You’re maybe just looking for someone to say “sorry about how dead your fish are” or “wow, those are super dead. I still like you, though.”

What’s funny?

It takes guts to talk about your life and put all the dark parts out there, but also make fun of it at the same time. And it resonates with us, because we all wonder about ourselves and we all need to be given permission to laugh about it.  It’s like a communal, “Wow, life really sucks sometimes but maybe it will get better.”

Plus those cartoons, enchantingly drawn in possibly the crummiest computer art program ever designed are classic.

So now looking at my three funny things, I am noticing a pattern.

1. People (or rather characterizations of people)
The face made, the voice, the accent, the quirky turn of a phrase. So many characteristics that will tap those funny bones. Case in point: I hate puns. Despise them. Find them Unfunny. But when my DAD drops a pun on an otherwise perfect afternoon, I can’t help laughing. Because my dad is funny, even if his jokes aren’t.

2. A fresh take on a common problem
We’re all in this together. It’s fun to explore the crazy situations we find ourselves in and invent new responses we all wish we had the guts to give. You all have friends and family that who make you laugh in spite of your best efforts to resist. Every family has a punster or inappropriate potty humorist. Maybe it’s you.

3. Silly
When it comes right down to it, I can’t help being drawn to the ridiculous. The random and unexpected observations of people in books, movies, and real life are often the funniest. I even like potty humor, mostly because I know I shouldn’t.

So I’ve been working on this post for precisely 70 minutes, which I’m pretty sure is not enough time to explore this topic in depth. Feel free to respond below with funny stuff. It’s good to laugh.


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