Eight rules for comedy

kurt-vonnegut-2027

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book titled Slapstick. It is NOT a book about comedy. Wikipedia describes it this way:

Slapstick is dedicated to Arthur Stanley Jefferson and Norvell Hardy (better known as Laurel and Hardy), and the title of the novel is in reference to the physical and situational comedy style that duo employed. Vonnegut explains the title himself in the opening lines of the book’s prologue:
“This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography. I have called it “Slapstick” because it is grotesque, situational poetry — like the slapstick film comedies, especially those of Laurel and Hardy, of long ago. It is about what life feels like to me.”

Kurt Vonnegut also gives us eight rules of storytelling that work great for comedy.  These are the rules, and I follow up with comments on a few of them.

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Rule #3.  Every character should want something.  Sometimes in comedy, however, one character just wants be left alone to live their life, but some other character is ruining that for them.

Rule #4.  Many people in animation will tell you that everything in a story must advance the action.  That you must cut out anything that doesn’t do that.  Vonnegut provides the option of revealing character. And that is quite true for comedy.  Funny characters can be exquisitely entertaining even when they are not advancing the story.

Rule #6. Put your character into a situation where even you don’t know how they are going to get out of it.  Make it difficult for yourself.  If it takes you a while to find the answer, then it won’t be obvious to the audience.

Rule #8.  This rule is especially good for short stories/films.  The challenge is in how quickly and elegantly you can get the viewer up to speed with what is going on.  You do not want them confused at any point.

 

The Six Varieties of Physical Comedy

M. Wilson Disher wrote “Clowns and Pantomimes” which was published in 1925. He lays out six varieties of physical comedy. These are:

FALLS, BLOWS, SURPRISE, KNAVERY, MIMICRY, and STUPIDITY

FALLS. Easily the first one to come to mind. Gravity reminds us we are not special. The more important or serious the person is, the funnier it is when they fall. There are many combinations of people and ways of falling. It’s really about the set up, and also about having a reasonable belief that the person isn’t seriously injured. It’s about making them look foolish.

BLOWS This is the bread and butter of the Three Stooges. It’s also the category that pie fights fall into.

SURPRISE One reason Buster Keaton was considered a great film maker was his ability to set up surprises. You are all set to see one thing, then he gives you another. There are two good surprises in this clip from his short film “One Week.”

KNAVERY is the sneaky stealing of things. The sly trickster is appealing. He is the partner of stupidity. I immediately thought of Harpo Marx.

MIMICRY. You probably noticed the brief moment of mimicry in the previous clip. When someone pretends to be some one or something else, it is funny. Dressing in drag is a form of mimicry. The greater the skill, the greater the comedy. Jim Carrey has great skill and he pushes the exaggeration as far as he can.

STUPIDITY. Here’s the problem with demonstrations of stupidity: The professionals have been pushed out of the market by the amateurs. I’m talking about “fail” videos. Damn if there aren’t lots of cameras trained on lots of stupid people. But we want to see how the professionals act stupid. The comedy of mistakes. It’s about seeing things wrong, being confused, but it’s also seeing things in a different way. The stupid character misinterprets directions and repeatedly makes the same mistake over again. Stan Laurel was one of the great stupid comedians.

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