â€œThe human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.â€
– Mark Twain
â€œWit is a dangerous weapon, even to the possessor, if he knows not how to use it discreetlyâ€
– Michael de Montaigne
Both Montaigne and Twain were, of course, entirely right in their assessments.Â Especially Montaigne, that genteel and erudite man of letters, whose scholarly essays were always filled with amusing and witty anecdotes, usually at his own expense.
But the fact remains, humour is a weapon.Â In fact, its the best weapon there is.Â How powerful is a potential Adolph Hitler if all his voters are laughing at him?Â Bigots and fundamentalists of all stripes have a decidedly dim view of humour for this reason.Â It’s not a product of force, but of the intellect.Â It doesn’t reduce cities to rubble or execute heretics, but at the same time it can be used to kill a man stone dead, in the eyes of those whose respect and fear he needs the most.
Even the traditionalist militarists and corporatists are suspicious of humour.Â Its not something that can be used for inflating an R&D budget, nor acquired and stockpiled at great cost.Â Equally, its subversive tendencies chafe against the regimentation and hierarchical nature of corporate life.
The thing is, with all weapons, you have to know how to use it right.Â Just like in a knife fight, where an inexperienced idiot with a blade is a greater danger to themselves than an unarmed expert, you have to know how to use humour properly, or else you’ll end up hoisted on your own petard, as it were.
Because of this, a sort of rumour, or perhaps a scurrilous lie, has been spread about humour.Â Apparently, its an inborn trait, like blonde hair, or height, or wanting to be a corporate liar.Â Some sort of genetic fluke which makes some people funny and others not.Â And if you are one, then you can never be the other, try as you might.
It is, of course, complete and utter bullshit.Â No doubt some people have more of a natural flair for humour â€“ perhaps an ease with large audiences, a natural disposition to be the centre of attention, an excellent command of the English language.Â But humour, like any other skill and especially writing style, can be cultivated and developed, up until the point it can be forged into a weapon, a perfect design to smash enemies and leave them looking like fools.
Unfortunately, this means we’re going to have to do some incredibly unfunny analysis of humour and how it actually works.Â If that bothers you, then I suggest you look away…now.
Right, now we’re rid of them.Â I suppose I should start from the beginning.Â What is the point of humour?Â Psychologists have actually found that humour, while an innate trait among most humans, also serves some interesting sociological purposes as well.
Usually, these are divided down into six reasons:
we laugh out of instinct
we laugh out of incongruity
we laugh out of ambivalence
we laugh for release
we laugh when we solve a puzzle
we laugh when we regress
Additionally, two meta-reasons are often added to this analysis:Â we laugh out of surprise, or because we feel superior.
Surprise is obvious and easy.Â Its also one of the most universal reasons for laughing.Â Embarrassment and trickery are core to this idea.Â Obviously, you have to maintain the level of surprise for this type of humour to work.Â Easily guessed wordplay might be witty, but lacking that factor, it is not especially funny.
Surprise is, in essence, the cardinal rule of comedy.Â It should have some role in almost everything funny you do.Â Without it, comedy ceases to be.Â Its a curve ball that throws the audience off balance.
Superiority, of course, is one that should actually interest us too.Â All good humour has an element of both tragedy and cruelty to it, to be really effective.Â What adds to that effectiveness is the feeling that those who are not the target of the joke, or who guessed at or appreciated the joke, are superior to those who are not.
This may sound, in theory, elitist, but it need not be.Â In fact, comedy of this sort is often the great equalizer, documenting and mocking the failings of the great and powerful, of people who want to put you in your place.Â Comedy of this sort is the true razor blade of rhetoric, its use is to cut the other person down to size.Â Its transgressive nature questions assumptions and cherished beliefs.Â As social criticism, it is especially effective because humour goes beyond restrictions and social norms.Â Humour can also be used to maintain the status quo, to ridicule out-groups…but that sort of humour is boring and stale.
Instinctively, we laugh as a verbal substitute for an attack.Â The laugh of the triumphant is the one that says â€œI am better than you.â€Â It is a way of venting hostility when physical assault is not practical.
Incongruity makes us laugh because something is internally inconsistent, it is paired or matched in odd ways.Â When we realize why, or how, we laugh.Â Often this is related to the idea of superiority, though the original appearance of the incongruous may be surprising as well.Â The two combined are especially effective.
Ambivalence is similar to incongruity, but instead of the clash or conflict of irreconcilable ideas or perceptions, ambivalence is the simultaneous presence of mixes signals.Â Once decoded, the language expresses both of these feelings, usually love and hate, at the same time.Â It is an attempt to maintain dignity, to cover up our foolish errors, and is especially useful in self-deprecating humour.
Release is a pretty obvious one.Â We laugh to release tension, to remove ourselves from uncomfortable or dangerous situations, to air truths that may be otherwise hard to face.Â This release is especially useful if it can be experienced as a group event â€“ and the element of surprise must be removed.Â The audience must know what lies behind the door, or what happens next to the over-curious cat.Â That is where the rule of surprise no longer applies.
After we’ve been roughed up, its nice to see someone else take a few lumps.Â The idea is that if we are laughing at them, then they cannot laugh at us.Â This humour can spark a revolutionary sentiment, or quash it, giving safe release to emotions that may be better used getting people to work at something else.Â Consider its use carefully.
Puzzles are also elements of surprise.Â Its a matter of configuration, the set up.Â You have to frame a problem or a riddle in a certain manner, then propose a valid, if surprising, answer to it.Â We take delight in the surprise, and comfort in the superiority of knowledge.
In terms of regression, Freud argued that comedy was as important as sleep.Â It allowed for more primitive urges and desires to be expressed in acceptable social ways.Â Especially for infantile, sexual or aggressive behaviour.Â A playful mood, adopted as relaxation, is the most common form of this sort of humour (consider the comic strip â€“ often the most common form of humour regardless of nationality or culture).Â This also includes a desire for social approval however.Â Regressive humour is rarely continued without a form of social acceptance, especially from authority figures.Â It is therefore a tool to be used when you and your audience share a target in common, someone whom you both dislike and feel needs to be made an object of ridicule.
In short, humour is a manifestation of what society really believes, but dares not say.Â It pierces beneath the bullshit and spin to get at the Really Real (Perceived) Truth of the matter.Â Because sometimes we cannot deal with tragedy directly, we rely on humour to ease our way to acceptance.
Sick humour, in and of itself, is rarely effective, except perhaps as an opening gambit, a ploy to attract attention.Â Beyond that, it can actually have a negative effect on audiences.
So, that’s the why of humour, the idea as to why we need it.Â Now we move onto the nuts and bolts, the how of humour.Â These are the necessary ingredients for any comedic routine.Â Without them, the humour may taste somewhat off or wrong, and in worst case scenarios, ruin the entire joke.
The six principle ingredients are:
The target is the most important aspect of this.Â A successful target must fit the persona and style you are using, as well as the interests of the audience.Â Therefore, pick your battles carefully, and with this uppermost in your mind.Â Just remember, you have to reaffirm some the prejudices of your audience, and be very unfair to whoever your target is.Â Oh well, such is life.Â There is no room for balance or explanation in a joke, you have to be as ruthless as a General.Â See the weakness, and exploit it for all its worth.Â Deny the goodness of your target.
If you cannot pick a person, then pick an experience with universal appeal.Â But I prefer the well known person route, since we are talking of humour as a weapon here.Â Also, remember that if you do pick an experience, do not make it too broad.Â It has to be specific in what it entails.Â Driving is not funny, women who manage to multi-task every single fucking thing in the world while driving, however, can be.
Hostility is next.Â Comedy is cruel.Â In our case, necessarily so, because we deal with cruel people in a cruel world.Â This hostility is a powerful antidote to the hostility many of us feel to those we are surrounded by in our every day lives â€“ it is a release, because we all have an element of hostility towards something.
Authority is a natural target the world over for comics.Â Remember it, cherish it, use it.Â People all around the world hate their leaders, their systems, the powers they have to labour under.Â This humour is nihilistic â€“ no one is too powerful or too pure to be beyond reproach.Â Just remember lots of people have sympathy for the underdog, so direct that hostility upwards.
Next to authority, money and business are also perfect targets.Â Aside from that, angst, the painful knowledge of the ugly reality, is another one.Â Merchandising human suffering is the fuel which angst runs on.
Realism.Â Like all good propaganda and disinformation, comedy contains a kernel of truth hidden within it.Â Comedy is essentially telling the truth via lying, the use of juxtaposition, surprise and the bending of language to give life to an unexpressable reality.
Most of the facts of humour should be logical and obvious, but hidden via convention and expression so that we don’t quite apprehend them correctly.Â A major deviation from reality wont prevent humour, however it will likely not be as funny as a joke based on reality is.
Exaggeration.Â Ah, poetic licence.Â Humour is what allows people to suspend disbelief, and this should be used to its full advantage.Â Absurdity, hyperbole and outright lying are all acceptable because, as the exaggeration signals to us: hey, its only a joke.Â Often the foil to the realism of the joke, the two are held up and follow from each other to create the incongruity that results in laughter.
Emotion.Â Hostility alone is not enough emotion.Â There has to be an element of anticipation within the audience, the joke has to be built up.Â In effect, you create tension, then you release it.Â The audience is wound up, then down.Â You must, in effect, adopt a persona which can bring about this effect within an audience.Â Almost always, the best way to do this is with a character that shows a sort of boundless, almost infectious energy.Â You also have to know how to use language.Â Where to stop, where to start, where to pause â€“ there must be a rhythm to your delivery.
Stand-up in particular is more a funny man doing material than a man doing funny material.Â To a degree, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.Â The man who is delivering the material is funny, therefore his material must be funny too.Â This identity/rhetorical sleight of hand is not always true, but it is worth remembering and considering.Â Delivery is key, and cannot be understated.
Surprise.Â Of course, this was mentioned in the previous chapter, but merits a mention here as well.Â Charlie Chaplin defined surprise in terms of a film scene in which the villain is chasing the heroine down the street.Â On the sidewalk is a banana peel. The camera cuts swiftly back and forth from the banana peel to the approaching villain.Â At the last second, the heavy sees the banana peel and jumps over itâ€”and then falls into an open manhole.
The surprise cannot be telegraphed.Â No matter what.Â It must be genuine, or else it loses its impact.Â You have to master the poker face, keep the audience in suspense for just long enough to pull the rug out from under them.
OK, this is getting far too long already, and I cannot possibly hope to include every single possible hint about comedy.Â But keep these ideas in mind, play around with them, practice, and encourage creativity within humour!Â And as you get better…put it to a use!