Thursday, 22 October 2009

It's a matter of...

Timing, of course. Or, as Frank Carson insisted on saying at every opportunity "It's the way I tell 'em". Timing is supposedly at the heart of comedy, and it's almost certainly true. Think about Bruce Forsythe for a moment (yes, I know, I'm sorry). His jokes on Strictly Come Dancing have generally veered between the simply un-funny and the truly awful, but my theory is that most of them would actually have done quite well in the hands of someone else. Most of them are based on the sort of punning and wordplay that have earned the likes of Lee Mack and Jimmy Carr good followings. They fall flat because of the way they're told, rather than the content.

The tricky bit is what that implies for attempts to be funny with the written word. After all, if you're speaking, you can control the speed of delivery and the timing of any punchline just by altering the rate at which you speak. You can't control the speed at which people read, can you?

Of course you can. I'm doing it now, more or less (mostly less). Everything that would normally affect the flow of writing, from sentence structure and length, to use of punctuation, to word choice is a vital part of getting the timing right in comic writing. A few of the more obvious ones, and their silly applications.

  • Brackets. Now, most of us don't put that many brackets in our work, mostly because they signal that what you're about to say has no real place in the sentence, but is just an aside you thought might work. But comic asides and random non-sequiteurs are an essential comic tool (unlike a hammer, unless you happen to think that Timmy Mallett was funny). Terry Pratchett prefers footnotes. It's more or less the same thing.
  • ... is possibly the most useful symbol going, because it both lets you slow the reader down and frequently primes them for what's coming... unless it happens to be a bus.
  • In which case we need short sentences. Like this one. And this. And possibly this. But definitely not this one, because it's going to go on, and on, and on, and... Sorry, I got a bit carried away there. The point is that the very short sentence sometimes works here, even if you might normally join things with commas, simply because of the impact and the break in information. For me, the break gives you a moment to think that it's a normal thought, before hitting you with the odd one. Or possibly a custard pie, for the traditionalists.
  • For extra impact, the funny bit gets its own paragraph. A tiny one. A little paragraph-ette running to just a line or two. And I've just realised that all these pauses are making me sound a little like David Tennant in full Dr Who mode, which isn't really what I was aiming for, so I apologise.
  • Short words keep things sharp. Elongated examples provide an opportunity to produce a more lazily rambling effect. Before you stop. Neither is wrong, and I think that this is where the biggest opportunity to assert an individual taste in humour exists. I probably lean a little more towards the second than the first, but only because I've read too much Wodehouse. (I'm not entirely sure whether such a state is actually possible, but any port in an excuse).
What about you? When you do funny, how do you do it? (Seriously... I need the help).


Lisa Damian said...

Can't say I have a lot of advice about mastering comedy. I find writing humor challenging and don't do it nearly as well as you, but I do recognize and deeply appreciate good humor.

I'm reading Christopher Moore's "The Stupidest Angel" right now. Have you ever read Christopher Moore? He's hilarious! "Lamb" was one of the funniest books I have ever read.

Anyway, Moore offsets the comedic timing with commas, short sentences, long dashes -- basically, a variety of methods. Here's an example from "The Stupidest Angel..."

"Theophilus Crowe's mobile phone played eight bars of 'Tangled Up in Blue' in an irritating electronic voice that sounded like a choir of suffering houseflies, or Jimminy Cricket huffing helium, or, well, you know, Bob Dylan--"

Thomas said...

Pedagogically this will probably be of no help, but that won't stop me.

I have heard people laugh sometimes when they read my stuff. And I like to think that they are laughing with me rather than at me. I think that on the rare occasion when I manage to be humorous, it is because a juxtaposition of things that don't really belong together. Like when I was marveling at the fact that the BBC was broadcasting the Booker prize ceremony live I imagined that it would be like some televised sporting event here in the US where drunk people do stupid things to celebrate. So as I was live blogging the Booker, after they announced the winner I wrote:

"No doubt there will be big parties, burning cars in the streets, babies conceived in drunken revelry..."

Not knee slapping funny, but a light chuckle.