August 20th, 2002
Mudslinger Writer's Guide - Part XIII - By Excrucior
Make 'em Laugh...
When I started to think about this piece, I thought that I'd just define
comedy. Try to do that yourself before you go any further. It's
easier said than done.
Why do you need to know about humor and how to make a joke? I
referred to this a long time ago when talking about tension and the need to
release it so that you could build up the suspense again. If everything
is constantly tense, the reader loses interest - a sudden amusing
comment, whether it be banter (usually black comedy) or a silly
situation, that allows the reader's thoughts to relax before you return to the
action. Macbeth - one of Shakespeare's darkest plays - used the porter
scene with all its bawdy intimations to do just that. Read the play,
see the movie - you'll see what I mean.
Some people have managed to write fiction that is almost pure comedy.
What is comedy? If you want to attempt to write a humorous piece, you need to answer
this question. The easiest answer would be that comedy is whatever makes
you laugh. A better answer would be that it is whatever makes everyone
laugh because a writer writes to entertain others. Unfortunately this
is a flawed response in that what is funny to one person is not always
funny to another. After a lot of thought I have come to the reluctant
conclusion that I can only give very vague generalities.
Comedy is one of the hardest things to do properly in fiction. You
don't have the ability to define what is there in the same way as a film-
maker has - the reader cannot take in a lot of information in a glance
in the way a viewer of a television program can, and too much text leading
up to a joke will lose the reader's attention. You have to work out a
series of events to the punchline in your tale for the reader to take in
and assimilate quickly. You may have read the occasional lists we
publish on the MudSlinger - the reason that these are occasional is that
they are generally not overly funny. Without being set in the scene, they
lose a lot of their effect, and it has to be something really good to
create a smile under those circumstances. Basically - remember that you
have to try and fix the reader's mind in the context of the joke, but
too much of a buildup is too easy to do.
As a major exception to the normal rules of fiction writing, you can
get away with a lot more than you normally could in a serious piece.
Comedy often breaks all the rules and a good rib-tickling scene will often
deal with the rules as if they were only there to laugh at. Faelan's
first Gargoyle piece was about where mobs go between repops
- the Staff Canteen. It deals with what they would say if they were
intelligent, though heavily downtrodden, employees. These are situations
that employees all around the world experience and so it was amusing to
see it in a Medievia setting. Under normal fictional rules you
couldn't say that your character was suddenly assailed by a repop of guardsmen
- instead you would have to justify it as being a fresh batch of
reinforcements. In comedy, however...
"You know what I really hate?" Mrtarget muttered to his companions.
"Trolls - that's what I hate. They're smelly and big and nasty and mean
and ugly and... Are you lot listening to me?" he asked when there was
no agreement. He frowned and looked around to see someone peering down
at him. "Um, hi," Mrtarget eventually said. He could feel his bravado
sliding out of the holes in his socks.
"I didn't ask to pop, you know," the troll said to no-one in particular.
"I try and perform a public service, but I'm just not appreciated -
do you have any idea what that's like?"
"Er - no," the once-brave warrior replied. "Does this mean you're
going to kill me?"
"Of course not. I have an appointment with a couple of heroes down the
road so I can't stop here talking. It's going to be a dinner date so I
have to rush," the troll explained.
"Dinner date? I thought you usually killed them," Mrtarget asked. The
troll peered down at him and the grin made the trainee warrior realize
the implication he had been missing.
"I'll take you to meet them," the beast chuckled as he threw the
hapless fellow over his shoulder. "Garnish is quite fashionable right
First of all, Mrtarget is a character I occasionally use to get text
samples for the Webtour, in case you are wondering where the name came
from. Think about the scene above - does it make you laugh or even just
smile wryly? Why?
There are several techniques to comedy that you can apply at will but
you have to present any funny comment or joke properly. Think punchline
and keep it in mind. Where does a punchline live? Its natural habitat
is at the end of a series of sentences, each one building up to it.
This may sound a touch mechanical but it's true - if you have the answer
to a joke halfway through a paragraph, why write the rest of the
Let's take a very old joke.
A man walks into a pharmacy.
"Talcum powder please," he says to the assistant.
"Certainly sir," replies the assistant, walking down the counter.
"Walk this way, please."
"If I could walk that way I wouldn't need the talcum powder!"
It's an old one, but let's take it to its component parts.
You have the introduction. It's merely one line - for this joke you
don't need any more. The style of joke wouldn't bear a longer explanation
and with a starting line like that your audience knows it's in a joke
format. (Some jokes need longer run-ups - you need to use your
judgment). You have the request and the reaction from the assistant, then
you get the punchline, which is a play on words.
You could easily ruin this joke - explaining things in too great
detail, letting the audience know things beforehand, putting things in a
different order. Try this.
A man walked with an awkward gait and a pained expression through the
door of a pharmacy. He made his way to the counter with a grimace and
called for the assistant.
"Can I get you anything, sir? Suntan lotion is at half price today,
special offer if you're wanting a holiday. Cotton wool at a third off.
Perfume is quite popular today, I believe." The assistant smiled at
"None of those, thank you," he replied. "I would like to purchase some
talcum powder, for I am in pain and need some to aid my walking."
"Certainly sir. We have several varieties. Would you like to examine
those samples at the end of the counter to see which scent you would
Killed it stone dead - right? This type of joke needs a quickfire
action to make it work. You've lost the punchline and explained things far
too early. The punchline contains something known as a punch word,
which is the part that the whole punchline hangs on - in this case "talcum
powder". This has to come as close to the end as possible. The
following punchline would not work...
"If I had some talcum powder, I could walk that way."
The impact is not at the end. The fact that he is explaining after the
punch word ruins it. A joke explained is a joke ruined - don't
belabor the point after the event.
You also have to have familiarity between your audience and the
subject. Suppose you are writing about two elves and have one making a witty
comment about some Tersomal Root in the leader's meal. Now, the elves
of Alendora Forest may know (and I'm making the root up here before you
investigate the zone) that Tersomal Root is a powerful emetic - they
would be chuckling quite happily in an elven way at this remark. (In
case you didn't know, emetics make you throw up - again, it needs to be a
word that people know to be funny). The audience would be baffled -
they've never heard of this before. Even worse would be if you put a
comment in (footnote or brackets or just after the alleged joke) to
explain what Tersomal Root is.
Tersomal Root is a powerful emetic so the leader would be spending the
night losing his lunch.
Have that in the middle of a piece of literature and expect disdain
from the reader. Referring back to Faelan's piece, nearly everyone has a
complaint about their job - always use concepts that are familiar to
There are a few tried and tested methods of comedy.
The Running Joke
Say it once, people notice it. Say it twice and people remember it.
You can really get a few laughs, or groans, if you keep repeating a joke
- but only to a certain extent. A good example are the imps I put into
the behind the scenes pieces that I occasionally publish. I don't
really have imps in my office, their only conversation being the universal
"Chitter". They are a running theme of mischief, and they've even made
it into other people's work. Yarhj did a wonderful meeting with Mank
in his quest for a story, something that made me grin widely. He also
used the sprite - it grabbed his leg but then turned up later in the
piece with a "squeak" every so often. He even fed it some omelette - a
run on from the wind and broken eggs in the catacombs.
Referring back to things in a slightly different way can always improve
and refresh an old joke, but don't overuse it.
What sort of things do you compare? Anything, as long as it's funny. I
wrote a piece that went up a while ago about two weapons talking in a
smithy, awaiting a sharpening. They talked about a dagger of fire and a
magnificent sword of ice "going offhand" - this has two comparisons,
the weapons themselves are opposites and "going offhand" being used as
the weapon style of dating. Compare differences and use them as a basis
for comical remarks - differences are interesting.
A popular, though, childish, form of amusement is to insult and
belittle another person. Quite frankly there is only one person you can get
away with doing that to - yourself. Insult newbies in a general way, and
you'll immediately lose any respect from newbies, avatars and gods.
Insult heroes in general, and you'll offend a lot of powerful people.
Either way, I wouldn't accept it. Insult anyone specifically and you'll
come within the bashing rules. You are perfectly safe if portraying
yourself as a hapless incompetent. You can get away with an incompetent
fictional character, but in a very strange way they are you anyway.
This technique was used a lot in ancient Greek comedies. Generally, the
actors would at some point talk to the audience directly so that they
would be reminded that they were in a theater and watching a play. For
those of you who saw Spaceballs you will remember that the
'lightschwartz' fight scene had an event where they swung around and killed a
cameraman, as well as an occasion where the bad guys captured the stunt
doubles. (Most of the film was naff, but I wasn't involved in writing
it...) That example I gave above (The Staff Canteen) is one way of using
the technique to make people remember that they are reading a tale about
a game. You cannot get away with it in a serious piece. Cartoonists refer to this style of thing as the 'fourth wall' where drawn characters talk directly to the audience instead of each other.
There are other techniques to use, but the ones I have mentioned are the
main ones. If you are intent on writing comedy, practice and
practice hard. Try situations out on your friends and family and clannies -
try them out on me if you want, because that's what I'm here for.
Sometimes there are jokes that just refuse to work, however you phrase or set
them - give them up and get on with the next one. Some situations are
inherently unfunny. Comedy, if you are writing it correctly, is a
Next - Descriptions.
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