Medievia Mudslinger

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 now..."

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 paragraph?

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 him expectantly.

"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 prefer?"

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 the reader.

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.

The Comparison

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.

Making Mock

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 serious business.

Next - Descriptions.


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