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The Nature of Comedy

by Jay Cornelius and John Hargrave



What is funny? There is no absolute answer to the question. For if there were, television writers would have figured out the formula long ago, and we wouldn't have to sit through 90% of Saturday Night Live, or any of Bob Saget's monologues.

Comedy comes in many flavors. There is high-brow (sophisticated) vs. low-brow (potty) humor. There is unscripted comedy (improv) and there is scripted comedy (standup or sitcom). There are even guidelines, such as "the rule of three," where the first two items in a list are routine, but the third item is the big punchline that knocks you back in your chair, overcome with laughter. (Most party jokes follow the rule of three).

Rather than try to conquer comedy, which is as impossible as trying to conquer all 30,000 restaurants in New York City, we would merely like to present a theory of The Three Types of Comedy. It is our observation that comedy always comes down to three basic elements: The Unusual, The Familiar, and The Upset In Power. What we find funny will be rooted in either one, two or (if you're lucky) all three of these elements.

The Unusual. Why is it funny when a clown shows up with purple hair, giant shoes or a red nose that squeaks? Why is it funny to scream "OH, OH, OOOOOOOOOOH!" into a microphone, rather than calmly saying, "Oh my"? Why is it funny to hear one's voice at a different timbre after breathing helium? The reason: these things are unusual. Things that are unusual are funny. The unusual is probably the simplest and earliest form of comedy. Just spend a day with a two-year old. Watch her cackle with laughter if you take your shoe off and place it on your head, or crawl around with your tongue hanging out. This is not what normal adults do. It is unusual. It is funny.

The Familiar. Why is it funny when Dagwood is running late for work, gets yelled at by the boss, and finally spills his lunch all over the floor when a buckle on his lunchbox breaks? Could it be that something like that has happened to us? What is observational humor? It's that special nod of familiarity when a standup comedian complains of airline peanuts that don't open, grocery carts with one broken wheel, Ovaltine that doesn't mix when stirred, or hotel bathtubs that have no hot water or too much scalding water or no water pressure. These aren't unusual things … au contraire! They are terribly familiar. They make us laugh when they're pointed out. Misery loves company. It is familiar. It is funny.

The Upset In Power. It may not be funny if a beggar in the street gets hit with a pie; but when Bill Gates gets hit with the pie, it's hilarious. How about when the janitor says something that makes the big boss look stupid at an all-employee meeting? Not that funny when the tables are turned, but when the little guy wins, something insides us cheers for justice. There was a shift in the balance of power! That is funny! Also, the time-honored pratfall (first immortalized by "man slipping on banana peel" and still used in scores of cartoons, TV shows, and movies) is nothing but an upset in power: somebody falls, runs into a wall, or gets hit by a moving object. If they're hurt, it's tragic. If they're unhurt, it's an upset in power and we laugh. To paraphrase Woody Allen, "If I fall down an open manhole, that's tragedy. If it happens to you, that's comedy."

Is that it? That's the groundwork for comedy: the unusual, the familiar and the upset in power? We say yes. You may not believe it, but it's true. You may not believe that every flavor in the world is based on some mixture of 5 sensations of the human tongue — but just as that's true, so is all comedy based on these three elements. The variety occurs with the combinations:

Angry Venting = The Familiar + Upset In Power. We like it when one of our own speaks up against things that annoy us. We've shared the same pains (familiar) and his anger is relieving of us of our tension, as his words win us a victory over the pain (upset in power). Popular examples: Denis Leary, Howard Stern.

The Far Side = The Familiar + The Unusual + Upset In Power. Why did Gary Larson's comic strip last for decades? It was usually a triple combo. Example: deer get hunted — that is familiar. Suddenly we see two deer talking as though they were people — that is unusual. One of the deer happens to have a birthmark on his body that is a bright red bullseye. The caption reads "Bummer of a birthmark, Hal." This is an upset in power. People laugh at this comic strip, then look at it again and laugh some more. The triple-layering of comedy elements creates dimensions to be peeled through.

The Taboo = The Familiar + Upset In Power. It's a well-known fact among stand-up comedians that it's much easier to get a laugh with dirty humor than clean humor. Go watch "The Original Kings of Comedy" and notice how much less funny Cedric the Entertainer is than the other three comedians: he is the only one who doesn't swear. Potty humor, sex jokes, and the F-word: we know these things intimately, but we don't talk about them. When someone shamelessly brings them out into the open, we laugh in both surprise and relief.

Improvisational Comedy = a mixture of any of the three. In "Whose Line Is It Anyway?", we laugh at the familiar when Wayne Brady does his perfect imitation of Sammy Davis Jr. We laugh at the unusual when the players create a rap song about country western singers going into space. And we feel an upset in power when a comedian seems faced with an impossible task such as, "You have three seconds to come up with a speech that Abraham Lincoln would say to a Martian who is threatening to turn Pennsylvania into a pile of Cheez-Whiz and horseshoes." When the comedian pulls it off, we feel as though a victory has been won — there was a shift in the balance of power.

Your article on "The Nature of Comedy" contains a mistake. The writers list the following quote: "If I fall down an open manhole, that's tragedy. If it happens to you, that's comedy." They attribute the quote to Woody Allen, but actually it was Mel Brooks.

I probably should have looked for two more mistakes, but I have to go do three very important things.



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