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IT IS TO LAUGH…

microphone by Miyukiko © 2013
microphone by Miyukiko © 2013

I’ve been doing some thinking about writing comedy for audio drama; both its attractions and its dangers.

I like to use humour throughout my plays (though none of them are, strictly speaking, comedies). I do this, because the audience find it a welcome release from both the more expositional sections of a play and the more intense and dramatic moments.

I also do this because, in my work, I am writing specifically for amateurs and, often, kids as part of a dinner-party product. Frankly, overly serious fare does not a fun dinner party make. It’s important that my plays communicate from the outset that there is nothing about my stories to get overly precious about. Nothing helps my intended audience relax into performing a play, live around the dinner table, more quickly than a humourous “nod” to everyone involved that everything is “all in good fun” and not to be taken too seriously. The presence of humour achieves this better than any other technique I have tried.

DEFINING COMEDY

But coming up with jokes is actually hard work. And trying to define what is funny is even harder. Like trying to grasp water in your hand, any attempt at defining humour slips away the moment you close your grip. Still there are probably a couple of features of humour, that if not universal, are at least very common. Humour tends to catch us by surprise, it tends to involve a shift in perspective, and it tends to make the audience feel clever.

Now, this isn’t always true. Sometimes hearing the overly familiar groaner of a “dad” joke that telegraphs its punchline well ahead of its delivery is, in context, still very funny (possibly because it makes us feel clever for seeing it coming). But generally speaking we laugh when we are surprised. Likewise there probably are jokes that don’t shift our perspective so that we see things differently to the way we normally would, but they are more rare than one would expect. Take the old gag involving Fred the builder and his assistant. Fred says “I’ll hold the nail in place and when I nod my head, you hit it.” The deliberate misunderstanding of the line that results in Fred getting hit in the head by the hammer forces the audience to shift their perspective away from the way the sentence is typically understood.

But, with regard to the last point, that comedy makes the audience feel clever, I think this is universally true. Frankly, I just can’t see a joke working that makes the audience feel stupid, but, hey, feel free to prove me wrong.

MEANS OF GETTING A LAUGH

There are lots of ways to get a laugh. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, just something to think about.

Comparisons can be funny, particularly when they take us by surprise – “The boss came into work furious at the world. She was snapping at everyone like a Chihuahua with tonsillitis”.

Metaphors, likewise, can be funny, particularly when employed in “insults” – “Jake, you’re an ugly little virus, a form of amoebic dysentery eking out an existence on the edge of the toilet seat of society.”

Hyperbole or exaggeration can be funny – “Damn it, a paper cut. I’ll never play the piano again!”

Malapropism, where someone makes use of the wrong word, can be funny – “I want money, wealth, riches! Damn-it, I want to be effluent.”

Puns can generate a nice “groan-worthy” laugh – “Knowing sign language is really handy.”

Literalism can be very funny – The “When I nod my head, hit it” gag above.

Misunderstandings can be even funnier if we make them infectious. The foreman comes in and hits the still reeling Fred. “I thought everyone was having a go and didn’t want to miss out”.

The non-sequitur in which the totally unexpected happens can be funny – A woman is about to sit on a freshly painted seat at the zoo. The zoo-keeper yells “look out”. She sighs with relief at her close call only to be mauled by the escaped lion”.

Travesty, where weighty or emotional issues are treated lightly, can be funny because of the shock they cause – I don’t personally have a lot of time for these kinds of jokes, but they include dead baby jokes and the jokes that emerge after major disasters (such as the jokes which did the rounds after the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster).

THE STRUCTURE OF JOKES

All jokes follow a basic structure of setup and punchline, but the best jokes follow on with two more punchlines (riffing on the theme). Grouping jokes in threes is one of the most tried and true methods of warming your audience up to laugh.

The first joke will get an acknowledgment from the audience (but is usually tentative), by the second the audience is ready to start laughing, and by the third joke the audience has relaxed, is warmed up, and is invested in the material.

In the parlance of professional comedians the three joke “bit” is constructed as follows…

The setup – in which the audience is introduced to the subject of the jokes and any necessary context is provided.

The punchline – in which the joke is revealed. Comedian’s deliberately put the word or words that will bring on the laugh right at the end of the line, just before a pause (so that the audience isn’t laughing over the top of important information).

The topper – in which the second punchline is delivered (perhaps with another short setup).

The second topper – in which the third punchline is delivered (perhaps with a short setup again).

Here’s an example…

2016 has seen the loss of a lot of celebrities, including one of my favourite actors, Mr Alan Rickman. It’s been like some kind of dark celebrity fashion; as if the entire lemming community got together and went “when I die I’d like to come back as someone famous”.

And it’s got to the point where it’s infecting the whole community. People are afraid to leave the house. My next-door neighbour barricaded her doors and windows for over a month because her last name shared three of the same letters as Alan Rickman’s. They removed her body on Thursday. Starvation.

People are genuinely scared by this stuff. But seriously, we shouldn’t worry. All these facebook posts that say “Made it to 2017: feeling lucky to be alive”? I’m just not convinced. Have you ever considered that we’re not actually lucky to be alive? That in fact we’re just not famous or important enough to be dead? It bears thinking about, doesn’t it?

This three joke “bit” is unlikely to age well. It’s tied to a specific set of circumstances (the large roster of celebrity deaths in 2016) so it has a little more setup than is strictly required. I’ve tried to future proof it slightly by recounting what happened (loss of a lot of celebrities) and identifying who Alan Rickman was (for those in the future who may not remember him). This provides sufficient context to “get” the gags.

For a three joke “bit” to work you want to aim for variation in the jokes. To the extent you can you want each of the jokes to come as a surprise.

The first joke uses comparison (celebrity deaths compared to lemmings).

The second death uses irony and surprise (by avoiding death, the neighbor dies).

The third shifts perspective (we’re not important enough to die).

PRESENTING JOKES IN AUDIO DRAMA

Audio drama isn’t stand up comedy. This means that jokes in general, and the three joke “bit” in particular, will usually be presented as dialog.

Here’s the above three joke “bit” worked (admittedly artificially) into a scene.

SCENE – LOCAL PUB (JAKE, JIM, BARKEEP) – A LITTLE BEFORE CLOSING

SOUND: MURMUR OF BUSY PUB – ESTABLISH AND UNDER.

JAKE: Hello Jim. Just arrived? You’re looking a little the worse for wear.

JIM: A little too much New Year’s Eve cheer, if you know what I mean?

JAKE: Ah, of course, that explains why you’re so late in. Sleeping it off, I s’pose?

JIM: Something like that.

JAKE: Well, I’ve got the first round. Here’s to seeing the back of 2016. It was a right little sod.

JIM: I’ll drink to that. I can’t remember a year where we lost so many celebrities. It’s like the entire lemming community got together and went “when I die I’d like to come back as someone famous”.

JAKE: I still can’t believe we lost Alan Rickman. He’s such a great actor. My next door neighbor barricaded the doors and windows for over a month because her last name shared three of the same letters as his. They removed her body on Thursday. Starvation.

JIM: You’re joking? People are getting genuinely scared by this stuff. Still, we shouldn’t worry. All those facebook posts I’ve been seeing that say “Made it to 2017: feeling lucky to be alive”? Personally I figure we’re pretty safe.

JAKE: How’s that?

JIM: It’s obvious. None of us, who’ve seen in the New Year successfully, were famous or important enough to be dead. It bears thinking about, now, doesn’t it?

JAKE: I guess so.

BARKEEP: Last orders, gents.

JIM: Here let me get in a final round and we’ll head over to Mick’s place. He reckons he’s got a job for us.

JAKE: Great. There’s nothing I like more than the chance at a few extra dollars to line my wallet… even if that chance comes from a grade-A nutter like Mick.

SOUND: SCENE ENDER – LET IT FINISH

THE PITFALLS OF HUMOUR

Topical comedy (humour tied to particular times and places – such as the 2016 bit above) dates quickly. This means that, while it will get a laugh today, tomorrows audience may be left scratching their heads and wondering what was going on. If the audience is left puzzled, they certainly won’t be laughing.

Not everyone finds the same things funny. In fact, some humour will be found offensive to some audience members. If it is important to you not to offend, then it will be important to avoid potentially offensive jokes. The 2016 jokes are right on the edge of acceptable for me personally. Generally speaking, I avoid humour that earns a laugh at the expense of any particular group or individual (celebrity or otherwise). Each writer must make their own choice here (and take responsibility for the result).

The success of humour is often as dependent on the delivery (and its timing) as it is on the words of the joke itself. Nothing will kill a joke dead more effectively than a bad delivery, so knowing your actors and their ability to carry the weight of a joke is important if you are going to use humour in your drama. My own drama, written as it is for amateur performance, is designed to be easy to deliver, but it is essential that participants enjoy reading aloud and are willing to get into the spirit of the thing. It just won’t work to have a bunch of non-readers, or folks with little sense of fun, at the table.

Any further thoughts on using humour in audio drama? I’d love to hear them.

This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.

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