Cynthia’s column January 2008
For the last two months I’ve been writing a play with Marc Acito, the comic novelist and essayist. He’s the author of the comic novel, How I Paid For College: A Story of Theft, Sex, Friendship and Musical Theatre. A wonderful and hilarious novel. The sequel, Attack of the Theatre People will be published in April. Marc is one of the funniest people I know. When he asked me if I’d write a play with him I didn’t hesitate two seconds before saying “Yes. Absolutely.”
Maybe I should have hesitated. Not about Marc. About Comedy. You know the famous deathbed quote by British actor Donald Wolfitt, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Over the course of my writing career, which Marc often reminds me is more than thirty years now, (Is that supposed to be funny, Marc?) I have had a reputation as a Tear-Jerker Queen. (“If you want them to cry, get Cynthia.”) I’m always thrilled if I get two or three laughs into a two-hour movie. Even the darkest drama should have some laughs in it. I mean, life is funny, so every tragedy should have at least a chuckle, right?
But now I’m leaping into a playwriting partnership where we want a couple of laughs on every page? Yes. And I’m having a ball. Not only that I’m learning a whole new game in my late (not that kind of late) forties. (Stop laughing! I was a prodigy. “How to Make ‘Em Laugh.” Here are some things I’ve learned. In case you can use more laughs in your writing. Or wherever.
1. Comedy comes out of Character. My favorite kind of laughs come when a character says something completely true, but not what you’d expect. The things most of us don’t say out loud. Or perhaps don’t even realize about ourselves.
2. Sometimes something that looks like a joke and sounds like a joke is not funny. “My mother fought for women’s rights in the seventies beside Betty Friedan and somehow I ended up back in the stone age with Betty Rubble.” See that sounds funny, but it isn’t funny. Would “back in the fifties with Betty Crocker” be funnier? Maybe.
3. A, B and C Choices. Actors talk about A, B and C choices. The A choice would be the most obvious version. B, slightly off center. C, quirky, possibly the most interesting choice. Maybe funnier. If you get down to the F, G, Z choices, they’re so off the wall, no one even gets them. So you learn to step one or two feet off to the side of obvious, but not totally off the wall.
4. Sometimes friends can help you find the funny. It’s good to have friends who are funnier than you are. We’re lucky to have Courtenay Hameister (the emcee of Live Wire, on public radio) as a friend who is also funny. She helped us get several jokes polished up. There’s a moment early on when our heroine is describing how overwhelming the holidays are beginning with Halloween. Our first version ended her soliloquy with “Halloween. Be afraid, be very afraid.” Right idea, but not funny and it’s a cliché. In our second draft, we wrote, “Halloween. There’s a reason they call it Fright Night.” Still not funny. Courtenay quipped, “Halloween. Welcome to my nightmare on Elm Street.” And this gets a laugh. Sometimes it takes three heads to go from A, to B to C and finally find the funny.
5. Pain is funny. Mel Brooks defined Tragedy and Comedy this way: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” Conflict is essential. I always tell my students (over and over again) if you don’t have a problem, you don’t have a story. And conflict is mostly physical, emotional or psychological pain of some kind. Happy, calm people just aren’t funny.
6. Misdirection. Sleight of hand. Magic. Surprises. If you want a big laugh, try to throw them a boomerang that gets them looking at the wrong place. Then the gag or joke comes as a surprise and most of what gets a laugh involves surprising the reader/audience. Example: A friend says to an actress, having just seen her new movie, “I loved it all. The plot, the dog, the hair-do, the scenery, the tidal wave that destroyed L.A. It was a terrific movie.” And she says, “Really? You liked my hair?” You’ll probably get a laugh. The dog and the tidal wave? Misdirection.
7. Physical comedy. Slapstick. Pratfalls. Farce. Pies in faces and other places. This is not my best thing. While I enjoy seeing a good pratfall I dread writing one. Soup may be funny spilled on a tuxedo, but not on a piece of paper. I think taste in comedy can almost be divided between those who find the Three Stooges funny and those who don’t. I don’t. But I’m crazy about the physical comedy of Buster Keaton, Chaplin, Harpo Marx etc. Monty Python did a sketch about How to Throw a Pie. It had a lecture by a professor at a podium, with two subjects demonstrating: the pie holder holds the pie on one flat palm, the victim covers his face with both hands, and gets a cream pie in the crotch. Also misdirection, but this wouldn’t be funny without the pie. So sometimes you need physical comedy. And sometimes funny props. One of my absolute favorite Monty P bits was a stylized folk dance involving one man slapping another across the face repeatedly with a dead trout.
8. Parody. I don’t write much parody, but I enjoy some of them. I love Chelsea Cain’s Confessions of a Teen Sleuth. Love Simon Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead zombie parody as well as his Hot Fuzz cop movie spoof. As writers, one of the good things about parodies is you can get laughs from things you don’t have the rights to. One caution, truly silly things cannot be parodied. When they tried to parody American Idol and George W. Bush in the movie American Dreamz, it fell flat because the parody was less silly than the things being parodied.
9. Puns are not funny. Except when they are. I think these are old fashioned and corny and I don’t hesitate to throw them in if they’re funny. In our play we have a Christmas drag show that is almost entirely puns (The classic Garland carol: “Have yourself a fairy little Christmas. Make the yuletide gay…”) If something is funny, it almost doesn’t matter if it’s corny or even in bad taste. If it gets a laugh, it’s in. If it gets a huge laugh it’s in no matter what.
10. Alliteration can make things funnier. Our soccer Mom, beset by too much on her To Do lists, ends a litany of tasks with “and after every face is washed, every tooth brush and they’re finally asleep, I get to relax and bake four dozen cupcakes for the Cub Scouts.” It’s funnier than “brownies for the Cub Scouts.” “Cookies” would probably work, too.
11. The K sound is funnier than any other letter. One of those old Comedy Writer clichés, but they are funnier. See # 10 above.
12. Everything Old is New Again. Some of the oldest vaudeville gags have been forgotten by the last couple of generations and you can pull those old chestnuts out and they are funny again. Seriously. Well, not very seriously.
13. The Sound of Laughter. You gotta hear the laughs to know what’s actually funny. Which is why most comedy is written by teams. From Kauffman and Hart, Comden and Green. Gordon and Kanin. Fry and Laurie. The Coen Brothers. The Marx Brothers, too for that matter. Most sit-coms have writing teams. You can recognize them by the “&”. If two writers’ names are joined by the word “and” they rewrote each other and may never have even met. Which explains the sprint to the awards podium. Even Monty Python was a group of six guys breaking off into pairs and writing sketches together. Two heads are not only better than one, but funnier than one. When I try out jokes on Marc, (or vice versa) I know instantly if it’s funny, because he’ll laugh or he won’t. Comedy Writing for “No” is “well, it didn’t make me laugh.”
14. Crickets. Sometimes things that make you both laugh, when spoken out loud in the context of the whole piece, will die. Dead. You can hear crickets, is the term for this. It can happen for a lot of reasons. It’s in the wrong place. The set up was wrong. It’s too serious a moment for that joke. But when you hear the crickets you cut it. Or move it.
15. Readings. Audiences. We’ve had two readings of our play at this point. One by friends and family after dinner Thanksgiving night. And one a couple of weeks later by professional actors and comedians. And as they read, Marc and I are both sitting, bent over our scripts, pens in hand. And what are we frantically scribbling in the margins? L, Ch, G, NF. Which stand for: Laugh, Chuckle, Giggle and the dreaded Not Funny. Jiminy Cricket time. Once or twice we wrote BL. Big Laugh. Hearing this from words you’ve written is the closest to orgasm you can get with nobody touching anybody.
Jean Stapleton (who starred in one of my TV movies, Eleanor, First Lady of the World) told me that when she was playing Edith on All in the Family Rob Reiner had rubber stamps made up with “NF” on them. And at the table reads of the scripts every week, actors would stamp NF on any bits or lines that were Not Funny. Jean is too kind to ever use one I’m sure, but you can imagine how those writers hunkered down in the corners felt every time a rubber stamp when BAM after one of their lines.
This is what I’ve learned so far. But I’m loving this education. And in love with causing the sound of laughter. What a high. Happy New Year, writers. Let’s roll up our sleeves and try and feed the funny.