How to be funny

Drama is easy. Comedy is hard. Why? Because, too often, we try to write the funny instead of the reality.

I’ve written both comedic and dramatic scripts, so I can tell you beyond all doubt that it is much, much harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I should know. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few readings of comedic plays that I’d developed in workshop, and everyone in that small room without an audience thought the jokes and situations were hilarious. Hell, even I thought they were hilarious on re-reading, and I can be one of the harshest critics of my own work. And then we’d come to the reading with an amazing cast, quite often made up of actors I’d specifically written for, knowing their strengths and kinds of characters they could play well. Then we’d get it out there for an audience, read it straight through — and from the reaction you’d think that I’d written the darkest of tragedies. Not a laugh nor a giggle nor a titter.

This is why, as a writer, learning how to do improv is so important — it will inform your writing. (Not, however, the other way around, but that’s a subject for later.) For a long time while learning, I would aim for the funny while doing improv. A clever idea, a funny line, a weird character, whatever. My brain would tell me, “Oh, this would be hilarious here,” and then I’d do it, and sometimes it would work and a lot of the time it wouldn’t, and my teachers would give me the encouraging look a parent gives a child when they say something really cute but stupid, then proceed to give me a note.

I appreciate every opportunity like this, though. Honest criticism is the only way to learn, and I needed a lot of it. But, sometimes, the best way to learn about your own mistakes is to watch someone else make them, and recently I wound up working with a fellow student who is genuinely talented and very funny — but he would always aim for the punchline as well, and that’s when I realized what the problem was. But let me back up one second for a technical explanation.

There are really two types of routines (or in the parlance of my improv troupe, games) that improvisers do, ignoring short vs. long form for the moment. There are scene games and there are so-called “jump out” games. Now, for the “jump out” games, which are essentially a series of dueling one-liners, it’s all about the jokes and the funny and the humor. You might not be familiar with any of the games our group does, but if you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” then you may know of games like “Scenes from a Hat” and “Props.”

In the former, the host will read out a prompt, like “Things you can say to your dog that you can’t say to your partner,” and then the improvers will jump out, make a quick joke, then go back to their spot. (“Sit!”) With the latter game, two teams each get their own weird prop or props, and they have to alternate coming up with as many funny uses and lines for it as possible — for example, if the props are two traffic cones, a quick Madonna impersonation will probably happen.

All very funny, very fast, and none of it would create an entire evening of satisfying comedy. They’re more like punctuation.

Scene games are, well, what they sound like. There may or may not be an audience suggestion, but then the players are let loose to interact with each other, and that’s the key word. Interact. And the secret to scene games, and to comedy in general, is to never go for the funny. Go for the relationship. It isn’t about the jokes. It’s about the reactions, in context of that relationship, and where they go. And the humor comes from that.

Imagine two people walk on stage and you have no idea how they’re connected. Then one of them says, “Nice hair,” the other one says, “Oh, shut up,” and they exit, end of scene. Not very funny, was it?

But bring the two people on and let them establish their history. Maybe they’re siblings, or parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, co-workers, best friends, worst enemies, whatever. And they don’t exist in a vacuum, so they’re somewhere, and they each want something. And then, once we have that framework, we have something else very important.

See, what makes comedy happen is its relatability. That is, when the audience identifies with the characters or situation, they empathize, and it’s that empathy that leads to the comedy. The reaction is either “Oh, I’ve been that person” or “Oh, I’ve put up with that person” or “Oh, I’ve seen that happen,’ and it leads to the laughs.

During a space work class recently, I had this insight while doing a scene with another student that, to me, felt like it really didn’t go anywhere, and it all started with him creating an invisible revolving door and entering a hotel lobby. I entered after, and we quickly established that he was a tourist in New York and I was a local — and then I proceeded to appear to be rude, but when his character called me out on it, mine would explain that I wasn’t, it was just the way New Yorkers did things, and we’d patch things up until my next offense.

And my offenses were not coming from a place of, “Oh, what would be funny here?” Rather, they were coming from a place of, “Okay, he’s a yokel, I’m urban, he just said that, so how do I (in character) feel?”

I found myself very present in that conversation with him. I wasn’t trying to think of anything funny to say, I was just listening and reacting. At the same time, I was thinking, “Shit, we must be boring the hell out of everyone else right now.” But we went on. And on. And on… it seriously seemed like a good ten minutes, although I’m sure it wasn’t.

And when it was over, the teacher jumped up and asked the rest of the class, “Wasn’t that totally engaging?” And they agreed. “I could have watched that all night,” he told me and my scene partner, and I was kind of bowled over.

I was also reminded of Nichols and May. If any of my readers know them, they probably know them as the film directors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but many eons ago they were an improv comedy team. I only learned about them because my grandfather was a record collector. He would buy boxes of LPs at garage sales, pull out what he wanted, and then leave the “crap” for me and my cousins. Well, his definition of “crap” was “anything recorded after 1950” and “anything spoken word,” so I wound up with quite a collection of stand-up and comedy albums from the 50s and 60s — Newhart, Carlin, Bruce, Berman… and Nichols and May.

And the thing about Nichols and May is that they did not go for the jokes. They created relationships, and then created the emotional stakes, and subsequently the drier and more matter-of-fact they got, the funnier it got. Sure, they would pull out old tricks like repetition (the rule of 3s!), callbacks, sudden tilts, and so on — but everything was about the relationship between the two characters.

I hadn’t even thought of their stuff in years and hadn’t listened to them since I was a kid, but this little improv lesson in character and stakes as comedy builders brought them back to mind tonight. Here’s a particularly great example that begins with one of the most basic and common relationships of mother and adult son, and then spirals right off into hilarity that probably every one of us can relate to, but it’s all built on the emotional reactions from one to the other. Not a joke in the bit, and yet, you’ll be laughing your ass off.

Here’s the thing: while all art should reflect the truth in some way, comedy needs to be ten times as truthful as drama. Why? Because drama may depict travails and tragedies we have not gone through ourselves, but which we can understand. But for comedy to hit, we have to relate to the situation and the relationship, and everything else. We cannot laugh at a universe we have not experienced, and we cannot make others laugh until we show them that we have also experienced that universe.

One other way to put it: Drama shows other people being strong. Comedy shows all of us being weak — but, in exposing our weaknesses, sharing our vulnerabilities, and coming out better and more honest for it on the other side. That’s why laughter is cathartic. Humor is the great leveler. A sense of humor is the most important thing any of us can have.

As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”


Image of Mike Nichols and Elaine May by the Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television

Can’t live / in fear

One of the most important things you can do for youself is to let go of your fear — it will open doors you never imagined even existed. Today, it put me in a music video.

A subject that I’ll discuss a lot in my book is how fear holds us back — whether it’s keeping us from going to the doctor, from having new experiences, or overcoming addictions.

In my post about my fear of roller coasters, I mentioned that I finally conquered this fear after a group of friends shamed me into taking a ride only for me to find out that I actually love roller coasters, but I think that peer pressure might be an early theme for me.

Fortunately, I had peers who mostly pressured me into good things.

One other thing they talked me into back in the day was auditioning for a play in college. Now, beyond third grade plays that don’t really count, I hadn’t really acted on stage before. I had taken one disastrous drama class in middle school and had played in the combos for a few small musicals, but part of the point of being in the backing band is that you aren’t on stage.

I figured, “Well, I haven’t done this before, there’s no way I’m going to get cast, and it’ll stop my friends from bugging me to get involved in theatre,” so I auditioned.

I got cast. In a featured speaking role. With lines and everything. I went from afraid to terrified, but I had already committed, so there was only one way to go…

And that, dear readers is how the acting bug bit me. Not that I ever wanted to pursue it as a profession — I prefer playing odd supporting roles and leaving the real work to the real pros, and I’ve certainly done some odd ones. If I had to pick favorites, they’d be the depressed unicycle riding bear in an adaptation of a John Irving short story, The Pension Grillparzer, The Dreamer in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, a leather-clad Jesus figure leading his blind mother along and whose dialogue is entirely in Spanish, and basically every spear-carrier in The Comedy of Errors rolled into one in the form of a slightly greedy, slightly drunk, river-dancing Irish cop, but which doesn’t seem to have any reviews online..

At least the L.A. times did say something nice about me: “Jon Bastian’s bear and Matt Ryan’s hand-walking man own the house…”

Along the way, I’ve also done extra work in film and T.V., and a series of flash theater performances put on by L.A.’s own Playwrights’ Arena over the course of a year in celebration of their 20th anniversary. I think I managed to do thirteen of those, which were all live in various locations around the city, and very much right up close and personal with the audiences.

None of this would have happened if I had let fear stop me from auditioning for that first play way back in college. And it hasn’t just been about the experience acting on stage. I’ve made a lot of close friends through all these various shows and performances, and every so often I get to help an artist make a statement.

That’s what I was doing today, for a music video for a song by Deidra Edwards called “We Already Know,” which involved a large and very diverse group of people singing in a park in an act of political resistance, and then some studio follow-up shooting. I’m very excited about this one because of the message, and because it’s also both a real and symbolic return to performing for me, which is something I’ve been working my way back into over the course of this year.

One of the lines we sang in the song says, “Can’t live in fear,” and that is certainly the case. It’s something that I think we already know, but we also like to resist the thought and let our fears win out.

But when we don’t let them win, magic happens.

Language is a virus

Languages are living, breathing things that can affect the way you perceive the world — but the language you’re reading right now is probably one of the most resilient in existence.

The title of this post comes from a famous quote by William S. Burroughs, although he was more focused on the malignant and destructive aspect of words. I’d update it to “Language is viral,” although saying “update” is deceptive. Although the term really only seems to have entered mass consciousness within the last couple of years, it’s actually old enough to vote, having entered the lexicon in 1999 in its modern sense.

The reason that a language will affect the way you perceive the world is because we, as humans, don’t have any other way to think. So what we are able to express is limited by the way our language can express it.

Paul Anthony Jones has a fascinating article at Mental Floss detailing some languages that lack certain features we take for granted, although two of them stand out as examples of how linguistic features can actually be unlimiting

One is in an aboriginal language that, except for describing handedness, does not use words for relative position. That is, instead of saying “the book is on your left,” or “the door is behind you,” they will say things in terms of cardinal direction: “The book is to the west,” and “The door is to the south.”

Not surprisingly, the end result of this is that speakers of the language have a built-in compass. They always know which direction is where because they have to in order to communicate.

Even more fascinating is the language of the Matsés people of South America, which has what you could call evidentiary grammar. That is, the verb tenses indicate exactly how you know what you’re saying — as an eyewitness, something you heard secondhand, something you’re just guessing at, and so on. And the result of that one is that speakers of this language are always absolutely honest about their motives.

That almost makes English seem quaint, doesn’t it? But here’s the special feature of English that a lot of other languages lack: It’s pretty close to unbreakable. That’s kind of ironic, considering that we have the term “broken English” in our language, but you really have to work at it if you want to say something in English that is completely unintelligible. One of the most famous recent examples of English that did break is “Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like?”

This is probably untranslatable, but if you think you know what it means, leave me a comment below. Ironically, this statement has actually taken on its own meaning since it first appeared eight years ago, and is now generally understood to mean, “What you said just made no sense.”

And so the language evolves.

I tend to be a purist when it comes to grammar. However, I also love neologisms, and just how adaptable English is. I have no problems with the verbing of nouns — which I just did in that sentence. This isn’t unique to English, either. In Spanish, it’s quite common for one word with slight variations of ending to be a verb, noun, adjective, or adverb.

Don’t forget, too, that the most infamous word in English, which starts with “F,” can actually be any part of speech with the sole exception of a conjunction, but it works very well in tmesis. You can thank me later for that new word!

Side note, here’s another new word I just learned: gallimaufry. I’m not sure whether it was the inspiration for the name Gallifrey from Doctor Who,” but it means a hodgepodge or confused medley.

But back to the point. Here is a good collection of beautifully broken English. And as mangled as these are, chances are good that if you’re a native speaker of English, you can figure out exactly what the writers intended in most of them.

Of course, English is a playground for neologisms, or newly-coined words. It’s how Shakespeare created the modern language in the first place, and it would behoove you to google a list of words he created — oh, look! Google, a modern neologism! And it’s still happening. Check out this list of fourteen words that didn’t exist nearly twenty-five years ago.

Don’t forget Lewis Carroll, who invented the concept of portmanteau words, which, like a real portmanteau, which is a suitcase that opens into two equal parts, are two words stuck together, and which still exist to this day. Ever heard of “Bennifer?” Welp that’s a portmanteau.

You’re welcome. And if you want to really go down the rabbit-hole (another Carrollian expression!) here’s a whole list of portmanteau words.

If you want to write, get creative. You can stretch English a lot without breaking it, and some of the best and most inventive expressions are made up on the spot. Try your hand at it, and share your best below!