So. This week we held Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUE), the academic symposium for science fiction and fantasy writers. We laughed. We cried. There was likely a knife fight over Keynesian Economics. I'm not sure, I was in the Green Room singing Hamilton, insinuating that the movie The Accountant was based on the life of Larry Correia, and looking for a spoon so I could do a proper koala bear impersonation. Occasionally, I would emerge, bleary-eyed, to do a panel.
On one such panel, a panel I suspect that I actually pitched, we discussed the secrets of writing humor. The panel called "I'm in it for the laughs" (Which, if I pitched, was probably supposed to be called "This Panel Title Intentionally Not Funny"), involved Michaelbrent Collings, Frank Morin, Michelle Witte, and myself pretending really hard that we know how humor works. Frank Morin was moderating, so he was the one who had to do the least amount of lying. However, I made a solemn oath in that panel, and I take such oaths seriously, so I'm fulfilling it now.
You see, I had big intentions for this panel. I was going to sit down and catalog all of the major formulas of joke writing. Rule of three. Comic drop. Forced Congruence. All of them. A quick google search had shown no good resource for this, and I thought they should all be in one place. Unfortunately, I also had a demo for the Star Wars RPG to run on Saturday. The Star Wars game was two hours of people counting on me to be entertaining. The list of joke forms, in a panel, would be taking other panelist's time so it could run no longer than five minutes, and it would take much longer than the game's ten hours to prep. My priorities became clear and it just never got done.
Luckily, about five hours before the panel, Howard Tayler mentioned he had a presentation with such a list. This surprised me because I'd asked him for one previously. This shouldn't have surprised me because months or years after I'd asked for that list, when he actually wrote this presentation, he asked me for sections of my book DbC2 to quote inside, so I totally was part of preparing this. But, I've been accused of many things. Observant has never been one of them. Howard sent me the presentation. The day was saved (in passive voice, because Howard was very, very tired).
After reading the list in a staccato, rapid-fire fashion at the end of the panel, about a dozen people looked up with shaking, desperate pens from their attempt to take notes and asked where they could get a copy of that list. I promised I'd make this blog post. Then I promised Howard that he could approve it first. Then he promised to take his giant New Rock sci-fi boot off the small of my back.
So here we are. The list. I won't give a full presentation on each. That's another panel and it's Howard's purview. I'll go a little deeper into Rule of Three, just because that's the one he used my stuff in, so I feel like I'm on comfortable ground there.
A comic drop is when you take a person of high status and you lower them a peg. Political satire is comic drop in purest form. Comic drop is NOT funny if the person already exists in a low state. That is called "punching down." You can only punch up. As Krusty said on the Simpsons, you can't throw a pie into the face of a schlub. You have to throw the pie at someone with dignity.
Rule of Three
Rule of three shows that things are funny in patterns of threes. Look at my joke about my green room antics, above. The general patter of a rule of three joke is beat, beat, punchline. For this one, I'm going to quote Howard, who goes on to quote the first and second drafts of Death by Cliché 2: The Wrath of Con.
Here’s a snippet of text from Bob Defendi in which a world-class swordswoman is really, really enjoying the carrots in her stew:
"These carrots could make apples jealous. These were the kings of carrots. These carrots could unite the races and bring about world peace. These carrots were to food what the reverse short sword grip was to parrying."
This bit was funny, but it felt like it might be misfiring a bit. As we reviewed it we found that there were four elements, which made the joke seem a little long. Rather than cut anything, we simply reordered the elements, putting the first one last.
"These were the kings of carrots. These carrots could unite the races and bring about world peace. These carrots were to food what the reverse short sword grip was to parrying. These carrots could make apples jealous."
Payload, Then Pause
Payload, Then Pause states that the funniest part of the joke, the punchline, should go as closest to the natural pause as possible. In Howard's example above, I led with the apples line, which he pointed out was actually the funniest analogy. Howard looks for the funniest word in a joke and often rewrites the joke to put that as close to the natural pause as possible.
Recontextualize is a joke form where the reader believes you're talking about one thing and then you twist the joke at the end. For instance, I often tell people, "I miss you, Jim." <Pause for contextualization.> "So I'm buying a scope." <Recontextualization>
The wordplay in its basic form is the pun. In its highest art form, it is the "Who's on First?" routine by Abbot and Costello. Most witty banter falls into wordplay. Half of the stuff dripping from a Joss Whedon script lands here.
Repetition is returning to the same joke multiple times, in new and interesting ways. The classic form is the callback, where you revisit an old joke to bring completion, often twice to invoke Rule of Three. A secret about that carrots joke above is that Howard doesn't really love it because of what he wrote there. Howard loves it because it's a running joke that plows relentlessly through that scene, as others are trying to demand that woman's attention. (Howard knows this of course, but it's an example of how one bit falls into multiple joke forms. That one bit hits probably hits every joke form on this list except Double Down and Noises Off.)
Another interesting use of repetition was employed by David Letterman. When he had a huge joke land during his monologues, he'd put that punchline in his pocket for whenever he got in trouble later during the same bit. For instance, I once saw an episode where he said that he saw two men talking, confused, and one of them said (in a hick accent) "Them bats is smart. They use radar." The delivery was perfect and the audience died laughing. For the rest of the monologue, if a joke fell flat, he would stare out into the audience walk way too close to the camera, and say, "Them bats is smart. They use radar." He would instantly have the audience back on his side.
Double down is a form of joke where you set up a joke, a second character undercuts or denies it, and instead of backing off, the original character recommits to the joke, but harder. With Howard's permission (and he'll cut this if I don't have it), here is an example bit of dialogue from Schlock Mercenary:
"No other casualties to report, sir."
"Really? What about your arm?"
"I'm currently left-handed."
"Your right arm is missing."
"It's not missing. It's fused to a bulkhead on deck twelve."
Surprising, yet Inevitable
Many jokes will have some aspect of surprising yet inevitable. Like a good story, a joke often catches you off guard with the ending that you should have seen coming, but didn't. Jerry Seinfeld's observational humor was a master of surprising yet inevitable. He would spend entire routines talking about things we spent all day interacting with, but never really considered.
The key to the Noises Off joke, as Howard tells it, is that the pie fight you see in your head is always funnier than the pie fight you see on screen. The setup is that you see or hear two characters describing or commenting on the action without seeing the action itself. Now, Lilo and Stitch had the Noises off line in it, ironically, not in a Noises Off joke. In it, Lilo was on the phone while her house was being attacked and Stitch, the alien superweapon, was trying to save her. In a classic Noises Off joke, we'd get this from the other side of the phone and never see what happened in the house. In the movie, we get it backward, and Lilo hangs up on the person the moment after she delivers news so we only get a hint of the reaction. So while it isn't a true Noises Off scene, it culminates with the most perfect Noises Off line ever written:
"Oh good, my dog found the chainsaw."
Reach Further is a variation of the double down joke form. In double down, a second person interacts with the first. In reach further, the joke teller sets the joke, takes a beat, then takes the joke further on his or her own. Here's the example Howard used from Jim Gaffigan, and I love it too much to find another:
“Growing up my parents had fine china you couldn’t even put in the dishwasher. ‘Don’t get that wet, you need to clean it with a kitten.’”
Quite the reach. And then? He doubles down.
“‘It needs to be a white kitten’”
I will end this post the same way Howard ended his presentation. With forced congruence, and perhaps the greatest line of comedy ever written. It is self-explanatory:
“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.”
—Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy