Help me find comedy 'rules'?
November 22, 2005 2:24 AM   Subscribe

This is a little vague, but any help would be appreciated...I was half-listening to the radio recently (with a bad signal!) and the presenter and guests were critiquing a comedy series (Little Britain series 3 actually) - one of the guests was a writer and mentioned that there were only actually 'seven possible jokes that COULD be written - only the situation and characters would change' - I'm trying to find out if thats true.

He went on to discuss one particular joke which played on the difference between expectation and reality (and he used a French term for this) - which makes a whole bunch of sense - but I'm curious as to what the other rules are - and in fact, if there are any rules.

I have tried some google and msn search action - but no joy, does anyone know what these 'rules' are - and where I could read about them?
posted by mattr to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
one of the guests was a writer and mentioned that there were only actually 'seven possible jokes that COULD be written - only the situation and characters would change' - I'm trying to find out if thats true.

Well, that's certainly true of Little Britain.
posted by jimmy at 2:38 AM on November 22, 2005

I'd guess the writer was alluding to the theory of literary archetypes.
posted by skyboy at 3:41 AM on November 22, 2005

"Well, that's certainly true of Little Britain."

hehhehe ... Okay ... eight possible jokes.
posted by RavinDave at 4:13 AM on November 22, 2005

Best answer: From this link (which is also good for the theory of plot architypes) the 8 types of joke are:

1. Misunderstanding
2. Misfortune/Cruelty/Slapstick
3. Wordplay
4. Status - Fall from status or rapid rise
5. Stupidity
6. Surreal/Tangential
7. Exaggeration
8. Sarcasm/Satire/Parody

Also - from the same link - is Scott Adam's list of the 6 types of humor. He claims his rule for Dilbert strips is to pick one of them and layer in a little of another.

1. Cuteness
2. Meanness
3. Bizarreness
4. Recognisability
5. Naughtiness
6. Cleverness
posted by rongorongo at 4:37 AM on November 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You'll be wanting the link.
posted by rongorongo at 4:38 AM on November 22, 2005

I'm sorry I don't have the link but if you can get access to the "Complete New Yorker" there's a very long and very interesting article about this. Basically, they try and explain humour. It was published in 2002/2003.
posted by docgonzo at 5:42 AM on November 22, 2005

You may be interested in this glossary of comedy terms invented by the team behind Airplane!
posted by oh pollo! at 5:51 AM on November 22, 2005

Don't use the rules man. The last thing this world needs is yet another formulaic comedy writer. You want to be funny? Go to the edge of comedy - then jump as far as you can. What is the sense of recycling old cliches? Comedy is not making people laugh, it's making them uncomfortable. The laughter should just be a side effect, not the goal.
posted by any major dude at 6:10 AM on November 22, 2005

Surely "Co-incidence" as well?
posted by Pretty_Generic at 6:25 AM on November 22, 2005

Best answer: I think the above answers do a very good job of answering the first part of your question--IE, what is the theory that you heard described? But they don't answer an important part of your question: is that theory true?

I obviously can't offer any definitive answer to that, of course, but I can give you the perspective of somebody who has earned his living as a comedy writer for most of his adult life. My own subjective answer is: "It's kind of true, and kind of not true."

It's kind or true in that you can indeed divide jokes (or stories, or haikus, or ice cream flavors) into 7 categories, or 5 categories, or 36 categories. And sometimes those divisions are very helpful. It's useful for me to be able to recognize the common skeleton of a bunch of other jokes, and then to just drape the skin of a new joke over it. The most common form is probably "the rule of three," where you have two examples of something to establish a pattern, and then a third example to break the pattern in a humorous way. For example: "President Bush's primary policy focuses are getting his Supreme Court nominee through Congress, avoiding a rebellion from disaffected elements within his own party, and sucking."

I don't know if that's necessarily a funny joke (hey, I'm off the clock here)--but it is, recognizably, a joke, and it's not one that required any particular inspiration on my part. It was pretty much just a question of plugging the right variables into a specific formula.

(By the way, that joke used a second technique, overlapping with the rule of three: a sudden lapse from ornate and elevated language into an abrupt and brief colloquialism. Needless to say, I never sit down and say, "Hmm, I think I'll combine a Rule of Three with an abrupt lapse into colloquialism." But when I write that kind of joke, I am aware that I'm using a certain move from my playbook, if that makes any sense.)

So that's where those "Jokes fall into X categories" rules are kind of true. The part that isn't true is the implication that the person who has made up the categories has come up with some sort of fundamental insight into the nature of humor. The fact is that you can divide anything into as many categories as you want. If I tell you that there are 4 different types of clothes, and 5 different types of belts, and 6 different types of cocktails, and so on, I'm not sure I've really proven anything, other than the human ability to find patterns in everything.

Oh, incidentally: most writers are aware of certain formulas within their own genre, whether it be comedy or drama or gothic-horror-slash-spaghetti-western--but most good writers try not to rely on those formulas too heavily. In fact, the worst term of contempt one comedian can have for another is "hack," and usually when people say it, they're describing a guy whose entire repertoire consists of formulaic jokes.
posted by yankeefog at 6:41 AM on November 22, 2005 [5 favorites]

One other thing: John Rogers had a blog entry on the jargon of TV comedy writers, which is a great companion piece to the glossary that oh pollo linked to above.

After you've read Rogers' glossary, which includes the term "Gilligan Cut," you might like to read my own investigation into the secret history of the Gilligan Cut. (That last one is a self-link, obviously.)
posted by yankeefog at 6:47 AM on November 22, 2005

Don't use the rules man. The last thing this world needs is yet another formulaic comedy writer.

The numbered rules, above, won't lead to formulaic writing, because they are so broad. Similarly, saying "write a love story" won't (necessarily) lead to formulaic writing.

Comedy is not making people laugh, it's making them uncomfortable. The laughter should just be a side effect, not the goal.

I generally don't argue about definitions, but this one seems pretty useless. There are plenty of genres/stories that make people uncomfortable (horror, etc.). They aren't all comedy. My guess is that most people would disagree with your definition. To me, it seems backwards. Comedy is about funny -- and many of the things we find funny also make us uncomfortable.

For me, this isn't always true. There's a silly/playful/naive sort of comedy (i.e. some of Pee Wee's playhouse) that I like and it doesn't make me uncomfortable at all.
posted by grumblebee at 6:51 AM on November 22, 2005

Great post, yankeefog.

I'm not a comedy writer, but I work in various other areas of dramatic/storytelling arts, and I find such categories helpful when I'm trying to diagnose why something ISN'T working. Armed with categories, I can compare them to my story and say, "Oh, I've lead my audience to believe that this story is in X category, but I've failed to play by that category's rules. So they are feeling cheated." Which isn't to say one must always play by the rules. But when one breaks rules, it's generally best to do so on purpose, knowing what you're doing.
posted by grumblebee at 6:59 AM on November 22, 2005

I am a writer, and a comedian; and I have nothing to add to this thread other than to thank those who have contributed. It' s a wonderful thread. It is the cinnamon toast and chocolate milk of threads.
posted by weirdoactor at 7:02 AM on November 22, 2005

Best answer: Melvin Helitzer's Comedy Writing Secrets lists seven joke formulas:

1. Double entendres, the plays on words that include cliche reformation and take-offs
2. Reverses that trick the audience by a switch in point-of-view
3. Triples that build tension and are the framework for an exaggerated finale
4. Incongruity that pairs two logical but unconventional ideas
5. Stupidity that encourages the audience to feel superior to silly thoughts or actions
6. Paired Phrases that utilize the rhythms of antonyms, homonyms, and synonyms
7. Physical Abuse (slapstick) that caters too our delight at someone else's misfortune
posted by driveler at 7:42 AM on November 22, 2005 [2 favorites]

Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog generally dies as a result.

Now if you'll excuse me, my on-topic but not actually helpful pilfered witticisms are needed elsewhere.
posted by Who_Am_I at 8:55 AM on November 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

I think this is what yankeefog was trying to link above.
posted by weirdoactor at 10:07 AM on November 22, 2005

There's also Freud's work on jokes and their relation to the subconcious, which someone might quote in this kind of intellectual context. The name of it escapes me and Wikipedia is proving unhelpful.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:32 PM on November 22, 2005

Here it is.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:38 PM on November 22, 2005

Grumblegree wrote:

My guess is that most people would disagree with your definition.

Most people voted for George Bush for President.
posted by any major dude at 7:59 PM on November 22, 2005

Most people voted for George Bush for President.

Are you implying that anyone who voted for Bush is stupid, and it's often the case that "most people" are stupid; therefor we shouldn't care what most people think?

I generally don't care what most people think. EXCEPT when we're talking about definitions. Language is most useful when used by someone to communicate an idea to someone else. But if you use your own quirky definitions, you make it less useful. For instance, I can see the logic by which "awful" once meant "full of awe," but I don't use it that way, because most people define it as a synonym for "horrible." Since most people define comedy as "entertainment designed to produce laughter," it's confusing to use the word in a non-standard way.

Why not just say something like, "I prefer stories that make me uncomfortable (and, as a side effect, make me laugh) to stories that just make me laugh."?

What would you call a joke or story that just makes someone laugh (without discomfort) if not comedy?
posted by grumblebee at 5:27 AM on November 23, 2005

As for it being true? It certainly was true enough to that bloke. As for the tendency for humans to list, rank, and otherwise taxonomize their knowledge, I'm sure another radio guest, hawking their book or whatnot, could give a good argument why there should be 13, or 3, or 23, or 128 kinds of humor. I've seen many such lists for literary plots and character archetypes.

My question is what is gained by understanding how many different kinds of jokes are there? It is a good heuristic for the student of writing, or for easy reference, teaching, etc., but a lot is lost by not recognizing that it is an essentialistic way of looking at part of a hugely complex multiform and multivariate system of communication.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:56 AM on November 23, 2005

"Are you implying that anyone who voted for Bush is stupid, and it's often the case that "most people" are stupid; therefor we shouldn't care what most people think?"

You have to admit that George Bush isn't particularly funny, as presidents go. Taft, sure, now that was a funny president. Andrew Jackson? Could bring the House down. Even Bush I was funny, if you consider projectile vomiting funny.

But George W Bush is not funny, and most people who voted cast their votes for him, so it's pretty clear that most people don't know funny, and that's why you shouldn't care what they think.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:47 PM on November 23, 2005

Coming from a theatre/improv background, my take is that the one almost surefire thing that people will almost always find funny on stage is something that they recognize to be true. Whether that thing is true or not is sort of not relevant - if they believe it is true, they will react to it.

That being said, you can have the greatest comedy script in the world and it will suck if the actors lack the "it" factor. What it is? Timing? Innate ability? Tremendous grasp of language use? Total commitment to character? Physical dexterity? Any of a thousand other things? It really depends.

Similarly, you can have an amazingly suck script and it will work with the right actors.

The drawback to truth as your major source for comedy is that it sometimes doesn't age well. Honest observations that were funny to many people about, for example, Judge Lance Ito back in the day will likely lack anything beyond a nostalgic impact today.

As far as the dude who claimed their were rules to comedy go, that is all well and good until something comes around that does not fit into the rules and is still funny. For example, where does John Belushi raising an eyebrow and bringing down the house fit into rules of comedy? If the rules "work," anyone raising an eyebrow in the same way should get the same reaction, but it just doesn't work that way.

By the way, best askme thread ever.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:56 PM on November 23, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for great answers here - I was only trying to confirm what I had heard (not take up comedy writing, or disprove the theories) but you have all taken me on a learning journey of reading!

Cheers again!
posted by mattr at 3:07 AM on November 24, 2005

If you want to analyze humor, browse through the old cartoon anthologies from the New Yorker and Punch. Most of the humor is timeless, and appealing to young and old. These books were standard bedtime reading for my kids. They are also educational, with allusions to politics, art, history, science, and so on.
Many of my favorites fit into the surreal category, like this one, and Steinberg's little boy aiming a pistol at his helium balloon. I think the New Yorker's humor has hit a low point recently. The meme category is wearing thin. Has it all been done before?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:54 AM on November 25, 2005

This is my first post ever on metafilter, and I signed up for metafilter just to post it (even paid the $5, who knows why, but it's only $5.)


I've taken an interest in "what makes something funny" myself. I tried to boil things down by watching a lot of sitcoms (and cartoons). What I found from studying those were that character interaction makes up a lot of sitcom-esque comedy. e.g. A proud character works well with a cute or silly character. Squidworth vs. Spongebob

This didn't lead to much of a revelation, and watching a lot of TV can make you a little weird.

After letting the idea sit for awhile, I stumbled upon Hobbes' (not of Calvin) philosophy of laughter.

Hobbes portrays laughter as something the human mind must overcome. He discusses in his book Human Nature that "laughter proceedeth from a sudden conception of some ability in himself ... Also men laugh at the infirmities of others ... Also men laugh at ... absurdity of another."

Pretty much what he believes is that people only laugh at the infirmities of another (retard jokes come to mind, shows like Arrested Developement, and the new Johnny Knoxville movie) or absurdity in anything. His overall philosophy on laughter reads, "laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others..."

What catches me the best is absurdity. All humor is absurd, and absurd is a synonym for funny. The only problem with language is that it's an endless form of signifiers, but the best way I can classify anything funny is by asking, "is it absurd?"

If the answer is yes, you're on the track to funny.
posted by jonnie5 at 12:52 AM on November 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

Laughter is an evolutionary bark of relief that something bad is happening to someone else.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:59 AM on November 29, 2005

Long ago, (35years?) I read a book "The Art of Laughter". This book stated that there were only two comedy types, and both could be demonstrated to a baby. The first was to make a funny face. The second was to offer a toy and then pull it back. The " Pee Wees Playhouse" type of humor would be the first - making silly faces. Most jokes fall into the second catagory - offering of one outcome then taking it away and substituting something unexpected.
Ok....we're down to two catagories can we get to one!?
posted by Yer-Ol-Pal at 2:56 PM on November 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open manhole and die."

Mel Brooks.
posted by jonnie5 at 10:30 AM on December 1, 2005

Bergson's Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. I quite like this little book, but I can't imagine reading it online. Anyway, there it is. You will not laugh out loud.
posted by underer at 5:35 PM on December 1, 2005

Vaguely on-topic link - taboo subjects for comedy?
posted by magpie68 at 4:23 AM on December 2, 2005

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