Comedy In Fiction

LaughterOne of my favorite movies of all time, Front Page, features one of the first cinematic examples of what has come to be known as "snappy dialog": a rapid-fire exchange of witty banter and rejoinders. When a stand-up comedian drops a clunker (delivers a joke that earns little to no laughter) he can sometimes be heard to say, "On the way home tonight you're going to get that and laugh your head off!" With snappy dialog, the one-liners dropped in that machine-gun barrage can often go by so quickly you find yourself laughing at it minutes after the scene has already passed.

Examples, you ask? Well, I was recently watching a sci-fi/fantasy show set in the midst of WWII in which, as a byproduct of a sci-fi event, a group of unknowing people are healed by very thorough nano-robots of an alien virus. A woman then walks up to her physician to report, "My leg's back! I had only one leg, and now the other's grown back!" To which he replies, "Well there's a war on. Is it possible you miscounted?" This line is delivered so flatly, almost as an aside before the scene goes back to the main plot, I found myself laughing still minutes after the show had ended.

LaughterIn another example, the captain of a ship on which a bomb is about to explode is on the intercom demanding his crew find a way to jettison the explosive.

Captain: "How about we stuff it in an escape capsule?"
Crewman: "There are no escape capsules."
Captain: "Are you sure?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."
Captain: "Have you looked everywhere? Under the sink?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."

I enjoy comedic dialog, if done well, and strive to include it as much as possible in at least one of my ongoing series of suspense adventures. In an unpublished manuscript of mine there is a scene in which one character comments on a bullet wound that only creased the main character's scalp:

"What happened there?"
"Freak knitting accident."

And the dialog goes on, taking no notice of the joke. The funniest dialog is when it isn't acknowledged by the characters in the scene. In an interview, Mel Brooks once said of an actress, "She didn't do comedy. When she delivered a line, she couldn't stop herself from broadcasting it, all but winking at the camera and saying, 'Here comes the joke, folks!'" The very nature of comedy is the surprise. The funniest dialog is delivered non-sequitur, and it's even funnier when others in the scene act as if it's a perfectly normal thing to say.

LaughterDouglas Adams, celebrated British comedic sci-fi writer wrote this bit of a giggle:

"I have detected disturbances. Eddies in the space-time continuum."
"Ah...is he. Is he."
"What?"
"Er, who is Eddy, then, exactly?”

Here, an anomaly of the English language leads to a misunderstanding, giving rise to comedy.

I've heard other comedic people, writers and comedians, say comedy either comes naturally to a person or it doesn't. It cannot be taught. What's your opinion?

I often think I'm quite hilarious. Some don't agree. Which leads to another point: some comedy is subjective. I, for example, don't find bathroom humor funny, as a rule. The recent cinematic trend in gross-out humor leaves me cold. Other's nearly pass out with laughter. On the other hand, many hold that puns are the lowest form of humor. For me, contrariwise, a well-placed pun or double-meaning will send me into gales. Triple-, quadruple-meanings...the more facets an entendre has, the funnier it is.

Physical comedy is very hard to do in fiction. Don't believe me? Try describing your favorite comic strip to a reader. The challenge comes in explaining an action without dragging the joke on so long that by the time you get to the punch line the reader has already outthunk you and moved on. You need to develop a talent for pithy narrative. Good comedy writing is some of the tightest, most backloaded writing I've ever read. Even if you don't write comedy, it's good practice for any kind of writing.

An example of bad physical comedy in fiction?

"Lucy holds the football upright by the tip, an evil gleam in her eye. Charlie Brown, tongue planted firmly in the corner of his mouth, narrows his eyes and takes aim. He charges, planting his feet to pour on maximum speed. Just as he swings his foot at the ball, Lucy pulls it away. Charlie can't stop, and his momentum carries him off is feet, to where he it seems to him he is actually suspended for several seconds, time enough to scream, 'Aaaaaaargh!' When he falls he slides on the grass for a yard or so before coming to rest, staring at the sky. 'You blockhead!' he hears in the distance as Lucy struts away, not laughing, just disgusted."

This scene comes off as rather sad when written out this way. (BTW: It's my opinion Lucy secretly likes Charlie Brown. Every time she pulls the ball away she's testing him to see if he has yet become the man(boy) she needs him to be to justify her crush. But the subtext of cartoons is a whole other blog topic. One for true fiction-nerds.)

Now consider this physical scene:

"Turning the knob, she tried to open the door quietly, but it creaked as it opened. She tried to step through gaps in the crime scene tape, but it stuck to her pant leg, then her sleeve, and before she knew it she was stumbling through the door, a-tangle in the sticky stuff, hopping on one leg and trying to pull it free of her clothes."

Here the writer could have gone on to describe the scene in greater detail, and if this were any other kind of scene you might encourage them to do so. But in a comedic scene, it's only the action that convey's the humor, not the color of the door or the texture of the clothing that made the tape stick so well, etc.

One more point: strive to make your comedy as inclusive as possible. When you make others laugh at the expense of another, it's fun for your audience, but not so much for its victim. Puns aside, this is, in my opinion, the true lowest form of humor.

What's your favorite comedic moment in television, film or literature? Leave comments below.

Kevin Paul Tracy
Kevin Paul Tracy, writer, philosopher, and all 'round raconteur, has traversed half the globe and both sides of the equator. He has SCUBA dived under ice and snow, and flooded craters hidden deep under ground, and he has done just about every odd occupation you can think of, from cave spelunking guide to wildlife photographer to interstate courier.

Kevin's fiction tends to deal with themes of bravery and fortitude in the face of extreme adversity, most often featuring very ordinary men and women forced into extraordinary circumstances, called upon to plumb the hidden strengths and resourcefulness they never knew they had.

Don't miss Kevin's latest twisted thriller "Presence of Malice", as well as his other books, the startling and engrossing Kathryn Desmarais Gothic Mysteries "Bloodflow" and "Bloodtrail" and the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, "Rogue Agenda."

He currently lives in Colorado with two very charismatic St. Bernards. More about Kevin on his website and on Amazon.

6 thoughts on “Comedy In Fiction

  1. I loved the old I Love Lucy shows. She was so adept at developing the situations, and really milked the big moments. Also, a novel, LADY BE GOOD by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, a romance between a stuffy British headmistress and a laid-back Texas golfer. I understand what you mean about backloading. It took Phillips 124 pages to set up the scene at the drugstore,and I remember falling off the couch laughing.

    Mario Acevedo’s NYMPHOS OF ROCKY FLATS contained a scene that blew me away. Something about the nympho vampire sitting in the protag’s lap. I followed my husband and friends around, reading that passage to them so they could laugh, too.

    Our own Kay Bergstrom often has us in stitches with her pages, so much so that we have to stop her from reading so we can dry our eyes. Alice Kober’s pen produces some might fine, mischievous humor, as well.

    And your PRESENCE OF MALICE contains fresh humor that, in less talented hands, could be potentially hazardous – I definitely understand the need for subtlety and compassion.

    I admire writers who have mastered humor. I loved Erma Bombeck, Garrison Keillor and Bill Bryson’s NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND, too. Bryson’s depiction of the little old ladies waiting in the checkout lane had me LOL.

  2. Excellent post, Kevin! The TV moments that kept me laughing were skits with Tim Conway and the gang on the old Carol Burnett shows. Overboard with Goldie Hawn always makes me laugh. And the columns and essays from Dave Barry and Erma Bombeck are timeless. Like you, I’m not amused by crude “gross-out” humor.

    There might be a humor-writing gene some are born with and some not. I think I was not…

  3. Yes, Pat! I*loved* Carol Burnett! I always catch Dave Barry’s end-of-year summary. With all the disgusting news going on everywhere, he manages to keep perspective and make us laugh. I lack that humor-writing gene, too. 🙂

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