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Home » Archives » July 2006 » Mugging for laughs
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07/08/2006: Mugging for laughs

I knew someone in college who worked in a sort of upscale housewares store. He told us once that there was a trick to selling overstocked items. Say you have too many black mugs in your inventory, and too few white ones. Here's what you do: make a display of all white mugs with one black one. Everyone will buy a black mug. Don't you love that? The power of opposites. Using one thing to sell the opposite effect... somehow this feels connected to something I've noticed about some scripted jokes:

We talk about comedy as a "relief" from the drama and tension elsewhere in a script, because it's supposed to be the opposite. But sometimes a joke can actually heighten the tension. And then you, the writer, totally score, because you're playing both notes at once. You're making 'em laugh! You're making 'em sweat! You're the conductor of an orchestra of human emanations!

Here's the thing that makes it work. Humor *does* lighten a moment. And the characters that you're writing about know that. So if a character cracks a joke in a tense moment, the audience is going to infer that the character is scared, reluctant, and generally tense.

Here's an example from an Angel script I wrote. Doyle has arrived home to find a monster named Griff in his apartment:

Doyle faces Griff. Doyle tries to look calm, but his hand shakes as he puts his keys back in his pocket.

I think you have the wrong place. I was very clear about canceling the maid service--

You owe money.

The fact that Doyle is finding it necessary to joke, despite his obvious fear, makes that fear all more evident.

Here's a similar example from a Buffy:

Buffy is in her room, deciding on a pair of earrings. She's considering hoops when she looks up
to see Giles standing in the doorway.

You know this is very dangerous.

You've just heard horror stories, that's all. Wear hoops and they'll catch on something, rip your lobes off, lobes flying everywhere...

That's not what I mean.

Buffy, of course, knows exactly what Giles is really talking about. She's just trying to defer the conversation because she's nervous about Giles' reaction. Her nerves come through extra-clearly because she's making a joke.

In terms of shows currently on the air, look at how often House uses this technique. A character like that is almost defined by the thing's he DOESN'T want to talk about, so this is the perfect technique to use with a guy like that. Give it a try.

Lunch: sauted mushrooms, leeks and bits of tofu dog with Chipotle Tabasco sauce. Try the Chipotle Tabasco -- good stuff.


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