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10/16/2006: How to Write Jokes That Aren't Funny
I think I might re-read some Jane Austen soon. You know that mood? Jane Austen was funny and romantic. Emma Thompson's take on her was the best of any screenwriter yet, I'd say. So what's the trick to, you know, titrating two different emotions like that?
Let's imagine that you're writing a spec for a comedy with heart or for a comedic drama. (A recent letter-writer referred to one of these as a "coma". Is that really used? It's hilarious.) So you're mixing jokes in with some more serious content. A good rule of thumb is that when the going gets really serious, the joking should stop. Jokes, generally, undercut emotion. When an audience laughs, they're relieving tension. So you don't want that happening when you're trying to build up the tension. This can be a hard lesson for those of us used to comedy writing – if a page goes by without a joke, we're certain that we are failing to be entertaining. But, in fact, the sudden lack of jokes can be part of what makes these scenes riveting. Like the sudden absence of the sound of running water, turning off the joke faucet can attract a viewer/reader's attention. This is particularly true if there's a character in the scene who is normally a joke factory, or if something about the situation would normally be seen as laughable. Playing it straight can be mesmerizing.
But what if you can't stand it? What if you really want to joke, but without relieving tension? There are a few specific types of jokes that you can use here.
1. When the character himself is joking to try to relieve their own tension and it isn't working. We used this a lot on Buffy – something horrible appears and Xander jokes about its appearance and no one laughs.
2. When the character is bitterly self-deprecating. Someone who is laying open the contents of their heart can make a comment about how it's no better organized than their closet, and it doesn't decrease the tension because their pain is so obvious and exposed.
3. When the character is trying to appease someone who is angry with them by trying to make that person laugh. Add some jeering humorless laughter in response and you've got a real heartbreaker.
There are probably other categories here, but you've got the idea.
The interesting thing about these jokes is that they aren't funny. They look funny, and some part of your brain gives them credit for having joke content. What they convey is bravery and intelligence in the face of anger or pain or fear. They're endearing. Heart-crushing. But they're not funny. And they're great.
Lunch: McDonalds. That Big 'n' Tasty Sandwich, the one with tomato. You know the Big Mac doesn't have tomato, right? Sing the jingle – it's true.