As always, this is one man’s opinion, but as I see it, here are the styles… the types… the categories… the genres…
1. Awkward — The relatively new genre of cringe humor appears to be the hardest. Why? The challenge here is taking everyday events and making them look REAL. Shows like The Office (UK) and Curb Your Enthusiasm evince situations that appear so genuine not just because they display the mundane, trivial details of life but do it with characters that really do act that way. You could totally imagine things like that happening because they really do happen in real life. And the chances of hitting the mark are so minute. It’s like nailing the right note when you’re playing an instrument — the closer you are without being right on, the worse it sounds. Audiences are perceptive enough that they can easily sniff out phoniness. Some examples:
- The Office (UK) vs. (US): Here’s the difference: if somebody told me that Scranton, PA, really had an office like that, there’s no way I’d believe it. It’s very obvious that people don’t actually behave that way. But if you told me that the Slough branch office was a real place, I’d buy it hook, line, and sinker. (Guess our whole country is just a rip-off of theirs… but at least we did that better than they did… so it’s fine.)
- Little Miss Sunshine vs. Juno: My strongest critique of the latter is that PEOPLE DON’T TALK THAT WAY. Yes, it’s been a while since I felt like a teenager but not that long since I felt a teenager. (Who’s with me?!) Actually, I do have a beat on what teens find funny because I get to do a lot of standup at colleges each year. Juno just felt so contrived, whereas I found the characters in LMS to be believable — this despite the fact that the plot was far more “out there” than that of Juno.
- Best in Show vs. Waiting for Guffman: Both are solid but the people in Show were caricatured — there are people who really are that into dogs but not in the way these folks were. In WFG, the folks were so real — Dr. Pearl was the dentist in the small town in which you grew up… the musical director was your musical director.
So, my argument here is that creating authentic characters and then placing them in uncomfortable situations is the hardest thing to do. Those were all screen examples — this is much harder to do in standup because this type of thing is almost by definition the interaction between people and in standup it’s just the comedian himself. When it happens it’s generally unintentional, like when your friend is bombing at the local open mic… or when you are.
2. Dry/Sarcastic — Stating the Obvious… finding the real… most observational humor (Seinfeld’s entire act would fit here). I’d place “satire” in this category, including works like A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. Generally, people think of a dry sense of humor as when people don’t laugh. Though you never hear of the inverse called a “wet” sense of humor, I’d say that’s accurate. Anything without a laugh track to tell people when to laugh assumes the audience is smart enough to figure it out and have its own interpretation.
3. Clever/Quick-Witted — Wit = Comedy + Speed. This is something by definition that not everyone is going to get. Wit moves. It zips. Not everyone will be able to catch it — and that’s part of the fun. Go back and watch Clue or Fletch or even The Social Network (or anything Aaron Sorkin has written) and you’ll notice things you didn’t the first time. Speed is an essential element of intelligence. In fact, intelligence refers to how quickly you pick things up; knowledge is how much you know. Think about it. Standardized tests are timed. If they weren’t, heck, there’d be a lot more 1600s on those SATs. To give a geeky analogy, intelligence is the speed of your processor; knowledge is the size of your hard drive. Someone who’s knowledgeable will catch a lot of pop cultural references but someone who is intelligent will follow something new and moving fast. What’s wisdom, then? I don’t know but it probably describes someone who can come up with this paragraph.
4. Obscure/Absurd — Some good examples are The Naked Gun, Monty Python, Adult Swim, and Looney Tunes. People bond over the allusions they “get” that maybe not everybody else did. A lot of “alt” comedy fits her e- it’s highly referential. I often give wacky analogies and the people who can follow how I got from Point A to Point F are usually my best friends, so it does often serve as a bit of a filter. I wouldn’t say Back to The Future is obscure but only the movie-quoting dudes in this scene get it so they connect due to that:
5. Black/Dark makes light of very serious topics like sickness, terror, race relations, etc. Or even a flick like Election. Particularly with this style, you’re playing with fire, as I heard Carlos Mencia say once in an interview (and it made me wonder who said it first). He was talking about how he saw Richard Pryor at the Comedy Store and started doing a bunch of racial and political material. In the early going, he’d miss a lot and it took years to hone it. Most comics’ taste are in this genre. As my comedian friend, Adam Richmond, told me… “How do you make a roomful of people laugh? Dress a guy up as an old lady and push him down the stairs. How do you make a roomful of comics laugh? It really has to be an old lady.” Our line tends way left of society’s — it has to because we’re the ones past the fringe, urging and pulling society to just laugh it all off. A common question comedians receive is whether any topics are too taboo to cover. The answer is “no.” Though my personal guideline has been to not pick on people who can’t defend themselves, I’ve seen hysterical jokes about everything from the Holocaust to retarded people to 9–11. It’s all in whether the crowd gets the sense that you’re mean-spirited or good-natured.
6. Raunchy/Blue — I think we laugh hardest at the things we’re not supposed to laugh at. Racial and sex jokes are the ultimate examples. It’s just more of a guttural, visceral, belly laugh vs. the kind that people like Jerry Seinfeld give you. The issue I have with this is it has become too easy… I think Sarah Silverman can be very funny but when her act breaks down into anus and doody jokes, I wonder if a third grader could write and deliver it just as well. (I think this is why they don’t let kids into comedy clubs. It has nothing to do with the liquor license. Children probably walk out thinking, “I could write that.” And they’re prolly right.)
7. Campy/Cheesy: Puns, plays-on-words, and pickup lines like “Are your feet tired? Because you’ve been running thru my mind all day.” They are generally literal but this category is more of a graveyard for jokes that just missed the Clever/Quick-Witted target. If you say something you think is clever, you’re going for an “Ahhh” vs. an “Ooooh.” (Is that the right onomatopoeia for a groan?)
8. Friendly — This is corporate/local news humor or family humor — the warm stuff of commercials or after school specials. It’s not supposed to be high-brow; it’s inclusive and universal… apple pie. Target everybody and you target nobody. You aren’t going to offend anyone, but then again, you’re not really saying anything. So, if nobody can hate it, no one’s going to love it, either. If all you’re going for is a smile, you’re likely to get it. Easy.
9. Goofy/Slapstick — I do not want anybody to walk away from this post thinking that I’m saying this is easy. I’m not. When it works, it’s universal— it makes everyone from babies to the elderly laugh. Some would then ask whether that’s the hardest, then. But it’s lowest common denominator — and it’s translatable into other languages… it limbo-dances underneath the “Drama Is Global — Comedy Is Local” banner. It’s very difficult to do intentionally; however, a lot of stuff that happens accidentally makes us laugh, too.
“Something like that — a guy getting hit on the head with a rock or something — tickled the pants off Ackley.” — The Catcher in the Rye
Tig Notaro captured this ingeniously with her stool-sliding bit. [It won’t allow an embed so please click and start at 3:26.]
Here’s a classic Buster Keaton pratfall…done, of course, intentionally:
And here’s a real-life accident:
And why do you need to know all this? You don’t. But it comes in handy for explaining why you think something is funny. I’ll close out with empirically proving why Airplane! is the most widely appealing comedy ever.
Awkward — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Yelling at The Kid:
Dry/Sarcastic — Wrong Week to Quit Sniffing Glue:
Clever/Quick-Witted — All Together:
Obscure/Absurd — Girl Scout Brawl:
Black/Dark — Counterpoint:
Raunchy/Blue — Autopilot:
Campy/Cheesy — Shirley:
Friendly — Statue Holds an Umbrella:
[Sorry, guys — couldn’t find a video/picture of this. Here it is in the script:
DRAMATIC MUSIC as Striker is struggling with the controls.
Windshield wipers are moving as though directing music. St.
Christopher statue is holding an umbrella. Striker regains
control of the plane.
Goofy/Slapstick — Drinking Problem:
That’s my take on it. So much for brevity being the soul of wit.
Rajiv Satyal is a comedian and comedy nerd. He resides in Los Angeles.
Originally published at www.rajivsatyal.com on February 21, 2011.