One simple trick to make your comedy funnier

Comedy is a touchy subject (especially if you’re Louis CK or Bill Cosby), and I know you don’t have all day, so we’re going to jump right into things, I promise.

But first, I need to make sure we’re clear on a few things before we talk humor.

Ready for a horribly condensed crash-course? Too bad. We’re doing it.

Humor is generated when an expectation is subverted. There I saved you a lot of reading on the subject.

What this means is that your audience expects something and you give them something else. Hear the same jokes enough (sometimes just once) and your original expectation adapts to the new result, and the joke ceases to be funny.

When an expectation is subverted, it creates a moment of conflict in our brains. Expectations were not met. We must grind those gears to adjust, and in the meantime, we’re terribly uncomfortable with the world not working the way we thought, even in such a small way. But once we’ve adjusted that expectation, there’s a moment of relief — ah, the world makes sense again now that we have this new understanding! — and that relief manifests in laughter.

That means humor is by definition conflict.

Ergo, if you want to amp up the comedy in your story, then you have to amp up the conflict.

(To clarify, we’re talking conflict, not trouble. This is a complicated topic in and of itself, but let’s summarize this way: Trouble is a flat tire. Conflict is catching someone slitting your tires and trying to decide how to react.)

The easiest way to amp up the conflict is not by forcing in jokes upon jokes upon jokes, but by adding tragedy.

Stay with me here.

Humor is armor. I say so and, more importantly, my therapist says so. And you should listen to her because it will make me feel better about the money I shell out each month. But also, it’s pretty universally accepted that humor is an effective coping mechanism.

Armor is great when you go into battle.

Armor is not great when you’re relaxing by a fire with your friends. In that case, armor is hot. It will snag on your canvas folding chairs. You have to keep removing your helmet every time you want to have a drink.

The point is that when things are good and you’re ready to get comfortable and have a moment, you don’t need to armor up emotionally and therefore it’s not the best time for humor. This is the time where you get to talk about that teddy bear you loved that your mother sold, and how it led to your furry lifestyle that’s starting to exceed your monthly budget. You know, serious and deep shit.

So, if you want your story to be funnier, you have to give it a good reason to armor up: you have to send it straight into battle.

And that’s the one thing you can do to increase the comedic opportunities in your story.

Add tragedy.

This doesn’t guarantee it will be funny. You still have to do the work. But it will give you the proper canvas to paint on, and all you have to do is pick out your colors, your subject, and take off.

Breaking it down:

In Shift Work, the first book of my paranormal comedy series Kilhaven Police, one of the early scenes is Officer Green, a rookie, arriving at his first dead body call.

The beats for this scene were simple: Green arrives with his field training officer, the callous Officer Valance, and they begin helping a few other officers on their shift secure the scene. The victim is a drug-dealing, human-trafficking werebear with a “cop killer” tattoo across his forehead. Not the most sympathetic of victims. He’s been killed by a crossbow arrow right through the offending tattoo. As Green stands watch over the body, the other officers begin making jokes along the lines of “right to bear arms,” and “it’s a grizzly scene.”

Already, the scene is set up with a stark contract between comedy and tragedy.

Tragedy: someone was murdered, Green is going through a brutal rite of passage by seeing his first body.

Comedy: bear puns. Heaps of them.

Conflict: a man has been murdered, but maybe it’s okay because he was awful; Green is experiencing something profoundly traumatic while his shift mates make light of it.

Now imagine if they were simply arresting a werebear who had shoplifted while they cracked their bear puns. That has potential for comedy, sure, but making those puns doesn’t subvert the expectation of decency when the werebear is alive quite as much as it does when he’s dead with an arrow through his head.

Okay, so we’re back to the original scene. The werebear is dead. Officers are making bear puns. How do I open up this scene for even more humor? I amp up the conflict. And do to that? I amp up the tragedy.

And this is how I do it: I give Green a moment to stare at the body, to notice the minute details, to struggle with the trauma inherent in the gruesome scene. Really home in on that. Then I have someone make a “not exactly a kodiak moment” joke, or something along those lines (I can’t remember which pun it was exactly, forgive me). Pressing those two things — the gruesome details and the joke — right up next to each other requires the reader to bridge a even greater distance between the expectation of “this is a sad and solemn occasion” and the reality of the attitudes expressed. And that results in more discomfort and, theoretically, a bigger laugh to diffuse the tension.

This example is an extreme in the comedy and tragedy stage, and you obviously don’t have to include this degree of gallows humor in your story for it to be funny. But it is the reason why dark comedy often makes us laugh so hard (skydiving scene in Deadpool 2, anyone?).

It also explains why you can’t keep hitting the high notes and expect people to keep laughing without a break. You need emotional ups and downs for comedy to work.

And most importantly of all, when you show characters using humor to cope with tragic situations they can’t control, you’re giving the reader a huge gift: you’re handing them another piece of armor for their daily life and telling them, “Hey, it’s okay to laugh so you don’t cry sometimes. You’ll make it through.”

That’s really what humor is all about. Coping: pass it on.

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