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“Comedy is the art of making people laugh, without making them puke.” Steve Martin
Every human being makes jokes every day. You might not find all of them funny, but we all use comedy to make ourselves feel better, to show off, to please others, and as social glue. Other animals might laugh, but as far as we know only humans make comedy. So why do we do it? And how does it work?
Comedy appears to come from the same part of us that uses language, that finds patterns, and understands our neighbours. It’s hardwired in our brains, and the tools it uses are the ones that help us survive. In short, we got here because we’re funny.
And with the rise of social media, creating gags for public consumption is no longer just a professional job. Horrifying as it might sound, we have all become comedy writers.
And in this rush to make each other laugh, jokes themselves seem to have become explosive. What happens when they misfire? And if everyone is waiting to be offended, should we even try to be funny?
Despite claims that you can’t analyse comedy, Joel Morris has been a professional comedy writer for more than 30 years, and has had to come up with practical theories for how jokes work, or there isn’t any food tonight, which is a good, strong motive.
Comedy is a universal human game, with big social prizes, and occasionally genuine hazards. So what are the rules? What happens when we make a joke? How does comedy work? Why do we do it? And what are our brains up to when we play the game of jokes?
EXTRACT: WHAT’S SO FUNNY?
Comedy is a strange, shapeless, gaseous thing. We all know what it is. We all know what we like. We all know it when we experience it. But analysing comedy is famously difficult.
It has been often said that comedy is like music. Comedians and musicians know that their artform is admired most when it appears transcendental, mysterious and ineffable, so there is a tendency to insist that subjecting it to analysis is pointless and reductive.
Yet, like music, comedy isn’t as mysterious as it seems. Songs and jokes can be made by combining a limited number of shared and pre-used elements, and rearranging them in a fortunately infinite number of combinations.
Don’t forget that music and comedy are learned the same way: through imitation, rote-learning and borrowing. Influence is everything, and musicians and comedians alike usually start their careers by doing ‘cover versions’ of their heroes’ work, whether openly or thinly disguised. We’ve all spent our formative years working out which fingers are going down on which keys, where to pause and hang before the punchline.
Comedy and music involve making countless tiny choices, fine-tuned to draw an emotional reaction from an audience. They are both dependent on rhythm; utilising a careful balance of repetition and surprise within their structure. Music has its twelve bar blues, comedy its Rule of Three. It’s all about when you spring the changes, and how much you can lead an audience one way, then yank them the other. The art is, to quote Steve Martin ‘to make people laugh, without making them puke.’
And because of the truth – that there is a mechanism behind the magic – comedians, just like musicians, talk about their craft endlessly amongst themselves, while warning outsiders that talking about it is, sadly, impossible.
To keep critics in their place, musicians will often wheel out the old saying ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture...’The quote is often attributed to Frank Zappa, but almost certainly not him (1). But anyone with a love of good music journalism, knows that, in fact, writing about music is absolutely fine, shut up, Frank. Music writing can be uplifting, inclusive, revelatory, contextual, poetic and deepen your enjoyment of its subject. The equivalent quote that comedy people flap up like a shield of steel around their craft is from Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White, who said, ‘Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.’
There is of course some truth in this. If the main purpose of a joke is to surprise and delight, often thanks to the speed of shared thought, explaining it can kill the mood dead. You either get it or you don’t. Nobody wants to be Margot from The Good Life wailing helplessly “why is it funny?” while everyone around her weeps tears of natural laughter.
But do you know who dissects frogs all the time? Comedians and comedy writers. And because of that, they do know how funny works, even if that knowledge is sometimes instinctive rather than mechancial.
Some comedy makers are analysts and scientists of laughter, like Dan Harmon (Community, Rick & Morty) or Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development), drawing curious pseudoscientific graphs of audience expectation to help them navigate their writing. While others have learned comedy more like a physical craft, feeling their way through joke structure, then testing it laboriously and repeatedly in front of different audiences. Performer-writers feel the energy of a room in response to prepared material, and ride it like a sort of jazz Jedi, with jokes. Stewart Lee – very much the stand-up’s stand-up – wrote a terrific book about his craft (How I Escaped My Certain Fate) which is as much about understanding and manipulating the psychology of crowds as it is about joke writing.
Legendary Liverpool comic Ken Dodd was also a sharp thinker about the nature of jokes, yet here he is quoted in the Guardian in April 1991, on the perils of analysing comedy:
‘Freud's theory was that when a joke opens a window, and all those bats and bogeymen fly out, you get a marvellous feeling of relief and elation. The trouble with Freud is that he never had to play the old Glasgow Empire on a Saturday night after Rangers and Celtic had both lost.’
It’s a great observation, and made it to the Oxford Book of Quotations. But I prefer the concision of this early version, quoted by Michael Billington in a 1973 review of Dodd at the Liverpool Playhouse:
‘Freud says humour is a conservation of psychic energy. But he never played Glasgow second house on a Friday night.’
In both versions, Dodd is denying that comedy can succumb to analysis; it’s all about reaction, about feel, maybe even survival instinct. But I’d argue that comedy analysis is vital and fascinating. And to prove this, I’d like to analyse Ken Dodd’s joke about how we mustn’t analyse comedy.
You can see where the changes have taken place over two decades, and they’re all about exploring models of mind, and developing clarity of shared communication. Despite the delights of surrealism (of which more later) confusion is generally the enemy of comedy. Presumably because the joke failed a few times, Dodd has fixed it. He has put himself in the position of a potential audience member, calculated where any confusion might occur, then removed it.
There are two beats in the joke, Freud and Glasgow. Compare the first and second forms of those two beats, and you can see what Ken Dodd has done to refine his craft.
ONE: ‘Freud says humour is a conservation of psychic energy.
TWO: ‘‘Freud's theory was that when a joke opens a window, and all those bats and bogeymen fly out, you get a marvellous feeling of relief and elation.
ONE: ‘But he never played Glasgow second house on a Friday night.’
TWO: ‘The trouble with Freud is that he never had to play the old Glasgow Empire on a Saturday night after Rangers and Celtic had both lost.’
Each of the two concepts in the original 1973 joke (Freud and Glasgow) has, you will observe, by 1991, had extra information stapled to it. Now we are given a colourful illustration of the idea of psychic energy (‘bats and bogeymen’), and a context in which we might judge the mood of an audience we’ve possibly never experienced (‘after Rangers and Celtic have both lost’). Dodd has sacrificed pace and rhythm, as skilfully as he can, and swapped them for comprehensibility.
And, if we’re analysing Dodd’s analysis of analysis, I would say that my preference for the earlier version is not just because it’s faster, but because it’s a tradesman’s joke designed to be shared with other comics, who understand the references. Personally, as a comedy nerd, I’m roughly familiar with the ideas of Freud about comedy, and the reputation of a Glasgow comedy crowd. I got the references, or could at least infer them, so I like being part of Dodd’s tribe, and filling in the missing bits of the joke. It’s one of the regular pleasures of jokes – using them as tribal tokens of shared sensibility. This is a joke for jokers, and that’s immediately warm, if you’re lucky enough to feel included.
Fair enough, I’ll confess I don’t really know what the ‘second house’ is like at a circuit comedy gig, but I can work it out from the context, and enjoy doing so. It feels like being given a little glimpse into his professional world, which is flattering. So, in 1973 Dodd’s got a speedy version of the joke that plays with his peers. But he needs a version that can cut across the rowdy stalls, maybe even kill in the mythically tough second house at the old Glasgow Empire. I hear it’s terrible.
The process of making comedy isn’t instinctive, after all. Even if you’re making a joke about how it is. It’s practical, sensible, analytical and logical. Comedy is about manipulating human beings to induce a seemingly involuntary reaction – laughing, smiling, satisfaction, a feeling of inner warmth at a shared observation. To do so, the comedian needs to understand human beings. And to understand human beings they are relying, whether they want to admit it openly or not, on neuroscience, anthropology and craft.
In one respect however, I’m one hundred percent on Ken Dodd’s side. Most books about the science of comedy are written by neuroscientists or anthropologists. I am, according to my CV, neither a neuroscientist or an anthropologist, and neither have I played the Glasgow second house in 1973 after a citywide drubbing, but I have made a living out of jokes. And I think leaving the analysis to critics and outside observers risks missing some of the point.
I am interested in finding out how the frog works because I believe there are patterns and shapes of thought in common to all comedy. And I believe that how comedy works is related to how we think as humans.
Jokes are a clue as to how we’ve evolved, how our brains like to play. Playing is often a way of practising essential survival skills, and understanding what our brain is doing – the neuroscience and anthropology of what happens when we joke – doesn’t cheapen the magic. It’s a fascinating part of enjoying one of our distinctive and instinctive human habits: laughter.
(1) The earliest source for the ‘dancing about architecture’ quote appears to be not the usually credited Zappa, or fellow waspish pop boffin Elvis Costello, but Martin Mull, an actor and comedy songwriter, and the man who played the role of Colonel Mustard in the film Clue, though an earlier version of the same thought ‘talking about music is like singing about economics’ can be traced back as far as 1918.
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