A Touch of Humor

While there was a time when I believed that a story should be totally and deeply serious or else slapstick silly, I’ve come to understand that stories don’t have to be at one extreme or the other. Often, the most effective–or touching–tales evoke a combination of emotions.

While I love drama, if there’s too much grief, gloom, and bleakness unrelieved by any lighter emotion, I can find myself weighed down, depressed, and ready to toss such an unrelenting plot aside.

I enjoy comedy in many forms–usually situational, physical, or farce. In recent years, other types of comedy have become more fashionable, but satire, sardonic wit, and scatological jokes seldom appeal to my personal taste.

Good farce is delightful, but if it’s poorly done it can come across as nothing more than characters behaving stupidly. While there are gems among the American television sitcoms, too many of them rely on punch-line humor–often the hardest to put across–and a canned laugh track. Is there anything worse than so-called humor that isn’t funny? I am so not amused.

The Brits are masters of situational comedy. Such plots build slowly, taking their time in setting up the scenario, but then–like falling dominoes–the laughs come faster and faster to the end.

Physical comedy has been around for centuries, providing people with simple emotional relief. In the twentieth century, it hit its stride in the silent film era–due largely to the genius of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd–and then continued through the Great Depression with Hal Roach’s LITTLE RASCALS, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and The Three Stooges.

Cartoons are another source of humor. Among the best would be the Looney Tunes from Warner Bros. Starting in 1930, when the Great Depression was probably at its worst, these cartoons served up zany slapstick combined with farce, situational humor, and punch-line jokes. As old as they are, they can still make me smile at the difficulties of a cat being trapped in a roll of sticky flypaper. I love the machinations of Tom and Jerry–provided the cartoons haven’t been sanitized for cultural sensitivity. And most of us can probably quote lines such as Bugs Bunny’s “What’s up, doc?” or Elmer Fudd’s grumbling about that “wascally wabbit.”

Still, with a few exceptions among the Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton movies, I think the most effective comedy is short. String it out too long, without mixing it with drama or romance, as Buster Keaton was wise enough to do, and it could become mindlessly silly like the antics of the Keystone Kops.

Which brings me back to the point of the post … the advantage of mixing emotions in fiction.

Writers sometimes refer to this blending or combining as “the roller coaster technique.”

The delightful farce, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, combines horror, suspense, romance, and touching little moments of relationships along with the crazy comedy. Without those other emotions, the comedy alone would be impossible to sustain.

Or, give your readers sadness, but then switch up things with a touch of humor.

An example would be in the funeral scene of the film STEEL MAGNOLIAS. Sally Fields has lost her young daughter. The funeral is over, and her friends have gathered around her in sympathy. Sally starts chewing the scenery, with her usually controlled character finally letting go. She’s ranting and weeping, venting all the pent-up emotions that she’s been suppressing through her daughter’s illness, coma, and death. And then, just when this outpouring of grief has us reaching for our hankies, just when if the director had stretched it any further we’d have detached from it, Sally cries out, “I want to hit something! I want to hit it hard.”

And Olympia Dukakis shoves Shirley Maclaine forward and says, “Here! Hit this!”

There’s a moment of shock, then everyone but Shirley Maclaine starts to laugh. Even Sally Fields’s character can’t stop her spurt of laughter. Olympia shrugs as she explains, “I thought we needed to lighten up.”

So true.

The tragedy, when contrasted with an appropriate amount of humor, will seem that much more moving.

One of the important themes of Preston Sturges’s film classic, SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, is that we need humor in order to keep our balance and our hope, no matter how strong our problems.

The film is set during the worst of America’s Great Depression. Sullivan is a rich, successful filmmaker who mistakenly believes that the poor and downtrodden need movies of heavy drama. He thinks bleakness is all that poor, out-of-work people can identify with.

He’s totally wrong, of course. As he sets out on his journey among the homeless, he gets himself into genuine and deep trouble, so deep that he lands in an Alabama prison, the worst of all places to be. After chain gang work and much torment, he’s taken with the other prisoners to a small country church to see a film. Zany cartoons are shown, and Sullivan is at first offended as the convicts around him laugh. But then he’s caught up by the silliness, and soon he’s laughing with them. He learns that in times of trouble, we need anything but stories of grief and tragedy. We need to laugh.

This principle works for characterization as well. In the SF television series BABYLON FIVE, Security Chief Garibaldi is portrayed as a gruff, pragmatic little bulldog who’s very good at a very difficult and dangerous job. He’s also a recovered alcoholic who’s not so terrific at relationships. One of the lighter quirks assigned to his character, however, is that he loves Warner’s Looney Tunes cartoons. It humanizes him and shows us that there’s more to this man than a semi-paranoid, distrustful, wary grouch.

In the Dean Koontz thriller, WATCHERS, there are two creatures that are products of a secret lab conducting genetic experiments. Both creatures escape. One is a beautiful and highly intelligent Golden Retriever that everyone loves. The other is a hideous, deformed, violent monster that everyone fears. At a certain point in the book, government agents find the monster’s lair and search it for clues as to where the beast might be hiding. Koontz describes the agents picking up magazines where every photograph has been torn to remove the models’ eyes. When the monster kills, it always tears out the eyes of its victims. It’s so ugly that it doesn’t want anyone to see it and cringe in revulsion. But amidst the few possessions, there’s a battered, rusty statuette of Mickey Mouse.

It seems that in the lab, both creatures were shown Mickey Mouse cartoons as they were maturing. And now that they’re out in the world, the beautiful dog still shows delight whenever he encounters a Mickey symbol or cartoon. And in the monster’s den, Mickey represents possibly the only scrap of decency or vulnerability in an otherwise brutal beast.

In this example, Mickey doesn’t provide humor. Instead, he provides a poignant insight into a character that’s more dimensional than we first suppose.

Make ’em laugh. It might be the best way to also make ’em cry.


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5 responses to “A Touch of Humor

  1. Balance is key in everything when it comes to writing. Think of Shakespeare’s King Lear. King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies but there are jokes in it that come from the court jester character known as the Fool. Those types of characters are added in to add a bit of comedic relief. If you go too heavy with drama it will seem over the top and in many cases will start to seem like a farce in itself. Great post, 🙂

  2. I still remember SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS from your class!

    Love your examples of humor with ARSENIC & OLD LACE and another personal favorite, Garibaldi from BABYLON 5.

    Have you by chance seen STARGATE SG-1? Richard Dean Anderson’s character is another great example of dramatic humor.

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