Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Comedy Writing Secrets - Melvin Helitzer

This book is one of the many books that Sunil gave me from his father J.R. Jyothi's wonderful collection of books. I might not be able to ever get the essence of this book across for obvious reasons, but the main structure can be put across, and some ideas for the newcomers. There are so many wonderful jokes and one-liners that made the book a delight to read.

Helitzer starts with the 3Rs of humour - Respect (humour gets us respectful attention), Remember (must be remembered) and Rewards. Humour writers must be aware of the MAP - Material, Audience and Performer. The key to good humour is Consistency and Targeted Material. The character of the material must fit the character of the audience and the performer.

"Instead of working for the survival of the fittest, we should be working for the survival of the wittiest, then we can all die laughing.' Lily Tomlin

All humour writing starts with imagination. Imagine a 'What if..' situation. Don't be inhibited. From the 'what if..' emerges what is known as observational humour.
"Imagination is intelligence having fun'. 

The known joke formulas are - Double entendres, Reverses (switch POV), Triples, Incongruity (pairs logical but unconventional idea), Stupidity (makes you feel superior), Paired phrases, Physical abuse (slapstick).

'The joke is a story and the surprise ending is its finale.'

"Bisexuality immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night.' - Woody Allen
Why we laugh
Surprise (embarrassment), Superiority, Biological, Incongruity, Ambivalence (conflicting emotion), Release (audience knows but one actor doesn't), Configurational (things fall in place).
Humour is social criticism. The object is to deflate.

Understanding what motivates audience appreciation is one of the secrets of writing humour.

"He may not be able to sing, but he sure can't dance.'

THREES Formula - The Anatomy of Humour
Target - Humour is criticism cloaked as entertainment, so criticise self, celebrities, places, things, ideas
Hostility - Cruel (sexual problems, intrusion of authority, financial condition, family patterns, angst and feelings of helplessness, intellectual, insecurity about our physical characteristics)
Realism and Exaggeration - Truth (state cliched problem, create surprise ending), Exaggerate
Emotion and Surprise -building of anticipation in the audience, pregnant pause, surprise is an absolute must

POW - Play on words
Imagine a 'What if...', then Play on words. Go in a predictable direction, switch at last minute.

'The heart patient refused the transplant saying he'd already had a change of heart.' - George Carlin
Cliches -
Double entendres (double interpretation) - Irony, Oral misunderstanding, Usage blunder, Malaprops, oxymorons
Simple truth (literal meaning) - Non sequiturs

"A hundred years from now the works of the old masters will be a thing of the past." - Grove Day

Reforming (alter word order spellings) - Oral cliches (shrimply awful)
Take off (acceptable interpretation, realistic but exaggerated) -
Association (combination of cliches by relating different subjects)

"Familiarity breeds attempt.'

3 Prerequisites for a reformed cliche to be funny-
- cannot be obvious
- should be mildly outrageous
- must be immediately familiar to the audience

Make sure the joke is the last possible thought. Humour is written backwards. Hold joke till last possible minute.

Change POV - offer a solution that is both logical and diametrically opposite of what is expected
PS. Don't telegraph message.

'I have a brother in Harvard Med School'
'What's he studying?'
'Nothing, they are studying him.'

One liners, Epigram, Anecdote, Free association, Commentary, Word association, Insult, Working the audience
Tripe format - 3 actions
PAP Test - Preparation (situation set up), Anticipation (Triples), Punchline (strong pay off)

Humour writing is a lesson in word economy.

Paired elements
Synonyms, Antonyms, Homonyms
use as paired phrases, sentences, words,, states

"She wasn't just throwing herself at him. It was more like taking careful aim.'
Funny Words
Words with K in them are funny. Funny words work but in the middle of a joke and are frequently used in groups. (Names, Cities, Ethnic experiences)

Double entendres - exaggerated and understated realism
'In show business, the key word is honesty. And once you've learned to fake that, you're in.' - George Burns

"When a thing is funny, search for a hidden truth" - Bernard Shaw

Humour is everyday life turned into absurd shapes. Get your facts first and you can distort them as much as you can.

Stretch Band theory
Overstatement / Understatement
Push it till the limit.

"My one rule is to be true than funny" - Cosby

Subtle humour isn't underrated, it is understated.

Surprise or Shock
Humour is like guerrilla warfare. Humour shocks first, surprises next.

The alternative to obscenity is understatement.

Staying in character
It must be the perfect characterisation of an imperfect character.

The 20 masks of comedy are
Stand up/ Aggressor / Sad Sack/ Druggie rebel / Intellectual student / Political satirist / Storyteller / Rube or Country boy / Old timer / Ethnic type/ Immigrant / Partners/ Sketch performers/ Ventriloquist / Actor / Impersonator/ Clown/ Vaudeville / Improviser/ Bumbler

Characterisation can be aided by - Costume, Props, Voice and Physical appearance

Establish an identifiable character. Let the audience feel superior. Make the audience care.

Markets for Humour Writers
Humor writers get paid well. Lee Iacocca paid 90000 USD for his humour writer.

In a speech, there are six areas for making humour work
Preparation - rehearse, be early, pack the hall, keep the sound loud
Title - most important
Introduction of speaker - write a clever introduction
Introductory remarks - not too much humility, not more than 3 funny pieces
Speech - have something to say, do not apologise or explain, remember wit is the salt, not the meat
Getting off - standing ovation lines

Be aurally oriented. Remember, it takes 1 week to write a good speech.

Greeting cards talk to the reader. Tell them what they want to hear.

Cartoons - something is hidden from one of the characters. Everyone including the audience knows what is taking place.

"Journalism tends to make all kinds of people bigger. Humour brings them back."

Print humour - News anecdotes/ one line jokes / over statement / understatement / ironic tales

TV Sitcoms themes - Family aggression / workplace aggression / mistaken assumptions / Intrusions / Heart break / Moral and ethical conflicts / Sympathy for the disadvantaged / Physical mishaps / Something of value / Failure to cope

The book must be read to get a glimpse of what he is trying to convey. This is almost like the index of the book. But even in the classification, there is something to learn about the structure and the basics of humour writing. Like everything else, one gets better with practice. Thanks Tops and Jyothi saab.

No comments: