How Absurd Comedy Works

By | January 13, 2020

Excerpt from ‘The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy’ [Currency Press]©Tim Ferguson

Seeking the Holy Grail

Absurd humour mocks any detailed analysis. Typically, each absurd joke or scenario is a world unto itself and has few specifics in common with other jokes in the genre. But there are some general guidelines to the art.

It’s arguable that all comedy is absurd. All humour points to the absurd in life, in that it generally turns on a logical contradiction or defies a logical expectation. But Absurd Humour seems to ignore contradiction and neutralising expectation in favour of a kind of negation – an entirely distinct concept.

Absurd comedy such as the work of Monty Python shows largely intelligent and rational characters reacting in realistic ways. It’s simply the situation that’s absurd. Even if the characters are operating under an absurd belief or obsession, once we accept that they genuinely believe in it, we can see that they are behaving rationally. In The Holy Grail, The Black Knight believes he can still put up a fight, though his arms and legs have been hacked off (‘I can still bleed on you!’) Once we accept that he believes it, we accept that he’s behaving rationally on his own terms. The implausibility of his inflexibility is the key to the comedy.

Absurd or nonsense humour highlights the ridiculousness of life, pushing normally accepted realities to nonsense extremes, giving the audience a fresh perspective. (In Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, a Catholic mother and father have followed the dictates of the Vatican by breeding dozens. They have bred so many children, when a baby plops out of the mother, she is neither surprised nor excited. The Vatican’s view that ‘every sperm is sacred’ is taken to its extreme and then given a nudge – they have so many children, the parents are forced to sell them for scientific experimentation.)

Through the juxtaposition of incongruous entities, personalities, values or behaviours, absurd humour creates scenarios in which the characters have nonsensical manifestations, aims or perspectives. (In The Holy Grail, the Knights of Ni shout the word ‘Ni!’ to dominate their foes. Before the terrified King Arthur can pass them, they demand he bring them, of all things, a shrubbery.)

The use of random elements like ‘a shrubbery’ pervades this type of humour.

Anthropomorphism is common in absurd humour. And it’s not just animals that can have human characteristics. In the absurd world, even lunchboxes can have personalities and driver’s licenses and a human being can think they’re a lunchbox.

Absurd humour can play upon the absurdity within a joke itself, either reversing, neutralising or furthering that absurdity for a laugh.

Absurd humour has been around at least since the Middle Ages.

In The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’(Canterbury Tales), Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) tells of a fox chasing a rooster round a barnyard, but he uses lofty, heroic language more suited to a grand epic. This absurd metaphor raises animals to the level of humans, no doubt implying that humans can be lowered to the level of animals.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland is similarly anthropomorphic – the animals in Wonderland talk and have largely human concerns.

Absurdism became prominent during World War I, when ‘Dada’ artists began seriously questioning institutions, language and culture. The finest example of the period is Duchamp’s inverted urinal (Fountain by ‘R.Mutt’). The art world and society at large were rocked by the suggestion that anything could be art if the artist said it was.

            The Dada influence remains in absurdist TV sketch humour today. A typical Dada method was to throw scraps of paper inscribed with words into a hat. The Dadaists would remove some of the pieces of paper and devise poems based upon the words they’d extracted from the hat. Some modern British sketch shows (i.e., Little Britain and Big Train) often seem to rely on a similar apparent randomness. (One example has Ming The Merciless vacuuming his suburban home. Another features a dozen jockeys trying to put out a house-fire.)

Randomness is a component of much absurd humour:

Q: How many absurdists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: An orange. (Unattrib.)

This Obvious ‘Using a statement against itself’ joke defies our expectation of a more-considered punchline. Once the key element ‘Absurdists’ is mentioned, the ingredient of the punchline is almost irrelevant. It could be ‘An Elephant’ or indeed ‘A Urinal’. The choice of a seemingly random punchline or element is typical in absurd comedy.

Haikus are easy

But sometimes they don’t make sense

Refrigerator (Unattrib.)

All the final line of the Haiku needed was five syllables.

For ten years, Caesar ruled with an iron hand. Then with a wooden foot, and finally with a piece of string.

(Spike Milligan)

Having posed a ‘reality’, some absurd jokes take it one step further:

A dog goes into a hardware store and says: “I’d like a job please”.

The hardware store owner says: “We don’t hire dogs, why don’t you go join the circus?”

The dog replies: “What would the circus want with a plumber”.                     (Steven Alan Green)

Other Absurd gags extrapolate from their premise to an absurd conclusion:

My friend George is a radio announcer. When he walks under a bridge, you can’t hear him talk.

(Steve Wright)

Absurd jokes can rely on a punchline that plays with the absurdity itself:

Shifting perspective from the absurd to the realistic is a good way to throw an audience off-balance. The following Obvious/Absurd two-part joke is an example:

Q: How do you fit two elephants into a Mini Minor?

A: One in the front and one in the back.

Q: How do you fit four elephants into a Mini Minor?

A: Look, you’ve already got two elephants in there. There’s no way a Mini is going to seat another two.

(Anon)

Absurdity can highlight everyday human concerns:

The Monty Python ‘Argument Sketch’ features a Customer who has paid a professional Arguer to have an argument. Once this absurd scenario is accepted, the sketch bounces between the Customer, who feels he’s being ripped off, and the Arguer who rejects everything the customer says.

MAN:      …This isn’t an argument.

MR VIBRATING: Yes, it is.

MAN:      No, it isn’t. It’s just contradiction.

MR VIBRATING: No, it isn’t.

(The Customer’s frustration at the intransigent Arguer reflects that of all customers who haven’t gotten what they paid for.)

Any of the other gag principles can be used for Absurd comedy.

Excerpt from ‘The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy’ [Currency Press]

Gag Types: The Inescapable Conclusion

By | December 20, 2019

©Tim Ferguson

What do the following pieces of comic dialogue have in common?

1.
ALLAN: What are you doing Saturday night?
MUSEUM GIRL: Committing suicide.
ALLAN: What about Friday night?
(‘Play It Again, Sam’)

2.
Kim: I’m not a size 16, Mum. I’m a size 10.
Kath: Country Road’s size 10. (‘Kath & Kim’)

3.
LUCILLE: Get me a vodka rocks.
Michael: Mom, it’s breakfast.
LUCILLE: And a piece of toast.
(‘Arrested Development’)

Identifying the principle underpinning these exchanges requires some thought. Devising the exchanges takes even more thought. Strangely, there is an assumption that because a comic scenario or joke is simple, inventing it must require less thought from both writer and audience than, say, a dramatic emotional exchange. Without knowing the principle underpinning these exchanges, writing something similar can pose as much of a challenge as finding the shortest route to Rome. (Yes, all roads lead to Rome but without a map, the simplest route takes time and practice to find. And it won’t help you from a new location.)

To test your natural comedy skills, write an original exchange using any topic, characters and setting that resembles the exchanges above.

Okay, now you’ve skipped over the baffling task above, read on.

Most people don’t know the technical principle that connects these exchanges. This lack of knowledge is not a sign of stupidity, or a lack of skill and talent. For the average audience member, this lack of knowledge is unfortunate but allowable. For screenwriters, authors or playwrights, not knowing the principle connecting the jokes is unforgivable – and may explain why they are forced to work a second job to pay their bills.

The principle is simple and forehead-slappingly obvious when you know it. The comic principle is ancient. One of the world’s the oldest recorded jokes (by Philogelos, circa 400AD) goes like this:

“A Soothsayer reads an Abderite’s fortune and says, ‘I see you will have no children.’
The Abderite scoffs. ‘Fool,’ he says. ‘I have six children.’
The Soothsayer replies, ‘Hm… Tell them to be careful.’”

So what’s the link between the jokes? It’s not their subject matter. Each of the three exchanges involves different topics – dating, jobs and drinking.

It’s not rhythm. Two of them (1 and 3) follow a classic tripartite pattern, but the second is a two-line pattern.

It isn’t the characters. Each plays on the unique qualities and immediate desires of very different personalities.

Two of the quotes are American and one is from one of Australia’s most popular sitcoms, so nationality has nothing to do with the connection.

And the Philogelos joke is from Ancient Greece, so has no direct contemporary, cultural or regional link to the three segments of dialogue.

The connection is a simple narrative comedy principle. A ‘principle’ is not a formula and it certainly isn’t a rule. It acts as a framework, much in the way scaffolding can be used to construct a building. The buildings may be made of differing materials – bricks, wood, mud – but the scaffolding used to guide the construction is the same. Or, to put it another way, a hair-roller provides a fixed function. Hair colour, strength or style has nothing to do with the function of a hair-roller itself. The roller’s function concerns only shaping the hair its wound in.

This particular comic principle can be found in narrative comedies of all kinds. Be warned: once you know the principle, you won’t forget it. You will recognise it in virtually every comedy you see.

The principle is what comedy writers and producers call a ‘gag’. They’ve bought their beach houses through regular application of gags, gags and more gags. When comic characters, situations, themes and story/scene structure are developed, the next layer is the generous distribution of gags. (A typical sitcom script contains four gags per industry-format page.)

A comedy without gags has little chance of fulfilling the core imperative of any comedy – audience laughter.
Spontaneous and involuntary laughter is compulsory in comedy. Wry smiles, knowing winks and mutters of ‘Well played, sir/madam, well played,’ are all very well, but laughing out loud is an audience demand. Only an ignorant snob (or a lazy writer) would define the primary purpose of comedy any other way.

To create out-loud laughter, writers must create a surprise which accords with the audience’s perception of truth. This is why one man’s comedy is another’s flatline. Subject matter, and the (often subjective) truth being highlighted with it, must be known, palatable or of interest to the audience. Without affinity of any kind, a joke dies. Greenies, whale-hunters and Young Liberals each have their no-go zones. Political humour works best if the audience is onside. If they don’t agree with the subjective truth of a joke, audiences can quickly become bored or angry.

People who claim to have open minds soon reveal they are not open to everything. Swingers and Methodists might enjoy the same jokes, so long as the subject matter truth being imparted are broadly acceptable to them. But everyone has a soft spot.

Even comedians can be provoked to outrage. A brilliant young Melbourne comedy writer, Dean Watson, sparked a scandal among comedians at the Melbourne Comedy Festival when he published an article suggesting comics would get more corporate work if they curtailed their swearing. This common sense suggestion offended some comics who complained to me for two reasons. They insisted swearing is a protected component of free speech (which, technically, it isn’t – there are legal restrictions on the public use of profanity). Secondly, they declared no lucrative corporate gig was worth curtailing their free expression. (This may be true, but at what fucking price?)

Do tough, cool comics swear in front of their Nannas? (Discuss.)

It’s never safe to assume an audience is onside. I once offended a group of university-Lefties by calling them ‘Trotskyites’. After the show, the gig’s organiser told me why the crowd had gone suddenly Siberian-cold. ‘We’re Sparticists,’ she said, ‘not murderous Trotskyite scum.’ Go figure.

The passage of time doesn’t always cause a joke to lose its sting. The Philogelos joke above may seem harmless (it’s 1600 years old) unless you’ve lost a child.

The principles of comedy, however, can be applied to any subject matter, be it topical, smutty, intellectual or childish. Once the gag is constructed, the principle is only apparent to someone who knows what to look for. Like hair-rollers, no part of the principle is left behind.
The three narrative jokes and the Philogelos gag above comply with a principle known as the ‘Inescapable Conclusion’. In the case of Woody Allen’s ‘Play It Again, Sam’, ‘Allan’ is aiming to get a date. The Museum Girl’s plans for suicide don’t deter him. The date is, for now, inescapable. Jane Turner and Gina Riley’s ‘Kim’ may wish to be seen as a Size 10, but only if that size is in the more generous Country Road sizing. And Lucille (created by Mitch Hurwitz) is getting her vodka no matter what. And Philogelos’ Abderite may scoff at the Soothsayer’s dire prediction, but the future of his children is not in the stars. The premise of each exchange is fought against but cannot be denied.

This particular comic principle relies on the audience falling for a simple trick of misdirection. In each example, they are lead to assume there will be a twist on the premise – perhaps Woody will give up, Kath will admit she is a Size 16-and-a-half, Lucille will delay her morning vodka and for a moment, we thought there was something to rejoice. When each premise is proven to be inescapable, the truth of the characters acting true to form, and the inevitability of the situation comes as a minor surprise, a surprise that figures. Most punchlines cause an audience member to think ‘I should’ve seen that coming!’ If the audience does see the punchline coming, they will duck the punch. And they probably won’t laugh.

The ‘Inescapable Conclusion’ gag type is to be found in many narrative comedies or one-liners. The American comedian Martha Raye opined ‘Ask any girl what she’d rather be than beautiful and she’ll say “More beautiful”.’
The principle is ancient, presumably dating back to the Stone Age.

How does the principle create laughter if none of the scenarios seems like a delightful experience? The notion of being trapped without any chance of escape doesn’t seem immediately or universally funny (ask any inmate). Here’s how it works: A comic scenario is translated by our higher perceptions to our primal responses (some of which are located around the hypothalamus at the base of the brain). Then a response of involuntary noise, adrenalin, endorphins, shallow breathing, bladder- and bowel-evacuation is initiated by the lower brain. The higher brain (which knows the ‘Inescapable Conclusion’ scenario is merely play) diverts these responses from fear/flight reactions to danger into laughter. So a comedy audience member might say ‘It was so funny, I laughed, got a boost, felt giddy, couldn’t breathe, wet myself and cacked!’

The responses above are all fear/flight responses diverted to laughter. The connection between anxiety, fear, surprise and laughter is undeniable.
The oldest recorded joke is an Ancient Greek gag:

“An absent-minded Professor is on a sea voyage when a storm blows up. The ship begins to sink and his Slaves weep in fear.
The Professor says, ‘Don’t Weep. Rejoice! I have freed you all in my will’.

Now can you see the pattern? Knowing the principle doesn’t necessarily ruin the enjoyment of such jokes, but if you claim to be a writer of any kind, you should be aware of it. As is clear, the simplicity of the principle doesn’t restrict its broad application over centuries and across seas. And it is easily grasped, even by someone as complex as a writer. Knowing the principle allows a writer to construct a scenario and to know when the comic principle is fulfilled. The steps are either a tripartite pattern:

1. Outline the premise: “Dr. Kelso: Do you think I got to be chief of medicine by being late?
2. Challenge the premise: “Dr. Cox: No. You got there by back-stabbing and ass-kissing.”
3. Confirm the premise: “Dr. Kelso: Maybe so, but I started those things promptly at eight.” (Scrubs)

Or a two-step pattern:

1. “BERNARD: (About the job) The pay’s not great…
2. …but the work is hard.” (Black Books)

The number of comedy principles is finite. They provide frameworks for creating gags that can appeal to all kinds of people. Writers must learn these principles by trial-and-error or direct teaching.

Gag types like Character Confirmations, Self-Referentials, Distortions, Reversals, Absurdity, Extrapolations Reversals, Negations or Puns can be identified, practiced and mastered. All the narrative comedy principles have been defined. It is lazy and limiting to avoid them.
Learn comedy – write better – get work.
The conclusion is inescapable.