The Inescapable Conclusion: Taking Comedy Seriously
By Tim Ferguson
(First printed in Island Magazine)
The Australian comedy industry generates billions of dollars from film, television, theatre, literature and stand-up. It employs hundreds of writers, actors and production personnel. Most of Australia’s biggest box office earners have been comedy movies. Switch on any free-to-air network during evening primetime and you will see sitcoms, sketch shows and topical comedy shows, such as Shawn Micallef’s Mad As Hell. The nation’s biggest comedy event, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, rivals all our arts festivals in terms of national profile, media attention and box office.
Comedy offers a big audience, a big industry and, most importantly, big bucks. Yet the craft of comedy writing (the most crucial component of any comedy endeavour) has no permanent place in Australia’s schools or tertiary institutions (apart from RMIT University, Melbourne, where it is an optional module in their Advanced Diploma in Professional Screenwriting). Despite the enormous attraction screen comedies hold for producers, distributors, networks and the audience, the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards lumps Comedy in its Light Entertainment category, along with reality TV programmes. Actor/director Josh Lawson describes this as ‘baffling and insulting for both categories’. He is right on both counts. It is rare for successful comedy films to receive AACTA awards out of their own category at all. And forget about a comedy novel winning a Miles Franklin Award.
How can this be so? And how can it be addressed?
Many think that comedy – and the playwright or screenwriter’s craft of narrative comedy – cannot be taught. Australia’s creative writing educators, and many elite members of the industry, labour under the misunderstanding of how comedy is written and how its worth should be measured. Many would argue that the craft of writing comedy results from a natural gift and not from training. Most writers I work with (initially) argue the weight and worthiness of a dramatic story will always outweigh that of a comedy. Drama is for thinking and feeling, they argue, and comedy is for merriment. Anyone who teared-up at The Castle (1997), Kenny (2006), or the final WWI battle scenes of Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) knows this to be untrue. These comedies’ depictions of injustice, redemption or the horrors of war give us plenty to think and feel about – while also making us laugh.
The difficulty of writing comedy is universally accepted. But the principles of the comedy writing process are commonly ignored or denied. An oft-quoted adage suggests ‘you’re either funny or you’re not’. So when asked to write humour, many a writer will shrug and sigh, saying they’re not a very funny person. It is madness to allow a writer to believe being un-funny has anything to do writing good comedy. Hang around a professional comedian for an hour and you’ll see how depressed and angry they can be. If comedy filmmaker Woody Allen’s decades of writing about anxiety and dis-function are any guide, he could hardly be described as ‘uplifting company’.
It appears that comedy is at once respected as a gift from the gods and disparaged as ‘light’ entertainment that cannot match the meaning and gravity of a dramatic or tragic story. Wrong, wrong and… wrong.
Traditionally, Drama is symbolised by two masks. One mask weeps, the other laughs. Tragedy and comedy. The symbol dates back to 400BC. Tragedy is a tough mask to tackle. Creating a work that causes spontaneous and involuntary tears in an audience is a herculean feat demanding training, practice and dogged persistence. It is a huge task, but it can be done. The same goes for the laughing mask, for comedy. Aristotle said that both masks need each other. ‘A comedy that doesn’t bear serious examination is false wit and a tragedy that does not bear levity is suspicious.’ The two masks signifying drama are not there to advertise two separate genres. They are two sides of the one genre, the dramatic arts.
Every drama, no matter how dark its subject matter, must apply tragedy and comedy in some measure to engage an audience. Dramatic films like Lantana (2001), Shine (1996) and Animal Kingdom (2010) cover sombre subject matter but include moments of dark humour. They achieved large audiences worldwide. Our successful TV dramas, such as Rake, Winners & Losers and Packed To The Rafters do the same. Every writer knows every story requires light and shade, pressure and release, tears and laughter. It is the sign of true drama.
Many of Australia’s contemporary dramatic films have a reputation for being bleak and preachy. (Television networks can rarely withstand the low viewer numbers such narratives attract.) The simple reason is that many of the films that fail lack any glimmer of humour. This limits the emotional journey of sad/angry/hopeless films to one end of the spectrum. They start low then descend slowly, painfully, wretchedly. (Australian films that lack any comic characters, scenes or exchanges need not receive mention here because nobody has seen them anyway. They are just too depressing.) But even the film Downfall (2004) which depicts the fall of Adolf Hitler and Berlin to Soviet forces, includes jokes: when the non-smoking, vegetarian, teetotaller Hitler commits suicide, his generals’ first reaction is to light cigarettes and sigh in relief. It’s a moment of dark humour. When Hitler first meets his new secretary, he admits he has troubles with dictating. The film is even more emotionally powerful because of the maturity such moments show.
Many writers of successful films and TV shows apply comedy principles whether they know it or not. Many of them were taught at RMIT. Many others had to learn the craft of comedy writing through trial, error and terror. They are well-paid for their rare skills. Meanwhile, every year hundreds of new drama screenwriters emerge from tertiary courses around Australia. Few have spent any significant time working with experienced comedy teachers.
The good news is that comedy writing for any format demands the conscious or unconscious application of principles that even the most bleak bore can grasp and master.
A high-ranking film producer once assured me, ‘Every joke is an island to itself.’ Her metaphor is accurate but not in the way she intended. Islands are connected by solid and identifiable subterranean land masses. The connecting land is not visible to someone above the water’s surface, but it is real.
So let’s try a small comedy writing exercise…
What do the following pieces of comic dialogue have in common?
ALLAN: What are you doing Saturday night?
MUSEUM GIRL: Committing suicide.
ALLAN: What about Friday night?
KIM: I’m not a size 16, Mum. I’m a size 10.
KATH: Country Road’s size 10.
LUCILLE: Get me a vodka rocks.
MICHAEL: Mom, it’s breakfast.
LUCILLE: And a piece of toast.
Identifying the common 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…)
Most people don’t know the technical principle that connects these exchanges. And yet, it is present in one of the world’s oldest recorded jokes (by PhilogeloS, circa 400AD):
A Soothsayer reads a [foolish] 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.’
This lack of knowledge is not a sign of stupidity, however, 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 these jokes is unforgivable – and may explain why they are forced to work a second job to pay their bills.
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 the same 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.
The principle – known as the Inescapable Conclusion – is simple and forehead-slappingly obvious when you know it. But we’ll have to break it down, piece by piece. So what’s the link between the three jokes stated above?
It’s not their subject matter. Each of the three exchanges involves different topics – dating, clothing and drinking.
It’s not rhythm. Two of them (first and third) 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.
So what is the principle of the Inescapable Conclusion? In the case of Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, ‘Allan Felix’ 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 & 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. Even 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, or Lucille will delay her morning vodka. 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”.’
How does the principle of the Inescapable Conclusion 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.
Consider the oldest recorded joke, the following 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:
Outline the premise: Dr. Kelso: Do you think I got to be chief of medicine by being late?
Challenge the premise: Dr. Cox: No. You got there by back-stabbing and ass-kissing.
Confirm the premise: Dr. Kelso: Maybe so, but I started those things promptly at eight.
Or a two-step pattern:
BERNARD:(About the job) The pay’s not great…
…but the work is hard.
The principle of the Inescapable Conclusion describes a term most Australian writers find distasteful (because they are scared of it). Comedy writers and producers call it 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, well played,’ are all very well, but laughing out loud is an audience demand. Only an ignorant snob 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?) I’m a comedian who has offended the sensibilities of the most ardent Anarchists (‘Hands up Anarchists! No, seriously, get your hands up Anarchists, then see if you can clap…’) and used the harshest language in every language in Europe I’ve toured. But I have no problem getting through a corporate gig without needing to swear. I won’t swear in front of my Nanna either.
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 either. 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 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 through 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 already been defined. It is lazy and limiting to avoid them.
A writer of drama should have no problem in tackling comedy. Narrative comedy is, after all, the compression of drama. The main difference is that comedy sacrifices realism for believability. For example, consider Woody and Buzz Lightyear, from the animated film Toy Story (1995). They are living toys, so realism is abandoned from the movie in the first frame. But both characters behave believably, acting within the boundaries of their own characteristics. Though they could never exist in the real world, Woody and Buzz have recognisably human traits and core drives. We can know they are a fantasy but we can believe their actions because they are consistently based upon their natures as they’ve been depicted.
There are dozens of tertiary writing courses being offered across Australia, each charging thousands of dollars. But none of them could show how a film like Toy Story can be written because in most writing courses there is no comedy module available. Is the assumption that the writers of sitcoms merely follow their instincts? How can this be when the principles of comedy are as simple and effective as the one detailed above?
The answer seems to be a lack of appreciation for comedy’s intellectual application or outcomes. This lack stems from a paucity of knowledge about the craft. And that paucity partly stems from a near-total ignorance of comedy’s principles among creative writing and Arts academics, their students and the writing industries they all wish to service.
I teach at some of the country’s leading tertiary institutions, but only as a visitor. A class here, a day-course there. My courses travel the world and sell out consistently, partly (or perhaps entirely?) due to a lack of competition. There are only two other tertiary sessional teachers of narrative comedy for the screen in Australia, and both of them teach at RMIT. Drama-writing teachers are a dime a dozen and queues for such roles are long. In Sydney where I am often based, as far as I or the institutions I run short courses at know, there is no one but me qualified to teach a tertiary course in narrative comedy for the screen. The job vacancy is universal. Drama screenwriters and writing teachers complain they can’t get work. Look no further! All they need is an understanding of the ancient principles that are clearly defined in the comedy-writing books (like The Cheeky Monkey – Writing Narrative Comedy, The Hidden Tools Os Comedy by Steve Kaplan or The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus) available in most public libraries. (If you’re a struggling writer, think about that.)
As the exercise above shows, narrative comedy craft can be defined and learnt. There is work waiting for writers who can reliably deliver comic scripts, or write dramatic scripts with both masks consistently present.
Changing the prejudice of writers and writing/arts institutions so comedy achieves its rightful place is vital – for culture and our arts industries. Too many writers’ careers flounder due to a lack of true dramatic writing skills that include working knowledge of tragedy, drama and comedy. The time has come when Australian writers have more competition from overseas than ever before, thanks to our free trade agreement with the United States. American screenwriters are trained in the principles of comedy. Australian writers no longer have any choice but to master the comedy craft. Yes, it’s harder and takes a firm knowledge of drama and tragedy. And its risk of failure is greater. Tough.
The audience wants comedy. Most Australian writers can’t reliably write principle-based comedy. The service industries await them. Those who can write principle-based comedy have a broader range of skills. If a writer wants a drama-writing job, knowledge of both masks is rare and sought after.
So: Learn comedy – write better – get work.
The conclusion is inescapable.
Tim Ferguson is the author of The Cheeky Monkey: Writing narrative comedy (Currency Press, 2010) and Carry A Big Stick: A funny, fearless life of friendship, laughter and MS (Hachette Australia, 2013). He is a founding member of the comedy troupe, the Doug Anthony All Stars.