Sunday, September 19, 2010

Divine Comedy

The Sage who provokes laughter is more valuable than a well.

What is comedy? Essentially, comedy is what's "funny." So, what's funny? In the movie The Sunshine Boys, a retired vaudevillian named Willy, played by Walter Matthau, has this to say about what's funny:

Alka Seltzer is funny... Words with "k" in them are funny... Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland... Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then, there's chicken. Chicken is funny.

Some things, however, can be funny to some people, but to others... not so much. For example, many people believe that Adam Sandler is funny.

But he isn't.

A friend of mine used to say that he could tell whether someone was smart if they laughed at his jokes. I myself have always used comedy as a way of unfairly judging people. I like making people laugh, and I like being around people who are funny. If someone can make me laugh, I usually like them. If they get my jokes, I love them.

I once dated a woman who wanted to be a stand-up comic. We met at a seminar for comedy writers and she seemed funny. By which I mean she laughed at my jokes. After we'd been dating for a few weeks, she invited me to come see her perform at a comedy club. I sat at the front table to provide moral support. She came out to do her set and...

Not funny!

Don't get me wrong, I laughed loud and hard. But I was totally faking it. (Yes, men can fake it, too.) Afterwards, I told her she was great, but deep down inside, I knew that our relationship was doomed. I tried to overlook it and focus on her other fine qualities (she worked at a bar and gave me free drinks) but it was no use. Seeing her onstage not being funny was too much to overcome. Perhaps it would have been different if she didn't think she was funny.

But she did. And she wasn't.

I figured I'd give stand-up comedy a try. It didn't look that hard. But the joke was on me -- turns out it was both awesomely terrifying and immensely satisfying. Mostly terrifying. The satisfying part is that you get to find out first hand if your jokes are funny. Fortunately for me, my jokes got laughs. The gut-wrenching, mind-numbing, paralyzing fear was bad enough. But to stand up there and have nobody laugh would have been sheer torture.

I decided I was better suited to writing. Less stressful. So, a friend and I co-wrote a play called Leading The Blind, about a couple who meet at their friends' wedding and end up getting married -- meanwhile their married friends are in the midst of a divorce and trying to talk them out of it. We held a staged reading of the play and I found that I much preferred anonymously sitting in the audience while trained professionals did all of the heavy lifting. Writing for actors was definitely the way to go.

Not long after that, I began writing screenplays. Only problem is, unless some miracle occurs and your screenplay gets made into a movie, you don't get to see how it plays in front of an audience. Closest I could get was some screenwriting software that "reads" your script out loud using an electronically programmed voice that sounds like Stephen Hawking on Quaaludes. It's funny, but not in a good way.

The first five screenplays I churned out were comedies. Basically, they are all about slightly geeky guys who get mixed up in dangerous situations and wind up meeting beautiful women who want to have sex with them. I thought I had invented my own genre, but it turns out that the genre already exists. It's called: Every Unsold Comedy Script Ever Written. I sent them around and got some good feedback here and there. But unless I could be in the room with the people who were reading my scripts and actually see if and when they were laughing, I couldn't really tell if my jokes were working. And the idea of me sitting there watching them read my script tended to turn most people off.

But now, after years of writing for an audience of one, I belong to a writing group that holds weekly script readings. There's no better indicator than the sound of a roomful of people laughing (or not laughing) to tell you if your script is funny. Or not. Just last week, I brought in one of my old comedy scripts for a reading. The actors did a fine job, as always, but after a somewhat subdued reading, several people asked me if it was, in fact, a comedy.

Awkward pause...

At least now I know where I stand. Time to go back and "punch it up," as we say in the biz. I got some good notes from my fellow writers to help guide me. Of course, you can't really tell someone how to be funny. I'll just have to go with my gut.

And put in a bunch of words with "k" in them.


Randy said...

I know a guy who wrote a screenplay that was produced as a made-for-TV drama. It was so bad it was funny...does that count as comedy?

Ray Sharp said...

I think you are funny -- hey, that makes me smart too!