How Comedy Works

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First off, let’s differentiate between “funny” and “comic.”

“Funny” is whatever makes you laugh. Period. End of story. When my niece was five, I could shake a set of keys in her face and dissolve her into hysterics. To her, that was funny. But is it comedy? Would you submit a set of keys to Sundance or shake them in a comedy club or base an Off-Off Broadway show about them?

“Funny” is subjective. Different things make different people laugh at different times. To try to guess what other people find funny is a mug’s game—just look at many sitcoms if you don’t believe me.

So if funny is subjective, what’s comedy?

Many people have come up with many definitions. Freud thought it was man laughing at others’ misfortunes. Bergson thought it was the “mechanical encrusted on the living.” E.B. White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” They all may be right, but I think that comedy is the art of telling the truth about what it’s like to be human. Drama might help us dream about what we could be, but comedy helps us live with who we are. And who are we?

We’re a motley crew, hurtling through the void in a cold, uncaring universe, not knowing where we came from, not knowing where we're going, trying out best in our fumbling, bumbling human way, to make each and every moment in that universe as good as we possibly can, or just a little bit better than the moment before. We’re a species who continue to get up after being knocked down, either because we’re too stupid or stubborn or hopeful to continue to stay down where it’s safe, and where we’ll all end up anyway.

READ: 10 Comedy Terms Every Actor Should Know

It’s stupid, futile, hopeless. But no matter how hopeless we are, how pitiful, how pathetic, how wrong-headed, how selfish, how petty our solutions, it's also wonderfully, gloriously human. And the comedian is simply the courageous person who gets up in front of a large group of strangers and admits to, simply confesses to being human—telling the truth about herself, and others. People may be sitting the dark thinking, “I’m a failure, I'm defeated, I'm all alone.” The comic artist goes out there and says, “Me too.” The comic actor isn’t straining to be funny but simply allowing his own humanity, her own absurdity, with all the flaws, foibles, and failings, to inform the characters they play and connect with the audience sitting in the dark.

The essential gesture of the comedian is the shrug. “Hey, you’ll live. I’ve been there, that’s life, You’ll live!” The art of comedy is the art of hope. This is the truth, the comic metaphor for our lives.

So how does it work? Comedy tells a story about an ordinary guy or gal (Jackie Gleason used to call him a ‘moke’), struggling against insurmountable odds without many of the required tools with which to win, yet never giving up hope. Tell a story like that and even though some people may not laugh, that’s comedy.

From this paradigm, we can draw usable, practical tools...what we call the “Hidden Tools of Comedy.”

Like the “non-hero,” an ordinary guy who lacks some—if not all—of the required skills with which to win. Or “metaphorical relationship,” the idea that beneath every surface relationship is a true or essential, metaphorical relationship. (It’s Oscar and Felix, two middle-aged divorced roommates, acting like an old married couple.)

Or “straight line/wavy line,” the idea that, as John Cleese once said of the beginning of Monty Python, “We used to think that comedy was watching someone do something silly...we came to realize that comedy was watching somebody watch somebody do something silly.” Think of Kramer in “Seinfeld.” The comedy isn’t just watching Kramer behave in his typically outrageous fashion, the comedy requires Jerry or George or Elaine to watch it in bemused amazement.

*This post was originally published on Sep. 19, 2017. It has since been updated.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Steve Kaplan
For years, Steve Kaplan has been the industry’s most respected and sought-after expert on comedy. In New York, Steve was co-founder and artistic director of Manhattan Punch Line Theatre. In Los Angeles, he created the HBO New Writers Project. In addition to private coaching and one-on-one consultations, Steve has taught his Comedy Intensive workshops to thousands of students around the world.
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