Monday, April 24, 2017

Comedy is a Serious Business


I have always been first and foremost an actor. Yes, I’m writing this but I’m an actor who writes. To be precise a comedic actor. I am never happier than when I’ve earned the audience’s laughter; it’s a giant hug of warmth.

Comedy isn’t easy. It’s all about timing. Say the line too fast and you lose your laugh. Say it too slow and you get the same result. Not getting an expected laugh is rather like tripping; you’re not hurt, but you feel rather foolish. That said (or wrote, I suppose), every audience is different. Although smaller audiences are less likely to laugh, once they get started, they’re fine. The getting started part may take time, though. Everyone is afraid they’ll be the only ones laughing. I’ve known actors who get people to come and laugh so the risk of being the first to laugh is taken off the table. Seriously. People do this. It’s a thing.

You also can’t get a laugh by yourself (unless you’re doing stand-up, of course, which is a unicorn of a completely different colour). Every actor depends on her colleagues to get the laugh. Every laugh line comes with a set up - which is usually three or four dialogue exchanges before the laugh. If this is done wrong, the laugh disappears. This is a difficult lesson for actors to learn. Some actors do not possess comedic timing, but get cast in comedies.

This is tragic. And ironic. I hate irony.

Never think that writing comedy is easy either. It ain’t. When you want the funny, the funny decides to go on vacation. You’re starting at an empty page because (say, hypothetically) a blog post for the Blood-Red Pencil is due and your post is supposed to be funny because that’s what She Who Must Be Obeyed is expecting you to write, and the funny is sunning itself on a beach in Bermuda. I hope it gets burned….just like I do when I have to write and force funny. Because it’s not.

Arg. More irony. See above.

I’m part of a theatre professionals’ writing collective and I’ve been working on a historical play about Wallis Simpson. I’m attempting to write something which shows her not as a villain, but as a someone caught in an uncontrollable situation. It’s not supposed to be funny. You know what I’m hearing in critiques? ‘We love the humour’.

Arg. See above.

Elspeth Futcher is a bestselling author of murder mystery games and playwright. She has been the top selling author at host-party.com since 2011. Her British games are published by Red Herring Games in the UK. Her latest game is "Which Guide Lied?" Elspeth's 'writing sheep' are a continuing feature in the European writers' magazine Elias and also appear on this blog from time to time. Connect with her on Twitter at @elspethwrites or on Facebook at Elspeth Futcher, Author.

6 comments :

  1. Elspeth, this is a very interesting discussion about the seriousness of writing humor. Considering your perspective, I think this kind of writing may be the most difficult of all. You say you're working on a play about Wallis Simpson, and the critiques you're receiving praise the humor in your piece. I think you have a gift. Successfully incorporating humor in a serious work takes a special kind of talent. Norman Cousins in Anatomy of an Illness praised the value of laughter in overcoming serious disease. While some experts disputed his position, it apparently worked for him. So why not also in a serious literary work? Well written, appropriately placed, and perhaps subtle, it can bring both power and a moment to catch one's breath amidst the trauma and drama. Great post!

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    1. Your kind comments have made my day. Thank you, Linda.

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  2. Some people are naturally funny (Robin Williams), but most have to learn the craft just like writing. Comedy has to be the hardest skill to master. It requires such finesse.

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    1. I worshiped Robin Williams. Such a loss.

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  3. Great post and very timely as I am directing a comedy play "Anne-Arky" at the local community theatre, trying to get some of the new actors to understand about how the lines of dialogue build up to those punch lines. I have been told I have good comedic timing on stage. Maybe that comes from all those years of watching Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. I loved them, and I loved waiting for "the line."

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    1. Me too! All the best for your production!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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