Dan O'Shannon is one of the executive producers of MODERN FAMILY. He was a showrunner of FRASIER and an executive producer of CHEERS. The man knows funny. Recently he wrote a terrific book called WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING AT? A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO THE COMEDIC EVENT. Somehow he managed to explain comedy, which to me is harder than trying to describe the color red over the radio. As insane as it is to plug someone else's book when I'm still shamelessly hawking mine (available here -- go buy it), I really recommend Dan's book (which you can order here). Recently, I had the chance to talk to him about it.
What possessed you to write this book?
Like many who actually create comedy, I occasionally see books and articles that academics write about humor. And like many who create it, I find most of it tone deaf. It's like reading about bicycle riding from someone who's never been on a bike. One day I asked myself how I would define and analyze comedy, if I was so smart?
It seems like such an enormous undertaking. Explaining the world might've been easier. How did you go about organizing this bad boy?
A lot of people start right in analyzing joke structures. I chose to analyze the comedic event, which includes the study of context, as well as structure, content, and transmission. And I relentlessly asked myself questions: What changes in social context or delivery might enhance or inhibit the laugh? How does being part of an audience make you laugh differently than when you're alone? How does being in the presence of the source of the comedy enhance or inhibit response? How can a joke be funnier through repetition and then stop being funny and then start being funny? Why do things cease to be funny? Four years of stand-up followed by twenty-seven years in sitcoms provided me with thousands and thousands of hours of experimentation.
Has writing this book affected the way you now write comedy? Are you consciously analyzing every joke you write?
I never analyze while I'm writing. It's like I use a different part of my brain or something. But seem to record the process mentally, because I can go back and trace my steps.
Doesn't analyzing take the fun out of comedy?
I spent a solid eight years writing this book, exploring the dozens of variables that can come into play when we laugh at even the simplest things. In the end, I found myself in awe of comedy's flexibility and scope. I still enjoy it, but now I appreciate it more than I did. That's why I get annoyed when I see academes trying to nail it down to a simple "All comedy is X" statement.
Can this book teach you how to be funny?
I truly don't know. But I do claim that it will make the reader hear laughter -- even his own -- differently. You'll have a reasonable chance of understanding the probable variables that provoked the laughter.
How is this book valuable to young writers trying to break into sitcom writing?
If they buy it, I will be more likely to send their scripts to agents. I'm kidding. I guess the same could be asked of music theory. It can illuminate, but it can't turn someone who's got a tin ear into a singer. Also, I don't tend to position the book as a "how to". It's more like a "what I think happens."
There are times I'm in a movie theater and people are laughing and for the life of me I don't know why. You went on a search to discover why. I just think, "what am I doing in this business?" Were there some laughs that took you years to explain?
I forgot about it until years later when I put a joke in a CHEERS for Norm. He starts to announce that he's going to get off his ass and get a job and tell his wife he loves her and stop drinking beer -- but he's kidding and can't say the whole thing without laughing. When we did it for the audience, I heard a familiar laugh: loud at first, sudden taper. And I looked at the studio audience and I had my answer to the Mary Tyler Moore laugh.
The answer is that in each case, the studio audience thinks they are witnessing a blooper. Actors often crack up when they make a mistake. So the audience laughs. But then, the scene keeps going. The audience realizes their mistake and has to jump back into the scene's reality. That's the taper. It's a mistake we would not make watching at home, because we are having a different experience. This is why we study the whole experience and not just the material.
How about the theories of comedy. Comedy is pain. Comedy is pain plus time. Comedy is frustration. Comedy is anything other than an Adam Sandler movie. Is there a theory?
There are several competing theories, like incongruity theory (which is different than incongruity resolution theory, which is a crock), aggression, relief, superiority, etc. Many of them are often championed as the essence comedy, as in "all comedy is superiority". My approach was to step back and create a model, one that would show how these ideas can come into play in any given comedic event. While there are several new theories throughout the book, I tend to think that what I'm really presenting overall is a more comprehensive and flexible model.
Thanks, Dan. Once again, the book is WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING AT? You can get your copy here.