Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Everything you ever needed to know about comedy

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?

Since I was a boy, I was always trying to understand the laugh. One laugh took me years to figure out. When I was a teenager, I saw the MARY TYLER MOORE episode, "Lou Dates Mary", in which Lou and Mary go on an awkward date, culminating in an attempted kiss on her couch. The characters realize the folly of what they're doing and start laughing at how wrong it all is. The studio audience shrieks with laughter, but then there's kind of a sharp taper to the laugh. It seemed slightly unsatisfying.

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.  


Independent Media Support said...
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Johnny Walker said...

It's a fascinating read, filled with logical insights, but like in art class, I find myself jarring at having something "magical" explained to me. Especially when part of me likes to believe it knows it all intuitively (it doesn't).

I find myself resisting a concept, then going away, and later having no difficulty completely agreeing with it, and wondering why I resisted it in the first place. (Like my subconscious processed it, and completely came to term with it.)

I'm still scared that I'll become too self-conscious if I become aware of how the comedic event works, but I remember feeling something similar when Colour Theory was explained to me... I felt I would be too self-conscious when it came to picking colours.

Of course, that never happened. Instead I find it a useful tool when I need it, and I don't know why I was so resistant to learn it.

To put it another way, I think this book might just be filled with the same type revolutionary insights that will become the standard.

Whether or not it will help my writing, I don't know, but it's probably helpful to be aware of the variables available to me. Just like with Colour Theory.

What do you think, Ken? Helpful for a comedy writer, or perhaps something just for those who wish to understand the comedic event? I believe you, like me, have a natural resistance to analyzing jokes?

Joe Menta said...

I always think a big comedy tool is audience flattery: you trust audience members to make a small mental leap to get a joke, and when they do, they reward you for your flattery of them by laughing.

Example: Having a character say, "You're a real genius, you know that?" to someone who does something stupid isn't very funny. But sarcastically saying to the dumb guy, "Hey, you're a real Stephen Hawking, you know that?" WILL elicit a laugh, because the writers flattered the audience members by assuming they know about Stephen Hawking and how smart he is.

I think a lot of humor comes from this type of approach, making the audience members do the tiniest bit of work to get the joke, which will please them when they do.

JT Anthony said...

How does one explain the color red over the radio, especially to someone who is color blind?

Ane said...

I noticed that exact thing that he described the first time I watched the episode of Friends where Rachel and Ross kiss and Rachel suddenly starts laughing. The audience obviously thought she wasn't supposed to do that. You could just tell from how loudly they laughed and cheered and then suddenly stopped.

Diane Drake said...

Totally agree w/ Joe Menta's point. One of Billy Wilder's top ten screenwriting tips, which he got from Ernst Lubitsch: "Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever."

Independent Media Support said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Walker said...

This is a great quote from O'Shannon's book, and something I think Ken would agree with, too. (It's very similar to the encouragement Ken gives in the introduction to WHERE THE HELL AM I?)

"The experience of information as 'funny' is a choice made by the receiver."

In other words, (I'm sort of extrapolating) we can often find comedy around us, if we choose to see it.

This seems to tie in with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, if I've understood it properly (I've not actually finished the chapter, so I could be wrong).

Max Clarke said...

Thanks for the Q and A, Ken and Dan. The book at Amazon right now is just $16.47 (you save 34 percent).

Joe Menta is right. One reason I admired Cheers was the way they included jokes that had "culture." Diane would make a reference to a literary figure, and it would get a laugh. Or she'd try out her French with "mon coeur" and "mise en scene." They worked. Frasier and Liluth would talk psycho-babble. If the exact meaning of the term or the psychiatrist wasn't clear, we laughed in part because we got the general idea.

Cheers gave their audience credit for having some intelligence. Nice.

Criminy said...

The publisher tells me that the eBook version is available at the end of July.

Johnny Walker said...

I hope Dan starts appearing on some podcasts to help promote his book. He's a hugely entertaining public speaker, and clearly has a lot to share about comedy.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

British humor mystifies me. How is humor different in other cultures?

Just thinking of all of this makes my head explode

Jeffrey Mark said...

Why do I need to read this book - with no disrespect to the author - he's made his mark in television - I haven't...yet. But why? When I watch Moe Howard nervously having to tell 3 menacing gangsters just how "mortified" and deeply upset he is because Larry and Curly have resorted to stealing all of the silverware from a restaurant they just sold to the crooks and then only to be immediately found out that, he, too, has lined his own pockets with even more silverware, and then the immediate nervous reaction of impending doom on his face for out and out lying to the crooks...well, guys, uh...I don't need to read a book about what a "laugh is" - no matter how unacademic it is, sheesh, I mean, really. read this kind of book to try and figure out why Groucho's line in "Duck Soup" when he is trying to read and understand some political gibberish, and confidently tosses off to Chico, "Why even a four year old child can understand it." Beat...beat...beat...(of course he hasn't a clue in the world what he's reading)"Go out and get me a four year old child to read this - I can't make out heads or tails of it."

Sorry, gang...if you don't understand the humor of this...and if you need to analyze why it's so freakin' funny, then YOU should be locked away in a sleazy motel room out by LAX for a weekend and forced at gun point to memorize such a book as this. Again, with no disrespect...I ain't a showrunner...yet...

And...una mas, por favor...Archie and Sammy Davis Jr. in that beyond brilliance, other-worldly scene, All In The Family circa 1972: Archie and Sammy have sat down together and Arch's being the good host, behaving himself and all, serving Sammy coffee (or was it tea?) and then, "Would you like sugar in your eye?" Do we, uh, really need a book to figure out what kind of laugh this got...or to fully understand the exact nature of the humor in this scene...or why was it funny or...whatever? Or to watch Totie Fields come out on Sullivan, circa 1967 and say, "Hey, guess who just made the cover of Vogue?" Right. Tee-hee...ha, ha, it is to laugh. Watch for my show...coming to a flat screen near you.

gottacook said...

The only Adam Sandler movie I ever really liked (to be fair, I've avoided most of them) was The Wedding Singer, which by yet another definition of comedy (i.e., that which ends with a marriage) is indeed a comedy.

Becca said...

So Ken...what do you think of the Daniel Tosh incident? Seems to be that what he said was far more inflammatory than Adam Carolla's "women aren't funny." Not that I expect you to devote another entire column to it, but it'd be interesting to know your thoughts on the matter.

Dustin said...


Ron Howard tweeted a <a href=">picture</a> of the Arrested Development writer's room. For some reason I always just pictured writers rooms with people sitting around a table. What kind of stuff/tools are in the actual writers room workspace?

Dbenson said...

I'm tempted by this book. I get that context and tone have a lot to do with it.

A while ago I watched an old British movie titled "Genevieve" about a young couple on an antique auto rally. I found myself laughing out loud at things that were very, very small. Not deadpan or minimalist; not playing for sentiment or nostalgia. Just -- small. Other films of the same era and sensibility just sort of lie there in a pool of whimsy.

And then there's the puzzle of why vintage Tom & Jerry make violence funny, while Herman & Katnip make it queasy and a bit sick.

Kev said...

Ken, I'm a big fan of this blog and wish i discovered it way before 6 months ago! Saying that i have a fan question. Do the writers of Cheers ever have any reunions? Ever meet for a beer and talk shop or the good ole days? Possibly getting together to write some decent comedy like before.

Brian k said...

When is this book available on kindle?


Matt said...

I think comedy is often surprise.

If you surprise the audience you will get a response, often laughter.

It can be as ham handed as jumping out of a cake or as subtle as witty reparte. Witty reparte is surprising because in real life we never get it. Once somebody makes the first good joke, everybody laughs and the moment is over. In real life you seldom get a riposte. But in writing you can get a 3 minute spar and nobody thinks it is odd, just surprising and funny.

cadavra said...

One reason comedy is so bad nowadays is precisely BECAUSE 1) the characters are utterly stupid and 2) the assumption that the audience is likewise. I've tried to explain to some people that even if the characters are dumb, the script can still be smart, but too many people just can't reconcile that concept.

And in the Old Jokes Are Still The Best Department: Finally got around to seeing THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL, and the biggest laugh in the entire picture (at least at the showing I caught) came when the aging roue is going out with a younger woman, and when asked about the risk of sex replies--yep, you guessed it--"If she dies, she dies."

Johnny Walker said...

@Brian K, it's out on Kindle at the end of this month.

Johnny Walker said...

I'm a third of the way through Dan O'Shannon's book and I'm loving it! All of my reticence has dissipated, and I'm finding myself thoroughly engrossed. And, to answer my own question; Yes, I do think this book offers useful insights for wannabe writers.

The book makes you aware of all the different variables that come into play when something is trying to be funny. For example, I finally have a thorough understanding of precisely why a multi-camera sitcom is different from a single camera one. And why Bob, who's funny in work, may not be funny on stage.

Everything in the book has a ring of unquestionable truth. Like a great lecture from a talented professor. Once it's been explained, you not only agree, you find yourself wondering how anyone could have ever thought anything different. Like any great insight, once it's been pointed out, it becomes so self-evident that you can't but wonder how you didn't notice it before.

Things you may have wondered about in passing are suddenly clearly explained, and tied together with other seemingly disconnected things, to create a very solid and clear Grand Unifying Theory of Comedy.

Right now, this is the best book I've read in ages! I hope I feel the same way when I finish it. Thanks, Dan!

dan o said...

thanks, johnny walker! i hope you still like it by the end. it gets a little sloggy in the middle, just skim the boring parts. in retrospect i spent too much time on joke structure, got maybe too nit-picky about things better left generalized. hopefully, people will not get bogged down in the hair-splitting of joke categorizing and will step back and see the bigger pictures. i'll rectify all this in the next edition if there is one. thanks again.

Johnny Walker said...

No problems, Dan! I also my posted my current thoughts on the book's Amazon page. I'll probably update them as I get through the book. I hope you don't mind a pre-emptive review in the meantime. (I can't remember that last time a book has gripped me so.)

I did skip the bits about "Devices" as I felt I understood that very quickly, but otherwise I've read everything so far.

The "Reception Factors" immediately reminded me of a more detailed version of Leary's "set and setting" theory (the experience of a given situation is altered by the person's mindset, and the environment it takes place in (the settings)).

Looking forward to reading the rest!

Anonymous said...

Since it was mentioned: It always amuses me that such oh so British comedies as "Genevieve", and "The Ladykillers" were both written by William Rose, an American from Missouri....

cadavra said...

And Rose and his wife also wrote IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD!

Anonymous said...

His British wife! :)

Anonymous said...

Not to be a wet blanket or anything, but Amazon is not the only way to get a book. Don't forget to support your local independent bookstores, like Skylight Books, Vroman's and Book Soup in Los Angeles. Amazon is not the only way to shop!

JD Drake said...

I won't bother wasting time explaining how I got here, except to say I was looking up old YouTube clips of an old afternoon show in Cleveland (WUAB). Found an interesting clip of a much younger Dan co-hosting the show (, and recognized the name from reading this interview just a few days ago. Strange, but I'm glad it happened because it reminded me to check out Dan's book. Thanks!