Alexander Hellene

Let’s Have a Few Laughs

Okay everyone, this is it. The big one. I’m going to save you tons of time and money you might have otherwise spent on creative writing workshops, English major programs at university, or self-publishing gurus’ Gumroad course.

Are you ready? Are you sitting down? Great—here it is:

With some skill, planning, and forethought, you can combine any genre with any other genre.

How was that? Was that worth the price of admission (nothing)? Did I blow your mind?

I hope not, because this is some pretty obvious storytelling advice that, unfortunately, gets lost in the check-the-box type of writing methodologies you see all over the place both in prose and in screenwriting.

Screenwriting? Movies, you say?

*     *     *

Books are not “head movies,” but let’s face it: moving pictures are the dominant form of storytelling entertainment today, and it’s not even close. I guess video games technically make more money, but video games are not primarily storytelling vehicles—I’d argue they’re poor storytelling vehicles, but that’s a post for another day.

But even given the differences between novels and movies, both are still written. And some writing conventions and storytelling concepts transcend medium and are therefore instructive to look at regardless of how they were applied.

My son is old enough that we can watch some of my favorite movies together. A few weeks ago, I decided that Ghostbusters would be a fun one. Not the awful, charmless, unfunny, dumb, and downright boring 2016 reboot, but the original classic from 1984.

My boy loved it. And seeing as how I haven’t watched the entire movie front-to-back since 2002 or so, a few things stood out:

  1. It was better than I remembered.
  2. It was funnier than I remembered.
  3. The plot was surprisingly deep for a comedy.
  4. For being such an iconic part of the movie, the gigantic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man only had very few minutes of screen time.

Overall, though, I had to wonder if Ghostbusters really was a comedy at all.

Ghostbusters gets described as a “sci-fi/comedy” quite a bit. Director Ivan Rietman says that test audiences simultaneously laughed and screamed at the library ghost near the beginning of the movie, and that’s when he knew they’d nailed the tone they were going for. So I guess comedy was on the mind. I mean, screenwriter/stars Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis got their starts in comedy, and other actors in the movie like Bill Murray and Rick Moranis certainly come from the world of professional humor.

Still, the movie doesn’t strike me as setting out primarily to make audiences laugh. It clearly sets out to entertain, and there are plenty of laughs, but it’s the way these laughs are delivered that is worth examining.

Before we begin, please spare me the bromides about “There’s nothing more boring than analyzing comedy.” False. This stuff is interesting, and if you don’t understand what you’re doing and just wing it, the chances are that your art will suffer. Art is a craft. Very few, if any, can get by on pure instinct alone.

Humor does belong in stories. It might not be appropriate for every story, but it certainly has its place, whether you are writing a fantasy, a hard-boiled crime-thriller, or even a tale of horror. You can do the “zany, wacky” thing if you want, but there are still important storytelling conventions you need to follow to make the zaniness and wackness engaging and bearable.

The tricky thing with humor and comedy is the inverse relationship between trying to be funny and actually being funny. Ghostbusters falls on the correct side of this equation, because its humor comes from how the characters react to the situations they face. Bill Murray is perfect as the sarcastic and smarmy Peter Venkman, and his nonchalant reactions to the supernatural, as well as his dry, perfectly-timed quips are a part of his character’s personality. They are not forced. And importantly, every character in the movie isn’t a comedian.

Look at how Harold Ramis plays Egon Spengler. “I’m always serious,” he says at one point. And it’s hilarious, because of when and how he says it. He’s not even a comic relief character! “I collect molds, spores, and fungus,” he tells the Ghostbusters’s secretary Janine when she is clearly flirting with him. Stuff like that.

Even more, as Ghostbusters shows, when you put characters with different personalities in the same scene together, like Egon and Peter, the dialogue pretty much writes itself. The humor flows. Throw in Dan Aykroyd’s earnest and somewhat naïve Ray Stantz and Ernie Hudson, Jr.’s streetwise and grounded Winston Zeddemore, and no matter the situation they are speaking like real people would. And oftentimes, real people are funny.

This is a great lesson for any sort of story. In a novel, you can use your character’s personalities to create conflict that might actually elicit a few chuckles. Whether it’s a bit of banter or how a character reacts to a situation, the ideas is to let any humor flow naturally. I’m sure you can think of a few other movies who utilize this sort of naturally integrated humor.

Are there any other good sci-fi/comedies out there? Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series is the only one I can come up with, and that had some actual, legitimate laugh-out-loud moments. Again, a lot of the humor in that came from the dry, straight way that the characters tended to react to the absurd situations facing them, although Arthur Dent sometimes exploded in extremely relatable and understandable fits of outrage and confusion.

That seems to be a commonality: sometimes the more serious a situation is, how the characters react to it can be the source of much humor.

Another is the fact that, in both The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Ghostbusters, there are good, engaging plots the audience wants to see resolved, populated by likeable characters the audience wants to see succeed. Without audience buy-in, I don’t think the humor will hit nearly as hard as if the audience cares.

You can probably combine any genre with another, as long as you nail the plot and the characters. So that’s really storytelling 101 repackaged in a slightly different way. Who says this blog doesn’t deliver the hard-hitting content . . . for free?

– Alexander

9 thoughts on “Let’s Have a Few Laughs”

  1. Galaxy Quest.

    Good comedy needs to have a writer who is a good observer of people, and better if they have extensively interacted with real people as well. Your own stumbles with others in real life can make for great comedy, if you know how to use those events.

    Based on modern comedies in movies, TV, and other media, most Hollywood writers have lived in solitary confinement for the majority of their lives.

    1. Galaxy Quest is such a wonderful movie because the plot and characters are engaging, interesting, and make you care. Excellent example!

      Good comedy needs to have a writer who is a good observer of people, and better if they have extensively interacted with real people as well. Your own stumbles with others in real life can make for great comedy, if you know how to use those events.

      Another excellent insight! I can’t tell you how many situations and conversations in my books, whether comedic or not, stem from my experiences. I leave it up to readers to imagine which ones those are. Real life is stranger than fiction by a large degree, and can provide more grist for the mill than you can ever imagine. As Tom Clancy famously said, “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”

      Based on modern comedies in movies, TV, and other media, most Hollywood writers have lived in solitary confinement for the majority of their lives.

      Either that, or they’re just weird, strange, twisted, immoral people who do weird, strange, twisted, and immoral things and can’t imagine people sincerely acting like, you know, normal and good people.

      That’s pure speculation on my part. But I’m reasonably confident it’s true.

        1. Alexander and Raymond,

          Another factor is nerodiversitt
          Alot of the contemporary writers are neurodiverse where regular human discourse overwhelms them thus mussingbout on the nuances. They then try to simplify conversation affecting humour. It’s either flat tone deaf or immature (ie the 8 year old male scathology or the teen male sex jokes).

          So the humor merely reinforces its cringe or annoyance. In extreme cases, it’s a skinsuit

  2. What has been lost with comedy is timing.

    Nihilists turned comedy films into fast-talking chatterboxes where no story occurs except hateful people being hateful to other people, and action films use jokes to deflate any sense of tension in their scenes.

    Ghostbusters, for example, takes the threat seriously throughout the movie. They make jokes to each other and at their predicament, but never do they not take the ghosts as anything other than dangerous.

    Whereas the 2016 turd does not do this, making a joke out of everything and deflating any sense of menace from the enemy. Because it’s funny(tm)! You need to laugh, so cackle at our constant annoying jibber jabber!

    Similarly, look at a movie like Commando or Bloodsport compared to a Marvel movie. There is banter, there are punchlines, and there are jokes, even some slapstick, but none of it ever comes at the cost of the threat of the villains or the hero’s goals. Meanwhile, the first line of Age of Ultron is a joke that instantly makes light of the supposed desperate situation they are in. This is a tonal issue that has only gotten worse over time by turning entire action stories into bad joke factories.

    I actually find it impressive how many old action movies successfully feature comedy in them, and how many old comedies successfully input drama into them, while today neither can manage the other without wrecking the tone or making it a bore.

    TL;DR, comedy has its place, but we really need to remind ourselves just where that place is.

    1. Alexander,

      I find writing humor and comedy difficult. I guess because I’m solemn by nature, it’s easy to be dour. However, it’s important to find the humour or lightness in situation. Listening to the old movies or reading old books as well as interaction with people helps a lot.

      xavier

      1. Xavier,

        I don’t think you have to have humor in every single story. If that’s how my post came across, that was purely unintentional. If that’s not your strength or interest, then that’s fine!

    2. Timing is key! Watch any movie from before, say, 1997, and be amazed at how slow they might feel. But the more accurate word is natural. We’re talking pre-shaky-cam, pre-quick-cuts and endless smash-editing. Complete attention-deficit filmmaking for attention-deficit people. And the sad thing is, I think that moviemaking style came first and influenced people’s tastes and expectations. Hollywood’s constant refrain that they’re just a mirror that reflects society and doesn’t influence it is a disingenoous, diabolcial lie parroted by simps who will consume any product just so they don’t feel left out.

      Similarly, look at a movie like Commando or Bloodsport compared to a Marvel movie. There is banter, there are punchlines, and there are jokes, even some slapstick, but none of it ever comes at the cost of the threat of the villains or the hero’s goals. Meanwhile, the first line of Age of Ultron is a joke that instantly makes light of the supposed desperate situation they are in. This is a tonal issue that has only gotten worse over time by turning entire action stories into bad joke factories.

      I actually find it impressive how many old action movies successfully feature comedy in them, and how many old comedies successfully input drama into them, while today neither can manage the other without wrecking the tone or making it a bore.

      TL;DR, comedy has its place, but we really need to remind ourselves just where that place is.

      Agreed. Every story doesn’t need comedy, but comedy can be woven into just abuot any story. But as with all art, and contra modern purveyors of relativism, art is also a craft and there is a right way and a wrong way to do comedy.

      Lastly, I leave you with this:

      bathos
      [ˈbāTHäs]
      NOUN
      (especially in a work of literature) an effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.

      Too much bathos ruins everything.

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