Sunday, November 11, 2012

Some More Tips on Writing Comedy

Yeahyeah, more tips on writing comedy. I hope you find them useful. The usual caveat: Your mileage may vary, so don't hung up looking for exceptions to any of these basic rules. I already know they exist, and I may even provide some exceptions. Consider this not so much iron-clad rules but a beginning with which experience will help you find additional paths.

The oft-quoted "Brevity is the soul of wit": Keep it short The longer a joke is the more likely people will just run from it; patience may be a virtue, but if your target audience has to wade through twenty sentences to get to the joke, it had better be one heck of a punchline. Mark Twain and Lewis Carrol are the obvious exceptions, but then even their set-ups were pretty funny.

Keep it simple, stupid: Keep in mind that one of the limits of illustration is that there limits to portraying motion,and this can limit some of your jokes. If a joke requires movement keep that in mind it may not work as well as you would like it to, and it may take some redoing to make it work. Slapstick will usually work, but something requiring a Busby Berkeley routine or complicated gears really takes some planning to pull off.

Obscure References: The more obscure a reference, the less likely your audience will get it. This can be fine sometimes, such as coming off a con and you want to give them a shout out, but keep in mind that in general the fewer people that know about the reference, the fewer will get the joke. This also compounded that they miss the joke even if they know the reference, unless you prime it somehow; sometimes if you are not looking for a joke it you may miss it, especially if you need to think about it.

Political/Religious Humor: Looking at some of the political cartoons recently brought home the point that this is a hard nut to crack. If you do it right, such as Daryl Cagle, then not only do both sides get it, but they both smile. If you do it badly, then you just tick people off. It's why when I see George Carlin quoted that I hopes someone is not using a quote after he was sixty or so; the guy had some brilliant things to say, but he became more cynical as he got older, and at a point it just seemed that he said stuff to tick people off. So, when you go after political or religious humor, have fun, but keep in mind that it requires a deft tough and not a sledgehammer.

Know and respect your subject: This is the hardest one, but the most important one. I love horror movies; because of that love and respect for the genre I can poke fun at the genre. BUT I recently had the misfortune to read a Twilight parody. The writer had absolutely no respect for the Twilight saga, and felt like she had never read the book or watched the movie. Suffice to say that the book was pretty solid drek. So learn the lesson, kids: Do not attempt to poke fun at a genre you do not understand and do not go near it if you have no respect for it. Note that I'm not saying you need to like it, but you do need to respect it.

Writing About Religion

One of those things that is hard to write about is religion. There is arguably no more contentious subject than religion, and for all of the right reasons. There is no question that I consider myself a deeply spiritual person, and that is just part of who I am. However, I do consider some people, even those that share my same faith, complete morons; ask me about the WBC sometime. At the same time, although I consider some atheists complete idiots, and I make no bones about lack of respect for Penn Jillette and Bill Maher, I do tend to respect atheists, especially those that respect me. Nonetheless, it doesn't mean that either side should completely rule a comic.

The problem is that we define ourselves by our beliefs, be they as religious or atheist. Admittedly in some cases a person's spiritual beliefs aren't going to matter; there are a number of great comics where the beliefs of the individuals doesn't matter and would actually get in the way of the comic, so don't feel like you need to feature it. This is not to say that people are amoralists or anything like that, just that the writer didn't feel like bringing religion into the situation. That's fine.

On the other hand, you have those comics where the pendulum swings too far one direction or another. Either it is extremely atheist and religion is a corrupt joke, or spirituality reigns and atheists are idiots. In both cases the problem is that, well, any extreme position is a bad position. I don't respect fanatics of any faith, including atheism; fanaticism tends to blunt any point that it's trying to make. From the atheist perspective, slapping down religion is bad because religion has, on the whole, done far more good than bad. From the religious perspective, religion does need to be slapped down and on a regular basis. In both cases, attacking just for the sake of proving your side is better is going to annoy some readers, and that limits your audience. [Oh, right, this is a marketing blog, too...] So if you are taking an absolute position, realize from the beginning that you had best be doing it right, or forget it.

By right, I mean recognize that both sides are essentially correct. I'm not saying that religion not get slammed; some of the best villains have been religious zealots or those that have used their position for power; how doesn't hate Cardinal Richelieu? But, if you are going to have an evil church, show that there is a reason that people follow the church, and not just because they have large weapons pointed at them. There are a lot of good reasons people believe in a higher power, and not all of them are just because they believe that God is the bestest person ever; you would be surprised how many scientists like His works.

In general, any organization is going through periods where it does its job right and periods where it doesn't; there is no reason that this cycle should not apply to a fictional religion any less than in real life. Another thing to keep in mind is that ambitious people love corruption; it means that there are plenty of chances for advancement, as well as ways for them make their own opportunities. This means that there are two fun situations that can be the case: Either the local corrupt chapter is aiming for the top, or that the top is corrupt and the local chapter is ready to force a change. There are other permutations, but these are your best options.

On the other hand, there is no reason that atheists should be portrayed as morons, unless you are making a point about religion in general. In that case bear in mind that the idea that a leader does not necessarily represent his flock; sometimes the leader is just the one that get the others going in the same direction. The basics here are that atheists make easy enemies to simplify for the purposes of having an enemy, but generally you just want the leader to be an idiot and his followers are just following his lead. This brings up the question of why they are following his lead, and a church that has been downright silly. In this case you have a great set up to poke a little fun at both sides, and you should take advantage of it. If not, your comic will suffer for only considering one side the better one.

This pretty much applies to any comic that has two sides; a fair perspective on both sides will bring a lot to the comic. Don't get me wrong; I love an enemy that is plain evil, and that's why I like using demons and devils as enemies. But I do throw in the occasional good devil just to mess with people, and the bad-alien-turned-good should be a familiar trope. So have some fun with your bad guys, and don't make them too one-dimensional...