Monday, August 17, 2015

Random Humor and You: A Very Serious Primer

Monday is a day when everyone needs a little pick-me-up... unless you're on vacation, in which case hahahaha I'm on vacation and you're not!

...But since you aren't, I figure the least I can do is brighten your day a bit by sharing a post from an author perhaps best-known for his comedy and his knack for walking the line between ridiculous fun and just plain ridiculous.  I'm talking about Aragon--and if you think he's got some absurd stories, take a gander at his blog.  Today he's got something to share that he has plenty of experience with: what makes a comedy, and especially a random/comedy, sink or swim.  Head down below the break for thoughts on avoiding the dreaded "dumb and pointless" tar pits which ensnare so many would-be comic authors.


To say that comedy is subjective would be the biggest understatement I’ve heard since my mother described me as “a little bit of an idiot” on my fifth birthday. Comedy depends, and has always depended, on the reader.

As Steve Allen once said, “comedy equals tragedy plus time”[1].

[1] Actually, the fella said “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” But I like my wording better, and this is my blog post, so suck it Steve Allen, I do whatever I want.

I like to think that it’s true, because, well, it’s a really cool sentence. And, linking this to the statement that started this blog post: it implies that people are going to laugh at pretty much anything, because let’s be serious—almost everything worthy of a tale is at least mildly annoying to someone. So you might be writing what you think is the most tear-jerking thing since Scar killed Bambi’s mom and then said goodbye to Andy, but at least one idiot is gonna laugh at you.

So yeah. You want an actual, universal rule for comedy? Here you have it: anything goes. If you’re good enough (or bad enough) you can turn pretty much into something extremely funny.

But of course, there are things that I’d recommend you not to do.

Trying to explain how comedy works is just like said fifth birthday of mine: useless, frustrating, and once everything is over my mother has a new boyfriend and my dad gets shot [2]. But still, we gotta try something, right? Otherwise I have no justification for hijacking Chris’ blog for a while.

[2] And nine times out of ten, the shooter is also my dad. He’s good at multitasking.

“Comedy in general” is too broad a term for me to talk about—think of all the subgenres and variations it has—so I’ll just go and talk about random comedy, as it’s one of the most used, and probably one of the most misused too.

When I talked with Chris about writing this blog, he mentioned how he thought the same. Random humor is just weird—when it’s well done, it’s really good. When it’s bad, it’s painful.

Why does this happen? Well, everybody has their own explanation, and they’re all good. I mean, probably. Personally, I think it has to do with expectations, and what actually is a comedy.

“Comedy” nowadays means “a brand of entertainment that makes you laugh”. I’m sure the Ancient Greeks had a different definition for the term, but who the hell cares about the Ancient Greeks anymore. They’re all dead, get over it [TOO SOON -Chris].
And don’t be fooled: at its core, a comedy wants to make you laugh, or at least chuckle out loud. That’s the goal the writer is going for, and that’s what you want to get as an exchange for your time investment.

So yeah. Comedy wants to manipulate you. You see/read/hear something funny, then you laugh, then you go on with your life. Maybe the comedy also made you think (it should), maybe it had a deeper meaning (it should), maybe it was just a thinly-veiled ‘go to hell’ directed to the writer’s father (WHY WON’T YOU LOVE ME, DADDY). But that’s just window dressing. Laugh at it, you stupid monkey, and validate my sense of humor, then leave me alone.

And how does a comedy achieve that? Well, there are a lot of studies about laughter. Most of them are extremely serious. Bottom line, though? It’s about unexpectedness.

Yaddah yaddah subjectiveness blibbidy blobbidy language and catharsis waddle waddle past experiences and coping mechanisms. There’s a different explanation for more or less every single funny thing out there, but yeah, being surprised is probably the only common factor in all of them. If you already know the punchline, the joke is not half as funny. So you gotta surprise them, man. You can’t manipulate someone who knows how you’re gonna manipulate ‘em.

Okay, so we’ve established that humor comes from surprising someone [3]. That’s cool! So how does that factor in the whole “random humor” business?

[3] Well, actually I have established that. You, dear reader, have done squat. But I forgive you because you’re a nice kid and your mother told me I should get along with you. We can be buddies! Right? Of course we can! Say, what if we go and get some ice-cream! You would like that, right?

Woah hey what’s up with that look. I’m not plotting anything here. Just some ice-cream. That’s what buddies do, right? They eat ice-cream together!

Well, another thing Chris said when I talked to him about this blog was how he felt there was “a difference between random for a reason and random because random”. I’m pretty sure most of you know what Chris was talking about here.

To elaborate: sometimes you see a story that brings something out of absolutely nowhere, and somehow it works. It might be something as stupid as the Equestrian army using their spouses as weapons, or Twilight and Trixie being inanimate paintings in love.

Now, from a purely logical point of view, that makes sense. You were expecting something in that story, then that something turned out to be different, and really ridiculous. Yes, you were probably looking forward a surprise, but that doesn’t mean you knew what the surprise was going to be. Plus, the wilder, the better, right? The most illogical a gag is, the more unpredictability points, and thus the funnier it gets.

Man, this was simple.

Or was it?

Nah, not really. What I just said sounds about right, but it’s not true. A lot of times you see a story where something zany happens—Celestia plays the harmonica, Luna is revealed to have been a siren all along (turns out her name’s Tuna, yo. She just happens to have really bad hoofwriting), the ponies say something about getting out of bubblegum and the repercussions of such a happenstance—and it doesn’t work.

At all. It’s not witty, it’s not funny, it’s just forced, and you end up rolling your eyes and never finishing that story [4].

[4] For rather obvious reasons, I’m not adding links in here. I won’t be talking about any particular story when I say that sometimes people write humor “in a wrong way” because A) that would be really mean on my part, and B) who the hell am I to say who’s writing it wrong and who’s writing it right? I’m talking in broad terms, not pointing fingers. So yeah, I—  

Oh, come on, don’t give me that look! Listen, I know that your friends’ dads always point out who’s being an idiot and they laugh at them together, but I just think that—yes, I know but—hey! Hey, I won’t tolerate that kind of language in my car!

Yes, buddy, I know I am not your real father, but I’m the closest thing you’ve got, so you better behave! Now buckle up. We’re going home. No, you won’t get ice-cream today. I don’t think you’ve earned it.

There’s a reason for this, of course. Mostly, that just surprising the reader is not enough to get humor. You need to subvert the reader’s expectations.

Now, I know that “subverting expectations” is more or less the same as “surprising” but bear with me for a moment. Nine times out of ten, the difference between a random comedy that works and a random comedy that doesn’t work tends to be about the self-consistency of the story and the expectations it built on the reader.

Let me explain this in detail:

Every story has to work on a particular set of rules, and those mandate what can happen and what can’t happen. If you write a horror story, it will follow the rules of a horror story—and likewise, comedy has to follow the rules of comedy. So if a character gets hit in the head with a baseball bat, in a comedy it will be funny and the character will just scream in pain, but in the horror story? Gosh, blood everywhere.

Now, what can and cannot happen in a story depends completely on what the writer feels. If you think that baseball bats to the head are unrealistic unless there’s a trip to the hospital afterwards, then maybe your comedy will be like that.

Continuing with physical comedy, as it’s the easier example to explain: MLP:FiM itself has a very cartoonish approach to violence—it’s always slapstick. Even when the M6 fought the changelings in the Royal Wedding it was definitely supposed to be a funny scene, of a sorts.

In fact, the only two cases of slapstick that had consequences have happened with Rainbow Dash—she was trapped under a rock once, but she didn’t look to be much in pain (it was more about how she was trapped), so it works within the rules of the show. They broke the slapstick norm when Dash ended up staying in the hospital for an injury, but they never showed us how that happened, so our suspension of disbelief didn’t shatter.

Wait, there might be a third case—Twilight ended up on a wheelchair during the Pinkie Sense episode. But it was more funny wheelchair, not tragic wheelchair, so it still counts.

The whole thing works with almost every type of comedy out there. Once you create the world of the story, even if it’s based on one that the reader already knows (like Equestria) you’re creating a set of rules. Those rules won’t be revealed immediately, but things like the tone or the plot of the story itself certainly make them clear almost on first sight.

So the first thing you should always try to do when writing a comedy is realize what you can and you can’t do. That’s so easy that almost nobody really thinks about it—unless you’re a robot, chances are you do that subconsciously. But that’s still something that’s going on, and I believe every author should notice it. [5]

[5] Buddy? Hey, buddy, you awake?

Look, I know you’re still angry. We both said things we shouldn’t have said, and I just wanted to apologize. Maybe we should make amends and…

I know it’s hard, buddy. It’s hard for all of us. But… I’m trying. I’m really trying here, and I would be really honored if you did the same.

I know what it is to lack a father. Trust me, I do. I’ve been in your place before! But you are really lucky, did you know that? You still got your mother. That’s more than most children your age can say!

You’re a good kid. Look, I know this will take some time, and I won’t force it. I won’t try to replace your dad, because I’m not him. But know that I’ll be there if you need me. We can still be a family, kiddo.

And inside those rules, you get the expectations that you build. What do I mean with expectations? Well, this is a little more straight-forward.

If we know that “joking is surprising” is not enough to explain why laughter happens, then we must use a caveat: joking is surprising within some limits. You need to establish a situation with a resolution that should be clear, then do something different.

The joke works because the reader is expecting one particular resolution, but it doesn’t happen—instead a wild joke appears. It’s a bait-and-switch scenario. It’s not necessary to make it obvious a joke is coming (in fact, that might be pretty bad, depending on the joke) but the reader has to be expecting something.

That’s why, if the scene is starting and suddenly an anvil falls on the protagonist’s head, it’s really hard to make it funny. The surprise should not be born out of something that comes out of absolutely nowhere, it should come from switching an expected outcome from an unexpected one.

So the protagonist suffering an anvil-related incident out of the blue is not a good gag. Showing the protagonist carefully putting on a helmet, getting the strongest umbrella in the world, and stepping under a box that says “CAREFUL—DROPPING ANVILS” is a better way to set the joke.

Then a random passerby shoots him in the stomach. [6]

[6] Hey, buddy! Didn’t see you there. You getting ready for the big dinner? Yes, you can order whatever you want. But we’re going to a fancy place, so don’t expect a Happy Meal. You can probably get chicken with fries or something, I’m sure.

Yeah, this is a bowtie. You like it? Nah it’s not that hard to tie, at least once you get the gist of it—oh, Honey. No, I’m not ready yet. I was talking with the little rascal here! Right? Hahah. Yeah. Nah, I think that dress is better. Oh, no reason to be nervous—they’re just my parents! Sure, they’re a little weird, but I’m sure they’ll give us our blessing.

Just, uh, don’t bring a gun with you, please? Just to be safe.

But of course, remember what I said at the very start of this column: the only real rule is that anything goes, as long as you’re able to pull it off. Really good comedians can do whatever they want, and with enough tweaks it works.

It’s all about practice, really. Sure, you might have a knack for it, or you might have a particular sense of humor that resonates with people, but in the end? Write a lot and you get it. Random humor in particular is hard to master, because its very nature is about being hard to describe. But if it’s self-consistent enough and follows the structure of an actual joke, then it shouldn’t be harder than, say, dialogue-based humor.

That’s about random humor in particular. But here you have a little bit of advice on general comedy, just to wrap this thing up neatly [7]:

[7] Uh. Buddy? Is it me, or your mother is looking at my father funny?

· Pacing is essential for comedy. Usually it tends to be fast, although that’s not mandatory. The timing of a joke is almost as important as the joke itself. It’s less what you say and more when you say it.

· Likewise, mind the wording of the joke. Presentation is key here, too. The exact same joke can go from merely funny to giggle-worthy with a well-located adjective.

· There’s a lot to be said about character assassination and its relationship with random comedy. Personally I consider that writing OOC can be justified if it fits the rules of the story and if the joke is funny enough. However, characters acting like themselves should always be the rule, not the exception.

· A particular brand of joke I find works really well in written form is the Straight Man Scenario. Something ridiculous or funny happens, and then a character reacts to it—usually, the funny bit is the reaction and its contrast to what caused it. On that note, never have the characters laughing at each others’ jokes. The laughs are for the readers, not for them.

· Related to that: When writing random comedy in particular, I think that having the characters wonder what happened is a must, but they have to underreact. Twilight being confused and saying “wait no wait a second Pinkie what was that” when Pinkie shoots her Squirray at Celestia, turning her into squirrels, is funny. Twilight never letting that go for the rest of the story is not. If the characters won’t stop commenting just how random everything is, the tone of the fic is of self-congratulation. If the characters are mildly annoyed by the most unpredictable things but they don’t really seem to give a hoot, the joke works better. And God forbid you if you try to solve that issue going meta.

· Meta jokes are complicated, but to be honest, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically funny in being meta. Being meta should be the way to tell a joke, not the joke itself. Just breaking the fourth wall is not really funny, unless you have an actual punchline. Same with leaning on the fourth wall, referencing something,  trying to break the normal flow of a story with some kind of surreal storytelling technique, or lampshading stuff. [8]





· Chris here makes a big fuss about first sentences, and there’s a reason for that—use it to hook the readers, either with a joke or with a killer setup. Assume the readers are going to leave your story if it doesn’t get interesting fast, and the panic will help you write. Or it will make you panic and break down crying—it’s all about tastes, I guess.

· Mind you, sometimes the reader expects that you will build some expectations, and if you subvert that then you can make an amazing random joke that comes out of the blue. That’s why I said that anything goes earlier. With enough cleverness, even the worst things can be hilarious.

· Sometimes, comedies have a deeper meaning. A message, a moral—whatever. And sometimes they don’t, and they’re just there to make you laugh. Both are equally worthy of your respect (I said earlier that comedies “should” have a message, but that’s just my opinion because SUBJECTIVENESS HEY WHAT UP). Have in mind, comedy is hard, but it’s probably the least respected genre out there, because people think that “just writing jokes” is funny. I don’t think that’s right.

· Also, I’d recommend reading comedy before writing comedy, if only to know the typical structures of a joke. TvTropes is the way to go here, as it’s way better than me at explaining it.

· However, remember to have fun. Comedies written by the book are just boring—you gotta give them some personality, some soul, some pizazz or else it feels like something written by a robot.

· Puns are the lowest form of wit. Incidentally, they’re also hilarious and you should use them all the time. I’m not kidding. You can tell that by the fact that there’s no pun in this sentence—this is not a joke.

· The last thing you write is the one they remember the most. Give ‘em a killer ending. Go out with a bang.[9]

[9] Christ, this is just—ah! Buddy! H-how long have you been there? What have you…?

Sigh. So, you’ve heard everything, huh? Then I guess… Well, I guess there’s no way around this, is there? Looks like I’m not longer your stepdad. Now I, uh.

Okay so now I’m your stepbrother. That is intrinsically weird. I mean, it’s just—what? No, I said stepbrother. Stepbrother. No, stepnephews don’t exist. What do you mean, mathematically correct? What are you talking ab—






People often say that comedy is subjective... and it is.  But then, so's almost everything else about writing, and we can still speak intelligently about "good" and "bad" stories, can't we?  If you're trying to write a funny story and aren't sure if you're sinking or swimming, there's some excellent advice in here to help you out.  Thanks again, Aragon!


  1. I like to think that whoever reads this (if anyone does) will have a couple questions. Mainly: "Wait, was this guy really giving us advice or was this entire thing just an exuse to write the most overcompliated "I slept with your mother" joke ever?"

    In case that turns out being true, the answer is yes.

  2. "...hahahaha I'm on vacation and you're not!"

    I'm on pretty much the opposite of vacation: we're going back to fify-hour weeks at work. Still not as much as the sixty-eights I'd gotten used to — and nowhere near the eighty-somes I hope to never endure again — but I'm gonna miss only working forties :(

    So yeah, thanks for rubbing it in my face, ya jerk!

  3. Don't tell me how to write comedy! You're not my dad.

    There were actually a lot of good points here though. It seems like random comedy and magic tricks stem from the same method: establish an expectation, theeeen do something else! And I especially agree about the puns. I have pretty high standards when it comes to writing (both the doing and the reading of), but for reasons I don't quite understand, I'm willing to give a lot of slack to things if they're either Australian, or have good puns in them.

    Anyway, I'm liking the guest posts so far! They're informative, and different, and the authors are all so clever and handsome! I'm looking forward to whatever comes next.

    1. How can you tell they're handsome? I haven't seen a single damn pic! Seriously, did you guys even send Chris your nudes? I suppose a headshot would work too

    2. Hahah! Silly ProfessorOats, still so uninitiated in the workings of guest posts. I'm sure you'll understand when you're older.

    3. Chris has very stringent requirements for guest writers, Oats. And one of the most important is the handsomeness standards. You can't be a guest writer for OMPR without it, and nobody gets approved unless their handsomeness is agreed upon by all other guest writers. But impressing the board is pretty hard to do, so only the most elite make it.

      Sure, nudes are one way to do it, but it must be tastefully shot, preferably by a professional photographer. And it's important that you only send the one for review purposes, because in my experience, Chris quickly becomes uncomfortable if he is sent a wide variety of them over a period of several months, especially when sent directly to his home address and place of work. I can't imagine why.

      And yes! I, too, am excited to see what the next guest post may be. I hear that tomorrow's guest poster is the most handsome of all. I can only imagine who it could be.

    4. I can 100% confirm DannyJ's explanation of how you become a guest columnist. After all, how did you think Aragon earned the privilege of posting here?

  4. Random meta comedy is old. Meta horror is where it's at. Or possibly meta dark comedy.

    Not that I'd know anything about that.

  5. Mel Brooks on Comedy (paraphrased). Tragedy is when I get a papercut. Comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die.