13 January, 2007

what makes something funny?

I ask you this not in a rhetorical way, but with a twofold purpose. One, I need cheering up because my house is a disaster, which is upsetting second only to the fact that we really have to find a new house. Two, I have been to my first "comedy writing for television" course and the question is actually part of our homework!

Oh, it was such fun. I was a bit skeptical given my not-so-pleasant experience in the "Creating Fiction" course last autumn, where my fellow classmates were rather more... shall we say, serious than I am. Their novels-in-the-making were quite gritty (I think that's the word they would have used, or maybe "edgy"), and the only thing less likely than my reading a gritty novel, is my writing a gritty novel. So I was the proverbial fish out of water. This crowd, on the other hand, is funny. Not surprisingly, I guess! I remember from my first acting class last spring, thinking, there's a little pressure on in a social way, when you've all come together claiming you want to be theatrical. You can hardly just sit there like a lump, waiting to learn! You have to act. And while I turned out to be something rather less than the next Kate Winslet, it was very amusing to be with lots of people who like to pretend. The same goes for the comedy class. You have to be funny, right off the bat.

The tutor, especially, was under the microscope from the word go. Think of it: your mandate is to help people write funny things for other people to say. Therefore, the first words you utter had better be funny themselves. And he did not let us down. Guy Meredith, isn't that an excellent name? Quite spontaneously funny, as well as having obviously thought up funny things beforehand, to say. We started off discussing what are the most useful items for comedy: current events. He asked, "Did you all read about the Suffolk Strangler speaking out finally? Of course he said he didn't do it, but he probably shouldn't have done so under the name 'The Suffolk Strangler.' See, murderers always make one mistake." Then we were on to the first exercise. "Imagine, if you would, that you are at a disastrous drinks do ["cocktail party," to you Yanks], and it's becoming obvious that you're not going to find anyone to talk to. You're hiding in the kitchen, when you hear a footstep coming down the passage. Suddenly you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the person approaching could be really important to you, if you could only get his/her attention. Write down three fascinating things about yourself, that you can tell this person. The catch is, two of the things are true, and one is a lie."

So we each had to think of these three things, and say them out loud, whereupon Guy repeated them and asked the class to vote on which thing was a lie. And what we discovered was: success is in the details. For myself, I said 1) that I had written a book on the history of women artists from the Renaissance to the present, 2) that I was allergic to aluminum [Guy naturally inserted the extra English 'i', for "aluminium"], and 3) that I had a degree from RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. And you know what? Not one person thought the book was a lie. "She has a studious aspect, does she not?" was Guy's unflattering but unfortunately true conclusion. Some people thought it implausible about the allergy, but most people immediately concluded that the RADA claim was a lie. Guess why? RADA don't offer a degree, they just offer courses. Did I, as a mere outsider to the finer points of English culture, know this? Uh, no. And the lesson was: write what you know.

Amazingly, several of the female students' claims to be, variously, "exotic dancers, "burlesque performers," and mostly baldly, "strippers," were TRUE! And one fellow in his 60s really was, contrary to our guess, approached to appear in the first-ever issue of Playgirl. "Worrying, isn't it, that no one believed me?" he said mournfully. One girl was found out about not being a nurse because she said "psychological" instead of "psychiatric" nurse, and a guy was found to be lying about falling off a donkey ride in the seaside resort of Brighton, because there aren't any donkey rides in Brighton, only in Bournemouth, apparently. Very amusing.

So the other lesson was, in order to write successful comedy, one must be able to lie convincingly, and also know how to draw on one's real experience in making things up. And I learned exactly how much I don't know (as if I needed reminding) about really up-close British popular culture. Have you American readers ever heard of a musician called Tommy Steele? Neither had I, but he's really famous here. And he's the second cousin of one of the class members, although we thought she was lying. Have you heard of a comedy team called "French and Saunders"? I was not fluent enough in that reference to get it right away, but my Hello! magazine loyalty meant that I could parse it eventually, and Dawn French really is a national treasure. I loved her in the clip I saw of the recent Christmas airing of "The Vicar of Dibley." Of course I saw the clip only through the several degrees of separation that my Matthew Macfadyen site provides, since his wife Keeley Hawes was in the programme as well (looking irritatingly gorgeous, I must add in all honesty). Well, how about "ENO"? English National Opera. "Red Dwarf"? Nope, me neither, but it's a cult science fiction show. It's experiences like this that I treasure, a chance to be a fly on the wall (the only non-British person in the class) and just enjoy absorbing what it's like to be British. There's one Scottish bloke in the class, and while Callum turned out not in fact to be an airline steward, he has met Zsa Zsa Gabor and he is a member of an obscure Scottish separatist group (but not the ones who advocate assassinating the Queen, importantly). I guess I knew vaguely that some Scots would like to be independent from Great Britain, and every once in awhile they're on the BBC complaining about various parliamentary injustices, but in general, do most Americans living in Britain get to meet one? I feel very fortunate. The fact that Mel Gibson's face adorns one of the independence websites had a bit of a deflating effect on any partisanship I might have felt, however.

But I digress. What makes something funny? We decided that contrast and incongruity are funny, and two things being combined that don't belong together are funny. People being as foolish as you know you can be but hope you aren't all the time, are funny. Spoofs of things that are just this side of ridiculous, are funny. There are two absolutely hilarious programmes that we saw clips of in class that I have simply got to track down copies of. One is called "Broken News," obviously a spoof of the concept of "breaking news," that sends up all the 24-hour news channels we watch in spite of ourselves. The bit we saw was following a breaking story of a woman who had died mysteriously following a meal that featured tomatoes, and the news crews were providing Team Coverage of the expected "Tomato Flu" pandemic that would soon be sweeping Britain. This is, of course, so perilously close to our panic over bird flu that it's just embarrassing, and totally hilarious. Here's something important though: not everyone thought it was funny. So I think that's a good point: some people will find "Little Britain" side-splittingly funny, some people will laugh reluctantly, and some people will be horribly offended. I myself cannot bear that programme, although I adore David Walliams in straight roles, so there you go.

We had a great time. My fun was only slightly spoiled by my journey homeward. No, amazingly, I did not get lost, but it was actually worse. I walked out of the building and headed toward Oxford Street, when a cab suddenly stopped in front of me and a head poked out the open window, and it was the lovely James from class (already clearly the funniest person in the group, if actually not married to and divorced from the same woman twice, as he tried to get us to believe). "Get in, I'll run you wherever you're going, as long as it's where I'm going." So, because he is funny, I got in, and we were getting along famously, heading vaguely north and west, swapping life stories. Then I realized I had left my &^%^$ handbag in the classroom. I pulled out my vibrating mobile phone to find I had a message from Guy and he'd left my bag with security. I jumped out in consternation, even as James was pulling out his wallet for me, said goodbye and started walking, not knowing even where I was. And it started to pour down with rain. I just stood cursing and getting wetter and wetter, looking at my watch and knowing I had to pick Avery up at the stable. What to do? Finally I flagged another cab and explained my situation and begged to be taken back to school where I would get my bag and get right back in and he could have a nice long fare to the stable.

This proved acceptable, only I had to sit through one of the very few unpleasant cabby conversations I have been privy to: this specimen of humanity was one of a type of British person (and there's an American counterpart, make no mistake) who believes firmly that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, everything was better before immigration, we should close the borders, vote out every politician, turn off the pernicious internet, and stop eating anything green. And the environment? It can go to the dogs because anyway the terrorists will get us first. Urgh. What a long ride. And at the end he said, "And you know what, luv? Everyone I talk to about this agrees with me, just like you do. Never get anybody in my cab what don't. You have a nice day now, if the [expletives] will let you, which they won't." Oh dear.

Which entire afternoon, with its cast of characters, screw-ups, weather emergencies and newfound Britishisms, leads me to believe that while I may need help in my presentation of comedy, I'm not lacking in material.


Sue7 said...

Kristen, you should spend some time sifting through my video library! Broken News is wonderful but so far they have only done one series, I think.

If you liked that you should rent The Day Today which is really the true inspiration for the show. It is very old now but such luminaries as the Bafta nominated Patrick Marber worked on it and in it with Steve Coogan and Chris Morris.

You need to revisite Dibley........shame you didn't see it at Christmas. Keeley is beautiful but Richard is gorgeous!

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