The Art of Comedy Writing
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The Art of Comedy Writing

Arthur Asa Berger

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eBook - ePub

The Art of Comedy Writing

Arthur Asa Berger

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Just as a distinctive literary voice or style is marked by the ease with which it can be parodied, so too can specific aspects of humor be unique. Playwrights, television writers, novelists, cartoonists, and film scriptwriters use many special technical devices to create humor. Just as dramatic writers and novelists use specific devices to craft their work, creators of humorous materials from the ancient Greeks to today's stand-up comics have continued to use certain techniques in order to generate humor.

In The Art of Comedy Writing, Arthur Asa Berger argues that there are a relatively limited number of techniques forty-five in all that humorists employ. Elaborating upon his prior, in-depth study of humor, An Anatomy of Humor, in which Berger provides a content analysis of humor in all forms joke books, plays, comic books, novels, short stories, comic verse, and essays The Art of Comedy Writing goes further. Berger groups each technique into four basic categories: humor involving identity such as burlesque, caricature, mimicry, and stereotype; humor involving logic such as analogy, comparison, and reversal; humor involving language such as puns, wordplay, sarcasm, and satire; and finally, chase, slapstick, and speed, or humor involving action.

Berger claims that if you want to know how writers or comedians create humor study and analysis of their humorous works can be immensely insightful. This book is a unique analytical offering for those interested in humor. It provides writers and critics with a sizable repertoire of techniques for use in their own future comic creations. As such, this book will be of interest to people inspired by humor and the creative process professionals in the comedy field and students of creative writing, comedy, literary humor, communications, broadcast/media, and the humanities.

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Comic Techniques in Dramatic Comedies
When we analyze literary works (or in the current jargon “texts”) we use the term “style” to represent what is distinctive and personal in an author’s writing. We sometimes use the word “voice” to stand for the same thing. In the great authors, this style or voice is often easily recognizable; it has to do with how authors use language, with the tone authors adopt, and with the way authors infuse their philosophy and knowledge about life into their works.
There is also what might be described as “comedic style,” namely the techniques an author tends to use to generate laughter. In order to determine comedic style, then, we have to know something about the techniques of humor—which is the subject of this chapter. I will return to this subject shortly, after I discuss a related matter—personal and social style.
On Personal Style and Other Styles
One sign of a distinctive style or voice involves the ease by which an author can be parodied. Thus Hemingway, whose style is very distinctive, is often parodied and there are yearly contests in which Hemingway parodies are awarded prizes. If authors cannot be parodied, it would suggest that there is not much that is distinctive in their writing style.
But there are other styles of writing that are not personal but social, public, or generic. In Exercises in Style Raymond Queneau, the brilliant French author took a story that he made up, about a young man taking a bus, and retold that story using something like sixty different styles. Let me quote a few lines from a sampling of his styles.
Double Entry Style
Towards the middle of the day and at midday I happened to be on and got on the platform and balcony at the back of an S-line and of a Contrescarpe-Champeret bus and passenger transport….
Official Letter Style
I beg to advise you of the following facts of which I happened to be the equally impartial and horrified witness. Today, at roughly twelve noon, I was present on the platform of a bus which was proceeding up the rue de Courcelles.…
Cross-Examination Style
—At what time did the 12.23 P.M. S-line bus proceeding in the direction of the Porte de Champerret arrive on that day?
—At 12:38 P.M.
—Were there many people on the aforesaid S bus?
—Bags of ’em.…
What Queneau’s ingenious exercise demonstrates is that there are, in fact, a large number of distinctive styles of “public” writing that we use, depending upon the circumstances. (Queneau’s book is, let me suggest, actually a brilliant example of a humorous technique, “theme and variation.”) Writers may use a number of different styles depending upon what they are writing and who their audience is.
You don’t use the same style when you are writing to a loved one that you use when you are writing to the Internal Revenue Service. Some of the more common styles are: legalistic, paradoxical, exclamatory, mystical, metaphoric, ideological, biblical, absurdist, technological, telegraphic, slangy, and rap. And characters in plays distinguish themselves and gain a sense of identity by the way they speak and the style of language they adopt, which varies from scene to scene in some cases.
On Comic Techniques
Just as there are different styles one can adopt in writing, there are also a number of techniques one can use in generating humor in texts. I have developed a typology of techniques of humor, reproduced in the chart below (taken from my book An Anatomy of Humor) that lists forty-five different techniques or devices humorists of all sorts—comedians, novelists, cartoonists, playwrights—use to create humor. This chart is based on a content analysis I made in which I examined examples of humor of all kinds—joke books, plays, comic books, novels, short stories, comic verse, essays and anything else I could get my hands on. I elicited from this sample forty-five techniques that are, I suggest, the basis of humor.
I would argue that every humorous work uses these techniques in various permutations and combinations. We can, for example, analyze jokes and find a number of them at work. And we can look at plays and see how playwrights use these techniques, many times in combination as well, to create funny situations and amuse audiences. When I assembled these techniques I found, also, that they fit under four basic categories:
1. humor involving identity;
2. humor involving language;
3. humor involving logic (and a fourth category that I’m not completely satisfied with)
4. humor involving action or visual phenomena.
These techniques are listed and discussed below, in alphabetical order, along with their categories, in parentheses. I assume that most of them are more or less self-explanatory, though I will briefly explain how I interpret each term, and in most cases, offer examples. I would argue that the choice an author makes of the techniques and the way an author uses them allow us to define an author’s style with much more precision than was possible before.
In the second part of the book I discuss the techniques in chapters devoted to four plays: Plautus’s Miles Gloriosus, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, and Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. (I use a number of selections from these plays in the first chapter as well—so there is a certain amount of duplication here and there.) My chart listing the forty-five techniques of humor is shown below.
Categories and Techniques of Humor
Over literalness
Puns, Wordplay
Let me point out a number of things about this list:
1. I recognize that I have listed as techniques satire and parody, which many critics see as styles or genres rather than techniques and this causes problems. But I think we can argue that since, in common parlance, we talk about authors satirizing and parodying, it isn’t too much of a liberty to describe them as techniques.
2. Techniques are generally found in combination. An insult, which I list as a technique, is not in itself humorous; it is only when the insult i...

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