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What’s Funny?

Comedy is amongst those commonly agreed “markers of high intelligence” as the ability to not only understand but also create humorous content is a highly complex thing that requires a deeper insight into the world around us and to demonstrate it from a new and often exaggerated perspective. It’s also one of the hardest things to do well. Comedy is a heartbreaking thing to try and make a living at, even if you’re considered funny, a lifetime of trawling through pubs and clubs getting booed off stage, or more likely these days getting booed of YouTube, or worse, ignored.

For those few who succeed it’s a life of bringing happiness to others, often at your own expense. The best comedians are often highly educated, cunning observers of life, the world and humanity, and masters of the written and spoken word, but comedy has many shapes. It’s something worthy of far greater study, but for now let’s get just a little geeky on the subject.

Slapstick and Physical Work

Oldest joke in the world: “Man falls down.” That’s an easy one, we appreciate a good schadenfreude giggle when another person who is – more importantly – not us experiences misfortune, it’s how shows like You’ve Been Framed thrive, and how YouTube obtained a great deal of its early content. It is not a kind thing to find humour in, but it’s simple, exploitable, and if done well then some of the best comedy need never require dialogue. Physical comedy requires well choreographed movements, and adheres to a set-up and punchline structure as clearly as any joke.

Physical comedy is not limited to pain of course, exaggerated movements can be essential for a well made caricature, and a subtle facial gesture can turn a moment from a bland piece of dialogue into a moment of pure comedy gold. It’s the difference between the well orchestrated scene work of the Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy, against the subtle eyebrow work of Tony Stark. Most of our communication is conveyed physically, so it makes sense that physical comedy should be the easiest to create, but the hardest to refine.


The other side of language is a relatively new part of the brain, and requires far more cunning to work well. Word play runs a full gamut from a simple pun to an elaborately woven monologue, or well formed lyrics. The English language is especially ripe with double meanings, idioms, subtleties and shambolic grammar that can be bent into all kinds of bizarre shapes. It’s not alone of course, in fact the lyrics of many (if not all) Rammstein songs are filled with clever double meanings, and keen subtitle writers for anime series will often include notes on puns impossible to understand if not fluent in Japanese.

English: Where do cats go when they die? To purrrgatory.
Spanish: ¿De dónde van los gatos cuando mueren? Purgatorio.
Portuguese: Para onde os gatos vão quando morrem? Para o purgatorio.
Italian: Dove vanno i gatti quando muoiono? Nel purgat(t)orio.
French: Où vont les chats quand ils meurent? Au purrrchatoire.

This is one of the best understood forms of comedy because it can be understood, studied, and analysed. We can pick apart meaning and break apart the structure of language, the talented can conjure wordplay readily without much thought, but anyone with patience and care could assemble an excellent joke, albeit after far more time and effort. If you want to see true masters of the art at work, the best of The Two Ronnie’s are their works of wordplay.

Reference and Parody

Here’s where things get exceptionally geeky.

As a sub-culture we are probably the most appreciative of jokes that we “get”, not in so far as we understand them, but in so far as they poke fun at things that we know. It’s not essential to enjoy the thing being referenced, just that we know it enough and are willing to make fun of it. We enjoy seeing sly references slipped into works in which they’d otherwise be out of place, like pop-culture jokes, digs at celebrities, or even mirrors held up to our own behaviour to point out how ridiculous we are.

Parody works in the exact same way, but in this instance the focus is shifted onto the subject of the reference, person or cultural foible. For example, How I Met Your Mother is filled with Star Wars jokes, Family Guy remade Star Wars in its own image. To take a more dated approach, The Young Ones poked fun at political figures as part of their general anarchic attitude, where Spitting Image downright mocked them with puppets of their victims. Parody often relies on exaggeration of the subject, where reference is generally best done subtly.


Surrealism is a major part of all comedy, the shock of the unexpected takes a mundane situation and makes it funny. A favourite of mine, and at the very core of comedy, surrealism is not just wacky and random antics, surrealism focusses heavily on the unexpected and unpredictable, easy enough to achieve, hard to sustain, and even worse it’s practically impossible to pin down exactly how to make surrealist comedy funny. Some things work, some don’t, and we know which is which but couldn’t exactly define it if pushed.

Juxtaposing subjects like implanting something ridiculous into a serious setting, or something completely out of place is always a good start, and a great intellectual exercise. Non-sequiturs are easy enough to assemble, but very hard to do correctly. I can drop an accordion into the middle of sentence, but it wouldn’t be funny, and yet Monty Python can gently lower a dowdy couple into a café full of vikings singing about spam and it works out pretty well.

What types of comedy have I missed? Or have I approximately summed all 20-something genres into a broad spectrum?

Have you written any comedy that’s done pretty well?

Join me in the comments section down below or onto our Facebook page to get geeky about funny.


One response

  1. The Monty Python crew are masters of all forms of comedy, something I find amazing. They have the physicality beyond slapstick (The Ministry of Silly Walks), Surreality (The Meaning of Life) and simple word play (The Dead Parrot).

    Comedy for me is very hard to do on purpose, on queue. I’m not a very funny guy, but situational comedy gives me a chance to do a one-off joke that gets people giggling. When I’m writing I give characters replies on dialogues that make me laugh or that seem witty to me but I’m always shocked when someone that reads it tells me it was really funny.

    Comedy is perhaps the hardest form of entertainment. Fear is easier in comparison, as are sadness and other emotions. But to make someone laugh is a wonderful and very hard thing to do indeed!


    May 17, 2016 at 9:13 am

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