On Mondays we post pieces that fit that month's theme. In April our theme is "April Fools". We're making the most of the excitement of comedy festivals around the nation and asking funny people how it's done. We kick off today with Tom Ballard.
Photo via Flickr/seasidebear
My favourite Monty Python sketch is the one about the Funniest Joke Ever Written. Writer Ernest Scribbler concocts a joke so uproariously hilarious that anyone who comes to read or hear it promptly dies laughing. The joke is so powerfully lethal that it is used by the British military to fight the Germans in World War II, having been translated in “joke-proof conditions”.
After 1945, the Geneva Convention puts an end to all joke-based warfare and a tombstone is erected in tribute to “The Unknown Joke”.
I love that sketch for two reasons. Firstly, because it’s very funny. It’s a great example of what Monty Python do best: take an idea, twist it a little bit to make it absurd, then take that absurdity to the nth degree with a mixture of downright silliness and blacker-than-black humour. By the end of this ten-minute sequence, we’re laughing, we’re reflecting on the atrocities of war and we feel like these crazy Englishmen can and will do anything and we have no idea what’s going to happen next.
I also love that sketch because it’s a kind of wish fulfilment for me. Every comedian in the world is trying to be Ernest Scribbler. We are all striving to write the perfect joke; a joke that will make you double over with laughter and split your sides and make a little bit of wee come out and maybe, if we’re lucky, kill you.
We want to kill you with comedy.
There are plenty of theories about why people do comedy. Everytime Jerry Seinfeld is asked the question, he answers the same way: “I just love jokes”. And that’s a pretty great reason. Who doesn’t love jokes?
Arseholes, that’s who.
Here are some of my favourites:
What do you call cheese that isn’t yours?
Before I criticize a man, I like to walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when I do criticize him, I’m a mile away and I have his shoes.
There’s the opening joke from Annie Hall: “Two elderly women are having lunch at a Catskills resort. ‘This food is terrible,’ says one. ‘I know,’ says the other, ‘and such small portions!’”
Jokes are puzzles; little riddles that you have to work out and unlock. They use twisted logic and double-meanings and contradictions beautifully.They have infinite possibilities and delightful consequences.
Joke-writing is the ultimate exercise in editing; any clunky words that slow down the progression from set up to punchline are going to screw up the laugh and need to be removed immediately. Seinfeld talks about a joke being the distance between two cliffs: a comedian’s job is to take the audience with her as she leaps from one cliff – the set up – to the other – punchline. If the cliffs are too far apart – that is, if there’s too much work for the audience to do within the logical world of the joke – then we’ll all fall to our gruesome deaths. But if the cliffs are too close together and there’s not that much of a leap, we won’t really even notice the journey and we’ll just sit there waiting for areal gap to make us laugh
Stand-up comedy is all about language. Stand-ups will spend weeks and months trying to figure out the right wording to make something the funniest it can be. It can’t be too long, it can’t be too short, otherwise: SILENCE. There are general rules: don’t use your punch line word before you reveal it to be a punch line. Alliteration gets laughs. Percussive words are funny – words like “chicken” and “pop” and “fuck”.
The best comedians in my book are the ones that can paint a picture in your mind so vivid and hilarious you feel like you’re watching the funniest movie in the world.
A couple of years ago I did a show in which I described the sex lives of John and Janette Howard, the Queen and Prince Philip and Bert and Patty Newton. I believe the phrase “Patty can catch old Moonface’s dusty jizz on her plastic tips and get Moira to wipe up the mess with his hair hat” was used.
That show didn’t win any awards, surprisingly. But people laughed. And that’s the main thing.
I think the thing I love most about comedy is that you can do anything. There are no rules. You can be anyone you want, you can say anything you want – nothing is off-limits in comedy.There’s no such thing as wrong topics, only wrong approaches to topics.
You can have the biggest budget in the world with special effects and cool music and a cast of thousands, or you can be just one person on a stage, talking. You can write a play or a movie or a TV show or a book or a short story or simply a tweet; the act of making someone laugh (and think at the same time) has always been - and always will be - magical to me.
So if I have any super-hot insightful take-away piece of wisdom for you here, it’s simply: consider comedy. Consider funniness. I honestly believe there is nothing that can’t be improved by the addition of humour, from keynotes to eulogies to instruction manuals. I’ve long thought that the only rational response to being alive is to laugh. We should laugh joyously at the things that make us happy and that we’re thankful for and we should laugh at the awful things that we cannot change. We should laugh at the cosmic tragedy of our existence and also at farts.
Because farts are funny.
Not everyone can (or should) be a stand-up comedian .But like crying, laughter makes us feel human and makes us feel alive, which I reckon is the whole point of being creative in the first place.
Anyway, I’ll see you on the road at one of my shows. Hopefully you won’t make it out alive.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.