Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke. -Steve Martin
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to write some material for a luncheon one of my pastors (Trey) was hosting. He had originally wanted me to get an improv group together and perform, but I wasn’t going to be in town the day the luncheon was held, so we had to come up with something else. We ended up on something similar to David Letterman’s “Know Your Current Events,” only geared towards the children’s ministries of our church, since the luncheon was for people who work in those ministries. The basic premise was asking a basic question, waiting for the participant’s response, then informing them of the “right” answer, which was generally ridiculous. Standard stuff.
I had three weeks to come up with the material, and in that three weeks I learned something: writing comedy is hard. It doesn’t seem like it should be, but it is. I’ve dealt mostly in improv, making things up in the moment, based on what’s currently happening, while also pulling from knowledge of movies, current events, and what-have-you. That’s always felt easy to me, and while not everything hits, improv is ephemeral enough that it doesn’t matter – it’s quickly forgotten. (Sadly, that works the other way, too. Good and hilarious bits get forgotten just as easily, and trying to explain something you saw an improv group do to someone who wasn’t there is like describing a dream you had.) Writing an actual bit doesn’t come as easily to me, and I suspect trying to write a comedic scene would be the death of me. (Now that I think about it, “Killed By Comedy” would be great to have on my tombstone.)
I go back and forth on one particular theory of comedy: writing to your audience vs. writing and hoping your audience finds you. I think most people would want the latter, but often feel they have to do the former. In this particular setting, for instance, I made a joke about a pastor getting a full-back tattoo of Luke Skywalker and Batman fighting off Decepticons while trying to rescue Princess Peach from Mordor. When I submitted the first draft to Trey, he said, “No one’s going to know who any of these characters are.” I fought for it, arguing that everyone knew who Luke Skywalker and Batman were, and that even if they didn’t know who Princess Peach was, she had “Princess” in the title and princesses are forever getting rescued (in fairytales, people!), and people could tell by context that Decepticons and Mordor were bad. He kept the joke, but I have no idea how it was received.
Look at a comedian like Dennis Miller. He’s famous for dropping all kinds of crazy references into his routines – like, stuff from Plato for crying out loud – and he doesn’t make apologies for it or explain it, he just expects the audience to know. That’s kind of my dream, I think. Make my references and let those who get them enjoy them and nertz to those who don’t. Well, sorta nertz. I don’t want to antagonize an audience necessarily, and I’d still like for them to enjoy the show. Maybe the goal is to have both – a baseline that everyone can (hopefully) enjoy, but with references thrown out here and there that only some will get. Not everyone likes Star Trek, but those of us who do really like it. Maybe a small but rabid fanbase is better?
The other thing I learned in this most recent experience is that I think I’d do better as part of a writing team rather than trying to write on my own. I really enjoy bouncing ideas off people and recrafting and shaping those ideas into something (again, hopefully) better. On my own I get caught up in the mindset that everything’s gold and there isn’t a person alive who wouldn’t like jokes based on knowing that Samuel L. Jackson was in both Star Wars and Pulp Fiction.
I still entertain thoughts about trying stand-up comedy or writing a movie or a sitcom pilot, but it’s funny how these little experiences tend to bring out the realist/pessimist in me. I guess could write to entertain myself, but I’m already plenty entertained, so that seems wasteful.