Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Answer Me These Questions Three

by Robison Wells

This is one of those blogs wherein I ask you questions. However, despite what you may think, this is not because I'm a lazy sack of crap. While that is definitely true, I have honest-to-goodness real reasons for today's cop-out blog. (And, since Jeff didn't post at all yesterday, then I'm free to be as half-hearted as I want to be. I'm still better than him.)

So, next Thursday I have to go speak at the UVU Something Book Conference Thing. It's a conference for writers and readers, and it's shaping up to be pretty interesting. However, some chump asked me to speak (that chump's name rhymes with Hoolie Shmellon). And worse, she asked me to speak on the ever-impossible subject of humor.

Here's the news: I don't know why things are funny. Well, no, that's not true. I understand fairly well the mechanics of humor. But what I can't do is teach you to be funny. I'm not saying that it can't be taught, just that I can't do it. Consequently, I made it clear in the class synopsis that I'll be talking about humor, not how to write humor. And, if it sounds like I'm not looking forward to this, then I have properly conveyed my message.

Anyway, because humor is so subjective and ambiguous and personal, I want you guys to answer some questions for me. And then next week there will be a drawing, and the commenter who wins the drawing will receive something that I haven't yet thought of. Pretty exciting.

Here are the questions:

1. What is your favorite humorous book and why?
2. Who is your favorite comedian and why?
3. What is your favorite type of humor and why?

The 'whys' are the most important part of your answers, so don't neglect them. And, the answer to 'why' cannot be any incarnation of 'because it's funny' or 'you just have to see it'.

Here's the deal. If you don't help me out here, then my entire presentation next week will be forty five minutes of me showing Olive Garden commercials and then explaining why they're not funny. As you can see, I'm desperate.

You can follow Rob on Twitter. His tweets are even less interesting than his blogs, but at least they're shorter.


At 9/15/2009 12:27 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

1. As I Lay Dying is my favorite humorous book. I think it's because of the incongruity of the situation. There's a naive ineptness to that family that touches my funnybone.
2.I haven't had a favorite comedian other than my five-year-old grandson since Red Skelton. I don't find sexual inuendo or politial putdowns particularly funny. Meaness isn't humor.
3. I like subtle humor, play on words,and irony. I think it's because I like words and when humor is subtle, I feel more a part of the joke because I'm smart enough to figure it out. Pie in the face and insults strike me as just rude.

At 9/15/2009 12:48 PM, Blogger Matthew Buckley said...

I gave a presentation on humor at the Teen Writers Conference. Since I CC everything I touch, you could have come, stole my whole presentation, and used it for free. But you didn't come. So now you're in this tricky position. See? It always pays to follow me around and write down what I say.

Oh, I also blogged about humor once, and used that post as a basis for my presenation. I've only written 600 blog posts, so it shouldn't be too hard to find the one I'm talking about.

At 9/15/2009 1:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Favorite Comedic Book: The Bible

Why: God has an incredible sense of humor to trust us with our own salvation.

Favorite Comic: Red Skelton

Why: He had an amazing ability to ad lib. In fact, Robin Williams credits Red for his own success and studied Red for years to learn and then develop his own sense of ad lib and the essential skills of ad libbing wonder.

Favorite Comedic Genre: Ad lib (of course)

Why: It requires numerous comedic skills including timing, reading your audience, and delivery. It also requires a lot of brainiac skills and "education" like familiarity with unrelated topics, deep understanding of multiple cultures and pop culture, a strong grasp of the sciences and the arts, constant updating on current events, a working knowledge of what other comics are doing and their previously-told funny jokes as well as their bombs, and a well-developed sense of the use of language, language delivery skills and often a sense of how to mis-use language. Ad lib is the king of comedy, but its difficulty sometimes scares off a lot of comedians who choose not to venture into the "highest comedic art". Red Skelton was the first big time ad libber. He gets my vote.

At 9/15/2009 1:24 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Perversely, I feel much better knowing that you're not sure what to say in your presentation. You're an old pro at conferences, so if you're unsure, I figure it's okay for me to be clueless and terrified. See you next week. I'll be the one with the ulcer.

My favorite humorous book is To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. Time travel meets Victorian England. The characters are just so dang hilarious, and Willis' writing is such a delight.

2. I haven't a clue. Sorry; I know that's not helpful.

3. In books, I love the clever and delightful use of language that weaves humor into the story in an organic way (such as in the Willis book I mentioned above). JK Rowling does this extremely well. She has so many wonderfully funny lines in the Harry Potter books--not stand-up comedy lines, but just natural humor flowing from the characters and the way they see things.

I like humor springing from character--people not trying to be funny, but just doing what they do in a unique and engaging way.

Slight exaggerations of reality can be very funny in a comedy--like in the LDS movie "RM" where the mother is in the backyard with a chainsaw making an ice sculpture of the temple for an RS centerpiece. It's hysterical because it's about a 95-percent-accurate reflection of reality.

At 9/15/2009 1:42 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

I'm not answering them in any particular order--sue me, Wells.

I laugh hardest at humor that builds on itself and goes a step beyond the obvious.

For example, Chandler on friends was classic at never stating the obvious joke but taking it one or two steps further, and THAT'S why his lines were so dang funny. (Like when he and Joey were trying to pick between the baby wearing the ducks and the baby wearing the clowns, they'd flip a coin, and Joey said that heads would be for ducks because ducks have heads. The obvious joke is, "What, clowns don't have heads?"

Instead, Chandler goes, "What kind of freak clowns came to your birthday parties as a kid?"

A step beyond the obvious joke or turning the joke on its head. The unexpected joke.

Then building on the humor throughout the act, returning to it in a new an unexpected way.

That's why Viktor Borge is one of my favorites. In his famous act (which you can get on DVD), he has certain jokes that he returns to and builds on, and he comes back to them in unexpected ways, so they're a fresh joke each time--a bigger joke each time he comes back to it. In those cases, it's probably the unexpected juxtaposition of the old joke in a new setting.

As for books? Tough one. I've had tears coursing down my face as I laugh reading some of Janette Rallison's books.

YOUR books crack me up, and I'm not just saying that. I can't see the humor in As I Lay Dying, but then, I'm not a Faulkner fan, as you know. I think he was trying to hard there.

I love humor that doesn't talk down to its audience. There are a few episodes of Frasier and MASH that are totally brilliant because they do just that--they assume the audience is intelligent and will get the jokes, so they write the jokes UP to the audience rather than down to them. I've nearly fallen over laughing watching a few of those.

At 9/15/2009 1:57 PM, Blogger Anna Buttimore said...

1. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series. I can still quote whole swathes of the radio show, and all my books have a "hidden" quote from it in them.

2. Bill Bailey. I love his look, I love his Cornish accent, and I love how he does musical humour and is also such a talented musician. I have "Part Troll" on DVD but could watch it hundreds of times and still find it funny from his arrival on the stage "Looking like a wizard in a call centre" to the Kraftwerk version of the Hokey-Cokey. And his humour is clean and inofensive to everyone except Chris de Burgh.

3. I like intelligent humour which makes you reflect on the fact that it is, in fact, true. I include the Simpsons in this, with such classic lines as "Aaah, alcohol. The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems." (Homer.) "Dad, don't die; we'd be left without a father ... for a while." (Lisa.) And Bart and Lisa arguing, they tell Homer, about who loves him more. He tells them to carry on with the argument. "You love him more!" "No, YOU love him more!"

At 9/15/2009 2:39 PM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

I'm skipping #1 because I can't think of is.

#2- I think jerry Seinfeld and Bill Engvall are two comedians I rather like. Why? Because I love random humor. Stuff that just hits you out of the blue and makes me laugh my butt off.

#3 I kind of already said this but random humor is my favorite. Seemingly mundane with a twist of the weird. It just makes me outright guffaw.

At 9/15/2009 3:14 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

You know, I've been thinking of a pen name---maybe Hoolie Schmellon would work.

Question #1--Favorite humor book. Hmmm....hard to choose. Maybe I'll just say anything by Robison Wells.

Favorite comedian. It's a toss up between Brian Regan and Bill Engvall. Brian Regan has these facial expressions and jokes about everyday things that just are funny because I identify with them and plus, they're fun to quote. Same with Bill Engvall. The base is every day events that are exaggerated just a bit and made funny.

Favorite type of humor? That's a hard one. Probably just something I can imagine and relate to from my own experiences. You know, funny stuff that's clean, of course. :)

I think you'll do great on your presentation. At least yours has the potential for humor---my first one is about editing and the other one is ideas for helping a book club to thrive. Not really funny stuff. Maybe me being the instructor is the funny part. Haha. We'll all be great, I'm sure.

At 9/15/2009 6:02 PM, Blogger Kelsi Rose said...

1. My favorite humorous book (as of late, it changes) is The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry. I love the satire abd Lowry's writing style.

2. I don't really have a favorite comedian, it is a group: The Jester'Z of Theater 168. They are improv at it's best, they take what they are given and run with it (if I had to choose on it wouldd be Klor, he comes up with snarky comments to situations that are original and applicable).

3. It is a toss up between satire and improv. I like satire because it makes you think. Unless you know what is going on, you don't find the humor (you have to be smart enough to figure out what is going on). I like improv because it shows the comedians ability to think quickly on his feet, not everyone has that talent and I am always inspired by those who do.

At 9/15/2009 6:33 PM, Anonymous Anna said...

1) Erma Bombeck. She's a funny lady. I am reading a book with columns she wrote 30-40 years ago about motherhood. It is still SO true today. She nailed the whole motherhood experience... just in a different era. She just writes about life and life can be funny if you choose to see it as funny.

2) Not sure about that one. Brian Regan is funny. Once again, he just tells the truth. His stand up bit about Dora the Explorer is quite funny.

3) I like the subtle humor that you don't expect coming. Then at the end there is a twist that just makes you laugh. Dr. Horrible Sing-along Blog is my type of humor.

I think the harder you try, sometimes it just doesn't come off funny. It almost has to come off the top of your mind to be funny. And if you're really good, then you can write and rewrite to come up with good stuff.

At 9/15/2009 7:28 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

#1) So many to choose from. Big Trouble by Dave Barry, because it's both absurd and cohesive. The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie, the way he skewers writing conventions. I second Stephanie's Connie Willis. It's very intelligent humor, with a side of slapstick.

#2) Older Steve Martin stuff is hilarious. The writers for Chandler on Friends (props to Annette!) Either you take an interesting, unconventional idea a bit too far, or you respond in a completely different direction than the obvious one. The humor seems to come from not expecting it.

#3) I like a lot of different kinds of humor. I like the wordplay of say, the Court Jester, physical humor like Jackie Chan can do, even big groaner puns.

At 9/15/2009 8:34 PM, Blogger Melanie J said...

I was going to answer your question but then I caught a grammar error in Annette's comment and now I'm too happy to concentrate.

(Mwah, Annette!)

At 9/15/2009 9:48 PM, Blogger Kimberly said...

1) I adore the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. Why? His wit is the most obvious answer, but there's more to it than that. It's the way he intertwines thought-provoking prose with hilarity inspiring absurdity. It's the unexpectedness of the humour. How you can be reading something that seems fairly prosaic and then bam! You're laughing out loud (err, often in public has been my experience).

2) Steven Wright. His humour reflects a unique perspective on the world. Again, the unexpected and the absurd.

3) British, without a doubt. I grew up watching British comedies on PBS. It's more than the accents (though they do help), but it's hard to put a finger on exactly what. Perhaps that it's different - not the sort of humour I'm otherwise exposed to.

My mind is full of other favourites. Hawkeye from M*A*S*H, Viktor Borge, Douglas Adams. I'm going to start giggling to myself. I blame you for how that's going to freak my family out.

Good luck!

At 9/16/2009 10:42 AM, Blogger Robert said...

OK, my favortie humorous book would likely be "Eats, Shoots and Leaves". I like it because it is looking at what we do everyday, and finding the absurdity of how we do it.
My favorite comedians are people like Rita Rudner and Jake Johansen. I like them because they approach it in a low-key way, and simply talk about what goes on in life, and - again - how it happens, and sometimes why it happens.
Obvious from the first two answers, I like humor that looks at life with the express goal of exposing the absurd, the non-sequitor (sic?), and the peculiarities of what makes us humanly imperfect.
I think that who we are, and what we are - and what we do about it - is some of the funniest stuff we will ever come across. It's certainly more funny than most of what is contrived by the script writers on TV and in the movies.

At 9/16/2009 11:21 AM, Blogger Marta O. Smith said...

I'm not really answering your questions, but if you want to start your class on a high note, show them a funny video clip. It's like the way the late night talk show hosts have a comedian to warm up the audience before the taping starts, so they will be in a laughing mood for the monologue.

Want an example? Go to YouTube and search for "Tim Conway dentist." It is one of the best slapstick improv pieces I have ever seen. I guarantee it will make you laugh.

At 9/16/2009 11:51 PM, Anonymous Dan Wells said...

1. The funniest book I've ever read? I don't know if I've ever quoted so many lines to my friends as I did when I read Pride & Prejudice. I thought the Secret Agent by Conrad was hilarious, but nobody else does. I loved The Princess Bride, and I have yet to see another book do the same kind of awesome 4th wall metahumor. Honestly, though, I think I like humorous essays the best, by authors like David Sedaris and Dave Barry. It's a different kind of humor than fiction, because they have time to establish the scene and and set up the joke and pay it off perfectly, without needing to both with other stuff like character arcs and narrative structure.

2. Eddie Izzard: Dressed to Kill was a phenomenal stand-up show, though I've been less impressed with his others. Jim Gaffigan is good. Bill Cosby was awesome. Dave Chapelle has made me hyperventilate a couple of times. For the very best, though, I'm going to pick Bob Newhart. Some of the other posters here have mentioned intelligent, subtle humor that you appreciate more because you have to work to get it; Newhart was the king of that. Many of his routines were phone conversations, so you only got half of the story and had to infer the other half; it gave an incredible sense of cleverness and surprise. He had the best slow burn of any comic ever.

3. I think the humor that works the best for me is where a situation is established, with a clear set of rules, and then something stupid/horrible/scandalous happens and we watch events unfold in strict compliance with the rules. It's a form of the slow burn I talked about with Newhart, where you know what's happened, you know what's likely to happen next, and you put the pieces together on your own and just laugh and laugh before the funny thing ever takes place. This is how farces are constructed, and most episodes of Seinfeld, and even Pride and Prejudice.

At 9/17/2009 2:29 PM, Blogger Tristi said...

I'm so totally coming to your class, Rob. I want to see Olive Garden commercials.

Whaddya wanna bet - I'm right across from you. That always happens.

At 9/18/2009 11:34 AM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

I wish I could be at your class! I have no doubt it will be fantabulous!

Mark Twain can always make me laugh. I've always loved Carol Burnett & Lucille Ball. There's not much humor I don't appreciate on some level -- even silly slapstick makes me laugh, mostly because my grandmother loved it so much.


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