I Decide What’s Funny

I’ve been called a humor snob. Mostly because I’m very judgemental, and am not very nice.

Let’s start again. I always like the killjoy art of analyzing humor. I take improv classes, where the teacher often spends a lot of time describing their humor principles. Then you usually spend the rest of the class period watching your classmates ineptly interpret those principles, until you get the chance to head up on stage and do an even worse job. That gives you a lot of time to think about what you’re getting wrong.

A common improv principle is “use specifics.” Rather than say “I had a rough day at work,” say, “Liz said I’m misunderstanding basic principles of bail bondsmanship. Maybe she’s right.” This should save your scene from easy stereotypes, and meaningless tropes. Humans lives are specific. Specifics are realer.
But why are specifics funnier?
My quick answer is that audiences respond to reality in fiction. When I am watching improv, the funniest moments are where an improvisor has painstakingly observed behavior and played it onstage. When a bizarre or stereotypical scene is played for hyper-realism, we’re delighted. When you hear the voice of your self-important, incompetent boss, but as a hamster stuck in a bottle rocket, it’s honestly moving. Part of the laugh is just recognition.
The opposite is generalizing, and usually means the improvisor is using tropes and stereotypes. When people are on stage, they are nervous. They get stupid pretty quickly. They forget the rules, or how to talk like a human being. Often they resort to playing movie characters they have seen. When they play stereotypes, they are often playing the weirdest, most retrograde stereotypes that aren’t even in movies anymore. Their brain shorts out and all that’s left is a high voiced woman with a Valley Girl accent, and they’re trying to get laughs by saying “oh my GAWD” and being a man at the same time.
It’s not funny. I can say that because I can say whatever I want. And because I’ve suffered through so many of these scenes.
You can make stereotypes funny again with specifics. All these people we call out as suggestions—prostitutes, used car salesmen, dildo-users—they aren’t funny if they are just how we’d expect. They should be exactly how they are, which is complicated, filled with a lifetime of choices and opinions, operating with a fully functional brain. Specifics are a shortcut to fleshing those people out. The Valley Girl says “oh my GAWD” but also “I don’t get how we’re not talking about mortality like, all the time. Like, Elon Musk thinks the singularity is like, definitely coming. And we’re just walking around not talking about it!!!”
What’s strange is that sometimes these stereotypes come with specifics of their own. The Valley Girl can talk in detail about the mall, and she has her special little phrases, but they just don’t cut it. They’re not real enough specifics, for some reason. They’re the specifics of the stereotype, which means they’re not specific at all. They’re just the accessories that hang on the trope, and they’re not doing the job that details are supposed to do, which is to flesh out real people so we can recognize them.
It’s not that specifics are funny, it’s that people are. The tropes people rely on are dopey imitations of human beings. Specifics are just the cheat to transform a stereotype into a person.

One last thing. Some specifics themselves are stereotypes. They’re the detail people always use when they’re “using details.” My example is “potatoes.” Potatoes are the stereotype food. You can’t get a laugh of recognition out of a potato reference, even though it’s a real food that people eat in real life. I even hate how often I’ve used the word in the last 3 sentences. The word is trying too hard to represent “funny details that flesh out a scene.” You know what’s funnier? “Leeks.” “Don’t you like the leeks?” is a killer line. But I hate the line “don’t you like the potatoes?” Just a little something about me.


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