Monday, 11 February 2008

What Happened Next?

Homer Simpson:
I saw this movie about a bus that had to SPEED around a city, keeping its SPEED over fifty, and if its SPEED dropped, it would explode. I think it was called 'The Bus That Couldn't Slow Down'.

Just as in novel-writing, the creation and exploitation of expectations plays a crucial role in comedy. Moreover, much humour is created by the subversion of that expectation. As I tidy away episode one of my brilliantly funny sitcom (oh, if only subjectivity and objectivity were the same thing!), it's worth having a look at the many lessons I have learnt, beginning with humour created from the subversion of expectations.

In the gag above, expectation is created from the viewer's awareness of the basic plot of the movie Speed. The Simpsons writers, in this instance, rely on the audience's knowledge of pop culture. Without this knowledge, the gag loses its power. It's a risky approach.

A less risky approach is to present a pattern, usually through repetition.
I saw some tv advert for some fun run thing the other day. It begins with a man wearing a red tracksuit, jogging through a park. He jogs out of shot, and we see that he is pursued by a woman, also wearing a red tracksuit.
My brain went - ah, I'm expecting this trend to continue, ultimately presenting a funny twist.
And then, following the woman, four kids jogged by - the tallest at the front, the smallest at the rear. My brain went - ah, there's a size thing going on here (which I hadn't noticed from just the man and the woman) - size and family (I hadn't initially sussed that the woman was the man's wife either). And red tracksuits. Ergo, there'll be a dog wearing a red tracksuit next.
I was right! But the shot didn't end as the dog dog-jogged by and my brain went - ah, there's something else coming. Think ... I guess ... a tortoise!
It was a hamster in its plastic exercise ball. In a red tracksuit.
Very quickly and very effortlessly, this pattern hung out with my brain and they got on just fine.
However, it wasn't really funny because my expectation was pretty much fulfilled. Only the incongruity of a hamster wearing a tracksuit gave me any pleasure.

So Homer Simpson, in desperate need of some way of reaching the top of a huge glass dome (The Simpsons Movie), breaks into a toolshop. Dominating the centre of the shot, a jetpack hangs on the wall. Here, the expectation relies on very little knowledge (certainly, my son was expecting Homer to choose the jetpack) and is actively thrust into the viewer's face.
Homer walks up to the shelf next to the jetpack, takes a tube of glue, and smears the glue onto the palms of his hands.
Expectation followed by subversion.
An incongruity is created, and incongruities are key components of comedy (so says Evan S. Smith, author of Writing Television Sitcoms, who describes humour in terms of tension and release, before devoting the remainder of his book to explaining why comedy writers must go live in LA).

What I particularly love about this type of humour is that it absolutely relies on the writer's imagination - the writer's shunning of clich├ęs.
Take this line:

Homer Simpson:
I'm not gonna lie to you Marge ...

The set-up is complete, and the viewer's brain fervently predicts the punchline (remember, Hitchcock conducted his audience, allowing them to indulge in their little predictions, before ripping those predictions to shreds).
The writer needs to stay one step ahead of the viewer.
And here's the gag with its punchline:

Homer Simpson:
I'm not gonna lie to you Marge. See ya soon!

On a final note, it is the incongruity of the subversion that creates the mirth.
On my way home this evening, my second bus broke down.
My expectation was simple: Get on bus; go home; maybe encounter a gibbering oddball.
My expectation was confounded. But I didn't find myself in fits of giggles as, fifteen minutes later, I boarded another bus - a bus smelling of vomit. Not simply because this was happening to me and not to some other poor fool, but because there was no incongruity: this unexpected twist bore little surprise and no amusing juxtaposition.

Funny to think that it wasn't so many years ago when I found the reader's assumptions frustrating, and now I thrive on them. It feels a bit like revenge! Ha!

P.S. Whilst looking for a 'What Happened Next?' video on YouTube, I encountered a clip of some deer grazing in a field. I watched for a minute and a half, wondering if a bear was going to attack, or maybe a parachutist would land in the tree ...
I think the comments sum up my ironic hysterics:

Commenter: What happened next ... Not a darned thing!

Vid Poster: there was another video...we put down deer corn...what happened next is that the deer came.

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