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Tuesday, June 6

Seven Flavours of Humour

Having recently read a book on comedy and having mused for several years on this subject, I thought that I'd now try to itemise the things which make us laugh. I've been thinking of these since August 2002 - before I became a stand-up comedian. Actually, I'd been a bit of a stand-up for a few months while a student, but only within the confines of the student movement and nowhere near in the same way as I am one now.

So. Here is my list:

1. Wordplay
2. One upmanship
3. Pain
4. Surprise
5. Recognition
6. Twisting reality
7. Taboo

I'll go into more detail on each. It's worth pointing out that these are not enough to make a joke from, nor are they necessarily enough to describe a comedy moment. Often it's a mixture of these flavours that makes us laugh, but I think these are the primary motivations to laughter.

Reaction: Oooh, that word is like that other word, even though the concepts are totally unrelated

The basis of most clean humour, the pun is a strong tool in English comedy. Wordplay can also be a matter of putting something in language which it is not normally put in. Describing something with a flowery term, or in a particularly accurate fashion that someone hasn't heard can be a good example of wordplay.

Wordplay can also be a gateway to revealing other comedy emotions.

One upmanship
Reaction: Oooh, so and so is about to win this battle of wills
Reaction 2: Oooh, I get that, which makes me smarter than the average person

Some sense that there's a challenge going on and that you can either observe it, or be a part of it, safely in the confines of your seat, can be amusing to the point of humour. I think a lot of the comedy comes from the pain (next flavour) but there is a smugness factor which is not to do with pain. If, for instance, someone cracks a joke with a French punchline and you understand enough French to get it, part of the amusement comes from a self-congratulatory competitive streak.

Reaction: Oooh, that hurt, thank goodness it wasn't me

This is the man with the plank turning round and smacking his friend in the head joke. It's the heart of slapstick, but it's also the heart of schadenfraude.

Reaction: Now, I wasn't expecting that to happen

Often used as the set up into wordplay. This joke is the heart of the pull-back and reveal. Magicians do it. They claim to be able to make a bunch of flowers and reveal a duck. We laugh in surprise. So also, this is the heart of the 1-2-3 reveal format. Example. My car is brilliant, it's got a great stereo, big engine and no wheels. Surprise!

Reaction: You're so right... I've noticed that too... it's funny because it's true

A very basic level of humour, which I think appeals to the lowest common denominator somewhat. It's about joining together to agree violently about opinion or shared experience. It's not wit. It can be just shared joy. It's entirely what Peter Kay does.

Recognition, I think, can work well when joined with the next one, twisting of reality.

Twisting reality
Reaction: That think which I recognise, seems somewhat foreign when you describe it like that

This is where we do the emperor's new clothes sort of thing, pointing at something that is accepted and recognised and showing it in a new light. Perhaps it's purposely twisted into a ludicrous shape. Perhaps in this form it's cast into a more realistic light showing insight. Either way, we laugh at the result.

For example, "the thermos keeps hot things hot and cold things cold... how does it know?".

Reaction: I'm embarrassed, but it's ok. Oooh, you shouldn't say that, but it's only a joke.

This relies on bringing up things which are normally not spoken about, but doing so in a way that allows the audience to trust you, thus allowing them to suspend their sensibilities and, thus suspended, laugh their bastard arses off at that which is not allowed to be thought of or spoken of in that way.


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