OK, that title is misleading, sorry. You probably can’t make someone laugh unless you mercilessly tickle them, but that’s now considered a form of assault so don’t do that.
But have you ever wondered, “Why do people laugh?” Or if you write comedy, “If I knew why people laugh, could I use that?”
It turns out that many smart people have asked the first question, from Plato to Freud, to all kinds of scientists, to PhDs, professors, and every comic who ever landed a book deal.
And they’ve come up with all sorts of smart answers, yet after centuries of study they still haven’t agreed on one uniform theory of comedy. But…
There is one thing that keeps popping up in their musings, a common element found in every funny story, scene, bit, and joke ever written. And it’s not what one might expect. But it is a thing writers instinctively use, and perhaps should deliberately employ.
And that thing is…
Wait, this will make more sense if we back up, like, 2,000 years.
FROM PLATO TO THOSE PhDs
Laughter is universal, right? Everybody everywhere laughs. Even babies laugh, and some animals too. Why?
The Greek philosopher Plato shared his thoughts on this—he hated laughter. Or he at least looked down on it, proclaiming that it reflects low character and a lack of emotional control. He believed that laughter is a malicious act of scorning others, that results in undeserved but pleasing feelings of superiority. He recommended that people avoid laughing and wished that governments would censor all forms of comedic entertainment. Plato was not a fun guy.
Plato’s star student, Aristotle, and many later philosophers echoed Plato’s “superiority theory” right up through the 18th century. But then experts from other fields got involved and started poking holes in that thinking.
In 1905, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote a whole book on the subject (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious), in which he concluded that laughter is a “discharge of psychical energy.” He described laughter as an emotion-based process in which one’s feelings or musings about a subject build to a peak as a situation (or joke) develops, and then that pent-up energy is released when a resolution (or punchline) is delivered, resulting in pleasurable relief and laughter.
Seems logical, but a lot of theorists consider Freud’s conclusions assumptive and nonscientific. (Of course, a lot of people hate just about everything Freud said, so add this to the pile.)
Some physiologists complained that emotion-based theories neglect the roles that chemical, nervous, and muscular functions play in making laughter happen. They describe laughter in terms of contracting muscles, electrical signals, changing pulse rates, and interruptions in one’s respiratory cycle. Good points, all scientifically tested and proven. But what actually triggers those physical reactions? What starts someone laughing? Hmm…crickets.
Some evolutionary biologists preach that laughter is an evolved behavior that developed to promote man’s survival. Their studies of people and primates suggest that it originated long ago as a bared-teeth, loudly vocalized response to a hostile threat. Flash forward to modern times, and today a person might laugh as a nervous reaction or in response to a punchline, rather than because they fear they’re about to be eaten.
Some theories of laughter focus on how it enables people to express embarrassing emotions in a socially acceptable fashion.
Other theories suggest that a humorous “setup” resembles a mistake, a bothersome incongruity, or a breach of accepted norms, that when corrected by a punchline results in self-congratulatory laughter, as a reward.
One researcher, psychology professor Dr. Robert Provine, described some of the most interesting findings on the subject in an article titled “Laughing, Tickling, and the Evolution of Speech and Self” (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2004). He discovered that…
· People are 30 times more likely to laugh aloud when with other people.
· Someone speaking to others is more likely to laugh than their listeners are.
· Public speakers are 46 percent more likely to laugh than their audience members are.
30 times? That’s kind of fascinating. And it’s hard proof of what many people might already assume—laughter is contagious, or wants to be, and it signals others that we wish to connect.
But, so what? Why should you care? You’re writing jokes, not term papers, so who needs all these theories? Especially when the experts can’t even agree on what makes a person laugh?
Well, there is one thing they agree on though few seem to realize it.
TENSION IS YOUR FRIEND
All theories of laughter, as different as they are, describe a process that involves introducing some source of tension…then building that tension…then releasing it.
Just as dramatic tension in a story builds until its central conflict is resolved, comedic tension in a joke or story builds until it’s released via a punchline or funny outcome.
Though this doesn’t explain what makes people laugh—apparently nobody has solved that riddle—understanding how important tension is in comedy could help a writer create bigger, funnier material. If not when first dreaming up stories and jokes as one brainstorms from concept to first draft, then perhaps later when going back to shore up weak material and find more opportunities for humor.
Here are some examples—because theories about why people laugh aren’t much help when one’s beating out a Hacks storyline or writing a sketch for SNL.
PUTTING THAT FRIEND TO WORK
Think big picture, comedic tension at the story level, and consider this premise for a feature film: Two buddies crash a wedding in the hope that they can persuade some romance-dazzled women to sleep with them. Is this a funny premise? Could be. Any comedic tension here? Sure, a little; the guys could get caught and be thrown out of the wedding. Embarrassing, but nothing tragic. And funny, but maybe not that funny.
But did the writers behind the hit comedy Wedding Crashers stop there? No. In their version of this story, those two protagonists create an entire system designed to deceive and seduce, and they crash many weddings instead of just one. And they lie shamelessly, pose as family members, and even take control of the weddings they crash! If caught, they’d face repercussions from not just the individual women they targeted but from all who attended the wedding—the parents who paid for the event, the guests who were played for fools, and the couple whose special day was ruined forever.
On top of that, the story had both of the protagonists fall in love with women they’d deceived, greatly ramping up the dramatic stakes, and then the main protagonist is exposed as a fake and loses the woman of his dreams.
Talk about tension—the actual film was bigger and funnier in every way than the modest premise described above.
BIG CHANGES NOT REQUIRED
The great thing is, pumping up the comedic tension in a story is easy to do. It can happen in many ways, big and small, with most of them involving some form of making life, a goal, or a situation more difficult for a protagonist. As comedy writing superstar Judd Apatow notes in his online MasterClass, “Difficult circumstances lend themselves to comedy.”
Meaning? If your story already has your protagonist running into problems, are you making full use of those? Or if it doesn’t, can you add a predicament or two without muddying the plot? You have many options, including…
- Have the main character take improper actions that could backfire later.
- Add a supporting character or romantic interest whose needs or actions cause problems for the protagonist.
- Give a character a secret agenda. Or just a secret.
- Have important characters disagree on a goal or strategy.
- Have characters disagree about the right or wrong of an action.
- Create something in a character’s past that comes back to haunt them.
Even raising the dramatic stakes and jeopardy in a story can increase comedic tension—see “Using Suspense to Boost a Story’s Humor.”
WORKS FOR SCENES AND JOKES TOO
If you’re happy with how your overall story develops and you’d just like to beef up the humor in a scene, boosting tension can help here too. An example: In the film Bridesmaids, it might have been fun to watch the group of friends get food poisoning at the Brazilian steakhouse and then stumble outside to vomit in the parking lot. But instead they drove from the restaurant to an upscale bridal shop where they became explosively sick while wearing very expensive gowns—adding public humiliation, ruined gowns, and damaged property to produce much bigger laughs.
The same goes for individual jokes. Remember that iconic scene in the deli in When Harry Met Sally, when Meg Ryan’s character fakes a sexual climax to teach Billy Crystal’s character a lesson? Loudly, in front of everybody, to “Harry’s” great embarrassment? (And ending with, “I’ll have what she’s having.”) Picture that same joke happening as the two main characters are just sitting alone in an apartment or driving along in a car. No strangers gawking, no public scene, and so much for that perfect punchline.
Of course, not all comedies are meant to be over-the-top funny. And, one never wants to cram in so much comedy that it overpowers the plot—story comes first, always.
But when you do feel that you need more humor, perhaps all those Plato-PhD people tripped over something that could actually help—add a problem here or some “difficult circumstances” there, and you’re likely to end up with bigger jokes and a funnier story.