How to be funny: building blocks of comedy: # 1

In this series of blogs, I take a look at the basic mechanics that are used to create comedy – the fundamental ‘building blocks’ of humour. For the purpose of understanding how comedy works, they’re presented here as separate items, but in practice they nearly always merge together and overlap; virtually every piece of humour that you can think of has more than one of them going on at the same time.

Comedy building block no. 1: Recognition

Recognition is a key element in everything that people laugh at – perhaps the most basic building block in comedy.

Fundamentally, all comedy comes down to this – you show people something that they recognise, then you draw their attention to something about it that is funny. When they ‘recognise’ that, they laugh. It’s all about the audience’s frame of reference – what they’re familiar with. The laughter comes at that point of recognition, and when people laugh they’re admitting “I recognise that!” – in other words, I’ve felt embarrassed about this, or nervous about that, or stupid about the other. Or sometimes they’re just recognising something you’re showing them about how life works, or how people are, or how surprising and weird things can be. So comedy is establishing familiarity in the audience and then stepping away from the familiar and hopefully bringing them with you.

So when we see something like FawltyTowersfor the first time, we recognise a familiar setting – a dodgy hotel. Then we see what happens there – we can still recognise the basic scenarios that people are in, but now it moves further and further from situations we’ve actually experienced ourselves. When we meet the masterly epitome of dysfunctionality that is Basil Fawlty, we still go along with it even though it’s distorted and he’s a total monster – because there’s still something we recognise. We’ve all known people who are a bit like him in one way or another – or we see that we’ve been a bit like that too. And that enables us to find him very funny. There had to be that element of recognition. And this works whether we’re English, Scandinavian or Outer Mongolian, because the best kind of comedy recognition you can create is that which is universal. SoFawltyTowers has been sold to every country that has TV.

The same applies to a more recent British TV monster – David Brent of The Office, who has also appeared across theAtlantic. We laugh because we now people who are a bit like that. Sometimes it goes beyond being funny and is wince-making or worse – perhaps that’s when we’re recognising our own tendencies exaggerated before our eyes. It’s all still about recognition.

Comedy building block #2 follows soon: ‘Looking at things differently’