How Comedy Works
David Misch (“Mork and Mindy”, “Saturday Night Live”, “The Muppets Take Manhattan”, “Funny: The Book”) presents a three-hour seminar which comes with an ironclad guarantee that it will impart no usable skills.
Okay, that could be an exaggeration, but David’s given the same guarantee at the Smithsonian Institute, Austin Film Festival, Actors Studio, Yale, Columbia, Oxford University, American Film Institute, University of Sydney, VIEW Cinema Conference (Tor- ino, Italy) and the Burbank Comedy Festival.
“How Comedy Works” has no direct instruction but is a critical, and serious (though funny) exploration of comedy as an art form. It gives actors, writers, directors, producers and Crafts Service personnel a closeup view of comedy’s innards, the idea being that understanding how comedy works will help you work in comedy. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Topics covered include the Rule of 3 (Why are things funnier in threes? Really, why? I mean, why?); the relationship between Comedy and Logic (spoiler alert: they’re bitter enemies); the calculations involved in timing; comedy cues, and why withhold- ing them is sometimes the best way to get a laugh; why your body is hilarious; the evil of punchlines; comedy “placebos”; and how the mechanics of jokes – tension and resolution, pattern recognition, misdirection, and surprise – provide a template for all humor.
As for practical applications, the presentation includes copious clips, ranging from Buster Keaton to Amy Schumer, which show how these principles translate into actual laughter. So forget all that stuff about no usable skills.
David’s a member of the Entertainment Industry Assocation of Consultants and Editors
(EIACE), helping writers, directors and producers with the creative process; more here.
SATISFIED AND/OR PAID-OFF CUSTOMERS
“A sell-out crowd, lots of laughing and learning about why and how comedy works; both grad students and faculty got a lot from the evening.” – Alan Kingsberg, Columbia University
“It takes a serious mind to analyze comedy. It takes a funny mind to appreciate it. David Misch is of two minds.” – Jason Alexander
“We laughed until our stomachs hurt, our notepads filled and our comedy elevated.” – Caleb McKnight, Austin Film Festival
“Anyone who can engage and hold the attention of my jaded Advanced Screenwriting class knows whereof he speaks. David did for over two hours and left them wanting more.” – Ron Osborn, Art Center College of Design
“David’s illumination of the foundations of comedy is wonderful and inspiring.” – Patricia Meyer, American Film Institute
“David shows why comedy is funny and how the smallest difference can make a huge impact. All writers, actors, and comics need to see this!” – Vinny Valdivia, DSI Comedy Theater; Chapel Hill, NC
“David knows funny, teaches funny, is funny. His presentation was insightful and our students were alternately rapt and in stitches. Thank goodness he brought peroxide.” – Jon Stahl; Chair, Dept. of Cinema & Television Arts, Cal. State Northridge
“David gives you an evening filled with mirth and joy and startling insights.” – Hal Ackerman; School of Theater, Film & Tele- vision, UCLA
“David Misch is one funny motherfu**ker.” – Penn Jillette
VIDEOS (Mobile users: Videos only work on desktop. I have no idea why)
“HOW COMEDY WORKS”
has been presented at a number of venues, including:
the Smithsonian Institute, Columbia University, Yale University, Oxford University, University of Sydney (Australia),
American Film Institute (Los Angeles), Actors Studio Lucasfilm/ILM, North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival, Austin
Film Festival, Burbank Comedy Festival, the University of Southern California, UCLA, Second City and iO West
(Hollywood), and the Midwest Popular Culture Association (St. Louis), SATE Themed Entertainment Association
(Savannah) and VIEW Cinema (Torino, Italy) conferences
“FUNNY: THE BOOK / Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Comedy”
is in the collections of the New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston Public Libraries
and is required or suggested reading at a number of colleges, including:
University of Southern California, University of Sydney (Australia), UCLA, Fordham University (New York),
Pepperdine University, California State University Fullerton, and Art Center College of Design (Pasadena)
To learn more about “HOW COMEDY WORKS”, David sat down for a some-
holds-barred interview with himself. (Originally published in Script Magazine.)
Hello David – nice to meet me.
Your pleasure is all mine.
But enough of this gay banter. I understand that tremendous public pressure has convinced you to present your talk “How Comedy Works” to the general public.
Frankly, I don’t want to talk about it. The phone calls, the internet trolling, the skywriting… it was incessant, brutal, dehumaniz- ing – do people think I’m some sort of brilliant comedy-explaining cyborg? I’m a human being, damnit! (Pardon my French.) Stop staring at my brain, my eyes are down here!
Didn’t you begin that response by saying you didn’t want to talk about it?
No. And there’s no way to check. (STOP! IF YOUR EYES MOVE TO THE BEGINNING OF THE PREVIOUS PARAGRAPH YOU WILL DIE A HIDEOUS, INSTANTANEOUS DEATH!)
Doesn’t trying to explain comedy kill it?
People say that, don’t they. But they can’t explain how explaining a joke kills the joke if the joke’s already killed (made you laugh). Timing, right? Don’t explain a joke before telling it.
But who does that? And how does explaining a punchline somehow make you go back in history and kill the joke, a kind of Titter Terminator?
The idea behind “How Comedy Works” (not to mention “Funny: The Book / Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Comedy” which, as long as you brought it up, is available at fine bookstores everywhere as well as Ye Olde Internette, in print and e-book) is that people study art, history, art history, and the history of art history, but for some reason comedy’s seen as off-limits.
Why should comedy be the one art form that suffers from analysis? Doesn’t it make sense that knowing how comedy works will help you do it better? Everyone who disagrees with me, raise your hand.
I see no hands so I’m clearly right.
Okay, so explain comedy.
Sure! The secret to comedy is… hey, wait a minute, are you trying to get me to tell you for free? Damn, that almost worked, I was this close. (I’m holding two fingers really close together.)
I’ll give this much away: comedy works according to the principles of tension and resolution, misdirection, pattern recognition, and surprise.
Of course, those are the principles of every art form. But the specifics of comedy are unique, and the precision it requires is – at least to non-professionals – often unrecognized. In most dramas, changing a few words won’t have a huge effect. But in comedy, changing a word, even a syllable, can mean the difference between laughter and reactions ranging from hostile silence to physical violence. (Yes, I once was a standup.)
You claim there are comedy rules but aren’t rules made to be broken?
No, rules are made to be followed.
I’m just saying.
But of course no one gets anywhere by slavishly following rules. Still, few people get anywhere by ignoring them. The idea is to learn them and master them then break them, or at least defy them by getting your laughs in unusual ways.
All the top comedy people know the rules, if only unconsciously. And there are only two ways to learn them: lots of work, or getting told. The Rule of 3 didn’t spring fully formed from a nutty Neanderthal’s test beaker (bet you didn’t know Neanderthals had lab equipment) but from the success and failure of a thousand thousand writers and stand- ups and drunk uncles at Thanksgiving dinners. Every comedy person rediscovers these rules; this class is about giving you a leg up.
And speaking of discovering what’s already been discovered, my first
(Skippable but directly relevant and mildly amusing anecdote follows.)
writing job was “Mork and Mindy”, and getting an episode on the air proved to be torment. I struggled for days, weeks, try- ing to think of a story that wasn’t too weird or too familiar.
Finally I got one. I pitched it to the producers and writing staff… and they liked it! I was thrilled. As I left the room, I turned to another writer, an older guy who’d written for “All In The Family” and many other series.
“I’m so relieved,” I said. “I was afraid you guys thought my story wouldn’t work.”
“Oh we know it’ll work,” he assured me. “It worked on ‘Newhart’, it worked on ‘Taxi’, it worked on ‘Cheers’…”
Once you’ve learned the rules of comedy you have more creative resources, because if you know why something works you can adjust the formula and get laughs in a way that doesn’t simply mimic the devices of others but is an expression of your own personality and talent.
Your seminar is about comedy, not acting or screenwriting.
Please put that in the form of a question.
Your seminar is about comedy, not acting or screenwriting?
Yes, but the principles I cover apply to acting, writing, directing; full-length features, sketches, one-liners; foreign policy and real estate investment. (Note: Two of those are a lie.) They all drink from the same comedy trough (a poetic albeit unappetizing metaphor) in that all human beings laugh, in any situation, for the same basic rea- sons. Discovering those reasons is the key to making them laugh at what you do.
No offense, but is this class just going to be hours of you blabbing?
I do take offense. “Blabbing”? I’ll have you know that I carefully vary my vocal timbre and have an extremely animated face, powered by Pixar® technology, so that this class is guaranteed [Note: There is no guarantee] to keep you on the edge of your seat, especially if you’re so fat that you’re on the verge of falling off anyway.
While the class contains no direct instruction, the principles I talk about are illustrated with a bountiful bevy of clips from TV shows and movies, demonstrating how said principles work outside the lab. Many of these clips are extremely piquant. Droll. Diverting. How you say in this country? Funny.
I understand that as part of this seminar you will analyze jokes. I, sir, am a serious student whose comic conun- drums spring from surprising stories and carefully conceived characters. I do not, sir, I do not stoop to stupid jokes; surely there is no reason for me to analyze them.
There is, and don’t call me Shirley. (Did I mention I worked with Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker on “Police Squad!”, the TV show that came after “Airplane!” and led to “The Naked Gun” movies? ’Cause I did.)
I like to call jokes “comedy in miniature”. (I like to call my cat “No! Not on the rug!”, but that tends to be situational.) Seen in a certain way – the way see it – the structure of jokes mimics the structure of everything from a sketch to a sitcom to a feature to a novel. The big difference is they’re small, which makes them easier to pull apart, to see what makes them tick. Which helps you see how comedy ticks. Which helps you make it. Which is why explaining it is valuable. Which brings us back to the beginning…
Doesn’t trying to explain comedy kill it?