J is for Jokes – Being funny is no laughing matter

Groucho Marx - making comedy look easy
Groucho Marx – making comedy look easy

“From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”

            Groucho Marx

Just one example of the genius of Groucho Marx, a master of the one-liner. Like all good comedians and comic writers, he made humour look effortless. Indeed, great comedy should look effortless, which is perhaps one of the reasons it often doesn’t get the critical recognition it deserves.

In the world of Film and Literature, comedy rarely gets the same plaudits and appreciation as drama – despite the fact that it takes a huge amount of skill and craft to produce a novel, story or script that can consistently make an audience laugh.

In terms of Oscars, there have been some rare exceptions, like Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ and more recently his ‘Midnight In Paris’ – but both of those excellent films do have that art-house sensibility that allows The Academy to feel they still fulfil their worthy artistic expectations.

In literature, humour also has a relatively lowly status. Casually drop in to conversation the fact that you’ve read everything Tolstoy ever wrote and fellow readers will swoon. Mention that you’ve consumed the entire works of P.G. Wodehose and, if you’re lucky, you will be rewarded with a shrug of the shoulders ‘so what’ gesture. Yet Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett et al (although loved by many) rarely get the full critical acclaim they deserve.

Again, there are exceptions but for humorous works to get lauded by serious critics they almost always have to be attached to a serious issue – like Catch-22, for example.

The real acclaim, awards and respect usually go to the serious, worthy, emotional works – sometimes with justification – but don’t you think it’s time we started taking comedy writers a little more seriously?

After all, as any comedian will tell you – dying is easy, comedy is hard.

This was my 10th post for the A-Z Blog Challenge. Follow the blog during April for more writing tips, inspirational life posts, short fiction, film-inspired articles and even some songs with audio recordings. Next post – K is for Keep moving! Write or die.

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31 thoughts on “J is for Jokes – Being funny is no laughing matter

  1. Lol at the last line. It really is easier to make people cry than laugh! I have a hard time writing blogs that will make people laugh but touching tales are easier to pull off.

    From the A-Z neighborhood,
    Dee is for Deecoded

    1. I am also in awe of giants like Woody Allen, Groucho, Adams, Pratchett etc – but there’s a lot of mediocre stuff out there too. Thanks for stopping by, Rinelle.

  2. Interesting post! It is difficult to be funny when writing and not risk saying or setting up a situation that hasn’t been done millions of times (so I don’t try). I did read somewhere that many comedians are actually very serious people in real life.

    1. You’re right, it is difficult not to fall into cliche. Yes, quite a lot of comedians are very somber in real life – Tony Hancock was notoriously morose. Thanks for reading the post. I look forward to having a look at what you’ve been up to.

  3. I wish I could write comedy, I know a few writers who do it really well, but it is a skill that eludes me personally.

    In my opinion, TV viewers are ready for some new sitcoms – I find myself watching the classics like ‘Faulty Towers’ and ‘Only Fools and Horses’ over and over again.

    I expect money has a lot to do with it, but in these times, we all need to laugh a little I think…

    Another good post Mr Kelly!

  4. I think maybe because everyones sense of humour is different.What makes you laugh might not make me laugh. Ros who commented above finds Mrs Brown’s Boy really funny,I can’t stand it. It’s hard to be funny. My L post is about laughter.

    1. That’s a fair point, Anne. I do find myself occasionally laughing at very basic bad taste humour (and feeling guilty!) but I wouldn’t expect any of that stuff to be held up against the very best dramatic works.

  5. Some people are definitely born with a comic tough, my husband being one of those. He can be outrageous, irreverent, sarcastic – you name it – and people will laugh. -Belinda [A – Z participant; today I’m talking about Jingoism.]

    1. Very true – that kind of gift is often termed ‘Funny Bones’ (also the name of an interesting British film from the 90’s). My favourite funny bones comic would have to be Tommy Cooper. He could make me laugh just reading the phone book.

    1. Definitely! I think laughing is also very close to crying and there have been many times in my life when it’s been a struggle to decide which one is appropriate!

    1. Thanks, Lynne – you too. Loving your posts. Yes, Midnight in Paris was a return to form for Woody. My favourite Woody film still has to be Manhattan, though – looks amazing and the script is fantastic.

  6. Good-natured comedy is incredibly hard to get critical press for. Humor in general is just so much more subjective than drama, and seriousness viewed as objectively superior to silliness. They’re cultural norms I struggle with all the time. Not that I don’t appreciate Catch-22 and Twain, but more often, I just need the release.

    1. I love that phrase, and it’s so true – seriousness is seen as objectively superior to silliness. As the Pythons would always say, “Right! Stop it! This is all getting too silly now!”

  7. I love the classic comedians of the silent and early sound era—Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Roscoe Arbuckle, Max Linder, W.C. Fields. It takes a special kind of genius to write and act out good comedy. As Stan Laurel once said, the most important thing a good comedian must know is that it’s about your audience, not you. You have to understand what makes them laugh and play up to them, not just make jokes you like.

  8. I often hear people express surprise when a comic, perhaps during an interview, will say something very sage. It’s as though, just because a person is funny, they must be shallow.

    “Oh, how surprising! George Carlin said something really deep & wise,” kind of thing.

    I think the funniest people are the ones who are the most observant of the human condition and able to frame this in such a way as to point out how absurd we can be.

    Comics are often deep thinking philosophers who – to paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield – don’t get no respect!

    ~Tui, from the #AtoZchallenge
    Tui Snider’s Texas, Travel, Photos & Reviews

    1. You’ve hit the nail on the head, Tui – it’s all to do with heightened observations and being able to turn that in to something that resonates with our common experience.

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