Tools for Comedy—A Pragmatic Definition

Last time I talked about the rules for playing comedy, then hedged my bets with an epigraph from Pirates of the Caribbean. The truth is, there aren’t rules as such. Rules imply that if you break them, you’re doing something wrong, but comedy is pretty pragmatic. Funny is funny, whether you do it “right” or not. [1] Instead, I’m going to offer tools for comedy, which, like bone saws and nail guns, you can deploy as necessary, depending on your circumstances. [2]

As the first tool, let’s start with a particular, pragmatic, definition of comedy—the sudden, unexpected release of tension.

That’s not the conventional definition [3], and it’s not exhaustive [4], but it has the advantage of being actionable. You can use it to generate comedy, by creating tension and looking for ways to release it explosively, and you can use it to analyze comedy, by assessing the degree of tension (too much? not enough?) and the explosiveness of the release. [5]

As an example, consider this knock-knock joke:

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Boo who?
Don’t cry, it’s just a joke.

I have to imagine you didn’t laugh at that. Not funny. [6] But why?

Let’s start with what does work, in terms of the definition in play. Someone knocking at a door is a mystery, which creates tension. When the person inside asks who’s there, that raises the tension because it increases our investment in the initial mystery. They want to know, and by extension, so do we. (Consider if they told them to go away instead, implying they already know, or don’t care, who’s at the door.) The knocker reveals their name (“Boo”), but that doesn’t resolve the mystery, because the person inside asks for clarification. The tension may not be raised, but it’s at least extended. And then we get the punchline, which releases the tension.

Okay, now, what doesn’t work, according to the same framework? Well, the tension’s not very high; it barely registers on our finely calibrated Tensitron® TX-1. [7] For one thing, the joke doesn’t actually begin with someone knocking on a door; it begins with someone saying “knock knock.” Among other sins, [8] those words signal that what comes next is a joke and of literally no consequence. That’s the opposite of tension.

Worse, the formula is predictable and stale, so the release is neither sudden nor unexpected. As when you’re watching an M. Night Shyamalan film, you’re already anticipating the twist. When it lands, you’re not gobsmacked—you merely shrug in recognition. [9] 

Maybe it’s not fair to analyze a knock-knock joke like a playscript [10], but we also have very little context to create engagement. Given circumstances? Shmiven shmurcumstances. All we’ve got are two characters on either side of a door. They don’t even have names! If the joke were interrupted by a phone call, would you even care? (You’d probably be relieved.)

Circling back around to playing comedy, one of the most common notes I give to actors is that they’re undercutting the tension. Actors, generally, are very good at creating tension between characters but can quickly become uncomfortable sustaining it, and they will subconsciously seek to ease it. This most often results in breaking eye contact too soon but can also manifest as surrendering status, choosing weak intentions, rejecting scene partners’ offers, and so on. We’ll dig into these in more depth next time.

Coming up: My favorite joke in Shakespeare! And more knock-knock jokes!


[1] There are “rules” like The Rule of Three or The Rule of K, but even those are more properly considered tools. You don’t have to follow the Rule of Three, and in the right context, it can be funnier not to.

[2] Did the reference to bone saws and nail guns as tools, especially in such close juxtaposition make you a little uncomfortable? Good. That’s intentional.

[3] The conventional definition of comedy is an act designed to provoke laughter in the audience, which, if you squint at it, is pretty much Rule One from my last post.

[4] I talked last time about an actor who found a funny way to say a particular word. That doesn’t fit this definition.

[5] As partial support for this definition, consider the nervous laughter of people on the receiving end of practical jokes or jump scares in horror films. There’s nothing inherently funny about a cat jumping out of closet when you’re expecting a xenomorph, but the stimulus provokes a strong fear response which is immediately relieved. It’s the same principle.

[6] For full effect, if you’re familiar with John Mulaney’s Netflix specials, imagine this delivered by Mick Jagger. Not funny.


[8] Perhaps the greatest sin of the knock-knock joke is that, like a Central Park mime, it forces you to participate in the humorlessness of it all.

[9] So that’s why everyone in The Village had such shitty accents …

[10] It’s not.

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