Mitch Hedberg Ate Too Much Spaghetti
Or how truth and POV matter in good comedy writing.
You might think that writing a funny book is just about piling jokes into your manuscript like Basil Brush with a typewriter. And it sort of is, but it sort of isn't.
I think one of the funniest lines I have ever written is: "What are the other five flav..."
No word of a lie, those five-and-a-half-words are a highlight of Happytown Must Be Destroyed, and may in fact be the pinnacle of my comedy writing career so far. Although yeah, written here, on this blog, separated from the context, and the character who says the line, I concede it doesn't sound very funny, but...
There's a reason for that.
We sometimes think of jokes as being contextless funny sentences. Puns, often. (The "Best Joke of the Edinburgh Festival Award" is usually given to a pun, for example*). And look, puns are great, sometimes. But they'll tend to elicit a groan more often than a laugh. And that sort of comedy would get very, very wearing in a novel, as your protagonist piles into yet another knock knock joke, or a series of humourous misunderstandings around the potential double meaning of the way the word "pasta" sounds.
Because really great comedy writing requires character, context, and a clear point of view. And to demonstrate I want to present you with two versions of the same joke, written and performed by one of my favourite comedians ever, Mitch Hedberg.
Spaghetti… I can’t eat spaghetti, there’s too many of them. No matter how hungry I am, 1000 of something is too many. – Mitch Hedberg
I like rice. Rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something. – Mitch Hedberg
So these two are pretty much the same joke, but for me the rice joke is better, and I think it’s obvious the spaghetti version evolved into the rice one at some point.
Why is the rice one better? Because…
1. TRUTH. The spaghetti one is not quite true enough – there aren’t 1000 bits of spaghetti in the average bowlful, but there are more likely to be 2000 bits of rice in a meal. Maybe. Look, I haven’t counted them (or if I have I’ve blocked that particular evening out of my memory) but it certainly seems likelier, doesn’t it? The closer a joke like this comes to the truth, the funnier it is.
2. POV. The rice joke is a positive (I like rice!), which suits Hedberg’s smiley, free-wheeling persona more than the negative of the spaghetti version (I can't eat spaghetti!). Point of view is incredibly important when writing funny sentences in a novel. A different character with a different, angrier, more negative persona would be able to spend a paragraph griping about how he doesn’t have time to eat 2,000 of something, but Mitch was a happy-go-lucky one-liner merchant and thus the positive spin works better.
3. Also: I mean, rice is just generally funnier, isn’t it?
4. Yes. Yes it is.
So what have we learned? Rice is funnier than pasta, yes, indisputably. And also: while "Truth is beauty, and beauty truth" may be beautifully true, you could also say "truth is funny" and then laugh, because it's true. But most importantly, I think the funniest writing does not exist in a vacuum - you have to match the funny words to the character and the situation for the best results.
Which is why you won't be seeing "What are the other five flav..." winning any joke awards this year, but I promise** - if you read them in the context of Chapter 2 of Happytown Must Be Destroyed, and discover who is saying that line, and where, and when and why... they'll raise a smile.
*Weirdly this year's award went to a spaghetti joke. “I tried to steal spaghetti from the shop, but the female guard saw me and I couldn’t get pasta.” - Masai Graham
**Not a real promise.