How do you tell a joke about something serious and make it funny? This is something I’ve been pondering lately, because I’m gearing up to write an epic story involving both drama and humour.1 It’s what my father called mixing the ridiculous with the sublime. Or rather, not mixing the ridiculous with the sublime.
In the penultimate scene of Because I Said So, for example– And by the way… SPOILER ALERT! In an overwhelming display of passion that I can only call “heart-wrenching,” Johnny interrupts Milly’s seniors cooking class, in order to profess his love. In the middle of this impassioned speech, with Milly on the verge of tears, one of the seniors in the class interrupts with, “Could you hurry it up, because we have to pee!” Cue cymbal crash. Then again, during the big kiss, the seniors begin pairing off for their own big kisses.
When I was watching this, I didn’t think it was funny. I thought it was awkward. I didn’t know how to feel. It broke the mood. My wife, who came in only during the last 20 minutes of the film, did think it was funny. If you caught the full impact of the scene, you probably got thrown by how the writers tried to spice up a poignant moment with a couple of cheap laughs. If you thought it was funny, you probably didn’t feel the poignancy. It’s one or the other, not both.
This problem, mixing the ridiculous with the sublime, is actually one case of a more general rule: Kill only one bird per stone. For example, you can have a plot-based thread and a character-based thread both in the same story. But make sure you treat them as separate threads, because you don’t want to confuse your audience. Or in copywriting, make sure each ad supports one and only one action. If you’re trying to get the reader to send away for your free promotional DVD, don’t also try to sell them your latest product in the same ad, because your prospects won’t know how to respond to your ad. And if a scene is supposed to be serious, don’t try to make it silly as well, because your audience can only feel one thing at a time.
On the other hand, I have seen writers successfully mix the ridiculous and and the sublime… kind of.
In the same movie Because I Said So, earlier in the film– By the way, a pretty good story, if you haven’t seen it. Yes, a pop-film, but t’ain’t nothin’ wrong with pop film. And this one is way better than most others I’ve seen. I’ve watched it 3 times so far. Another SPOILER ALERT! In an earlier scene, Milly is furious at her mother Daphne. She storms up to the house, calls her mother’s name, hears Daphne call, “Yes!” and then charges into her mother’s room just in time to catch her in the act. That was funny.
Why was it funny? On the one hand Daphne was angry at her mother because of something she had done. That’s serious. And because she was angry, she misunderstood her mother’s call. All this time, we the audience could see it coming, step by step, until the punchline. In this case, what I felt, I acutely appreciated Milly’s hurt and anger. At the same time, this joke uses a classic humorous gambit–the funny misunderstanding–and about one of the world’s oldest awkward subjects. How can it help but be funny? In fact, Milly’s story thread served as a motivation for the funny encounter, making it more real, more immersive, and therefore more funny.
Another case that comes to mind is M*A*S*H (the classic TV series). Hawkeye Pierce is always cracking jokes, usually jokes about the death and destruction of the war. How can you make fun of a subject so grave? This is something I personally have great trouble with. In fact, I’ve said I so miss Bill Clinton, because G.W.’s presidency has been marked by conflict and terror. Yes, Slick Willie had his share of conflict and terror, even more than King George. But there were so many other more entertaining things that took center stage, thanks to Congress. Politics was never so fun, and may never be again. But now… Despite my conflicted feelings, I still find M*A*S*H both poignant and funny.
Because Hawkeye’s jokes do not just make fun of the war. They make fun at the expense of the war. Hawkeye’s humour is sarcastic, if not sardonic. For someone who roots for this protagonist, his antics are a breath of fresh air in a suffocating situation… Which is exactly what Hawkeye was caught in. That’s why, I think, I can find M*A*S*H both ridiculous and sublime.
What do you think? In what other situations may a writer mix the ridiculous and the sublime without getting into trouble?