Answer: So the actors will know there’s an audience out there.
Actors on stage have thousands of watts of bright light blasting directly in their eyes. The audience sits in the dark. This renders them virtually invisible except maybe for the first two or three rows nearest the stage.
A funny line gets a laugh – proof there really are warm bodies out there and they’re paying attention.
A generous sprinkling of humor throughout a dramatic play is as welcome as cheese sauce on boiled broccoli.
But what makes a humorous line tickle your funny bone?
The same thing that makes good suspense tingle your spine: Surprise.
One of the biggest laugh lines in my play Letters From The Front (having witnessed audience response night after night for hundreds of performances) is when Johnny and Katharine are having one of their many clashes of ideology. Katharine is tottering on the verge of sanctimony when Johnny suddenly says, “Hey, what’s that on your sleeve?” Katharine stops and looks at her sleeve, as does the audience, then Johnny says, “Oh, it’s just your feelings.”
Not what the audience was expecting. Big laugh.
But a funny line has to work within the context of the play. A gag just for the sake of a laugh is called standup comedy. Put that kind of humor in a play and the audience will be offended. They may even walk. And that definitely is not funny.
This same rule applies to writing books. No, as the author you’re not going to be able to sit next to the reader and hear them laugh out loud. But I think that makes it even more essential. That’s why I loaded my novel Unthinkable Consequences, which is an intensely dramatic narrative, with generous dollops of humor.
Why? Because the relationship between a reader and an author is much more personal than the relationship between an audience and a stage production where the main focus is on the actors. With a book there is a trust, a bonding of sorts, between reader and writer. Skillfully executed humor lets your reader know you’re human.
Besides, humor is the greatest stress reliever humans have ever devised. Except for maybe money.