The obvious answer is, nothing. Yet audiences laugh all through my play Letters From the Front, set during World War II.
No, I wasn’t being frivolous or disrespectful when I wrote it. The primary themes of the show are what you might expect – separation, loss, fear, loneliness. The primary theme is about the fragile and precious nature of life. So what’s so funny about that?
Again, nothing. But in our darkest or most frightening moments we humans turn to humor as a pressure-relief valve – like laughing on a roller coaster when you’re sure you’re about to die. That’s what humor is in drama, a pressure-relief valve. Gotta have it or the drama explodes. Not a pretty sight.
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away I roadshowed Gone With the Wind to small towns that did not have a movie theater (don’t ask, long story). In the process I saw this four hour film over 100 times. And was enthralled every time, fascinated by its sheer storytelling mastery, thanks to the genius of David O. Selznick. There were others like him: Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, all master storytellers who understood how important humor was within a drama.
Disney, in fact, had a motto: for every laugh, a tear; for every tear a laugh. The more intense the drama, the sharper the humor must be. Gone With the Wind dramatizes the fall of the Old South, an entire culture collapsing, and with it, people’s lives. The film is a carefully woven tapestry of tearful, terrifying, and poignant scenes. Yet each of them is offset with pressure relieving comedy scenes that bring howls of laughter from the audience. Without those scenes, this classic film would be unbearable to watch.
When I started writing scripts for film and TV, I never forgot these lessons. Because of the subject matter, Letters From the Front was a difficult play to write. The horrors of WWII are well established in the audiences minds even before the curtain goes up, so I often relied on the pressure relief of humor to make the story palatable. Judging by audience response at hundreds of performances, it worked. Thank you Mr. Selznick, Mr. Disney, Mr. Capra. What wonderful teachers you were.
Humor. It’s one of the most powerful tools the dramatist has in his/her arsenal. Why is it then that so many are reluctant to use it? A character with humor is endearing and human. One without it is tedious and wooden. A narrow escape from death is given greater punch if accented with humor.
I’m not suggesting that a character pause in the middle of a tensely dramatic scene and break into stand-up comedy. That’s called gags and they’re usually inappropriate in a drama. Especially sight gags, which are the domain of the screen and usually die on the page. For humor to work in drama it has to have a human element. And it needs to reflect the main themes of the story.
In Gone With the Wind Rhett abandons Scarlett on the open road with Yankees swarming all around so that he can join what’s left of the Rebels. Scarlett says heatedly, “You, sir, are no gentleman!” To which Rhett replies, “A minor point at such a time.” Funny. Human. And directly reflective of the movie’s theme. That kind of irony is high on the list of what makes humor work.
Surprise is even higher. When a character says or does something opposite of what the reader/audience expects, it usually elicits a laugh, or at least a grin. In Groundhog Day Bill Murray asks the owner of the bed-and-breakfast, “Do you ever have deja vu?” She replies, “I don’t know, I’ll check with the kitchen.” Surprise. Funny. And again, directly reflective of the movie’s theme.
The examples I’ve used are from movies, not books (Gone With the Wind was based on a book) but the principal is the same. The elements of good storytelling are the same whether on screen or page. My book Unthinkable Consequences is a tense romantic thriller. Inherently it is a melodrama. To make the characters and story more human, I tried to offset the melodrama by generous helpings of humor. Those of you who have read it can tell me if I succeeded.
Okay, that’s my two cents worth. I would love to hear your comments on how important you think humor is to a dramatic work, whether it’s a thriller, love story, adventure, or literary novel.