Adventures in storytelling by Bob Rector



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.

Author: rectorwriter

Bob Rector has been a professional storyteller for forty years, but his background is primarily in film, video, and stage work as a writer and director. Bob was one of the pioneers of music videos, first for The Now Explosion and then for Music Connection, which were highly popular nationally syndicated shows that preceded MTV by ten years. He created over 100 films for the top musical artists of the times. Bob wrote and directed an outdoor-adventure feature film, Don't Change My World, and has won countless awards for nature and sports documentaries. His original three-act play, Letters From the Front, entertained America's troops around the world for fifteen years and was the first theatrical production to be performed at the Pentagon. This beloved show, written and directed by Rector, became known as the World's Most Decorated Play. After decades on the road (and in the air!) Bob finally settled down long enough to write his first novel, Unthinkable Consequences.

2 thoughts on “WHAT’S SO FUNNY ABOUT WAR?

  1. Bob, this is a remarkable deconstruction of how humor works in drama, and most useful for anyone serious about writing. I totally agree with you that humor is needed to relieve the pressure from drama, it’s a natural “physiological” reaction and the audience needs it to bear the suspense. You note two things that make it work: irony and surprise.

    And you’re absolutely right – both work wonders and make the characters all that much more human and close to us. I remember there was plenty of irony and surprise in your novel Unthinkable Consequences and now I regret I didn’t specifically pick that up in my review of your book – I should have, for this was a book I loved, not least because of the irony and surprise it contained. I also read your Letters from the Front and found them absolutely remarkable, I’m not surprised audiences around the world loved it and laughed, I did too! Which is all the more remarkable if you come to think of it, considering that I didn’t actually see the play but only read it (but my imagination, triggered by your excellent dialogues, so life like, supplied the visuals I needed to laugh!)

    Speaking of your Letters from the Front, this is a theme – using letters from people who participated in the war in various ways, as soldiers and as family of the combatants – that is having at present a resounding success in Europe in the form of a TV series that is currently showing every week on ARTE TV (widely seen in France and Germany). The series is about the 1914 war and it is very well done, mixing snippets from documentaries and films of that time, with a voiceover quoting from letters, and interspersed with scenes of action derived from these letters but using contemporary actors (the difference is visual too, you go from black and white for the documentaries to color for the live actors who are made to look very much like the photos of the people they represent in their acting). Compared to your Letters from the Front, there are however several differences that go all in favor of your play: there is no link to the present through actors that are acting out modern-day characters (which is what you did – that was central to the play) and therefore it is easy for the audience to sort of slip out of the series and become a little bored; second, there is no humor, or very little of it, and as a result it is really heavy going…I’ve watched 6 episodes so far but I’m not sure I can take another 3 episodes (that’s what we’ll get next week,)….I so wish your Letters from the Front were once again put on stage or better still, turned into a TV series!


  2. Thank you, Claude, for your thoughtful response. Like people in real life, fictional characters who do not express a sense of humor, are deadly dull. It goes against a storyteller’s 1st commandment: Thou shall not be boring.


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