THE SCIENCE OF HUMOR
Guest Post by R. W. (Bob) Klamm
I was a basket case when it came to doing comedy, until I discovered that humor can be treated as a science, not just a product of inspiration. In 1959 I became drama coach for a Kansas City, Missouri, high school; and was looking forward to doing good things of great stature. We did Diary of Anne Frank the first year. It was received with great enthusiasm as an artistic triumph, at a time when most high schools were doing only third-rate comedies, written primarily for high school consumption. Drama was my forte. I knew absolutely nothing about doing comedy.
Quite naturally, the kids wanted to do comedy as well as serious stuff. I was scared to death. I stalled as long as possible. When I finally gave in, I realized it would be sure-death to tackle a third rate script. We had better do something from an author who had been proven on Broadway. We settled on You Can’t Take It with You, a Pulitzer prize-winning comedy by Kaufman and Hart, with loads of zany characters. There was no doubt of its greatness. Our high school actors loved it; and with those wild characters, who could miss? Just treat it like any other good play.
With such a logical approach, I figured it for a shoe-in. The audience figured it for just plain dumb.
I knew if I were to keep my jobor at least the respect of my studentsI would have to learn to do comedy. I read through a variety of authorities on comedy. They all seemed to know exactly what they were talking about, but I did not. It was all vague theory. There was nothing concrete, nothing you could get hold of or sink your teeth into. They said things like, “Swing a baby toward one of his parents. At the last moment, pull him back. As long as he is unharmed, he will laugh. This is an excellent example of how surprise, alone, can act as a device for humor.”
Is surprise an element of humor? The babies I swung toward their parents all cried. The premise did not make sense to me. There are lots of times when we are surprised, yet unharmed, and it is not funny. Try jumping out at someone and saying, “Boo.” They are more likely to strike you in fright or anger, than they are to laugh. Even if I could get this elusive element of surprise to work in a humorous way, how could it be applied in a play or comedy routine?
Still I tucked this little tidbit into my memory bank. Any time I found a magazine article, or another book on theory of humor, my antennae went up. It was not until I shuffled through my old college notes from my directing class at Northwestern University that it all began to fit together. There in my theater notes were three or four specific, concrete rules of physical action. They were not really directed toward creating humor. Their intent was to avoid accidental comic effect in a serious production. Though many years away from being organized into a book, that nucleus grew. Thanks to that, and working with a couple of very simply yet skillfully constructed Woody Allen and Neil Simon scripts, I really began to understand humor as more than mere theory that could only be dealt with at the gut level. It became plain that it could be treated almost as a science. Like “method acting,” there were specific techniques that could be organized and systematized in an understandable and practical way. As a result of these techniques I finally accomplished the ultimate in my High School drama-coaching career.
Finally understanding the techniques of exaggeration, contradiction, and the need to make everything match under the heading of characterization, we produced Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. More than an artistic success, it was a great comic success. I cast a 200 lb, five-foot-seven-inch girl as the fairy queen. She allowed us to dress her in a white body suit and a red tutu that stood out all around to emphasize her size. She dominated every proceeding, just as Shakespeare intended, and did it in a very comic way.
We also modernized the language, being very careful to keep the original rhymes, rhythms and intent. More important, we watched carefully to see where use of the pause could help point up Shakespeare’s original thoughts. With fear and trembling for being so presumptuous as to tinker with the great bard, I told the very strict head of our English department what I was doing. Her disapproval could well mean the kiss of death to our efforts. She came to a rehearsal and was delighted. More important, we had the high school kids “rolling in the aisles” with laughter at Shakespeare.
These techniques can work equally in any kind of performance or situation. All too often, I’ve heard it said that when it comes to humor, either you have it or you don’t. I disagree. Humor can be systematized just like any other discipline.
R. W. (Bob) Klamm is a 60 year magical performer and award-winning author. He received a BS degree in radio/TV/drama at Northwestern University. His MA degree in Education is from University of Missouri at Kansas City. As a high school drama coach, he produced over 40 Broadway plays in Independence MO, using student talent. His memoirs, Fly Like a Bumblebee, feature humorist and inspirational stories of himself as a blind magician. He and his wife Berniece live in Independence MO. You can see samples of his work and reach him through his two Web sites. www.klamm-magic.com, www.klammbooks.com