There is a blog called Letters of Note that is getting more and more of my attention lately. I’m not really big on reading people’s letter and private diaries, and tend to become quickly annoyed at the editorial invasion that comes when they are compiled into book form. Artists’ diaries and sketchbooks are an occasional exception, but just as often they show why some of their unseen work went unseen – the editorial decisions not to share with the public usually have some sound reasoning.
But Shaun’s blog highlights a single letter at a time, but a different person, and in these highlighted posts they play more like a quick peek backstage before moving back to one’s seat in the audience. And sometimes, as the fates design it, you can learn something about yourself in the process of hearing other people talk about the things that are important to them.
Things with Walt Disney’s name on it are going to always tug at me for a number of reasons too complicated to explain here. Ask when we meet and I’ll give you the nickel and dime tour of my Disney thoughts. Suffice to say we share a birthday and I once, long ago, fancied myself an animator-to-be. So when I stumbled onto an older post called How to Train Animators, by Walt Disney I was naturally curious.
It is interesting to see how even before Disney began making feature animated films he was laying the foundation for the quality and craftsmanship his company has long since been known for. Much of what’s in the letter sort of tumbled along until I reached one passage that caught me cold.
Comedy, to be appreciated, must have contact with the audience. This we all know, but sometimes forget. By contact, I mean that there must be a familiar, sub-conscious association. Somewhere, or at some time, the audience has felt, or met with, or seen, or dreamt, the situation pictured. A study of the best gags and audience reaction we have had, will prove that the action or situation is something based on an imaginative experience or a direct life connection. This is what I mean by contact with the audience. When the action or the business loses its contact, it becomes silly and meaningless to the audience.
In trying to understand comedy, specifically why people are drawn to different types of comedy and what we do and do not find funny, I’ve never been able to explain why some things rubbed me the wrong way. Within slapstick comedies I can enjoy the antics of Buster Keaton but not Charlie Chaplin. And how can Lucille Ball be the nation’s most beloved comedienne while I feel an almost palpable disgust with her antics?
It’s the connection. I don’t connect because there’s no sub-conscious association. I Love Lucy, from the moment I first saw her as a boy, was an endless collection of such obvious idiocy that I couldn’t relate to how any human could be so stupid. (I have the same problem with The Office, by the way, in addition to much of what passes for comedy these days). Chaplin’s appeal came from people who at the time, like Chaplin, were foreigners in a New World trying their best to make their way, where Keaton was a cerebral dreamer who was always improvising to make the best of his situation. I could connect with Keaton because he was in a constant state of creation and exploration. Without that connection the contact is gone and it becomes meaningless.
In my writing I’ve noticed that so much of the humor comes from characters who are attempting something creative, some execution of their thinking, flawed as it may be. Character and humor are intricately related, and it’s important (I now realize) to make that connection clear with the reader. In my previous thinking about boy humor I came to understand that boy characters never intentionally say or do anything funny – to do so would be “inauthentic” and come of as stilted and unfunny. This might explain why I’m so disappointed in many middle grade humorous books, those that rely on characters behaving ridiculously to the point where the humor is obvious and heavy-handed.
It’s a question that ultimately comes down to not selling the audience or the reader short when it comes to humor. It can’t just be funny, in needs to be grounded, and it shouldn’t insult the intelligence of the reader.
I now have a note for myself when I go into revisions on my current WIP: does the humor connect, or is it I Love Lucy?