Funnies Workshop with Patrick Lenton and Daniel East – Key Takeaways

Press Room blogger, Alexander Bennetts, reviewed the Funnies Workshop hosted by Patrick Lenton and Daniel East.

Hosted by Patrick Lenton (fiction writer, editor of The Sturgeon General comedy anthology) and Daniel East (poet, playwright), this workshop offered to teach comedy hopefuls how to be funny, “on the page as well as the stage.” Attendees sat in a semicircle, introducing themselves both by name and something that makes them laugh. There was a mix of the usuals – David, Nathan, Bridget, Sarah – sorry, I mean – Arrested Development, Woody Allen, Seinfeld, Kurt Vonnegut – and a few left-field answers, like particular Scottish statues and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Names exchanged, laughter had, The Simpsons quoted, and we launched into the workshop proper.

The first thing mentioned was Eric Idle’s comedy novel The Road to Mars, a humour novel-cum-comedy theory text. Idle, a member of Monty Python, breaks down comedy into a central thesis: humour comes from the conflict of opposing forces. Idle supposes these opposing forces are the Red Nose (the clown) and the White Face (the straight man). The Red Nose is a bringer of chaos, while the White Face is a bringer of order. It’s the clash of motivations and ideologies between these two archetypes that brings out the humour.

So we discussed and wrote down several iconic pairings of Red Noses and White Faces. There’s Homer and Marge, Woodley and Lano, Baldrick and Blackadder, Vince Noir and Howard Moon. It’s the qualities of a character that make them either a Red Nose or a White Face. Using the last example of Vince and Howard from The Mighty Boosh, Vince is a Red Nose because he is charming, energetic, has an easy life and dumb luck. For his best friend Howard, on the other hand, life is hard, and he approaches it with a serious attitude and routine.

Both Lenton and East are members of the Sexy Tales comedy collective, which helped inform our next game: Fortunately, Unfortunately. The game here was a way to learn comedic structure – in a comedy, something good cannot happen without being followed with something bad. It’s a rollercoaster configuration that helps the narrative moving along, the characters always wanting something or conflicting against something, and the audience engaged. One of our most successful games of Fortunately, Unfortunately went a bit like this. Two astronauts are in space when their rocket fuel runs out. Fortunately they can reroute the oxygen system to the fuel. Unfortunately, they will run out of air and die minutes before they safely arrive home. Fortunately, the rocket is actually a stage set-up to fake the moon landing. Unfortunately, they seal the very convincing stage and forget to pump in oxygen, and the two ‘astronauts’ die.

The takeaway from this last activity is that even in comedy, story needs change – characters cannot end up at the same place they started. Unless the comedy you’re writing is a farce, you need a reversal of fortune – the typical problems and solutions set-up of sitcoms – for the narrative to go anywhere.

The last piece of the Funnies pie was about live storytelling, or comedic non-fictional writing. Lenton and East agreed that for a non-fiction story to be funny, the author needs to have honesty, powerlessness and exaggeration. “Comedy is a genre,” Lenton says. “Just because something is a comedy, doesn’t mean it will be funny.” Lenton tells one of East’s stories on his behalf, and it sounds mean-spirited and only chuckle-worthy – it has exaggeration but neither honesty nor powerlessness. East then retells the actual story, and tells it right, ticking the right boxes. He puts in the right details to make us enjoy the story and find the humour, but leaves out the irrelevant detail that slows it down.

Funnies was one of the most rewarding workshops of NYWF ’13. It was enjoyable, interactive, and had a lot to teach.