|This topic sheet was originally
devised for the Exciting
Writing for Laughter course. There is a table
of links to other teaching resources towards the bottom
of this page.
Whilst much humour, notably topical
humour, is aimed at the broadest possible audience, it is often
necessary to specialise. Contrast children's humour with adult
humour, for example. Comedy for children is typically constrained
by a limited vocabulary and confined to topics within the child's
grasp — home life, school life, street life — while
adult humour is relatively lacking in such constraints. Accordingly,
children often delight in jokes that make adults yawn, simply
because they are experiencing the joke for the first time.
This is an important example, insofar
as children are perhaps the most prominent specialist audience
for comedy, but it is not the only one. Specialist comedy is often
used to target specific audiences.
For example, many Radio 4 comedy shows
are deliberately aimed at capturing the twenty-something audience
that the station needs to sustain it in the future, in much the
same way as the sketch show Goodness Gracious Me was
originally aimed at listeners of Asian origin who might not otherwise
have been attracted to Radio 4.
Nor is specialisation exclusive to
age and ethnic group. Comedy is often targeted on specific interest
groups among the general public (cricket lovers, literary people,
Meanwhile, every professional and social
group has its own particular brand of comedy, not easily understood
by outsiders, and often has own specialist comedians too.
CHOOSING YOUR SUBJECT
When it comes to choosing your specialist comedy
subject, always remember the old writer's adage: stick to
what you know.
The most convincing specialist comics are those
who have spent many years living within or working with the group
on which their humour is based.
It is possible to research specialist subjects,
of course, but it may take many years of work to grasp the subtle
intricacies that are understood or at least felt by those who
live the subject.
Specialist language is a crucial defining feature
of many groups. In much the same way as the Inuit are said to
have umpteen different words for snow, specialist groups need
to create their own language to communicate amongst themselves.
This specialist language provides the flash point for much humour.
Often, the language is too obscure for general consumption.
This is particularly true of professional and industrial groups,
whose specialist language sometimes describes obscure details
of processes that are themselves beyond the comprehension of outsiders.
The languages of science and the law are good examples of this.
Such obscure language may provide excellent jokes for the members
of the group, but it mostly renders the humour inaccessible to
outsiders — unless the writer is clever enough to explain
the language for outsiders within the context of the story and
without boring the specialist audience at the same time.
But not all specialist language is so obscure as
to limit its accessibility. The language of wine tasting springs
to mind as a good example of accessible specialist language. The
broad appeal of wine tasting jokes is partly due to the fact that
most of the words are familiar — "raspberries with
a hint of smoke" — while their contextual usage is
not. The accessibility of this language means that the language
can be freely used and amusingly extended in ways that appeal
to group members and outsiders alike — "cockroach droppings
with a hint of reprocessed plutonium".
Arguably, character plays a less significant role
than language in making specialist comedy specialised, though
it is by no means insignificant.
Insofar as character types are universal, they tend
to transcend the defining lines of specialist groups.
The human frailties that are the source of character
humour — greed, stupidity, etc — are to be found in
virtually all groups. Accordingly, jokes that depend principally
on universal aspects of character may take on a new freshness
when translated into a specialist setting.
However, certain characteristics are less prominent
in certain groups, at least in theory. The undesirable human failings
that are the stuff of so much character comedy are supposedly
less prominent among religious and charitable groups, for example.
In such cases, there is much humour to be found in the behaviour
of individuals who appear out of character with the intended self-image
of the group: the promiscuous bishop, the tongue-tied double glazing
Groups take delight in jokes that involve "rival"
groups, particularly if the rival group is portrayed as inferior.
Such jokes are particularly prevalent among regional, ethnic and
religious groups — Yorkshire vs Lancashire, English vs Scots,
Protestant vs Catholic, etc — but they extend to almost
every conceivable social grouping. For example, professional life
abounds with rivalries based on power, wealth, rank, qualification,
schooling, social background, and many more.
SPECIALIST SITUATION COMEDY
In much the same way as universal character types
may be imported for the enrichment of specialist comedy, characters
who have been "fleshed out" in a specialist situation
may also be adapted and export for universal consumption. This
is particularly familiar in situation comedy whose characters
inhabit a specialist world that is appropriately simplified to
enable universal appeal.
The extended format of situation comedy also makes
it possible to set up jokes involving complex specialist language
by introducing the language over time so that it becomes understood
by a non-specialist audience.