Writing good comedy

I’ve been working on a very whimsical type of game. For a bit of guidance, I took some time to play some well loved classic adventures.

What I’ve found as a common denominator in most is that they derive a lot of humor from masking fun of the PC. Pretty quick it feels like the game author is making fun of you for playing his game.

Has anybody got any suggestions for writing comedy that doesn’t insult the player?

I’m sure plenty of people will jump in with good theoretical advice, and some guidelines, and some people will give examples of games which did it right and explain why.

Me, I’m just going to say that “Eric the Unready” is possibly the best humour overall I’ve seen in IF (though many others made me laugh heartily as well), and if you never played it, you should.

Mind, it does make fun of the PC - but not of the player. The distinction is noteworthy. And even the fun it makes of the PC is of the sort “Yeah, he’s inept, bumbling, clumsy, and generally the last knight you want to come to your aid… but he tries very hard, so love him a bit.”

Hmm, have you played Lost Pig? That makes fun of the PC a little, but I feel it doesn’t mock the player, as you’re always one step ahead of him. And in games like To Hell in a Hamper you’re in more of a straight man role for somebody else.

The rise of the adventure game genre paralleled the rise of sarcasm, and denigration of the player played right into that zeitgeist: easy and fun to write, though not especially fun to hear or play. The big problem with the Simon the Sorcerer games: why is the protagonist such a jerk?

The tricky thing about humour games is that they may be full of gags but that doesn’t necessarily make any of it funny. Xanth is non-stop puns and you can get from one end to the other without cracking a smile. I think that a good path to humour is unexpected solutions to situations (though that can always run the risk of being tremendously frustrating) and character interactions. Of course, NPCs are an IF holy grail, but if you can always try.

Douglas Adams is always funny and Douglas Adams imitators are never funny, so it’s not a useful point to introduce.

Mark Twain cries. Also, too, Juvenal.

Surely every age had its sarcasts, but I doubt that there was ever before such an era of “snappy answers to stupid questions” from the man on the street to Joe six-pack. Maybe Rome was just lacking an Al Jaffee.

Thanks for game suggestions. I’ve never played Eric the unready, but i played lost pig about a year ago and it’s a great example really funny writing. Lost pig demonstrates that originality in humor is key.

There was a parody of zork years ago, called pork. Though it was a hard game, it had a few moments of true hilarity. Especially funny was the game designer hell, where designers were forced to experience what they put their players through.

There are a lot of comedy games where the game makes fun of the PC but keeps them very distinct from the player - Sting of the Wasp, the Stiffy Makane games, Textfire Golf, Broken Legs, Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom.

Another possibility is Comic Sidekick or Comic Antagonist; in A Day For Fresh Sushi, the protagonist is serious and sympathetic while the fish is played for laughs. In Lock & Key, the protagonist is serious, sympathetic and little-characterised, and the comedy comes from laughing at everyone else (in particular your antagonist Boldo.) In Hoosegow your sidekick provides most of the gags while you do most of the work.

There’s the approach of Strangers In A Wacky Land, a Wonderland effect where a largely serious viewpoint character wanders through a ridiculous setting. This is very easy to do badly and quite hard to do well; it’s often better when it’s underplayed, as with Counterfeit Monkey. (And if you don’t watch out, the protagonist begins to seems stiff, whiny and ridiculous, a la Arthur Dent.)

Also consider King of the Slackers, an approach championed by Robb Sherwin. Under this approach, the protagonist is a laughably sorry case - but comes across as sympathetic and sensible because everyone else is so, so much worse, or because their failings are (see Violet) ones that it’s assumed the audience will be able to relate to.

On the subject of puns, I actually found Nord and Bert to be laugh out loud funny in more than a few places, but ymmv.

ETA: It’s not IF, but I think the Monkey Island series is pretty good at presenting a laughable, but still sympathetic, PC in such a way that the player never feels like they themselves are the butt of the joke.

I just replayed MI 1 and 2, actually. The thing I found most hilarious about it, having played it four or five times to completion over a few years, now that I’m a bit more adult, is the sheer amount of references and anachronisms (which I never got before - MI 1 was literally my secong adventure game ever, and my fourth computer game ever that I remember with any clarity). That’s another comedy source, but only if done well. But then, EVERYTHING’s only good if done well.

I love the humor in Ryan Veeder’s justifiably Comp-winning Taco Fiction and probably most of his other games too, but apparently there are more of them than I thought. There’s plenty of making fun of the PC, but not the player, alongside generally great comedic timing and some cute absurdism but not so much as to be tiring.

Yeah, I think a lot of those early adventure games got a lot of good mileage out of anachronisms, even Sierra’s more “straight fantasy” games (I’m thinking of the Quest For Glory games in particular, though King’s Quest did it too. I probably laughed more playing those series than I did playing Sierra games that were overtly meant as comedies, like Leisure Suit Larry.)

Ask me about the secret to great comedy.

“What’s the secret to gr–”“TIMING!”

That joke works so much better out loud.

Hold on, let me try that one.

Ask me about the secret to great comedy.

EDIT: Timing.

A) shut up and B) itemised lists.

Humor is really not my forte.

Despite this, I’ve written three comedies so far, two of which were speedIF (Brain of the Night-Guest, Smoochiepoodle and the Bastion of Science) and one of which was a full-length IFComp entry (Beet the Devil). All of them have fairly peculiar PCs, but I don’t think any of them focus on making fun of the player.

I’m not particularly skilled at humor analysis, but I can think of at least five approaches I tried:

  1. Juxtapose a commonplace element with a bizarre element. Push the situation as far as it will go.

  2. Exaggerate something familiar until it becomes absurd (a la Seinfeld).

  3. Straight up punning and wordplay.

  4. Running gag - the joke might fall flat the first time, but it might be funny the fifth time.

  5. Metahumor. I’m trying to be funny right now! The joke itself wasn’t so great, but isn’t it great that we can both sit back and laugh at how weird humor is?

I’ve read somewhere that all humour can be reduced to:

Absurdity (cvaneseltine’s 1 and 2)
Faulty reasoning
Play on words (cvaneseltine’s 3)

I find it strange this list doesn’t include repetition (cvaneseltine’s 4), unless “allusion” can count by virtue of we alluding repeatedly to what we already said or did. Hmm, I guess that’s it.

I also find it strange the list doesn’t include misdirection, one of my favourite forms. Unless it’s lumped together with “faulty reasoning”, which makes sense, but “faulty reasoning of a character who proceeds to act as though something were true when in fact it isn’t” seems quite distinct from “leading the viewer/reader/watcher to believe something other than it is”.

I find it hard to cathegorise “metahumour” in this fashion, though. But then, I’m finding it hard to find good examples of metahumour as well.

Side-note: I find that some French-Belgian comics of a few decades ago were simply extraordinary in terms of humour. I’m afraid their English translation would lose a lot, but if you know French, you owe it to yourself to check out Asterix (yeah, yeah, but trust me, reading the original books in their original language is side-splitting, especially if you’re European), Gaston LaGaffe, and Achille Talon, off the top of my head (Achille Talon might be known by some as Walter Melon, a despicable translation).

Talking about comedy is like dancing about architecture. (Steve Martin)

Beautiful? :wink:

Probably not.

It was probably an intentional paraphrase on MTW’s part, but the actual quote is “Talking about music”, and it’s sometimes attributed to Steve Martin but also to a whole bunch of other people.

I had a literature professor who argued, even more reductively than Peter’s list, that all humour can be broken down into A) setup, and B) punchline. The setup suggests a seemingly normal situation, and the punchline disrupts the normalcy of that situation, provoking surprise or confusion and thus laughter. This will obviously be more or less complicated depending on the joke, but it does seem like most good jokes are, at their core, underpinned by that structure. It would seem to leave out things like puns and wordplay, but at the same time it might also explain why many people don’t find puns funny; if the source of laughter is surprise, then a pun just sitting there by itself isn’t really funny, it’s at best clever.

Not sure if I agree with that entirely, but I think there’s something to it.