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Where’s the Beef? Finding Truth and Pain in Comedy

Go on–write comedy!

Maybe you can’t go full Nora Ephron, but even the most serious of novels can use a break. Even you (yes, you!) can add a few lines for laughs to break up all the kissing and fighting and sighing and scheming in your romance.

If it doesn’t come out naturally, it always seemed to me that it shouldn’t come out at all. But several years ago, a friend told me to expand my comedic skill set, so I decided to give it a shot. I borrowed “The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not” by John Vorhaus, and set about learning how to be more like Jennie Cruisie.

Vorhaus grabbed me by the throat right away. “Comedy is truth and pain,” he writes.

To write comedy, you must probe and reveal the fundamental truth and pain of human existence.

We hear this credo in romance writing, too. We’re told that to generate sympathy from an audience, we must touch upon shared human experiences. We must make the audience nod and think,

“I never thought of it that way, but that’s exactly how the world works.”

Even if that world is paranormal, audiences still like to feel drawn into a story that reveals something fundamentally if unexpectedly true about the nature of existence.

Comedy takes that one step further. Not only must you reveal something fundamentally true–as in, your audience must feel this truth deep within their souls (or else they will not find it funny)–but it must also be painful. 

I just saw a commercial for a new Amy Schumer movie. In it, she’s just met a hot dude at a club. Like, SUPER hot foreign guy. Next we see her in the ladies’ room, one leg up on the counter, apparently cleaning her nether region in the sink. 

That’s amusing. I giggled. She looks fairly frantic about it, and hey, we’ve all sort of been there, meeting someone unexpectedly when you’ve forgotten to shave your legs or something (to clarify, I’ve never cleaned my lady parts in the sink of a public restroom).

But it gets worse. 

Next shot, the bathroom door opens and we see the hot foreign guy standing right outside. There’s a long, painful moment of eye contact between our heroine and her hopeful hero. She’s too shocked to drop her leg and act normal. Of course not. She’s a comedian, and she plays the moment for all its worth.

What it’s worth is a good belly laugh from me and a mental note to check that movie out when it’s released. 

Truth and pain: it’s true that lady parts get hot and it’s true that we worry about such things when we’re about to get laid. We try to hide this truth from men and when they find out, it sure is painful!

As noted, advertisers sometimes do a great job with this in commercials. Remember the “Where’s the Beef?” Wendy’s spots from the Eighties? I just found one on YouTube, and it’s still pretty funny, even after all these years, but why?

What’s true and painful about that little old lady looking for the beef?

It’s initially painful to see an old woman wandering around, looking for something she’s sure she needs, for it’s true that elderly creatures can develop senility. Further indignities are piled upon her, for her desires have even been whittled down to one single absurd object:

Beef.

She needs the beef. Wants the beef. Can’t understand why no one will give her the beef! Beef becomes a symbol for her lost home, her lost health, her lost loved ones and friends. I want her to stop looking for the beef, because she’s making me sad. But she just won’t quit!

She’s ridiculous, of course, because we all know she can’t have the beef. It isn’t just that it’s missing, but rather that there is no more beef for her in this world. She’s willingly made herself into a figure of mockery by lusting after what she cannot have. It’s ugly and painful, but sadly, it reflects reality.

Okay, not “reality,” but something like it.

The commercial shines a spotlight on a shared human fear of growing old, forgetful, and ridiculous.

We worry that no matter how hard we try to keep ourselves together, we will inevitably become the “Where’s the Beef?” lady, mocked for her intense yet ridiculous search for something she cannot have. We fear that we will grow old and forget our purpose, forget our selves, forget to put on pants. I doubt there’s a culture on earth that so venerates its elders that its members still don’t worry about growing old. These cross-cultural fears bind us together as humans.

So I laugh, because not only is the situation too-often true, but it’s also painful. “That silly old woman!” I say aloud as I think,

“I will be a silly old woman one day.”

I never knew that comedy could be a vehicle for delivering a lesson on the hardest parts of being human, but Vorhaus knows his stuff. I began to think about things I find funny – often awful, dark things that make me laugh only because I’d otherwise cry – and realized that they’re funny because they dare to show me the truth in the dark side of the world.

In writing comedy, Vorhaus advised that we admit reality. Show it clearly. Admit pain, too. Just don’t make your audience work too hard to understand it.

So, dear friends, tell me: what makes you laugh? Do you, like me, laugh at things that frighten or sadden you? Or do you refuse to find humor in the truth and pain of being human?

23 responses to “Where’s the Beef? Finding Truth and Pain in Comedy”

  1. jbrayweber says:

    I love, love to laugh. I’m snarky my nature, I tend to laugh at inappropriate things. Nope. Not gonna apologize for it. Even it some of my most life-altering moments, I can find something hilarious to laugh about. Like that time I got arrested… Haha!

    Since I write dark, it is important to add a bit of humor to my stories. It brings relief to the tension of a fight, the high anxiety, or black moments. And as you said, it’s an innate human reaction we can’t always suppress.

    Awesome post, Jamie!

    Jenn!

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  2. For me, one crucial element of comedy is timing. Because we’re writing, we can’t do a deliberate pause in our retelling of a story to lure a laugh, but we can use sentence structure and punctuation to control the way the reader processes the beats and bring out those punch line moments. I find fragments, em-dashes, and short, punchy sentences that are there own paragraphs are often part of the funny writer’s toolkit.

    But I have to say, funny is HARD!

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  3. Tamara Hogan says:

    As a huge fan of humor that makes one cringe, I enjoyed this post a lot, Jamie. A couple of examples where I think it’s done well:

    The TV series “The Office.” While both the American and English versions of the show have a high cringe factor, one reason I came to love the American version of the show in particular is that the Michael Scott character…tried SO hard. His heart was in the right place. He tried to be a good boss and good friend, but he kept saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, embarrassing himself over and over again.

    While I enjoy almost everything Christopher Guest has ever written or done, I have to give it up for one of my favorite movies of all time, “This Is Spinal Tap.” SO MANY funny, painful, cringe-worthy things happen to people you’ve come to like. The airport security scene (1:18)? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dAargSCXQaQ

    Poor Derek.

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    • I love Spinal Tap! Poor Derek, indeed.

      My husband can’t stand cringy comedy like The Office, but I love it. I think it’s too real for him, too close to the truth. 🙂

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  4. I agree with Viv, funny is HARD. However, in my writing world, it’s necessary. There is no way I could get into the minds of my dark and twisted serial killer villains without having the promise of light and a laugh in the next chapter. Balance keeps me from running in fear from the keyboard!

    What makes me laugh? I’m not a big fan of physical comedy. For me, it’s all about the words: witty dialogue or razor-sharp monologues.

    Excellent article, Jamie!!!

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  5. Great post, Jamie!

    I love to laugh, especially at sarcasm. I’m fluent in that, and it can be hard to convey in the written word.

    I find it interesting that what makes us laugh is pointing out the truisms in our world, as well as poking at what we fear deep in our hearts. That laughter releases endorphins and stuff that makes us happy again. It’s like a perfect antidote. 😉

    And I sure hope that woman found the beef! LOL

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  6. I agree with Vivi, timing is everything. It’s better to have your characters say or do something totally expected and cause your readers to laugh out loud several times throughout the story than to try to make every page funny. Entertain and amuse but save the good stuff for that perfect moment.

    Great post, Jamie.

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  7. Beth Trissel says:

    Great post! I love humor–function off it, really.

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  8. Elisa Beatty says:

    Just the other night, my husband quoted me the Mark Twain line that “the definition of comedy is ‘tragedy + time.'”

    Things that are so, so awful in the moment can make us laugh incredibly hard down the road. And you’re absolutely right that what makes us laugh is the truth of life, the truth of our own shortcomings, the truth of the comic absurdity of existence.

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      And, of course, when somebody ELSE is the one slipping and falling on the banana peel, we can laugh right now. But it wouldn’t be funny if we didn’t know we’re subject to exactly the same precariousness.

      Laughter is the release of tension, after all.

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  9. Jacie Floyd says:

    The best humor for me is witty response, clever verbiage, and sarcasm. Was never a fan of physical comedy, not even Lucy and Ethel, because I’ve had too many cringe-worthy moments in real-life. If someone gets hurt or embarrassed, I have to turn away.

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  10. Thank you, Jamie. Must check out that book. Humor is hard, and I appreciate it more since I started writing. Some authors are so good at it.

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  11. Kate Parker says:

    Have you ever noticed how often a funeral is used for comedy? Knocked over coffins, snarky comments, inappropriate attire. Or in the case of my father’s funeral, my sister loudly blowing her nose immediately before the minster said, “Lord, hear our prayer.” We both lost it, laughing hysterically in the front of a packed church. It’s a painful situation lightened by absurdity.

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  12. Wonderful post, Jamie! I’ve got to go get his book.

    Laughter is medicine. While I was really sick, I’d find everything and anything that would make me smile or laugh. I wore ridiculous hats to chemo to make other cancer warriors smile and laugh. It does more than making one forget their pain for a moment. It helps them breathe and relax and realize that even in the darkest of times, there can still be reason to laugh, there is still joy. And that leads to the most powerful healing medicine of all. Hope.

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  13. Rita Henuber says:

    WOW! Great post and the responses are great also. I love humor used to relieve tension and when it’s snarky.

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  14. Hope Ramsay says:

    Getting here late, as usual. But I have to say I’m a sucker for prat falls and physical comedy. I know, it’s not sophisticated, but the old bit about the painter with the ladder, barely missing people, makes me belly laugh every time.

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