I have learned something from the copious amounts of television I have been watching for the past couple of weeks; most people on TV just aren't that funny. I'm not trying to sound like some humor snob, as if I'm a connoisseur of funny. I do believe, however, that if one is going to get a job on television, he must have to go through some sort of humor training. People who buy guns have to get licenses, people who play an instrument have to practice, so perhaps television writers should start practicing humor, much like Sherlock Holmes practiced logic riddles, or like the Kennedys practice covering up the horrid secrets of their family members.
I think it would be wise to study the different forms of humor, and to try to think up of various funny situations withing those forms, and then try combinations and apply them to various storylines.
1. The twist.
I realize that plot twists in and of themselves are not necessarily funny, but a good twist gets us laughing because we expect one outcome based on many years of conditioning, but are then delivered an unexpected surprise. This is usually based upon a familiar joke that most people know, but giving it a new punchline. For example, a joke can start with the classic, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" However, the punchline in this case would not be the familiar, "To get to the other side!" but perhaps "To get away from his OVERBEARING MOTHER." (that last one requires a situation where a grown man is being once again berated by his loving, yet smothering mother in the presence of family and friends. Works even better if they are all animated chickens.) Or it could be answered with, "No really, I have no clue why a chicken would cross a road," which could be responded to with light, sympathetic laughter from the others in the room. He then repeats his assertion that the concept eludes him, only to receive quiet stares until someone breaks the ice. This brings me to the next concept...
2. Fourth wall shattering bad jokes.
Sometimes a cliched bad joke can be used only if it is going to be the springboard for reactions from other characters. Such as if a character tells a bad joke, but not only does no one laugh, but tumbleweeds blow past and people actually start cringing in shame from the joke, causing the teller to begin sweating nervously and apologize profusely. This category of joke also contains my personal favorite; mocking bad plotlines that are obviously just excuses for shoddy writing. This has two sub-categories, which are the person-is-dumber-than-anyone jokes, and the this-was-all-a-big-misunderstanding jokes. The first contains that episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy and Ethel started working at a candy factory. They can't even wrap candy properly, and so they start eating it, stuffing it in their bras, and just generally act like blasted fools. Now, whenever anyone uses this scene in a comedy, it's obviously to point out just how danged stupid that episode and things like it really are. No one in their right mind would act how Lucy acted, and yet we're supposed to laugh at it on its own terms. Using that scene in a parody, even largely unchanged, still places it under a very self-conscious, "you believe anyone ever thought this was funny?" type of attitude. As for the this-was-a-big-misunderstanding plot device, this is easy to make fun of because it is rampant in its undisguised form. Look at the first Shreck movie. The last half of the movie is dedicated to a misunderstanding that could be cleared up with ten seconds of coherent explanation. Shrek misheard Fiona when she was speaking with Donkey. She said, "How could anyone love an ugly ogre?" She was referring to her transformation into an ogre when the sun went down, and was fearing Shrek wouldn't like her. Shrek heard her and assumed she was talking about him. Then, in a a genius bit of unrealistically contrived dialogue, they danced around the actual issue and were sure to not say anything that might accidentally give away what they actually thought, lest the audience's patience never get tested. It was frustratingly contrived and pathetically indicative of lazy writing. However, when used to deliberately mock this style of plot movement, it turns into something wonderfully witty. Let's say a couple go on a honeymoon to Hawaii, and there is a superspy that goes on the same plane. When they are walking out of the airport, they bump into each other and get their bags mixed up. The husband says to the spy, "Hey, we've got similar bags. In fact, they're identical. It would be an utter shame to get them mixed up," he begins juggling the bags like tennis balls, "Phew, but I gotta be going. And I'm pretty darn sure this is my bag. See ya!" Then, in a good use of joke style one (the twist), they could both have their correct bags, just to defy convention. But, considering the spy has some pretty volatile stuff in his bag, that brings us to style three...
3. Over the top violence.
Banana peels are tres passe. Anvils on the head are old hat. It's the really huge stuff that tickles our funny bone these days. Why have a small explosion that takes out just one building when there can be a huge explosion that takes out the city, only to have the city be rebuilt and shining for the next scene? Guns are also required to be ludicrously huge, and the bigger they are, the funnier they are. Especially if they leave a huge, perfectly round hole in whatever they shoot. Extremely elaborate setups are also quite funny, as the viewer isn't sure when the setup will end, or what the payoff will be, and sometimes the more anticlimactic, the better. A huge cannon that shoots a pea sized projectile, for instance. Or a Rube Goldberg maching that fails on the last step. This can be combined with styles one and two, such as a nuclear bomb that only goes "phhooot" and fizzles out, but explodes as soon as someone says "That was close." Which brings me to my next style...
4. Well timed lines and good ol' fashioned uncomfortable silences.
The line, "that was close," would only work in that situation if the bomb went off right as the person was saying it, or after a long, awkward silence. Otherwise, it seems to conventional and won't tickle the funny bone. Awkward silences after odd or disturbing phrases are quite funny especially in a one on one situation. I realize this seems a lot like style one, but this is not presenting any twists, and it's not like style two because there's no bad joke being made fun of. This is all about interaction and reaction. Let me give you an example of how awkward pauses can add humor to a scene. First, you'll get no pauses, and you must assume that the person who is listening to this fellow speak is a caring, kind, hospitable person.
Burt: Well, I don't know what to say. After the last car accident, I had ruptured my lower intestine, and was in the hospital for two months eating out of a tube. It was impossible to bathe myself, and had to have a nurse do it for me every day. I was so happy to get out of there, I felt so free.
Now, this Burt fellah doesn't sound funny at all, right? Just kind of depressing until you find out that he's out of the hospital and you think, "good for him!" Until you realize that perhaps might mean more exposure to the pains of the world, but you try not to think about it too much. Now, let's hear him bounce off another person.
Steve: Hey, Burt, how the heck are ya?
Burt: Well, I don't know what to say.
Steve: Oh, come now, I'm sure it can't be that bad.
Burt: After the last car accident, I had ruptured my lower instestine, and was in the hospital for two months eating out of a tube.
Steve: (unpleasant, unmoving pause) Uh... well, I don't feel like having sausage any more, ever.
Burt: It was impossible to bathe myself so I had a nurse do it every day.
Steve: If you're looking for help in that area, I would recommend the entire human population before myself.
Burt: My terribly flaky skin made it difficult.
Steve: (head in hands) Oh, no, no, no...
Burt: I was so happy to get out of there, I felt so free.
Steve: Yes, I feel free, too, in escaping an UNPLEASANT PERSON TO TALK TO.
Now, seeing as how I'm tired, I'm going to leave the list at this point for now.