Hoover, a lawyer, college instructor and professional joke-writer, attempts to explain the art and science of comedy in this meticulous debut primer.
The author presents his encyclopedic knowledge of comedy to engaging effect. He covers various comedic formats and genres, including stand-up, skits, sitcoms and screenplays; reviews milestones of movie and television comedy; and celebrates the personalities and one-liners of such giants as Groucho Marx, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and Carol Burnett. He also elaborates on comedy theory, citing Aristotle, Sigmund Freud, Mel Brooks and the creators of the 1980 movie Airplane! Hoover delves extensively into “joke structure,” asserting that the fundamental equation is “Incongruity + Surprise + Context = Funny,” and also presents typologies of the setup and punch line, the genre categories of comic plots, and a list of surefire cartoon scenarios, from the classic desert-island castaways to the contemporary “two young professionals.” The text also offers cogent tips for breaking into the comedy biz, urging readers to analyze classic sitcoms, movies, stand-up acts and scripts to see what makes them funny; to develop comic personas and characters by imagining their back stories and motivations; to hone a trial skit or screenplay into a one-sentence “log-line” for pitching to producers; and above all, to “move to Hollywood.” The book serves all this up in readable prose spiked with insightful, entertaining exegeses of comedic works, but its pedagogical value is uneven; the advice is sometimes specific and actionable (words with “K” sounds are funny) and other times too sketchy to be very useful (“Mash up the funny with the not so funny to create a third funny, which technically should not exist. Sometimes this works and sometimes not”). Lurking in the background is the assumption that doctrine, technique, practice and assiduous marketing are the keys to success, but the question of talent—and whether one can write good comedy without it—takes a back seat. Overall, the book doesn’t quite bottle the elusive soul of wit, but aspiring comedy writers may find helpful suggestions on how to refine and capitalize on their gifts.
An overthought but sometimes-useful guide for would-be yuksters.