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  • Writer's pictureProfessor Teddy Love

Formulas For Being Funny

Are there rules and recipes that help us create original work as clowns (or any kind of artist, for that matter)? Many people have tried to come up with such tried-and-tested formulae, and it’s not hard to find them online, but do they work? If so, what kind of clowning might they help us produce? In this article I’ll lay out some of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of using rules and recipes in our clown creation work, keeping in mind of course that this is (as always) a very personal response and in no way definitive or ‘true’.

I recently delivered a short course entitled ‘Create Your Clown Masterpiece’, which was intended to help people overcome the blocks they were experiencing as they create new material for their clown. I posted on social media about it, with some bold statements about creativity, and one such post began like this:

Friend and extremely experienced clown artist, Jef Johnson, called me out on this blanket statement, and a very interesting back-and-forth followed, with others chipping in their tuppenny-worth.

Jeff’s initial response was:

This was an interesting provocation. Here is a very prestigious clown, Jango Edwards, who teaches a kind of ‘comic formula’ for clowning, which, at least according to Jef (and others I have spoken to who worked with Edwards, certainly does work.

Now it’s not necessarily clear whether these formulas that Edwards teaches are for generating ideas or for structuring finished pieces. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. The general point is that there are certainly teachers who have ‘methods’ for making work and they ‘work’.

There is a certain appeal to this idea. And a very long history of comedy being developed and taught according to certain repeatable and learnable patterns: the rules of three being a classic example (that there is something inherently funny about repeating a gesture or action three times, especially if the third time introduces a surprise new element. Circus clowns have historically created and taught their routines (often to their own children) according to a somewhat fixed grammar of beats, looks (to each other or to the audience), double-takes, reactions, trips, falls, slaps, near-misses, and so-on. This is partly because the routines were so physical (and often risky) that they had to be learned by rote in order to be safe, like one might learn an acrobatic choreography. To make such a routine funny as well as pinpoint accurate, one would have to build in specific moments (or beats) that allow clear communication of a comical situation, such as moments of triumph and/or dismay in an ongoing conflict between a high status White face and low status Auguste (itself yet another kind of formula often attached to clowning).

It is certainly the case that laughter itself has a mechanical and somewhat predictable quality. We laugh ‘on cue’ when given the correct kind of mental stimulus, for example a surprise inversion of something we are used to (a child bossing an adult, someone going the wrong way up an escalator), or something that seems incongruous, out of place, or inappropriate in some way. In this sense, clowns, like comedians, are executing a craft. Like a weaver, potter or print-maker, their craft is inherent in their ability to understand the nature and behavior of their particular medium (words, actions, characters and situations that cause laughter) and to weave them into structures that are effective and pleasing for an audience.

A distinction is sometimes drawn between crafts and arts or between the work of the craftsman and that of the artist. To put it simply, while the former relies on the technical execution of formulaic knowledge to produce reliably high quality and desirable products, the latter exists in a more esoteric and less commercial realm. To be an artist, it is implied, is to work from inspiration, not follow patterns, to follow the muse and to create original and unique ‘works of art’, rather than to be able to reliably reproduce a particular effect, style or product.

This is of course a misleading dichotomy, and one that can very easily be used to devalue the work of the craftsperson as somehow lesser in absolute value (though perhaps greater in utilitarian value) than that of the artist. Perhaps this implicit prejudice was present in the post I wrote, when I suggested that ‘there are no formulas for creating performance material’.

Jef’s challenge to me was to make me reconsider what I meant by ‘formula’ and what prejudices might be lurking behind such a statement. When I responded to him, it was in a defensive mode, again putting myself on the pedestal of ‘the artist’ vs. ‘the craftsman’ (especially the final sentence):

Jef’s response to this pointed out my unexamined prejudice:

What I realise now is that there are many paths, and that there is no right way. Effective comedy can certainly be created according to rules and formulae, even if it is somewhat mechanical. Cal McCrystal, one of the best directors of live comedy working today, said ‘when I direct my job is to make sure that, whatever happens on that particular night, even when the magic doesn’t happen, the actors will still be funny.’

Maybe in a perfect world we would know how to generate the ‘magic’ every time. Every performance would be inspired and transformative, bringing together the audience and performer in a transcendent otherworldly union. But in the real world we know that that doesn’t always (or often) happen, and if it did it probably would be called ‘magic’ (although that too can be done according to formulas as well, of course). Comic performers, clowns and actors, sometimes need to simply know how to be funny on cue, in a mechanical and ‘art by numbers’ fashion, because…well, because that is their job and their responsibility.

As Jef pointed out, it is also about your own desire and intention. If laughter and applause equals success (i.e. it’s what you actively desire), there is nothing wrong with that. As he says, ‘so many wonderful paths to explore’. If this is you, then there are indeed rules to making people laugh, and there should be no judgment attached to that.

But despite Jef challenging my assumptions, he did also drop a big hint that laughter by numbers is not his game or his preference:

This helped give me clarity on my own approach, and understand more fully what I meant when I said ‘there’s no formula or recipe for creating original performance material’. It’s not that there aren’t formulas out there. There are plenty, and many of them are useful. But one has to choose one’s own route, an ethos or an ethic of clowning. And mine, similar to Jef’s, is not based on the primacy of laughter but rather on the possibilities that are unleashed when we come together with openness to explore the experience of living together in this world.

I do not have a problem with formulas. Or maybe I do. The wonderful learning process continues and I daily find myself having to address my own hidden prejudices and assumptions. I see now that within my statement that ‘there’s no formula’ was a hidden belief or valuing of one kind of clowning over another. The wonderful thing about open and honest interactions on Facebook is that they can really stimulate you to question your own beliefs and to dig deeper (as well balance out that tendency we have when it comes to social media to oversimplify and package things in neat bold statements that don’t fully reflect the complexity of a topic).

In fact, I realise now, I use formulas all the time. I use them in my teaching and in my creative work. They are simply models I have developed through many years of experience and trial and error, rules and principles governing processes that seem to work more often than others. Some of these formulas I have learned have to do with generating laughter, and if I’m honest, my clowning has been enriched by the ability to craft beats and gags into routines that are reliably funny. I see this as a powerful complement to the ‘inner clown’ work I started with.

Sure, my work is not driven by an overriding need to make people laugh. I am more interested in the intuitive and magical quality of connection between performers and audience, and what arises out of that connection. Laughter can be one of those things. But I have also gained a deep respect and, frankly, a pleasure from learning the craft of making something (a character, an action, a sequence) funny for an audience. I am no master at this, but, as always, an avid student.

Not only comic formulas of course, but many kinds of templates, models and systems can be useful when in the creative process. In my own course, Create Your Clown Masterpiece, I teach a number of these, Indeed the whole course is structured around the idea of the 5 stages of a creative process:

  1. Rooting creativity in rich soil

  2. Generating material

  3. Editing and structuring material

  4. Rehearsing (inhabiting) the structure

  5. Meeting the audience

I know, and remind students frequently, that it doesn’t always happen in this order or in a linear fashion. They are not really discrete stages but more often overlapping, simultaneous, oscillating elements of process, which will look and operate differently every time.

But framing a creative process using these 5 elements may still be useful, because it allows us to see that it’s not all mystery and magic. It gives us practical starting points, helpful tools for getting unstuck, strategies for making progress, understanding the shape of something we are immersed in, and something solid on which to build our ephemeral and unpredictable lives.

Jef has his own very helpful take on the use of formulas vs. discovery and exploration.

Formulas are ‘tools, never the work itself…they will provide insight into creating and controlling structure and flow’. I would add that they can also be effective for prompting and provoking the production of performance material in the first place (see my breakdown of the creative process above). But this telling phrase captures something of what formulas cannot do: ‘...playing with those proposals to feel any connections which are born within the living experience of a show.’

‘Playing’, ‘feeling’, and ‘living’ are words that suggest an organic quality distinct from the realm of rules and recipes. For sure, nature functions according to certain rules (or appears to from our perspective, but it is really us who invents those rules). But it also breaks the rules sometimes. Genetic evolution depends upon such moments of breaking, of unanticipated mutation, in order to discover (by accident) new evolutionary pathways. And this brings me to one final element of clowning that I would add to Jef’s description: the value of failure, of accident, of the unexpected flaw.

The formula is helpful only inasmuch as it gives us a structure to fail at.

It is in the failure to adhere to the formula that we find our creative genius (genuineness), our true individuality, and our unique contribution as artists (clown or otherwise).

Formulas are absolutely necessary, helpful, and sometimes lifesavers. But we should not see them as models to be replicated or standards to uphold. Rather they are creative walls to push against. Without the rogue element, the urge to forge our own path, which is always a glorious and life-giving failure, the formula is inert. Like in cooking, the recipe is a good starting point, but we do not become chefs without breaking the rules and adding our own unique flair. It is our failure to stick to the formula that reminds us of the true nature of life and keeps us connected to our humanity.

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