Your story needs a good straight man (or woman) to bring your comedic, heroic, or otherwise unconventional characters into sharper focus.
I met this guy at a conference a few years back who told me his son would hide under his covers with a flashlight, way past his bedtime, reading my books, which is basically the greatest thing a children’s book author can ever hear.
“But we always catch him because there’s this one bit that makes him literally laugh out loud every single time.”
“Let me guess,” I said, “Poopy Pants the Smelly.”
It’s always Poopy Pants the Smelly.
I like to think I write intelligent humor that resonates with children on an emotional level, echoing their real-life experiences, and maybe even helping them better understand their relationships with peers and adults.
Nope. None of that is true. My funniest bit is a poop joke. And the thing is: it’s not actually funny. I’ve simply fooled everyone into thinking it is.
You can do this, too.
Your story needs a good straight man
When I was a kid, I loved Abbott and Costello. I even convinced a friend to join me in a performance of “Who’s on First?” for our fourth grade talent show. I selfishly chose the Costello character, who, for those of you who don’t know the sketch, is the guy who says all the funny lines.
We were a hit. For years afterwards, people came up to me to tell me how funny I was. I believed them.
I was wrong.
You’ve heard of the term “straight man.” (For sure, some great straight men are women, but I’m going to use “man,” which is the historical term for the stock character.) A straight man is the person in a sketch or scene who sets up the jokes so the comic character can deliver the punch lines. The straight man grounds the piece. After all, if everyone in a scene is wacky, things simply get too silly and the audience or reader won’t know who to relate to.
People think they’re laughing at the comedian, and to be fair, a comedy duo is only funny if both people are nailing their lines. But in truth, it’s the straight man who makes the sketch work. They make the comedian funny. This took me years to fully appreciate.
To see how vital the straight man is, one need only watch Bob Newhart’s telephone routines, where the comic character isn’t even present. The entire skit is pure straight man.
I always understood the need for a straight man on a subconscious level, but it wasn’t until I wrote a short story called “Battling Bedtime Stories” that I properly learned the lesson.
In this story, which would later be included in my book, Mr. Pants: It’s Go Time, Mr. Pants and his twin sister, Foot Foot, are telling a bedtime story to their younger sister, Grommy. The gag is that Mr. Pants keeps upsetting Foot Foot by interjecting ridiculous elements into the story.
In her tale, Foot Foot mentions that a character, who Pants has dubbed “Nilbo the Nitwit,” must slay a mighty dragon.
Grommy: What’s the dragon’s name?
Mr. Pants: Poopy Pants the Smelly.
Foot Foot: Hey!
Grommy: Yay! Poopy Pants the Smelly Dragon!
Whenever I read this aloud to kids, Mr. Pants’ line gets a tiny laugh. The big laugh always goes to Grommy.
At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this was. After all, Grommy isn’t actually saying anything funny; she’s simply repeating what her brother said. But her exclamation frames the “joke” in a way kids love. They identify with Grommy. They get excited. Hooray! We have a story with a dragon named Poopy Pants the Smelly!
They also love it because of what it means for the story: Foot Foot is now forced to accept this ridiculous name and continue with her tale. It makes a barely amusing joke actually funny. And the kids don’t even realize they were actually laughing at Grommy. They give Pants all the credit.
This was the second Mr. Pants story I wrote, but it gave me the understanding of how to use my straight men to make Pants funny.
As an editor, I get to read a lot of books by independent authors in all genres. Of the comedies, some of them are truly funny. Some of them try to be but don’t quite get there. In the case of the latter, the main reason the jokes don’t land is usually because authors tend to leave out the straight man. They either have everyone delivering funny lines, which just gets old, or they don’t give us a follow-up line from a straight man to make the joke sing.
Here’s a good example from the master, Charles Schulz. A lesser humorist would have ended this after the third panel. Schulz gives us Linus’ dry remark to bring Sally’s over-the-top reaction home.
Another example of mine that helped me learn this lesson comes from a picture book series I’ve been developing called Ollie and Bezzy. Bezzy is an infant genius; Ollie is her older brother. In one story, Bezzy is trying to steal some chocolate chip cookies. She creates all sorts of Rube Goldbergs that, though creative, ultimately fail. Finally, she asks her brother for help. He does, they get caught, and Bezzy points at Ollie as if it were all his fault.
In and of itself, this accusation isn’t funny; it’s Ollie’s reaction that makes the scene. If Ollie were to react the way a normal kid would by saying something along the lines of “Nuh-uh!” the scene wouldn’t be funny. If, on the other hand, he looks at her with mild surprise, it’s funny.
As an exercise, try writing a bit of dialogue between a comedic character and a straight man. Don’t worry about the subject or even if the humorous lines are actually funny. Just write for a few minutes. Then, pick a humorous line you like. Now, rather than rewriting that line to make it funnier, tweak the reaction of the straight man. Have his reaction vary from deadpan to outrage to sadness to … whatever you want. You’ll notice that the straight man’s reaction totally defines not just the line but also the comedic character’s character.
Interestingly, a straight man doesn’t have to be limited to comedies. A good straight man can make your heroes more heroic and your tragic figures more tragic. You can use them to subtly guide your audience as to how you want them to interpret an action or a line of dialogue. Check out George Kennedy’s straight man to Paul Newman’s heroic Luke in the famous 50 eggs scene in Cool Hand Luke. Luke’s original declaration is so weird it’s hard for the audience to know how to take it. The straight man shows us the way.
This can be overdone, or simply used in a way where it’s too obvious. Bad movies and books do this all the time. A hero performs an action of some kind and then another character says, “Wow! That was amazing!” That almost never works the way the director or screenwriter wants it to. People can see right through that ploy. But, used judiciously, your straight man can make your protagonist truly memorable.
Let me close with an open letter to my friend who played Abbott to my Costello in our fourth-grade skit: Thanks for making me look good.
Feature photo: NBC Radio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
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