What’s So Funny? Humour For The Ages
A friend recently told me that her twin 10-year old boys watched an episode of an animated series I’d written for. “They laughed and laughed.” This is the best review an animation writer can get: affirmation that your ideas are, indeed, funny. And not just to your cynical grown-up friends (who may or may not be on mood-altering substances) but to viewers who are in the actual target audience.
It may seem laughably obvious, but a sense of humour, aside from being high on the list of what people say they want in their ideal mate, is an absolute prerequisite when it comes to writing for kids’ animation.
Comedy plays a major role in most kids’ animated series from preschool to teen. Even more dramatic action-adventure series have their moments of comic relief—banter between heroes and sidekicks, villainous taunting, dark one-liners in the face of danger. So it’s necessary to know what kinds of humour appeal to different age groups.
I (mis)spent much of my youth working front-of-house for a comedy company. I saw hundreds of performances of scripted, semi-scripted and unscripted shows. When I started writing sketches and shows for the company, I got to see first-hand whether jokes worked or fell flat, and whether scenes clipped along nicely or got bogged down. Seeing what got laughs and what was met with stony indifference gave me a fairly good handle on what older teens and adult audiences found funny all the time, some of the time, and none of the time.
If you haven’t found the time or the inclination to procreate a small focus group of your own, nieces and nephews and the offspring of friends come in handy. An hour of playing peek-a-boo and horsey will remind you that the under-three set really isn’t ready for a brilliant play on words or an intricate mistaken identity plot. And judging from the hysterical giggling that attends your being whacked repeatedly over the head with a stuffed Winnie the Pooh, you realize that contrary to the old saying, comedy isn’t always hard. Occasionally it is soft and comes with a washable fabric covering.
Checking out matinees of animated movies can show you how different kids of the same age can find different things funny. And conversely, how kids of different ages can find the same things funny. Plus those 3-D glasses are way fashionable.
While tastes change as kids grow older, they don’t entirely leave stages of humour behind. The range of things they find funny just expands as their experience of the world broadens. Adults don’t stop being amused by the sort of non-verbal comedy that appeals to preschoolers—gentle slapstick, surprises, funny noises, silly behaviour. The same goes for the gross-out humour and less gentle slapstick and more verbal and character-driven comedy that appeals to older kids. The same insult humour, comedy of embarrassment and frustration, parody, and satire that amuses the too-cool-for-school tween set also entertains older audiences.
Lest anyone dismiss our comedic output as mindless empty-calorie drivel, remember that the humour we inject into even the least message-driven series we write for has an important function in our society. Comedy relieves the stress and tensions of daily life and helps people accept each other’s foibles and short-comings. If we can laugh at our differences, we’re less likely to bomb each other out of existence.
Moreover, our culture places a high value on comedic skills. The ability to “get a joke” is a sign of intellectual development. The ability to “take a joke” shows self-confidence and a lack of pretention. And as we animation writers know, the ability to “tell a joke” is our ticket to a viable career in the entertainment industry.