Be Funny Or Die | Review of Joel Morris' book about 'how comedy works and why it matters'
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Be Funny Or Die

Review of Joel Morris' book about 'how comedy works and why it matters'

It’s an unwritten rule that any book about comedy starts with the EB White quote, refined by Barry Cryer, that analysing a joke is like dissecting a frog, in that nobody laughs and the frog dies.

Joel Morris proves no exception, but by the end of this authoritative tome he must be ankle-deep in metaphorical frog corpses, so exhaustively has he delved into the mechanics of humour. And why should comedy not be analysed in a way every other art is? It deepens the appreciation, not ruin the magic.

From the start Morris makes the bold promise to reveal nothing less than the secret of comedy itself. And no, it’s not ‘timing’… but a simple maxim, albeit one that conceals countless complexities.

But first he starts by looking at the psychology and sociology of why we laugh, and why we seek to trigger that response in others.

Much of the groundwork here  has been laid by academics but papers on the topic tend to be impenetrably dry, despite the apparently light-hearted subject matter. However, Morris has digested plenty of their conclusions and made them accessible – and sometimes actually funny, a rarity in this sphere.

Laughter has its evolutionary origins in signalling a relief from danger - you thought it was a sabre-toothed tiger, it wasn’t, so we laugh to signal the risk was never there. Comedy, meanwhile, lets us explore social conventions within the safety of play, and gives our brains a workout in figuring out patterns, so crucial to our intelligence, and having them subverted.

While there’s inevitably a degree of nerdiness to all this background material – probably welcome for any reader of Chortle – it provides vital context for the discussions that follow.

Some of the most pertinent sections, for example, concentrate on comedy’s prominent role in the culture wars. It might seem odd that something so frivolous and intended only to amuse has become such a fierce social  battleground, mired in issues of offence and censorship.

But Morris convincingly argues that comedy’s divisiveness is a feature, not a bug. Sure, it provides social cohesion, but only among members of the same tribe.

He – and others he quotes – bust the myth that edgelord comedians are challenging their audiences with uncomfortable material. In fact they are reassuring them that the sort of stuff they like is enjoyed by others too. Harking back to those prehistoric origins of humour, he further argues that no joke is ever dangerous – because you can only be relaxed enough to laugh if there is no threat.

Be Funny Or Die effortlessly moves between theory and practice, too, with Morris drawing on his substantial  experience as a comedy writer. He frequently collaborates with Charlie Brooker – co-creating Diane Morgan’s dimwit pundit Philomena Cunk – while other credits include the Paddington films, Mitchell and Webb and Viz.

The notion that comedy is all about setting and subverting patterns becomes the much-vaunted ‘rule of three’ - a golden maxim he reframes as Construct, Confirm and Confound – three notes behind every joke. However he warns that the third is worryingly close to  Confuse, the bum note that make gags fall flat.

Not that all comedy need be zingers revolving around those three notes in quick succession. Morris explains how Confirm is often enough on its own. Then, from such building blocks, he expands into discussing the beats of comedy and storytelling - insightful chapters that will provide invaluable for those writing longer-form comedy, but also prove fascinating for anyone interested in what goes on under the bonnet of a good yarn.

For all the mathematics of comedy, Morris acknowledges that the genre is more instinctive than that. It is an art, not engineering. But his analysis, he has found, comes into its own when trying to fix why a script may have gone wrong, rather than used as a ‘how-to’ template to writing comedy.

He occasionally overstates his arguments, but offering a such a deep dive into the subject about which he is so passionate and accomplished, Morris will open your eyes to a deeper appreciation of comedy, if you’re a consumer, and ways of doing it better it you’re a practitioner. 

In short, he achieves the promise of the subtitle, in explaining how comedy works and why it matters. 

» Read an extract from Be Funny Or Die

*Be Funny Or Die by Joel Morris is published by Unbound and available in hardback, audiobook or ebook from Amazon, or as a hardback from, below, which supports local independent bookstores.

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Published: 2 Apr 2024

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