I spoke in earlier posts regarding tone and it is important to be consistent, but sometimes a change in pace can prove to be refreshing for GM and players alike. Perhaps you have in mind a comedic adventure, or one of the PCs becomes the target of a practical joker. A new villain may appear who can be easily dismissed as a joke (i.e. DC's Riddler, for the most part.) or might be the catalyst for a fun adventure (Star Trek's Cyrano Jones). But if you want to try your hand at funny, you should bear a few things in mind:
A lot of humor is referential.
There was an episode of Bruce Timm's Batman, I think it was during that era when the animators of Superman took over duties so the character designs changed, where The Dark Knight was captured by Harley Quinn (not his finest hour, btw.) and tied upside-down over a tank full of piranhas. The Joker arrived and Harley explained the joke was the piranhas would look like they were grinning to Batman's perspective as they devoured him. The Joker was outraged, not only because he was upstaged by the sidekick (Batman tells Joker Harley had come closer to killing him than anyone else, Joker included) but because, as he explained it to Harley, the joke is not funny if you have to explain it.
If you have to explain to your players the mechanics of the joke before or afterwards, then it is not funny. I ran an adventure for one of my super hero games where the heroes were stranded on a mysterious island. The island held a variety of encounters inspired by the live action Sid and Marty Krofft television shows of the seventies and early eighties. Characters encountered sea monsters, came across smashed spacecraft with killer androids. A diminutive PC met humanoids with insect features much like herself whose enemy was a mad scientist with a shrinking ray, who had shrunken his wife and kept her in an old juke box behind his mansion. There was a feral woman with a beastly humanoid sidekick, a village whose inhabitants were enslaved with special hats by a witch and her wizard lover. There were also lizard men and ultimately they were going to meet a gold dragon with a Texan drawl.
|Look, you had to be there. Being four years old helped. Or high. Or four years old and high.|
So, what was the problem, you might ask? No one got it. Part of it was generational; many of my players were younger than me and did not see the same programs. Or they were from other countries where the program did not air. Or they just were not Krofft fans. So the jokes went completely over the heads of the players, and the adventure itself was not compelling enough to keep their attention. Now had I used a host of other enduring cartoon shows (i.e. Mighty Mouse) then perhaps the concept would have worked better. Imagine a smashed, rusted out green van dangling from tree vines, a haggard looking man in a red ascot and his two female companions, lonely survivors terrified of a savage beast lurking in the woods who, once it tasted the flesh of it's pal, now stalked them. The joke? You are expecting the dog to be the beast, when in reality it is Shaggy, perhaps mad with rabies.
Another example of failed comedy, you might ask? Years ago I was involved in play testing a game designed by my friend Dave, Zen and The Art of Mayhem, and I created a character named Kate Bushido. The idea was she was raised by monks who took to the teachings of Kate Bush's music, and consequently she could only speak using Kate Bush lyrics (And no, I could not rattle off lyrics off the top of my head. I made a list. An extensive list. Cataloged by situations my character might conceivably face. In retrospect the fact I went through all that trouble sounds so very sad.). Her martial arts style was also based on the titles of Kate Bush songs. Personally I thought it was hilarious. Everyone else? They humored me. On the other hand, Dave (not the guy who created the game, the one who follows this blog), created two characters whose names I will not mention here for potential legal purposes. One was a send-up of barbarian characters, essentially an indestructible idiot with a massive sword who always spoke of himself in third person. His other character was a redneck ninja. Dave was always funny when he played these characters and part of that was due to the fact that we got it. We knew who Conan (the barbarian, not the talk show host. Although someone playing Conan the barbarian looking like Conan O'Brien would be a hoot) the barbarian was, had all played Dungeons & Dragons. We knew what stereotypical rednecks were supposedly like as well as what ninjas were. Dave consistently brought the funny because he understood the target audience-his fellow players-and what made us laugh. When he described the redneck ninja's pickup truck squealing to a stop in a cloud of rust? Priceless.
Bring the funny, not the controversy.
Because players will come from a wide range of backgrounds and have varying tastes it is important to try to cater to as many as possible in order to keep them satisfied, and more importantly not offend or hurt their feelings. To that end where humor is concerned it is vitally important to consider the subject matter. For that reason there are some subjects you will want to avoid. The big ones are race and religion.
There is a film I love called Undercover Brother, it is a spoof of seventies blaxploitation films as well as calling out black stereotypes often seen in modern media, such as the angry black boss, or the smart black scientist wearing glasses (Which can be seen in the GI Joe cartoon series, Doc, who was a medic in the comic but since he was black and wore glasses cartoon writers immediately assumed he was a super smart scientist and wrote him accordingly. These are the same guys who turned master chef and articulate heavy weapons expert Roadblock into a jive talking rhymer.). My brother Jon considers the movie to be racist because all the bad guys are white...which is the point of the film because of what the is spoofing. In Blaxploitation the protagonists guys were always white, the bad guys almost always black (or a black man taking advantage of his people, usually a drug dealer. I think pimping was all right, though. I will have to finish watching Truck Turner one of these days to see how that plot ends). The point is, I think the film is funny because I think I get the jokes and Jon thinks it is racist because he does not. Is Undercover Brother racist? Maybe, a bit. But a lot of humor pushes the envelop and risks offending members of the audience.
So imagine you are running a game and your crew meets a race of aliens that have coal black skin and large white lips. You know, like this:
To a lesser extent, you might want to avoid political humor as well. Politics is often a divisive subject and Political humorists play to a specific audience, and like I said before regarding referential humor, if you use something regarding politics exclusive to your country some of your players might not get it. So that plot where the crew meets the Obomanians and their infamous health care system? Your heavy handed attempt at satire is not going to go over very well.
Keep it clean.
I will keep this brief: I do not get toilet humor. Chances are at least one of your players does not get toilet humor, too. So keep it out of your game, m'kay? Or if you feel you must insert it into your game, try your best to keep it as tactful as humanly possible and you must be confident that your players will get it. For example, in my Vindicators game one of the NPCs (really a PC, but the player has temporarily left the game), Xavious, a PC with x-ray vision, was in a meeting with two PCs and an NPC. One mentioned an NPC they wished to speak with:
"Has anyone checked on Little Big Gun? If she was out of the loop, she knows something's going on. You don't spend that much time in law enforcement and the military without developing a well-honed bullshit detector, and she probably thinks that the 'Baffler made me do it' story stinks as much as we do. If she isn't part of this, and I was in their shoes, dealing with a breakout at a prison for dangerous paranormals, I might take the opportunity to arrange an 'unfortunate accident'..."
"She is downstairs," Xavious said, staring at the floor, "One floor down, in the ladies-"
He turned away, "Awkward."
No details were needed beyond that. By the way, I would not have dared to use this joke in a new game, with players I did not know well. So if you are running a Star Trek game and have a joke regarding space toilets, you might want to re-think it.
Same goes for sex. I tend to run PG-13 games and avoid sexual situations in my adventures. You never know when someone shows a trace of prudishness.
Gee. No race, religion, politics, toilet humor or sex. What's left?
|Little things hitting each other. THAT'S WHAT I LIKE!|
Back? Good. Where was I? Oh, yes. Violence. Violence for the sake of the funny can be a tricky subject to handle. Quite often violence is simply not funny. It is all a matter of context. If a game is based on horror or more realistic films then likely the violence is not going to be too humorous. For example, I did almost nothing about Saving Private Ryan funny, certainly not the horrors of war. However, I found the last Rambo film to be a hoot. Watching guys getting tossed a dozen yards from sniper shots, or Rambo decapitating the guy in the bed of the truck and then turning the machine gun on the guys in the cab, their blood splashing across the windshield? I giggled. Swear to God, I giggled. Still, pretty sure nothing is wrong with me. Pretty sure. But if the game is four color super heroic or a ridiculously over the top then violence for the sake of humor may very well be something all your players can get behind. I have not used much violence for the sake of humor in my games so it is hard for me to advise you how to use language to capture the tone you are looking for, and really some people might be a bit squeamish.
You see, that is the problem with humor that a lot of other genres do not have to worry about. When it comes to horror or romance a wide variety of people have the same triggers, respond to the same things in similar ways. Save for some exceptions romance and horror are apolitical, do not deal with religion or politics. But humor? Some people simply will not get it regardless of whether they were the target audience or not. Humor is something that is frustratingly indefinable.
Know when to leave the stage.
There was a Tex Avery cartoon where a wolf was hunting Droopy and his brothers in a parody of The Three Little Pigs, and he winds up getting bit in the ass by a bull dog (I highly recommend you watch the entire cartoon, but if you lack the time or inclination the point starts at the 5 minute mark and is about a minute long.):
The point is, any joke can get old. It is much more important to end a joke early rather than drag it out. "When is that?" you might ask. Hard to say. Every instance will be different. When in doubt, privately ask a player you trust what he or she might think.
Roasting should only apply to food.
I mentioned above the idea of the PCs being confronted by a practical joker, and perhaps a single player is being targeted. In cases like this you run the risk of making a players PC a laughingstock. No one likes to be laughed at, unless they are being roasted on television, and usually the pain is mitigated by a fat paycheck or the promise of rejuvenating one's sagging career.
I mentioned this incident before when my brother Donald ran a Dungeons & Dragons game. I was playing a half elf swashbuckler, partly because I am a huge fan of the Salkind Musketeer movies (If you ever get a chance to see these films, take it! They are the best adaptation of Dumas' Three Musketeers ever made) and I wanted to try something different. Donald never missed a chance to have NPCs say things like "Aren't all elves fags?" You know, because I was wearing a little lace and my character did not shave. The icing on the cake was when I discovered two other players were also playing half elves, but they looked more human than me. But hey, they laughed right along with Donald every time he said "fag" like they were the living embodiment of Beavis and Butthead. So Donald finally lost a player because he decided to make him-me-the weekly laughingstock.
Now don't think that a player should not sometimes be the focus of humor. The player might actually want to be. He or she may have designed her character to be ridiculous. If so cater to their desires provided it does not overly annoy the rest of the players or detract from the adventure. Just to be on the safe side, though, touch base with your players in private, find out how they feel. They may not be expressing their feelings, they may be volcanoes of repressed magmatic rage ready to explode at any time.
Huh. I had no idea "magmatic" was a word until I used it in a sentence. I was just trying to make a word up to be funny.
I know this article might not feel very helpful, all I have done is tell you what not to do more than tell you how to make your game funny. But I believe when it comes to gaming it pays to be a bit conservative.