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October 18 2006

When NOT to go for the funny. Jane Espenson tackles the question "How to write jokes that aren't funny" and uses Xander as an example.

I tweaked your entry to make it a little bit more relevant for the front page and our RSS feed subscribers.
Thanks, Simon. This was my first stab at posting a story.
Writing non-funny jokes...that's easy!
Interesting post by La Espenson. I think the way Xander worked as a character made it clear which type of non-joke he was making (and he did all 3 listed at some point).

Oz, on the other hand, only really did 'cool' non-jokes i.e. they're so unfunny that that they're actually (intentionally) ironically funny I think partly because his character had a certain understated 'fuck you'-ness to it (he was so self-contained that you knew that, apart from a select few, he didn't really care whether people laughed or not) whereas Xander also used humour as an attempt to integrate and to gain approval.

(pretty much all of Buffy's jokes were unfunny ones too, sometimes to illustrate a funny character quirk in her i.e. the quirk is funny/cute, the joke not so much. Which is not to say Buffy wasn't funny, she was hilarious but not usually, IIRC, when she was consciously making a joke)

To weave this thread with the suckiest character ending thread in a sort of funny/sucky macrame of death, Wash was about to relieve the tension (in fact was mid-relief) when he gets skewered, and for me part of what made it so shocking was this subversion of Wash's usual role as tension pricker (you're all set to laugh, status quo restored, when BAM !, status very much un-quo).
I'm an expert at it, Rogue Slayer. Go me.
Which is not to say Buffy wasn't funny, she was hilarious but not usually, IIRC, when she was consciously making a joke)


SPIKE: (disappointed) Oh. So that's all. You've just come to pump me for information.

BUFFY: What else would I wanna pump you for? (cringes) I really just said that, didn't I?
It is an interesting topic, I'm trying to remember if Xander told any jokes in The Body deliberately to relieve the sheer hell that Buffy and her friends were going through.
He pushed his hand trough a wall. I love Jane's writing. And I too think coma is hilarious.
Ya know, simon, I think there's very little of that from Xander in "The Body" -- and in the dorm, it's actually Willow that makes several attempts to lighten the atmo with levity.

But along those lines, there are these two small remarks by Xander:

BUFFY: Giles says he's gonna go over the paperwork.
XANDER: Man, if there's one day they should
not give you homework.

and this attempt to "compensate" for Anya:

ANYA: (a little too loudly) I wish that Joyce didn't die...
ANYA: (more quietly) ...because she was nice. And now we all hurt.
XANDER: (embarrassed) Anya, ever the wordsmith.


(Congrats, fey_girl, on your first post. I think my first was a JE blog, too. She rocks the Casbah on writing the funny...)
Well done, fey_girl. :)

Yup, QuoterGal, I think that the very lack of attempts to lighten things up by Xander in The Body is yet another choice that makes the whole thing so uncomfortable and so visceral, just as Jane suggests it can. We look to him to please-dear-god drop those little levities on us, as we often look for a score to guide us through the emotional minefield. And when he can't, he won't, we're left with the deafening silence. Ugh. Brilliant.

[ edited by barest_smidgen on 2006-10-18 20:53 ]
The only funny thing I remember him doing was punching the wall, which wasn't really a deliberate attempt at a joke. But it set up Willow, "Where did your hand go?" and then the humourous Xander line, "In my defence, some crappy wallmanship."
Sometimes I cant help but think that all fast food hamburger names sound kind of dirty.
I am juvenile.
He makes some cracks about the "crappy wall" through which he puts his fist, there's actually sorta a run of weak jokes about it...
Ha - the third example brought one of those wonderful surround-sound Buffy flashbacks to me (the ones where you have to spend a second working out wether it's a real memory or just an episode).
The Zeppo is a perfect example of Xander trying to make light of the situation and Jack is Not Laughing.

Xander: What? Starting something? Like that Michael Jackson song, right? That was a lot of fun. 'Too high to get over, yeah, yeah...' Remember that fun song?
To me, Xander's biggest cringer was in Tabula Rasa: "I just got back the memory of seeing King Ralph..."

Yikes. Really, really bad. And I always hoped that it was intentionally so (from whoever wrote it). Even though it was yet another attempt by him to lighten things up for just a sec, it was wildly inappropriate at that moment, and not even close to funny.
Inappropriate humour is pretty central to Xander actually--especially in early seasons, where it doubles as his primary way of expressing anger. "Man, that guy got some major neck in his day" in "What's My Line, Part 2" comes to mind.

The thing about "The Body" is that the entire episode is filled with jokes that just sort of miss the mark. We have Dawn telling the cute boy how her classmate didn't know how to pronounce "Annals." The parking ticket being delivered and Anya finding Willow's purple sweater both function as punchlines to earlier setups. And the gang coming back with tons of snacks, with Willow's understated, "We panicked" and Buffy's "Uh-huh." The fact that all of these are actually somewhat funny, out of context, makes them all the more wrenching.
One of my favorites:

Hey, party in my eye socket and everyone's invited!

...sometimes I shouldn't say words.


That last has become an oft-uttered expression Chez Chris in Virginia.
CiV, that's one I have quoted myself from time to time.

I really enjoy Jane's blog. Her tips on writing are excellent, of course, and it's always fun to hear what she ate for lunch. Her tastes are eclectic ;).

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