How to Punk Your Steam Part 7.3: Make ’em Laugh (Some More)
Let’s Get Something Straight
More than likely, the comedy you will want to work into your Steampunk work will be in the form of dialogue. The tried and true method for these interactions is to have one “clown” and one “straight man” (or woman). The various antics of the clown are augmented by the straight man’s reactions, which can range from total serious detachment to anger. Your combo could be a servant/master, a hero/sidekick, siblings, husband and wife or any other combination of two people you want. The straight man’s job is most often to represent society at large, while the clown (also called “the banana man” or “comedian”) is there to transgress it.
The moniker “clown” may put you in mind of a buffoon, but this half of the duo doesn’t necessarily need to stupid or slow. I saw a great example of this dynamic in a steampunkish setting at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. There is a fantastic magical act called Morgan and West, and while both men performed amazing acts of prestidigitation, one is clearly acting as the straight man. Here is an example:
Usually, it’s the clown who gets all the laughs, but not always. In Jeeves and Wooster, for instance, it is usually Jeeves (Stephen Fry) who uses his droll delivery to elicit the chuckles while his charge Bertie Wooster (Hugh Laurie) bumbles through life and occasionally sings a silly song. Wooster is definitely the clown in the pair, but is not funnier than the straight man.
You also don’t need to commit to an arrangement for the duration of a whole novel if you don’t want. Characters have moods and circumstances change, so your duo may not be in comedic place in the story every step of the way. Your clowns can also be fleeting members of your cast of characters. In the book I am writing, I realized I have a few different “clowns” who interact with various members of my core group of characters so they serve the purpose of a foil, but I also don’t have to keep them around any longer than I need to for their primary purpose (exposition, lightening the mood, etc). Take the excerpt below, for example. I’d love to get some feedback on this bit of dialogue 🙂 Olivia is one of my POV characters, and Tina is her cousin.
“Well, then you will have plenty of time to play with me before you leave me behind, alone, to fend for myself,” Tina put on a theatrical pout and placed her hand daintily to her forehead in mock despair for a moment before she laughed.
“Oh come,” said Olivia, “We both know I will have to be here at the Mews all the time anyway.” A new servant brought out the silver tea service that flashed in the sunlight that broke through the leaves. She was followed by another with an array of delicate nibbles that were artfully displayed on a four-tiered server. “Really, it was all I could do to convince Uncle that I should be moving out at all.”
“Why yes,” said Tina as she reached for a meringue, “he may have to resort to holding a gala every night. Tragic really.” Her eyes twinkled with possibilities.
“Oh please don’t suggest it! My feet and my dressmakers can hardly keep up as it is.”
“Then I suppose it’s a good thing you are going.” Tina popped the tart into her mouth and continued with her mouth full. “Imagine the scandal if your feet fell off during a party. Uncle would never live it down.”
Olivia smiled and added two lumps of sugar that came to a tinkling stop in her empty porcelain cup. “Unfortunately for the rest of you, someone would probably declare it the newest trend and you would all be expected to cut yours off, too.”
“Fashion is fickle, I’ll give you that.” Tina poured the tea. “So, speaking of scandal, we didn’t get a chance to talk last night after your rendezvous. I’ve been dying to know what happened.” Olivia looked around briefly alarmed but the servants had totally vacated the garden now so there was no one to overhear. “What, them? They wouldn’t say anything even they did hear.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“I’ve been getting you in to trouble for years and not one of your staff has ever tattled on us,” Tina scoffed. “What’s different now?” She peered at Olivia over the brim of her cup as she blew the steam off.
“I don’t know. Maybe because the stakes are higher than a broken cookie jar?”
“When you’re six the stakes don’t get much higher,” Tina pointed out.
The scene goes on for several more pages, but after this encounter the readers won’t see Tina again (at least not in book 1). I try to use her first as a foil for Olivia (whom the reader has only just met) and later to facilitate exposition, but I don’t have to make a commitment to her as a character for the duration.
And of course, you don’t have to use this method. Characters could riff off each other just as easily as they can act as foils. There must be some reason these people are spending time together, and it probably has something to do with feeling the other has a good sense of humor. I asked the Mister who he thought was funnier out of the two of us, and he said it was probably me, but so often we are playing off one another it is difficult to really make that judgment call. I’ll leave you here at the end of Part 3 of this How to Punk Your Steam article with a re-creation of a real conversation we had the other day when we sighted longhorn sheep in the Badlands, but come back next time for some recommendations for funny Steampunk books, movies and television shows.
Him: It looks like the sheep are all leaving. I guess they are sick of getting their picture taken.
Me: You’d think they’d be “ewe-sed” to it by now, wouldn’t you?
Him: Perhaps they are on the “lamb.”
Me: They could just be feeling “sheepish.” Or they’ve had enough they are collectively throwing up their hooves and saying “baa-humbug.”
Him: That really gets my goat.
Me: I bet they “herd” us coming.
Him: Don’t worry, they’ll be back. They are just “kid-ding” around.
Me: Oof, that one was “baaaaad.”
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