Make ‘em laugh

There’s an old adage in show biz that goes “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Photography can be similar. It’s easy to show some emotions in pictures. You can tell when someone is happy, sad or angry without much effort. Showing humor is another story. I think part of the problems that humor is very subjective. Everyone has a little different take on what’s funny.

The San Francisco Bay Area Press Photographers Association (SFBAPPA) used to have a monthly photo contest for its members and one of the categories was “humor.” Sometimes I would see the humor in some of the winners, other times not so much. Don’t get me wrong. They were excellent photos, they just weren’t that funny to me.

Several years ago I entered the SFBAPPA contest of a girl feeding animals at a petting zoo at the San Joaquin County Fair. She was feeding a llama with one hand while trying to keep a goat from eating an ice-cream cone filled with feed in the other hand. I thought it was cute and mildly amusing, but not out-and-out funny and I didn’t expect to win. It got a first place.

There’s a difference of people being funny and others “doing” funny. For comedians, clowns and the like, It’s their job. Photos of the them can be naturally humorous. But if you can capture people doing something ordinary in an unusual way or something unusual as if it were an everyday occurrence, that can be even funnier.

Way back in 1995 I was out covering a heavy rainstorm. I spotted three pre-teen boys in the Lincoln Village neighborhood of Stockton. They were asking home from school when they stopped near an intersection that was flooded with several inches of rain water. The boys were prompting passing cars to speed up to cause large splashes of water to spray on them. They were soaked to the bone but having a great time. I have often wondered what their mothers said to them when they got home.

Sometimes all you need is just a little twist on a normal take to make things funny. In 2011, I shot a Stockton Thunder Hockey game at the Stockton Arena. The Thunder’s Garet Hunt got into a fight with Bakersfield Condors’ Pascal Morency. Hockey players fight all the time. Nothing inherently unusual or necessarily humorous about that. But a woman just on the other side of glass partition that surrounds the rink was laughing and having a grand ol’ time watching the two men pummel each other. The fight wasn’t funny but how the woman reacted to it was.

Another saying goes “brevity is the source of wit. To communicate it’s intent, a photo, like a joke, should be concise and to the point. Any extraneous information or rambling explanations can kill a joke. In the same vein, a photo that’s cluttered or takes to long to show the viewer what’s going on in the picture, will fail to communicate its humor. If a picture that has any chance to be funny, it first has to be what’s known in the business as a “quick read.” Mastering that is as key to photographing humor as is learning how to do a punchline, pratfall or pie in the face is to comedy.

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  • Blog Author

    Clifford Oto

    Clifford Oto, an award-winning photographer, has been with The Record since 1984. Through the changes from black and white to digital photography, he’s kept his focus on covering the events, people and life of San Joaquin county. This blog deals ... Read Full
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