The Wise Of Being Funny
Let’s get the expected brilliance out of the way first, shall we? Essentially, humor is an unlikely pairing of contrasts that reverses the reader's anticipated expectations. It requires a certain structure and pace, and these things are dependent on one another. Structure is the building humor resides in, and pace is the speed at which you walk through that building. Done right, the savvy writer can seamlessly put a clever twist on a commonly held notion. That’s all there is to being funny. The engaged reader is surprised in the end. It’s that simple. Huh? What?
I told you it was brilliant. :) But is this helpful to you? No. We all know this stuff, right? But can we apply it? I’m talking to the writers out there that don’t traditionally write ‘funny’ and have a hard time incorporating humor into their stories. Why can’t they make that universal concept -- contrasts vs. expectations -- work for them? It’s simple enough, so it should be easy. Well, it’s not. There, aren’t you glad I said that?
I’m also going to say that even if a writer isn't funny in person, she can write comedy with the proper tools and the desire to do so. Maybe she won't be able to do it as easily or frequently as someone who has the knack for it, but regardless, she still has an advantage. She has time on her side to convince the reader that her character or situation is funny. Unlike the stand-up comic or witty individual in a bar, a writer has the opportunity to edit/cut/paste and be critiqued before introducing her version of funny to the world. Stop and think about that -- it’s pretty powerful. You have the time to make it work, so let’s concentrate on that and have some fun. Brilliant is not, cough, my style -- an easy to understand example is. :D
First things first, you need to decide what you want the funny to be. Let's touch on two very different types of comedy: outrageous situations and physical comedy. For an example of an outrageous situation, let's say: Your hero has sworn off women, having been dumped by the love of his life just weeks before, so he decides to join the United World Order Of Inter-Galactic Space People Organization to sulk in solitary space for a good long while. During his first mission out, he crashes his depressed ass on Amazonia, a planet populated by beautiful warrior women. What will he do? Hmm...I know I feel sorry for him because like every self-respecting male out there, he’s going to stick to his original plan and not screw any of the legions of women wanting a piece of him, right? ;) Well, my version wouldn't be a mantasy, so he would stick to his plan. Talk about outrageous! Really, what could be funnier than a guy pining for the witch he left behind, while the angels before him want to set him up in a castle and give him an unlimited beer supply, a tap into the universe's biggest broadcasting station (so he can watch every sport known to man and alien alike all day and night), daily foot massages, and permission to scratch himself whenever and wherever the mood strikes. All he has to do in return is agree to impregnate their queen who is a genetic mutation of Heidi Klum and Pamela Anderson (the cartoon version of this story would hire Jessica Rabbit for the part). Gee, just imagine the potential for additional humor as the Amazonian women keep upping the temptations.
Now, look at what I did there.
1. I introduced the subject: our recently dumped hero.
2. I set up the situation by giving him a common problem the reader can relate to: being dumped. I mean, if I said the hero was depressed because someone else beat him to the discovery of a new species of fly, it wouldn't work. I doubt many readers would know how important that discovery is to the world, so the level of our hero’s depression over being beaten to the find of the century couldn’t be measured. We need a common bond to connect with -- hence the dumping. Most of us, unfortunately, can relate that situation. :)
I also gave him an unreasonable, and yet plausible, goal: swearing off women. I backed up his reactionary emotional state by having him make a drastic decision, joining the Inter-Galactic Space People Organization. Again, we can understand this, can’t we? When we’ve been hurt, it’s human nature to make changes to prevent it from happening again. And when we’ve been rejected, the last place we want to find ourselves on a daily basis is facing the person who dumped us (so a space mission right about now sounds good). In this situation, it's normal to get an ‘Oh yeah, I’ll show you’ attitude. So here he is, piloting his first flying saucer mission, ready to prove to the love he aches for (but will never admit that he does) that he can do just fine without her. But then the unthinkable happens. He crashes in Amazonia, where thousands of beautiful women -- scantily clad, of course -- desire him.
3. Here comes the irony: He’s sworn off women, remember? Now, if he had made that decision arbitrarily, this could still be funny on some level. But what makes our scenario even funnier is that he’s pining for his one true love, so it doesn’t matter how many beautiful women want him -- not one of them is the one he wants. That's funny.
Just like when you tell a joke, this example used layers to make the situation funny. You need to introduce a universal connection right away, something the listener can comprehend quickly (in my example, it’s the hero getting dumped), or else the explanation for the joke is too long and your audience loses interest. Yet also notice that, while outrageous, we can still relate to the situation because it’s all based on truths. We all get dumped and we all feel bad, and yes, some of us have been known to make drastic changes in our lives when this happens. If we're honest, we all secretly dream of making the person who rejected us regret their decision by doing great without them. And for a certain amount of time, no matter how much we want it to be otherwise and no matter how upset we are with the dumper, we still secretly want them -- that’s human nature. Now, give all those truths a twist, such as presenting the common gripes by women about stereotypical males and you have your humor.
Many writers' attempts to inject humor into their work fall flat because they've forgotten the most basic principle of comedy: Good humor is based on human frailties. The weaknesses we all share give us the best material. The closer we stick to the truth, the funnier things become, because subconsciously, it gives us the opportunity to laugh at ourselves. A writer must seek out the truth to create her humor, or else her prose could come off as mocking, embarrassing, or ridiculing her characters, or god forbid, the reader.
These risks bring me to the concept of written physical comedy (slapstick). A number of self-professed 'un'-funny writers tend to explore this method when they want to bring humor into their stories. Why? We've all seen the bloopers where people fall, so having a character slip in puddle and ruin her dress would seem like a logical scene to attempt. After all, we've laughed at this (I know I’m guilty). But why is it funny? It’s visually appealing. Makes sense. Visually? Hmm. This is trickier than you think and it requires even more layering to be effective. In this instance, the more details the better.
Example: Jonathon rushed to her side while she sat in the puddle. When he took in her miserable state, he wanted to smile. Then when she looked up at him with a scowl, he was tempted to laugh. (This is cute, but underdeveloped.)
She sat elegantly in the mud puddle, almost as if she waited for a servant to hand her a bath towel. Jonathon shook his head over that, but maintained a casual air as he arrived at her side. He kept his smile in check until she looked up at him. A large blob of wet earth stuck on the side of her head, just over her left ear, slowly slid downward, leaving a grubby smear across her face. Brown speckles dotted her cheeks and her eyelashes spiked together in soggy points from their recent drenching. But it wasn’t until her brows lifted in a belligerent ‘what?', which caused the clump at her temple to splat onto her shoulder, that he stepped back, out of spatter range, and chuckled.
What’s the difference here? Um, besides my overuse of adjectives. ;D It’s finding the absurd. It wasn’t just a puddle she sat in, it was a mud puddle that she elegantly sat in. Your props as a writer for nailing physical comedy are words -- choose them wisely. Look at the words in the second example: blob instead of pile, grubby instead of dirty. Actually, smear is funny to me for some reason too -- it reminds me of a bagel and lox. And the phrase: a belligerent ‘what?’ That has a look to itself, doesn’t it? To me, writing slapstick means drawing more on the senses and introducing rich details. The humor of slapstick is seeing the action, and if you don’t use the best words to describe the action, it will fall flat when you attempt to convey it to the reader.
Okay, words of wisdom to impart...
No matter what type of humor you attempt, use metaphors, similes, action verbs, and colorful adjectives (<-my favorite!), and take the time to think up new ways to say old things. Or use running jokes, or plan something funny for the duration of a story. For instance, I have a heroine who messes up her metaphors, and the hero is a real stickler for all things proper, so he continuously gets exasperated and corrects her. The funny part comes in because she doesn’t give a crap, and it isn’t until the end of the book when her good friend, after witnessing them go through a typical exchange on the subject, says: “What’s up with that? You doing that just to piss him off?” The heroine doesn’t miss a beat. She says, “Yeah. Are you ready to go to the mall?” That’s it. It’s funny because the reader gets the inside joke. It isn’t explained or excused -- it just is. If I had her qualify the 'yes' with an added 'because', it would lose its shine. The reader, if I’ve done my job right, should understand my heroine enough to know that this is her personality. In fact, this behavior should seem so much like a part of her character, the reader is surprised they didn’t see it coming... :D
And now you know the 'wise' and the 'whys' of being funny. Don't you love surprises?
Editor's Note: Thank you, Murphy, for answering the call when we asked for someone to blog about humor writing. Everyone, Murphy picked today for her post to go live because she says today is the one-year anniversary of the date she found this blog. So let's all celebrate with her in the comments, shall we? Or commiserate. As you choose. :) Theresa