THAT’s Not Funny!

One of the things that annoys the living daylights out of me are reviewers or even elder writers who think that humor is somehow a lesser form of the fiction writing art. They act as if any fool can write humor.

To an extent they are of course right. Any fool can write humor just like any fool can write tragedy. The thing comes down ultimately not to whether you can write something. Assuming you know how to form letters, have a crayon and some smoothed-out wrapping paper and can stop from drooling on your handy work, you can write anything you very well please. The question is, can one write it a way anyone else will enjoy it? And there, I submit, humor has a lower rate of success than practically any other mode of fiction writing.

I think that – or at least the fact I believe that – is why I came to humor late. In fact, years ago when Mike Resnick invited me to one of the This Is My Funniest collections, my choice was between mildly amusing and very silly, as I had exactly two published short stories that were sort of funny. (Elvis Died For Your Sins was eventually chosen.) I still don’t do much humor in short stories, or at least I haven’t so far. Of course, the Daring Finds mysteries are funny, and almost all my novels have humor in them – dosage varying.

If you’re a beginner go for horror – particularly graphic horror. Why? Because it’s easy. When I’m very tired, that’s where I go. And look, I don’t even read the stuff. I just write it. This is because, in the exact same way a novel is more forgiving than a short story, a horror story is always more forgiving than humor. If the mood gets a little wobbly, you just throw in another awful event, lovingly and detailedly described, and voila, you’re back on track. While in humor if the mood gets off track, you might have trouble getting a smile off your next funny bit – and you might shock the reader by trying to get it.

Also, every novel calls for serious stuff. The lightest and fluffiest of novelistic vol au vents requires some suspense, some anxiety, some struggle. How do you work that in with humor. (Carefully, that’s how!) Get the wrong mix in there and you either have a formless giggle-fest or you lost the funny in the serious.

Worse,  do humor the wrong way and you come across as a smug twit making in jokes that your readers don’t get.

I didn’t realize this until I was trapped (long story) in the reading of a self published author years ago. She was reading what she clearly thought was a very funny passage, and giggling to herself all the time. I honestly don’t know which was more infuriating: the fact that we didn’t know any of these characters so their lines were at best “meh” or that she would stop and explain “you see, that’s funny because she’s his wife.” I think one thing we can all agree on is that if you have to explain a joke, you already lost.

Mind you, I’m well aware that the author was reading from something like chapter 24 and it was the second book of a series. By the time you got there, it’s entirely possibly you’d find this sequence hilarious. Maybe. But the fact that the writer didn’t seem to realize it wouldn’t be funny out of context gave me pause. And it made me realize how difficult humor truly is. Fail to “plant the seeds”, to foreshadow the humor, and what you have are two guys talking to each other about something you don’t understand, and laughing. After a while – though you know it’s silly – you start feeling the joke is on you. That the writer is DELIBERATELY keeping you out of it. And before you know it, you’re mad at the writer and at the book.

I can’t teach you to write humor. You can learn, but it will take some study. Before I could write it, I could make people crack up at parties and dinner, and when I finally started writing it, I used some of the same techniques. I will now share some of these, and hopefully you’ll be able to analyze say Pratchett (who does humor tons better than I do) and figure it out the rest of the way.

So… a few rules.

1- Make either your premiss hilarious and your narration deadpan, or your premiss absolutely straightforward, but the narration or the way the character approaches the problem, totally zany. If you try to do both of them “funny” it won’t improve the effect. On the contrary, it will dilute it. If you write both of them seriously… well…

2 – Make sure the joke is not aimed at anyone. Jokes are like weapons. Even if you know the person doesn’t mean to kill you, you feel vaguely discomfitted as it sways your way. So, try to have your character either make fun of him/herself or have the joke be on the main character. (This is totally a personal preference, but I hate the humiliation humor that Hollywood engages in so often, you know, someone is tricked or cajoled into some premiss that will eventually embarrass him mortally when the big reveal comes. As the premiss piles deception on deception and the character makes more of a fool of himself, I start cringing. So, it is not what I mean by this. More that your character doesn’t take himself/herself TOO seriously. Take Dyce’s continuous assurance that organic food can kill you because it doesn’t have enough preservatives. Of course she knows better, as does the audience. But she’s broke, can’t afford organic, and, let’s face it, much of it tastes like cardboard. So she’s making fun of her situation and the fact she is not able to convince herself to eat the stuff. The same with her pretending the phone conspires against her. She’s mildly exasperated by the fact that she can never find the phone, so she pretends it’s sentient.)

3- Don’t have your characters laugh. This is the corollary of “don’t let your characters cry.” If you build up the emotional pressure and don’t let your characters cry, then the reader does, because someone has to. In the same way, if you build up the insanity and your characters don’t laugh, the reader has to. At the same time, if your characters laugh all the time and the jokes misfire… well… do you remember old sitcoms with laugh tracks? Remember when the jokes were utterly lame, but you still heard people laugh? Remember wanting to punch the tv? (Okay, maybe that was only me. But it still annoyed most people.)

4 – Build on it. Or in other words, foreshadow, foreshadow, foreshadow. I often plant a “thread” of humor in a short story. For instance, in the beginning of A Fatal Stain, it’s like every one can read Dyce’s thoughts. That’s not true, of course, but she starts thinking it, and then every time someone guesses what she was thinking (and which is usually pretty outlandish) it builds on the joke and it gets funnier and funnier. Pratchett is the master of this. For homework, read one of his books – which one doesn’t signify – and analyze every time a funny “thread” pops up and how it was built.

5- Try a little tenderness. Look, this humor thing has changed over the centuries. Dumas could have Porthos be dumb and encouraged his readers to feel superior to and laugh at him. These days, when reading is a more… selective amusement, people don’t want to read about dumb characters and there’s something icky about making fun of a man’s natural limitations. But if instead you make him have issues with words, though very smart in other ways, you can have fun showing his complex thoughts getting short-circuited on the way to the mouth. My best friend as a kid was SEVERELY dyslexic, as opposed to mildly dyslexic as I am, and I watched this process many times. You feel sorry for the person, but it’s still somewhat funny, because you know what they’re thinking and what comes out and how people will react to what comes out.  I don’t often use dyslexic characters, but I do use characters who are flustered, embarrassed or in love. So… try a little tenderness. Show the human side of your funny character. Nobby is Pratchett’s funniest – and most repulsive – character, but he’s not wholly despicable. Yeah, he’s a petty thief, etc, but when the chips are down, he comes through and helps save others. Also, as we learn of his background, we see how he got to be as he is and we feel sympathy towards him. The point is, if we’re going to laugh with someone, it’s easier if we like him.

6- Above all, don’t take yourself too seriously. No matter how funny you get, Pratchett will be funnier. (Kind of like in space opera, no matter how good you get, Heinlein did it better. Also, earlier.  At least for the type of space opera I aspire to doing.) So, figure out the mechanics and enjoy the ride. And then everyone will have fun.

7 responses to “THAT’s Not Funny!

  1. Now I’m paranoid. I’ve managed a funny… well, the Knights aren’t exactly a short story and they aren’t exactly anything you can classify except funny, and then there’s ConVent – which I’m told needs multiple spray warnings. Worse, I’ve got no idea what techniques I used. I just did it.

    • Some people are either to lucky or too talented to live. And then there’s me. 😛 Actually ConVent is a perfect example of treating a serious subject — murder and undead preying on humans — in the zaniest way possible. Tarnished knights just upends what we expect.

  2. Okay, I found this article enormously helpful. Thank you very much!

  3. Stephen Simmons

    I’m with Kate. I’m afraid that thinking about it too much will land me in what Spider Robinson caled “The Centipede’s Dilemma”. (Which is an excellent story, by the way …) I’m working hard on trying to learn craftsmanship, in terms of things like plotting and foreshadowing, and making sure the audience sees what I want them to see, and dialogue that doesn’t make me gag … but I’m afraid to look too closely at the emotion. When things are flowing well for me, the funny seems to come out in ways that other people find funny, and the emotional scenes seem to make people gt that lump in their throats just a bit … though I don’t seem to have your gift for getting people to actually cry.

    But I’m paranoid that analyzing it too much would be like cutting open the goose to see where the gold eggs came from.

  4. I have been musing over the topic of humour for some decades (yes, I admit: I am slow at times) and one conclusion addresses your 2nd & 5th points. Humour seems to come in two flavours: exclusionary and inclusionary.

    Exclusionary humour serves as reinforcement of group norms. This is most prevalent in political humour and in High School humour (but I repeat myself.) It depends for its effect upon a sharing of values between the humourist and the audience, but does not depend upon any objective validity. These are jokes that serve up an outsider for mockery (e.g., Bill Maher’s recent jape that when Sara Palin heard about the tsunami striking Japan, she said we should declare war on Tsunam.) The problem with these types of jokes is obvious, especially when they ridicule a person based upon some attribute such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or nationality. Even when they are funny they leave the sensible person feeling unclean.

    Inclusionary humour depends upon enabling us to see past superficial differences to a common humanity. Bill Cosby is a master of this type, telling stories about his childhood that have me rolling on the floor even though I am not Black and did not grow up in any of America’s Northeastern urban communities. Such humour is often self-deprecatory, evoking sympathy from the audience based upon recognition of shared traits, such as a certain proclivity toward verbosity, pompousness and a propensity for typing badly.

    Like any dichotomy, this is oversimplifies. Some humour can be both ex- and in- clusionary, depending on the audience’s inclination to feel smugly superior or to identify with the butt of the joke.

    This is one reason it is generally bad manners to ridicule a person for typoes — He who does best be sure to have never mistyped a word Himself — but even there exceptions can occur. Barflies may recall a certain individual who apparently, whenever she typed the title of John Ringo’s first novel invariably mis-typed it as AHhymen Before Battle; but the teasing she received readily acknowledged the mutual risk of such errors.

  5. Mike Barker

    Wait a minute. Dyce’s phone isn’t sentient?

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