Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Why Writing Humor Is Hard - You’re funny, but…

I’ve always been able to get people to laugh (or at least groan). I think most people can do this, even people who can’t tell a joke. Some people can be funny without even knowing they are, like Teddy in Stand by Me (and delivering the joke as if you don’t know it’s funny often adds to the laughter).

Some people have humor as part of their identity. Class clowns are obvious, but most of us, sitting down with a few friends, know who reliably will provide the comedy. Or you know a pair that tend to compete with jokes, even if it’s no more than a pun competition.

I could fend off bullies by getting them laugh, which is a fairly good test of having the DNA for comedy. But sitting down to write humor — something people often suggested to me — was difficult for me for years. When it happened, it was almost by accident. I think a lot of writers who could be making us laugh hit the obstacles I did, so I’ll list a few. My hope is this will help you release your inner Mark Twain or Mel Brooks or Erma Bombeck.

Permission. - Claiming the mantle of humorist is difficult. You’re funny? Okay, make me laugh. So being funny on demand (which is part of sitting down to write humor) immediately introduces conflict and guilt. You feel vulnerable. And you never hear laughter when you write a joke (except maybe from yourself — how arrogant does that sound?). Other than a few short stories (tested by reading aloud to a writers’ group), my first paid humor writing was a series of radio PSAs I’d been asked to create. I had explicit permission. Someone believed I could do it and was backing it up with an investment (salaried hours). I was saved by three things.
  • It sounded like fun, so I approached it as play.
  • It wasn’t my real job, so I wasn’t under any real pressure.
  • I knew exactly who had to laugh (my boss).
I wrote about a hundred thirty-second spots, pitch twenty to my boss, and produced ten. The PSAs were a success. (Collaborating to get the bits on tape with actors, a director, someone doing sound effects, etc. provided different lessons in comedy I won’t go into here.)

Audience. — Note that I had a definite audience for my humor in the above example. When you sit down to write a novel or a short story or a script, that isn’t naturally the case. Who is on the other side of your page laughing? Often, it’s just you, but that limits your readers to those who share your tastes, sensibilities, knowledge, culture (including class), interests, etc. One answer is to choose someone you know well as your target audience. For instance, Vonnegut wrote for his sister. That is a highly effective approach, but I learned something writing speeches that I rely on — let the characters talk.

My first speechwriting gig was for two executives with very different sensibilities who often had to talk one after the other, providing different perspectives on a  similar subject. Oh, and I usually had to open each speech with a joke. Imagine having to write for both Stephen Wright and Will Ferrell.  There was a lot of pressure to get this right. I’d moved my family two hundred miles to take the job. And I’d never written a speech before. And I didn’t know I’d have to write jokes. So I listened to each man until I had their voices in my head and I let a lot of jokes come out for each and I chose those that worked. The jokes came from who they were, so they were able to appreciate them and deliver them. (I never pulled a joke from one and gave it to the other, no matter how funny. It wouldn’t have worked.)

This gets applied to my stories today by my taking the time to interview my characters until I know them as well as I did the executives. When my characters say funny things they aren’t what Danny Simon called “joke jokes.” They come from the character.

Half-life. — Another problem is jokes are less funny every time you read them. It is very easy to cut funny bits because they’ve become dull to you. I heard that sitcom writers often mark the parts that make them laugh out loud at the first reading so they don’t get cut. That’s what I do, too. Still have doubts? Test with other people.

Cut. Cut Cut. — I mentioned the hundred PSAs above. Like nothing else I know of, comedy writing benefits from creating a lot of material. Write long. Write alternative versions. Allow yourself to create work you’d never use (or never dare to show anyone). Then ruthlessly delete. And, as with all humor, look to see if you need every word to create something clear and funny. Brevity is the soul of wit, according to Shakespeare.

Timing. — Humor often needs to be set up. The surprise must come at the right time. I think spoken humor develops timing through feedback (laugh/no laugh). Written humor is a little like written poetry. It only really comes alive when read aloud. (Not just heard vividly in your head. Actually spoken.) So read to friend, a cat, a dog, or the wallpaper if necessary. Get the wording right. Delay for effect. Build toward bigger jokes. One surprising benefit I’ve found when I read humorous pieces aloud is I naturally tend to add something that tops or gets another laugh. So I recommend making this part of your routine.

Fallbacks. — How often have you done this (or seen it done)? The wit is missing, the jokes are dying, and the funny person snorts or makes a face or adds an incongruous quip. Performance humor can access go-to, sure laughs to recover the audience. It’s difficult to diagnose failed jokes in print and a lot of the fallbacks of performance can’t be used in prose. Danny Simon (speaking of sitcoms) recommended regularly throwing lines to the laugh-getters. Think Ted Baxter in The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Jim "Iggy" Ignatowski in Taxi. Or Shakespeare’s clowns. Including weird or foolish characters in your stories can pay off, especially when exposition is needed. (In work that is more dramatic, these characters can be used for comic relief.)

Human experience. — The absurd and the silly have their place in comedy. But the stories that really pay off are those that have familiar touchstones and fresh insights. Often humor is processed anger and despair, which I’d wish on no one. Since a surprising point of view is vital to much of experienced-based humor, neuroses often play a part (maybe use neurotic characters rather than amplify your own neuroses). The sure (and healthy) bets for including this kind of humor are observation and curiosity. Pay attention to what is going on around you (especially to the stories of people around you and whatever touches you personally). Explore your world, digging deeply into what catches your attention.

If you think you have the knack, I hope you take a chance at writing humor. I think we need more fun in this world, and I hope a lot of it, rather than bitter truths with a twist, will be giving, loving. gentle, insightful, and connecting. The things that divide us seem less horrible and terrifying when we laugh together. Sharing moments we find funny and amusing and expressing our joy, surprise, and understanding with a good laugh can revive us and help us to recognize the humanity in each other.

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