Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Writing Funny is Hard Work

by Julia Buckley
It was once said that writing is hard work, but writing humor is really hard work. Or words to that effect. So what does it take to write humor? Well, I would suggest that the first step is to have a sense of humor. This would be easy for an author to determine. They could just ask a few honest friends: Do you think of me as a funny person? If the answer is no more than once, then an author probably shouldn't attempt humor writing, since they would lack an authentic voice.

But what is funny, and how would a writer know that it would be funny to all people? Read the works of certain classic humor writers and you'd get a sense of this. Read Erma Bombeck, for example. Or P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber. Their humor is timeless, like the humor of the Marx Brothers. Consider some classic examples from the authors just mentioned.

If you're writing a dialogue about a teenage boy having breakfast with his family, and he wants someone to pass the jam, you might write, "Phyllis, please pass the jam."

In the hands of the great PG Wodehouse, this becomes "Jam please, Phyllis, you pig." (From Mike at Wrykyn).

This is still a quote bandied about in my family, even though my brother, who read it aloud to us when he was in the eighth grade, is now 45 years old. Why? Because it's funny.

It's also funny that James Thurber, in "The Night the Bed Fell," focused not on the falling of the bed, but on the eccentricities of everyone in his family, including his odd cousin Briggs Beall, who had a fear that he would stop breathing in his sleep, and kept spirits of camphor next to the bed in case he needed reviving; or his strange aunt, who was so afraid that a burglar would come and chloroform her in the night that she would stack all of her possessions near the door each night and leave a note saying "This is all I have, so please do not use your chloroform, as this is all I have."

Also a family classic, and an American classic, to be read over and over again, because humor is timeless. That's why I still laugh when Groucho Marx says to poor Margaret Dumont: "Do you know why I was having dinner with her? Because she reminds me of you."

And what person couldn't appreciate the simple, but hilarious, wisdom of Erma Bombeck? For example, her take on matrimony: "Marriage has no guarantees. If that's what you're looking for, go live with a car battery."

Reading humor is a good litmus test for whether or not you're cut out to write humor, in my most humble opinion. Another is whether or not you make people laugh on a regular basis. If you do, start jotting down some of those bon mots and see what you create.

This whole article is moot when you consider the idea that funny can't be explained. If you have to explain it, they say, it's not funny anymore. So I guess it would be hard to put into words why the picture above always makes me laugh--but it does. And twelve years later my son doesn't see what makes it so hilarious. :)


Alan Orloff said...

Funny? I'll know it when I see/hear/taste it.

Sheila Deeth said...

Oh boy! It's been a while since I read Mike at Wrykin! Thanks for the memories. (And I remember my English teacher telling me it's easy to write and make people cry. Much harder to make them laugh.)

Cricket McRae said...

The second I try to write funny, it ain't. All I can do is keep as true to the voice of my main character, whom I personally find amusing, and hope for the best.

Here's a question, though: funny mysteries are very popular, but at what point does something about murder stop being funny and become dangerously glib?

Julia Buckley said...

So what's the last funny thing you saw/heard/tasted, Alan?

Sheila, I had to search and search for a copy of Mike at Wrykyn as an adult. I finally did a book trade with a woman in Tasmania!

Cricket--a good question. I know some people love Evanovich's mysteries (me included), while others think her humor smacks of trying too hard. I think if it's a serious mystery that occasionally shows humor, it's packaged differently than a mystery whose main goal is to get laughs. It's comedy first, mystery second in those cases, and generally the reader seems to know that.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I'm with Cricket--if I *try* to be funny, the humor usually falls flat.

Great post, Julia!


Alice Loweecey said...

I've been told my books are funny in between murder and sleuthing. It's nothing I do intentionally. (Except for the Swedish Chef joke I'm planning for the next book. )

Good post!

Keith Raffel said...

I agree with you all. Try to be funny, fall on your face. Write your character and people may laugh.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I don't think I can invent funny, but I do have a lot of events in my own life I steal for my characters - I figure people laughed at me so they'll when the character does it? (it's funny 'cause it's true)

Kelly said...

I love to laugh, and I like humorous books. I do try to inject a little humor into my stories.
My hubby and I are taking a "Get Funny" online class (me to help with my writing, him just for kicks). We want to see who gets the better grade so we can prove who is funnier ;).

Julia Buckley said...

Good points, all. The consensus seems to be that funny must be organic to the tale, not extrinsic to it.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Humor is so personal it's difficult to define. What's funny to one person is disgusting or odd to another. I write 3 humorous mystery series, all different in their type of humor and degree of humor. The key is keeping the humor true to the characters and the story. That's what keeps it natural.

Julia - that photo made me giggle.

G.M. Malliet said...

I read everything Erma Bombeck ever wrote, at some point. Also Jean Kerr (Please Don't Eat the Daisies)--remember her? Sadly, both these funny, funny women are gone, and I am trying to think of anyone who has taken their place on the suburban-mom circuit.

Beth Groundwater said...

I tend to lean toward writing situational humor, because I've never been very good at telling jokes. I sure like laughing at them when others tell them, though!