Don’t try anything funny!

There’s an old story about an actor or comedian on his deathbed who is asked how it feels to be dying. He shrugs and says, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Certainly the common wisdom among mystery writers is that it’s harder to write funny than to write serious–it was stated several times on the Sisters in Crime list this week. But is it true? Is it harder to write funny?

After consulting with the highest authorities available–my daughters while we drove to school this morning–I’ve reached the following conclusion.

No.

But yes.

Here’s the thing. I personally don’t find it harder to write funny. I automatically gravitate toward a lighter tone or at least a sarcastic voice–I have to rein myself in to write dark-n-gritty. And there’s outside confirmation that my work is humorous: I get on the humor panel at conventions a lot, and at last year’s New England Crime Bake, I was asked to teach a class in using humor in mysteries.

Then again, there’s a bit in Curse of the Kissing Cousins that I thought was so hilarious when a friend told me about it that I stuck it verbatim in the first chapter. If you’ll forgive me quoting my own work, I’ll put it here.

The office’s front door slammed open, and when they heard the raised voices in the lobby, Cooper, Shannon, and Nicole quickly posed themselves as busy worker-bees. Tilda didn’t bother—what was the point of being a freelancer if not to avoid that kind of playacting?

As it turned out, the staff members could have been demonstrating the lambada for all the attention they got. When Jillian and Bryce, respectively editor in chief and managing editor of Entertain Me!, stormed in, the only thing on their minds was continuing their discussion.

“Fuck you!” Jillian said.

“No, fuck you!” Bryce replied.

“No, fuck you!”

“No, fuck you!”

Tilda would have noted the irony of such an argument between two people who were supposedly devoted to publishing clever articles and essays, but she suspected that ironic detachment was no longer in style.

Now I’ve already owned up to thinking this is funny, and I’ve had readers who agreed with me. Then again, I’ve had readers complain about the use of foul language, which is all they took away from this section. (I was recently on a Malice Domestic panel about taboos because of dropping the f-bomb, too, but that’s another post.)

So this points out the tough part about writing humor: it’s really subjective.

Consider the following comedies:

  • The Three Stooges
  • Saturday Night Live
  • The Colbert Report
  • “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
  • “The Importance of Being Earnest”
  • Beavis and Butthead
  • M*A*S*H on TV
  • M*A*S*H the movie
  • The Big Bang Theory
  • Peanuts
  • Pearls Before Swine

All have their fans who claim they’re hilarious, but I don’t think very many people would laugh at all of those. Not everybody even loves Everybody Loves Raymond. 


Language isn’t the only barrier. There are age differences in your readers, varying backgrounds, a multitude of cultural references. Even Thurber’s work got lost in translation in the UK, and that’s theoretically the same language!

So while it may or not be easier to write humor, it’s definitely harder to write universal humor.

Now that issue applies to all kinds of humor, but I think writing humorous prose has some other challenges.

  1. Have you ever heard the secret of humor?Pause.Pause.Pause.TIMING!To put that another way, have you ever heard the secret of hu–  TIMING!

    Now that old joke is a whole lot funnier when spoken out loud because of the–say it with me–TIMING! You just can’t dictate timing in a book.  Sure, there’s pacing, which is similar, but it’s just not the same as a pie appearing out of nowhere.

  2. Have you ever heard about Joe, who went to a comedian’s convention expecting to hear lots of great jokes. Except when he went to the bar, all he heard was people yelling numbers. One yelled, “12,” and everybody laughed. “47.” More laughter. “24.” A fellow fell out of his chair laughing. So Joe asked Mo, the comedian sitting next to him for an explanation. Mo said, “We know each other’s material so well, so now we just call out the numbers and we all remember the joke.”  Joe asked, “Can I tell one?” Mo nodded. Then Joe stood up and said, “13!” Silence. Mo just shrugged and said, “Some people just can’t tell a joke.”Likewise, some jokes don’t come through in print–they have to be spoken. Shakespeare’s comedies are way funnier when performed, with appropriate intonations and gestures to go along with the wit. I once read a book of Jeff Foxworthy‘s “You might be a redneck if…” books, and was underwhelmed, but when when I heard him tell those same jokes with a twinkle in his eye, they were a riot. Moreover now I can read the books, picture Jeff delivering them, and enjoy them.
  3. People don’t laugh as much when they’re alone.There’s a reason why we say, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” My husband Steve did standup one summer, and he quickly found that if one person laughed at a joke, other people would likely join in. Steve started bringing along our friend Kim Allman, who has one of the most infectious laughs ever. I don’t know if people were embarrassed to laugh alone or what, but I know that when Kim laughed, everybody laughed. (That tendency explains sitcom laugh tracks, too.)


    Unfortunately, unless you’ve got Kim with you while you’re reading, you’re not going to have that cue that it’s okay to chuckle. And not even enhanced e-books come with laugh tracks. (Though I probably shouldn’t say that too loud–next year’s releases might include that as a feature.) Of course, you can think something is funny without laughing out loud, but I believe there’s a psychological link between actually laughing and perceiving material as funny.

So I come back to the same answer. No, but yes. And to do this right, I’d end this post with a punch line.

Yeah, it’s a pun and a sight gag, and since a lot of people hate puns, and it’s a sight gag, which isn’t appropriate to prose, and the humor is dependent on your knowing about an ad campaign for Hawaiian Punch. That means I’ve just lost a certain percentage of you people reading this blog.

Humor is funny that way.

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