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Putting Humour in its Place

April 21, 2009

As any of you who are regular readers here will likely know, when it comes to the written word, I’m a humour junkie. It all started back in my childhood when I picked up a copy of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And through the years I’ve scrounged together quite a collection of signed first editions of humourous novels, and some non-fiction as well.

Though I have a love of many different types of fiction, there are several reasons I lean toward humour. But the primary one is that it’s incredibly difficult to write.

Sure, all writing is difficult—you’ll never hear me deny that. But trying to write funny adds an extra layer of difficulty. Why? What’s so hard about being funny?

There are dozens if not hundreds of ways to be funny. You can have standard world with a sarcastic narrator, everything can be slapstick, or the premise of your story could just be downright bizarre…I could go on and on. But very nearly all of it—in fact nearly all non-written humour as well—comes down to just one thing. Delivering the unexpected.

That isn’t to say that everything unexpected is funny—but the expected is sure not to be funny.

This is particularly important to understand because the corollary to my love of reading comic fiction is that I also love to write comedy. Or at least I used to. Actually, that’s a little misleading…I still love to write it, I’ve just lost the knack. But I’m trying to get it back.

In her essay “Learning to Write Comedy or Why It’s Impossible and How to Do It“, Connie Willis (one of my favorite comic and non-comic writers) says:

There’s no step-by-step method for writing humorous fiction (Step 4: Insert clever wordplay every sixth line) and no easily learned formula. It’s not possible to be taught to write comedy—I doubt if it’s possible to be taught to write anything—but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn. And the way to learn to write comedy is to watch and read comedies and analyze what you’re watching and reading.

So I’ve delved into some of my favorite comic gems, both to try to reignite the spark but also to try to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. During this exploration I’ve also picked up some non-comic books, an even some downright depressing ones and I’ve found out something a bit unexpected.

There is humour everywhere. Nearly every book I’ve read that’s even half-decent has some humour tossed in. Often hand-in-hand with very serious subject matter. John Varley is a great example of this. No matter what his subject matter at least one of the characters—often the first person narrator—has an acidic sense of humour, which peeks it’s head out at some very inopportune times. Even authors who chronicle real-life horror, like the authors of Schindler’s List and Night, juxtapose light humour with the atrocities they describe—the humour making the sadness more poignant.

But why is humour so difficult? To oversimplify it, the situations that create drama and sadness are nearly universal. But what we find funny is much more diverse, and is colored by things like, where we grew up, what our family was like, our education, our friends, what we read, what we learn, and to a certain extent what we are told is funny by others.

Death is one of those things that is universally sad, but a good author can change the timing, or a critical word and some people will find it funny—but not everyone. The trick is to use humour to enhance the story, while not letting the story rely on the humor. That way if one joke or another falls flat, the reader is still involved in the story, instead of feeling left out of something.

To be certain it’s a delicate line, but it can add so much depth to your stories, and your writer’s toolbox.

If you’d like to delve into the funnier side of fiction for yourself, Dale freely recommends any or all of the following: Lamb (or anything else) by Christopher Moore, anything Terry Pratchett ever wrote though Good Omens is a step above the rest, and To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis—and that’s just to whet the appetite.
  1. April 21, 2009 12:04 pm

    I agree humour is a tough thing to get right. However, I would like to meet the guy from the Telegraph newspaper who is always quoted on the back cover as having ‘laughed out loud on the train’. He must be very juvenile, easily pleased or sees the funny side of life in everything, because I have not even sniggered at any book that makes this claim. In fact, if I see that comment on a book, I avoid it at all costs!

    Dialogue is also a great vehicle for humour, and it can be woven in to almost any genre if the author cares to do so. I particularly like Robert Crais and the humour injected in to his detective novels featuring the wonderfully named Elvis Cole!

  2. April 21, 2009 10:02 pm

    I agree with one of your comments Ali – I usually ignore any testimonials on the backs of books – however – lighten up with the laughing bit! I am often caught laughing out loud on trains and buses.. Pratchett tends to be the culprit in most cases ( even if I have re-read them a half dozen times). I don’t think it has to have anything with being juvenile or easily pleased. Witty wordplay and ironic situations coupled with clever observations on our society would be my favourite humorous prose – and the sorts of books I would take into public and if it deserved it – laugh so hard I have tears in my eyes. I can’t be bothered wearing a mask in public – or at home – gets in the way of the flow of creativity.
    Great article Dale – you are right – there is a humerous side to most things in life – it just depends on the slant you take in introducing the event.

  3. April 22, 2009 12:59 am

    Pratchett does it for me every time. There are times I’ve had to just put the book down and walk away, I’m laughing so hard, with tears streaming down my face.

    I think that humorous writing is so difficult because you have to be funny in advance. You can’t gauge the audience, can’t react to their mood and change your material as you go likc a stand-up comic would. And everyone’s sense of humour is different, so you have to work hard to create something that will be universally funny, to the greatest number of people, over the longest period of time (both the length of the book and the years since publication). No mean feat.

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