Monday, February 21, 2005
I find that the most difficult task in writing is to try to be funny. Trying to be funny is a paradox. Funny means freedom from constraints so the more you try, the less successful you will be. The second most difficult task in writing is to try to tell other writers how to be funny. The most boring book I ever read was one written about the facets of humor.
Humor requires a perfect mix of sarcasm, word play, exaggeration, misdirection and paradox. However, the three most important issues in writing humor are: timing, timing and a dose of insanity. Perfect timing demands that you focus your story immediately -- if not sooner. Once you get your story moving, you need to figure out how to make each line a buildup to a laugh -- or a smile as a reasonable alternative.
Comedy involves more dramatic tension than drama. Comedy uses tension differently than drama. You build comic tension from a series of slightly off-kilter decisions or mismatched ideas and expand it towards the ridiculous, though it doesn't have to go over the line to become slapstick. In the example to follow, I take two situations with which everyone is familiar and build them into household disasters waiting to happen. An example of insanity is the ability to see common household objects as macabre, life-threatening objects and everyday situations as moments fraught with potential for immediate disaster.
Another critical element of comedy is your need to develop the rhythm that comedy must possess to grab the reader. The opening hook needs to be brief and funny because the first few words gives the reader the mind set for comedy. Like a magician’s patter to his audience, the opening line sets the reader up to follow the story she believes you are planning to tell. When you take the story in an unexpected direction, the reader is jolted and, if you planned properly, will find the story funny.
The best comic writer-journalists during the latter half of the twentieth century include: Dave Barry, and the much missed Erma Bombeck and Mike Royko. Each take (took) a facet of life and satirized it. They use(d) a pretend-serious overlay, a madness that made their conclusions seem real. Funny can be poignant as well as “ha-ha” funny, but you need to know what effect your words are going to have on your reader more in comedy than any other form of writing. There is almost zero margin for a flat line. Once the reader has lost the fun of the story, you may never recapture her.
Every phrase of a comedic story or article needs to be synchronized to lead to a conclusion that will lead to another problem – including the final issue raised. Ultimately, just when the reader is wrung out, you find some way to bring the piece to an end while the reader is shouting, "More!"
If your opening sentence hangs like an anvil, you will lose the reader before you have time for a warmup. How can an idea be presented so that the reader will find it funny?
Let’s try an example. Here’s the basic facts: The storyteller is a tradesman who works seasonally and is unemployed three months each year during which time he stays home and takes care of the house. So far, not very funny. There’s nothing funny about being taken out of your identity each year and dropped into a role for which you are ill prepared. Aha! There is the seed of possible comedy. No, not unemployment – ill prepared. When someone is ill prepared, (scatological expletive deleted) happens. What happens when this macho man is faced with chores? Can his take on them be funny? Will he expand his skewed view of household life enough to amuse you as a reader? A lighthearted comparison of seasonal unemployment to house husbandry (is there such a word? - I don't care, it fit in the take I used) allows the reader to see from the inception that this guy isn't serious, so, I (the reader) don't have to be either.
The horror of writing about humor is that no matter what you do to try to describe it, you can’t show much humor. So, instead, allow me to put my fools cap and bells on and pretend I’m a comedy writer. If the following vignette isn’t funny, I guess I can’t follow my own instructions.
Life Down the Drain
an imaginary excursion into household comedy
"Unemployed is an ugly word, so I call myself a seasonal employee. During my hiatus season (isn't that a PC way to say unemployed?) I become a house husband. Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing improper about house husbandry -- except -- no matter what I try to do around the house, I make a complete mess of it. Did you ever see a rabid, front-load washing machine? Remind me to tell you about my theory that if one scoop gets the clothes clean, then THREE scoops will . . . you get the point.
“Cooking has always been a mystery to me. I thought all moms did was take a beautiful dish out of the oven and, with a flourish, place it on the exact spot on the table where nobody could reach it, at least not without the risk of plastering his shirtfront with the previous course. When I first heard the word preparation, I thought it meant, have a quick beer before you take the dish out of the oven.”
That’s enough story sample. Notice the abrupt halts, the changes of direction, the skewed thinking. This sample piece hinges upon your willingness to follow the narrator through his warmup in the first paragraph while he tells you the set-up and lays his first one-liner on you. Then, in the second paragraph, while he has your attention on the material in the previous paragraph, he asks you to suspend your disbelief. Is there anybody so stupid that they believe food comes to the kitchen sans preparation? Actually, yes there is, and that is what makes it possible for the reader to follow the story to its next level. The writer took a male stereotypical dysfunction and raised it by the power of ten.
Comedy, like all other forms of writing, requires attention to the small details that create funny reading. Comedy is more like magic than writing. It is misdirection. While you take the reader in a logical direction, she follows a developing point and in the middle, you knowingly move in a different direction. Or, you replace a known word that the reader thinks is coming with a slightly different one. "Like the ad for the chair company stated: Does a bear sit in the forest?" It brings a smile to anyone who recalls the original and more scatological version.
Look at your story through a more jaded eye. If you are trying to write comedy, but aren’t having fun doing it, you need to rethink the piece. The best comic writing is funny to the writer because he is telling himself jokes he never heard before. The greatest clown of all time, Red Skelton, had more fun than anyone in his audience. His childish joy and exuberance overcame the bad material he might, on occasion, have to deliver. Sometimes his humor broke him up so completely that he couldn't tell the punch line, but the audience found him hysterical anyway.
For humor to be effective, the basic idea of the story must be funny whether the story is a one-liner or a shaggy dog tale that takes 750 words to get the reader to its awful conclusion. When you translate daily routine into a havoc-filled vignette, you have a funny situational piece with the kind of potential that Erma Bombeck used to bring both laughter and tears to her readers. Is there anything funny about Scotch Tape? In the hands of Dave Barry, the results could be hilarious. Give me a roll of Scotch Tape and I will become the world’s largest lint picker.
Here is an unusual piece of comedy. The joke is as old as dirt, making it more appealing because generations grew up since I heard it. The story demonstrates better than any I can think of how suspending disbelief can produce a story that is humorous and at the same time, jolting. The author is unknown.
“Did you hear the story about the meticulous bricklayer who built a perfect wall? He started the day with 43 bricks and found at the end of his labors, he had used only forty two.
“Which reminds me of another story. Did you hear the one about the guy who got off a bus in Chicago and got hit in the head with a brick?”
There is no right way to end a comedy. At this moment, I can’t think of a single funny comment. Perhaps I’m trying too hard. So, allow me to sign off with the same words Red Skelton used to end his show, “Good night and God Bless.”
Great post.. by the way if you are wondering why i am laughing, i was just trying to be funny! let me know if it indeed brought a smile on your face.