Why Not Laugh?
Laughter is not the best medicine, but it comes darn close. It’s the reason we remember particular events. For many, it’s the reflexive means of protecting one’s self- witness the self-deprecating and dark humor many veterans utilize. Clearly there’s money in quality humor, Pandora and Sirius both maintain comedy channels. But how do we go about humor as writers?
Part of what sold the new Aquaman movie for me was the joking and humor. Thor 3 had an outstanding soundtrack, incredible fights and visual spectacles, and the villainess? Near perfect! As Elise Ringo noted on Tor “Cate Blanchett’s Hela in Thor: Ragnarok was absolutely iconic, but while we get glimpses of her history, she’s definitely no Loki.” I certainly wouldn’t have minded Hela being more… sympathetic than Loki, if such is the proper word to use. What really irked me about Thor 3 was the humor.
Watch the beginning- he starts off talking to a skeleton sharing space in his cage as if they’re boys chilling on the front porch. It’s goofy, but it’s well-done. Enter Surtur. He’s giving this impressive dialogue only to be interrupted by Thor “hold on, let me come back around.” This doesn’t happen once but twice, before we get to the headsmashing and asswhipping. By the second occurrence it feels disingenuous. This actually threw me out of the story. I stopped enjoying it because the moment felt forced. Fake. And for much of the movie, it seemed stuck in this rut of childishly executed awkward humor.
Contrast this with Aquaman. Yes, there was the praiseworthy performance by Jason Momoa (he of Ronan Dex fame from Stargate Atlantis and Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones). Yes it was visually satisfying. The Hero’s Journey which both he and Amber Heard’s Mira undergo was very well executed. I plan to buy this movie on DVD whenever it releases. I am not waiting on Netflix.
Aquaman also made me laugh. It made my wife (who had been ambivalent about spending our first date night in 3 months seeing the movie) laugh all night long. When Arthur tells Mira “we could have just peed on it” and she shoots him that look of incredible frustration, my wife turned to me in the theater and said “why does that sound familiar? Hmmmmm?” The whole night was like that. The scriptwriters kept bouncing Mira and Arthur off of each other in this fashion, slowly developing their relationship till we finally get the big kiss. That felt far more real, far more polished. And it didn’t pull me out of the story.
Humor is an element that needs to be present, or we lose out on part of the reader’s experience. Audience matters in this. If I’m writing Mil SF, I’m going to have more in the way of dark humor and the kind of jokes that you’ll hear on the gunline or within a rifle squad- partly because it’s a handy plot device, partly because it’s how we really are. It may be necessary to have backstory so our readers fully understand, but if this is thoughtfully executed, is it bad to do? I say no. Draw the readers in closer. Give them more points of emotional contact!
Content matters. Remember what I said about audience? They want to see a certain level of reality in this. Make the jokes match the crowd giving them. Tom Kratman’s Legio del Cid series uses a parody of the Anthem of Europe when mocking his EU-analog. His fans (myself included) find nearly any reason to drop the reference in our conversations with each other. That’s a sign of humor executed correctly (whatever you may think of his politics). If I’m writing something involving IT, Monty Python and similar gags are not a bad option. If I’m writing about a squad of Marines, I choose something different.
Suppose our intrepid characters are sitting around in ranger graves, trying to catch some shut eye, unable to sleep. You’ve got new guys and old guys, all of whom are still learning to mesh together properly. In the Corps, heritage and legend are passed on verbally, from seniors to juniors.
Boot #1: “Why does the Colonel insist on this humanitarian crap?”
Senior Lance Corporal #1: “He wants a promotion.”
Boot #1: “Seriously?”
SLCPL #1: “Yeah. You ever seen general’s pay?”
SLCPL #2: “Generals make fricking bank. Even in retirement.”
Sgt Whathisname: “I was a corporal for the last deployment when Clown Shoes was the Battalion XO. He demanded we find ways to interact with locals. Every day.”
Boot #2: “That sounds unpleasant.”
Sgt: “Ehhh. It wasn’t awful, till the soccer ball.”
Boot #1: “The soccer ball, sergeant?”
SLCPL #2: “The soccer ball boot. See Valdez here thought the local kids would like a soccer ball, so they’d quit throwing rocks at the turret gunners on convoys. So he had his brother ship one out here, along with an air pump.”
Boot #1: “Okay.”
SLCPL #2: “So it gets here, we take turns pumping it up, and the first time kids come near Post 3 we throw it over the barb wire to ‘em. They’re having a grand ol’ time, laughing and playing like kids do. It’s a brand new shiny soccer ball. Cool, right?”
Boot #1: “Uh-huh.”
SLCPL #1: “I’m on guard at Post 3 watching them play when this old guy from the village comes over and starts cussing them out. Takes the ball away from them. Straight up ganks it and walks off. Now, I don’t speak their fricking language, whatever it is, but I don’t need to for this. He’s pissed at them, at us, probably at life in general. But now I’m pissed at him for bullying these kids. And I’m really hoping God smacks his ass down for being a punk.”
Boot #2: “Yeah, he sounds like an ass!”
Sgt Whathisname and the Senior Lances smile happily.
SLCPL #1: “Was an ass. See, out here you don’t step into ditches. That’s the easiest place to hide IEDs. Asshole forgot about this in his haste to get back to banging his girlfriend the sheep he kept tied up outside his hut.”
Boot #1: “He stepped on an IED?”
SLCPL #1: “200 pounds of high explosive. Buried by one of his asshole cousins. Swear to God it had to be that much. When it went off his body turned into so much pink mist. The soccer ball and his head broke for orbit like a Saturn V rocket headed to fricking Mars!”
Sgt: “I was on COG duty at the time. I walked on to post wanting to know why these two clowns hadn’t called in the blast to the TOC. It was a little fricking close ya know? They’re laughing like hyenas. That’s when the soccer ball and assholes head landed by the kids. So they started using both in a new game of soccer!”
SLCPL #1: “Karma’s a bitch.”
Sgt: “Damn right. After that, Colonel Clown Shoes quit demanding interaction.”
Boot #1: “How do we fix our problem now Sergeant?”
Sergeant Whatshisname smiles brightly in the darkness.
Sgt: “Well thanks to Amazon, I got a half-dozen soccer balls headed this way.”
Boot #1: “Sergeant, you’re an evil genius.”
Sgt: “That’s why I’ve got the chevrons bubba.”
This is something that veterans can understand and identify with. We see stuff just like this, every bit as senseless and weird, in the places we’ve been. It’s part of what defines us. An author who can appeal to us on that level is somebody we want to read, repeatedly.
The same is true of every field and profession I can think of. The humor should match the audience, the humor should flow with a certain level of pace, and timing, and it should make us genuinely laugh. Laughter Isn’t the best medicine, but it can certainly help.