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?”
Boot: “No.”
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!”
Boots: “Dude!”
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.


  1. One of the boys from our scout troop went into the Marines and did a significant amount of time in Afghanistan. The soccer ball story sounds about par for the course.

    Beats the heck out of putting a mouse and a scorpion in a box and watch them fight it out.

  2. I can totally see that happening, just based on what stories I’ve heard (likely highly “sanitized for [my]protection”) and the military histories I’ve read. It’s funny in a “here comes the karma bus!” way.

    And yes, in-groups have humor that sometimes translates and sometimes doesn’t. The headmaster showed a cartoon at the start of school in-service that he wasn’t certain about. The classroom teachers howled with laughter because it was very true. But I’d never tell some of the paramedic jokes I learned to my teaching colleagues (OK, other than maybe Mr. Long-Slavic-Last Name and St. Scholastica [aka The Dean]. And then context would matter a great deal.)

  3. I dunno, maybe it’s my age, but I recall Monty Python being appropriate for (ain’t nowhere that can compare to) Marine Corps Infantry.

    Of course, I also recall no longer having to march in formation to Motor Pool after singing “Sit on my Face” past the WM barracks.
    And a punishment detail of chopping wood with a never-sharpened (but freshly-painted!) ax might have seen “The Lumberjack Song” making an appearance.

    No, I wasn’t Skippy, and I didn’t hear of his list until I was short enough to rappel off a bootlace.
    My mischief was more along the lines of cycling though KISS character’s facepaint (I got through the first one without comment, a couple members of my squad noticed “The Demon” but didn’t directly mention it, much of my platoon caught on with “The Cat”, but “Star Child” was pretty hard to miss.
    Or stepping in front of a different platoon’s column of files, and issuing the command “everybody Conga!” (The Company Gunny reminded me that any such command must be prefaced with “for instructional purposes only” during our subsequent discussion. )

    1. Career civilians (like myself) can pick up the general vibe of military humor by consulting Skippy’s List (or “things Skippy is no longer allowed to do in the military”) and reading it until the mindset sinks in. I should perhaps mention that Skippy, aka Specialist Schwartz, aka Princess Anastasia, was in Psyops 😀 An example, from memory: “The Chicken and Rice MRE is NOT a personal lubricant!” (Skippy claims he overheard this and it is not personal wisdom. Uh huh.)

      1. The bit about “even if I have enough gum for everyone” is one that, while I never did, something I had given thought to. No, not military, but grade school is eerily similar in some ways. Also, I do not care for gum.

      2. Some of the stories I hear from my husband regarding the …er…friendly… inter-unit escalating shenanigans (usually involving the unit’s mascot or symbol) made me wonder if they used Skippy’s list as an inspiration. No, I was told, apparently they had to come up with their mischief all by their lonesome and tended to do so with great aplomb.

        The last one I heard of involved hanging a rival unit’s symbol, a very large wheel, off the cliff side of Mount Stewart, about halfway down, so EVERYONE could see it in proud display. How this was managed in the dead of night is anyone’s guess, but they blamed the Engineers, but couldn’t pin it on them. (Revenge, they claimed, for spray-dying the Engineers’ white horse mascot rainbow pastel colors…)

  4. Oh, gawd – military humor … I could write a book.
    Yeah, I did write a book, gleaned from a couple of years of posting to a milblog about life in the military.

    See here, m’dears. military humor is dark. Very dark. Stygian-black, as a matter of fact. So politically incorrect, it’s not even in the same universe or dimension. Your average modern college student would be curled into a tight, hysterical ball upon exposure to it, at full-strength. And never mind the reaction of your average Feminist social-justice type.

    From one of my archive posts:

    “The most thorough job ever done in cracking up the departing newscaster was done by a Navy guy nicknamed “Spider” to an Air Force newscaster named Chris on a night when I was directing the cast. Spider was one of those wiry hairy, little guys, and he borrowed some more than usually exotic underwear from his girlfriend for the occasion. I could not see into the studio from the control room, but I could track Chris’s reactions when Spider pranced out into the studio wearing a black bra and panties, garter belt and fishnet stockings and high heels, and carrying an inflatable plastic duck. At the midpoint in the newscast, when we didn’t need the #2 camera, I directed the cameraman to dolly all the way back and focus on Spider, so we could follow it all in the control room. Poor Chris cracked up and lost it when Spider began miming unnatural acts with the duck. When I rolled the end credits and the closing cart, Chris was lying across the news set desk gasping like a hooked fish, not even able to do his outro.

    I added my own little fillip to that newscast: as they were gathering in the newsroom, I came out of the control room with a horrified and apologetic look on my face and said, “Geeze, guys…. I am so sorry… right when you were doing that bit with the duck, my finger slipped…. And I accidentally put cam 2 on the air… but it was only for a second or too, really, not more than that, if you blinked you would have missed it…”

    Spider froze, with this horrible “Omigawd I won’t be able to go out in public for MONTHS” look on his face. The cameraman grabbed me by the throat, screaming, “You’re kidding, aren’t you! TELL ME YOU’RE KIDDING!” until I began laughing and said;”Gotcha!”

    They took a picture of Spider and his duck and framed a nice 8 x 10 glossy, and hung it in the studio as a memorial, hidden deep behind the cyc. It remained there, as far as I know, until the rackety old firetrap of a building was finally torn down and replaced. If anyone at FEN-Misawa ever wondered about it – well well, now you know

    We shall not look upon their like again… Probably a good thing, from the Social Actions office point of view.”

  5. I am SO out of tune with the rest of the world…
    1. I understood NOTHING in the first half of this post, the parts about Aquaman and Thor.
    (Thor? Yeth, a little bit, but I’ll be feeling better real thoon!)
    2. I understood EVERYTHING about the soccer ball story.

  6. From my BNCOC instructor:

    There’s a MILF-type lady, hanging out in her living room, watching TV on a break from housekeeping. There’s a ring of the doorbell.

    She answers, and it’s a Singing-Telegram delivery boy. He says, “Ma’am, I have a message for you.”

    “Oh, cool! Sing it for me!”

    “Ma’am, I shouldn’t sing this one.”

    “You’re a Singing Telegram boy. SING it.”

    “All right…
    Your son’s coming home in a body bag, doo-dah, doo-dah
    Your son’s coming home in a body bag, oh, doo-dah-day
    Shot through the head, the motherfucker’s dead
    Your son’s coming home in a body bag, oh, doo-dah-day.”

  7. AH yes,,, Military humor is NOT for everybody… Soccer story is dead on too… LOL And not the first time for use of a head as the ‘ball’ Supposedly Mayans used them for tlachtli.

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