Being Funny

Some people are naturally funny. I’m not, but I want to add just a touch of humor to my books, to make them sparkle. And witty characters are more fun to read than dull ones. What is a poor, dull author to do?

Read books on the subject, of course.

I’ve been working my way through The Deer on a Bicycle, by Patrick McManus, who is one of my favorite authors. I’m very glad that he decided to write a guide for other people who want to imitate his style. It’s not a perfect book, of course; some of the information is outdated, and it’s mostly geared toward writers of magazine articles.

But I’ve picked up a couple of useful tips for writing humor, and I’ll share them here (and possibly add a couple of my own):

-Don’t write about incidents that were funny at the time. It seems illogical- if you thought it was funny, then surely your readers will also laugh, right?- but the idea is that, because you already think it was funny, you’ll have trouble conveying that to your audience. Your already-cemented view of the incident might lead you to write less clearly, or edit less strictly, because you’re caught up in the memory of the incident. You’ll end up saying, “Well, you had to be there,” which is true; most funny incidents are only funny because you know the context of them, or some tiny detail tickled your funny bone at exactly the right moment, which is nigh impossible to convey in writing.

-Instead, write about disasters. There is a line, here; making fun of a dead or dying person appeals to a very small audience. But some of McManus’s best humor comes through when he’s talking about freezing his buns off in an ice-fishing shack, or crawling through half a mile of sagebrush only to shoot at and miss the biggest antelope he’s ever seen. Your audience will sympathize more with a character who has lots of misadventures.

-Similarly, people like to read about underdogs and imperfect people. They also like to laugh at them, to an extent. The slightly clumsy everyman who slips on a banana peel is funnier than the suit-wearing millionaire who does the same thing. But they’re both funnier than having the poor crippled homeless guy take a pratfall. Audiences like to read about heroes who are as good as them, or slightly better, but the comic relief comes from a character who is slightly less competent than average (and some readers like to have a slight sense of superiority, even if they’re feeling superior to a fictional character).

-Obliviousness is a great trait in a comic character. Nobody likes a whiner, and if your character goes around blissfully ignorant of the chaos in his wake, you can draw out a joke for multiple scenes or possibly the entire book. Just make sure your character pops right back up after the anvil falls on his head; a large part of humor is knowing that, even if the character gets hurt, his injuries aren’t permanent.

-Pain itself isn’t funny, but the character’s reaction to it can be. If a character drops a rock on his toe and bursts into tears, that’s not funny. If he jumps eight feet in the air, seizes his throbbing toe in his hands and hops around on one leg, swearing enough to turn the air blue and defoliate all the nearby vegetation, that might provoke a chuckle from the reader.

-A deadpan ‘voice’ is usually funnier than a ‘funny’ voice. If the tone of your writing is has a constant under lay of, ‘laugh, damnit; this is funny,’ your reader will notice, and that kills the moment. (I have a lot of trouble with this)

-Misdirection and surprise can be very useful. Start a sentence headed in one direction then- squirrel! And it’s usually funnier if the bomb goes off when Yosemite Sam counts to two instead of three, because audiences are expecting him to get to three.

-Less is more. Humor takes a light touch, and just like all stories, some of your audience will love it, and some will hate it. Your best bet is to have a bunch of beta readers who will tell you when the joke has gone on too long, or fallen flat.

And speaking of flat, that’s what I feel like, so, talk among yourselves. What are some funny books you’ve read (or written)? Do you set out to write humor, or does it show up unannounced (the best kind, IMO)?

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  1. There is a scene that I have not yet written, but is firmly in my mind when I get around to it.

    You made me feel good, too, Blake – it’s a series of incidents that a) are perfectly in character for those involved; b) has never happened to me personally; c) pokes fun at my protagonist, without destroying his likability; and d) is not overdone.

    I would note that for the writing of humor which is a bit more up to date, you can hardly do better than to read the beginnings of the Daring Finds books (AKA the Dyce series) by Sarah. I had to STOP after the first two pages of Dipped, Stripped and Dead – it was actually giving me pain from laughter, and endangering the continued existence of the Kindle.

  2. P.G. Wodehouse is always fun to read, besides having a great way with words.

    I’ll also add O’Henry, especially his story (Confessions of a Humorist) about the humorous writer who becomes an undertaker (well, partner in a undertaker’s business).

  3. I Love McManus. This isn’t colored at all by the fact that he’s from my hometown. Nope, not one bit. (Actually, primarily because I wouldn’t know he existed otherwise). I’ll second the mention of Dipped, Stripped, and Dead, and add Dave Barry to the building list of funnymen.

    1. I’ve tried Dave Barry, and can’t get into his stuff. It’s mildly funny, but I keep hearing him saying over my shoulder, “Laugh at this! It’s funny! Don’t you know I’m a humor writer?” Maybe I’ll try again; DH loves his work, and I’ve encountered a few books that I hated at first, then loved when I went back to them a couple years later.

  4. Twain is hilarious. “The Facts Regarding the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut” makes me laugh out loud, after many re-reads. P.J. O’Rourke if you like your humor fresher.

    1. Agreed! I’m currently listening to the LibriVox audiobook of “A Tramp Abroad” and it’s full of funny stuff presented as straight information with a deadpan description.

  5. Douglas Adams, especially before “So Long, And Thanks For All the Fish”.
    Mark Twain, of course. I love and frequently return to “Innocents Abroad”.

  6. I almost CAN’T not write humorous situations in my stories. And as I go back and read them, I still laugh at them. So, I guess I amuse myself. But, I’ve had other folks read them and they found the various scenes funny, too, so it’s not ALL “Laugh because I told you to”, stuff.

    In street acting, we were told that when we lose, to lose big. That makes it all the funnier.

    And I agree, on someone being slightly less competent or just in a bad situation that just gets worse. I heard somewhere that the reason we have an involuntary laugh when someone gets hurt, or someone is in a bad situation, is because it’s a form of relief. That it isn’t US in that situation.

    And I think Cluelessness is funny because it does give that slight sense of superiority, as long as it doesn’t go on too long or get too clumsy, then it can become boring, or worse, annoying.

    My 2 cents.

    1. One has to be careful to keep the funny from too much awkward, lest it turn into cringe.
      A friend of mine cannot stand The Office, because to her it is all cringe.

      1. I know many LOVE TV “People’s Court” type shows for the very same reason I can’t stand them. There is ALWAYS at least one party being an utter dolt (etc.) and it’s just painful to watch. Sure, the judge gives whoever it is what-for, but it’s still painful to watch someone being so damn stupid *ox* wonder how they survive.

        1. There’s funny cringe- usually involving generous helpings of schadenfreude for those deserving.
          Then there’s unfunny cringe- think bad SNL sketch.

      1. many if not most of their in-jokes are military jokes (Ringo) or gunnie / libertarian jokes (Correia)

    1. I remember laughing at stuff I read, but am currently having trouble remembering the what and the why.

      I can remember stuff like the joke Kratman sets up at the start of ADCP and pays off at the end of Carnifex, or that I laughed at Pratchett. But the only joy I really grok now is for stuff like the crucifixion scene at the end of, IIRC, Lotus Eaters, or James Young’s sliding scale of war crimes. Even the last is not really funny to me right now, so I guess I’m just not in the mood for humor.

  7. Ghost stories and humor are tough.
    They work, or they don’t. You’re either successful, or you look like a fool.
    (And even if you’re successful, it won’t be for everybody. Take Tim Burton. Lots of people love him, but I find the humor forced, and the punch lines arriving a beat late.)

    If we’re recommending funny books, let me add Christopher Buckley’s “The White House Mess” to the list. He was funny once, and IMO, this is his best longer work. (Convincing CNN that Russia was discretely trying to auction off Lenin’s mummified corpse, and the hysterical press release about shark attacks in the Great Lakes already being equal to the highest annual number ever recorded, were his best hoaxes.)
    It’s a parody of the “political insider tell-all” book, but eschews trying tti score political points in favor of telling a rollicking good yarn of an everyman/only sane man President as swamp creatures, foreign potentates, Murphy, the Good Idea Fairy, and Emperor Mong all conspire to make his life a living hell.

  8. I think that one of the funniest lines in any book that I’ve read is, “Did you think we were amateurs?” (Lois Bujold’s The Vor Game.)

    And it’s in the set up, of course. Two very young and demonstrably foolish hay-seeds (in a galactic civilization sense) getting themselves into trouble and trying to get themselves out again. But there was ONE thing in which neither was in the least bit an amateur having been introduced as infants to a world of deadly serious manipulation and intrigue.

    So that line, when delivered, resulted in an out loud whoop and laughing. Indeed, did she think they were amateurs?

  9. Self-defic.. er.. DEPRICating humor works well. Though sometimes you can get the “well-heeled” fellow to take the (prat)fall.. *IF* he deserves it.

    I think it was Asimov, not sure anymore, who said that you can do ‘almost’ of anything EXCEPT humor. Not full horror can still somewhat scary. Not quite $Whatever can still be somewhat $Whatever, but something is either funny or it ain’t. There is no “a bit funny.”

    “You shouldn’t put yourself down so!’ “Someone was gonna say it. It might as well be me!” also applies. Anyone can joke about the ox being slow, but when the ox admits it? That might be the sole version of “mildly funny” as it were (See: Humor, self defic…er, DEPRICating) there’s a certain defusing, but it’s STILL okay to laugh.. or at least a chuckle a bit.

    And, Groucho had and invented some GREAT lines… Chico had some good lines. Even Zeppo* had moments, but *Harpo* was funny with NO lines – THAT’d be impressive even if it was him alone, but in that group? Non-vocal (but hardly silent! *HONK!*) is all the more impressive. Though, at times, I suspect the most astonishingly gifted one of the ensemble was perhaps Margaret Dumont who managed to fool people into thinking she didn’t get the jokes. **

    * Zeppo was perhaps not a comedic genius. Do NOT let that be your sole impression of the fellow. He left the Marx Bros. and went into engineering and, well atom bombs and rockets used his ideas. Maybe not a comedic genius, but… still a genius, I’d say.

    ** Can anyone imagine what could have happened had Margaret Dumont, Gracie Allen, and Lucille Ball all appeared in the same scene? The audience wouldn’t have stood a chance.

    1. Seriously, being able to keep oneself together opposite Groucho, Chico, and Harpo is an amazing talent.

  10. There’s two short books that had me in stitches, and most libraries have them. Esio Trot by Roald Dahl is about a Vicar with bacj-to-front dyslexia. Part of the fun is that the reader can see the disaster coming, what sort it is, anyway and the payoff doubles down.

    The second is John Scieszka’s stories about his childhood with five brothers called Knucklehead. I did have to ask my husband (I only have sisters) if the author was exaggerating this stuff? “No. No he’s not.”

    Less easy to find, and you should own it, and give it as Christmas pressies, is Lawdog’s African Adventures.

  11. Lawdog, both books. Or heck, Superbowl’s coming soon, watch for his annual Fertility Ritual of the Handegg on facebook.

    He’s reliably good at delivering humor–even when it’s a tearjerker, like the little girl visiting the funeral parlor story (in Lawdog Files).

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