Friday, September 25, 2009

Writing Humor

When I was asked the other day about humor writing, my clever answer was something along the lines of “I dunno.” Humor is one of those hard to define things, like beauty or a great song, or Quentin Tarantino movies.

We all know it when it works and when it doesn’t. It’s highly personal. Completely subjective. And it evolves throughout our life.

What makes you laugh? Puns and clever wordplay? Slapstick? Incongruent situations? Sarcasm? Derogatory or non-politically correct humor? Probably any of them might make you laugh, or none of them. Depending on how it’s done.

So here’s a few things you might consider when writing humor.

1. Humor requires serious characters. To get your reader to laugh, your central character should not be laughing. Remember when Ralphie is sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall in Christmas Story? All Santa wants is to get out of there by closing time. And asking Santa for the Red Ryder BB gun is Ralphie’s last chance to get it for Christmas. Both characters are absolutely serious in this scene about their goals. Neither of them makes a single joke, and yet it’s brilliant comedy namely because each character is so serious about their goal.

Occasionally, a central character is a “pop off” personality, such as Bill Murray’s character in Ghostbusters. And he gets some well-deserved laughs, but only because A) His partners, played by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, have absolutely no sense of humor whatsoever, giving Murray great characters to play off of, and B) he usually uses humor as a “fight or flight” response to what he considers very serious situations.

2. Humor requires surprise. It’s why jokes are always less funny the second or third time around, and by the fifth hearing you sort of hate it. Something is funny because of what we don’t expect. In Napoleon Dynamite, after half a movie of Napoleon’s big brother, Kip, talking about the love of his life he met in a chat room, the woman who steps off the bus to meet him is the exact opposite of who viewers expected. Funnier still, their relationship works.

One of the problems with a lot of comedy we either read or watch is that it’s become formulaic: the mad race to the airport to get the guy or girl who got away; the stupid man in the relationship; or the lazy but lovable best friend. It’s ceased to be funny because it’s ceased to be a surprise. So if you’re going to write comedy, write something that hasn’t been seen before.

3. Humor requires irreverence. This doesn’t mean it has to be offensive. In fact, I think deliberately offensive humor is usually nothing more than cheap laughs and demonstrates a lack of talent. But true humor is often self-deprecating or plays up the quirkiness that exists everywhere in the world. Joe vs. the Volcano derives humor from a dying man. What About Bob pokes fun at a mental disorder. My Big Fat Greek Wedding plays up stereotypes of Greek-Americans. They were all willing to play with the reality that humor exists everywhere in life. Bill Cosby once said, “You can turn painful situations around through laughter. If you can find humor in anything, even poverty, you can survive it.”

Okay, so if you do all these things, are you going to be funny? Maybe. As with anything else in the writer’s craft, some people come by humor more naturally than others. If you want to write humor, start reading humor. Find the book that makes you laugh out loud, then study it like a textbook.

And when you figure out the best way to define it, let me know.

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