Sunday, April 22, 2012

Writing Humor

I've been laughing a lot lately. I listened to an audio of Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk last Sunday, which was some odd and twisted humor. Last night, I watched Eddie Izzard's Unrepeatable, which was quite entertaining. And, if you've been following my Goodreads updates, you know I'm currently reading Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, and I've been laughing so hard I'm worried I'll pull something.

I wouldn't dream of putting my humor anywhere near the league of the above humorists. I don't write humor, but I do sprinkle it throughout my stories. People can't read my stuff in the same room as me, or I sit there watching for them to laugh in the right places. Because nothing says, "This is funny" more than someone waiting for you to laugh, right?

I'm a firm believer in the use of humor to ease narrative tension, and to make a story more appealing. It was the humor value that made me love Discount Armageddon as much as I did. Humor can be used to emotionally connect to readers. A narrative that makes me laugh is one I feel more connected to, generally. It's the dark humor in the Dexter books that keeps me coming back, for instance.

While I wouldn't want to dissect the humor to pull out all the fun, I have noticed that there are patterns to how it tends to appear. Most of the humor that makes me laugh, or at least that connects me to the narrative, fits into one of these categories:

  • Juxtaposition - The humor is presented alongside something ordinary. In my own writing, this appears when I have a character who's straight-laced and serious next to one who's carefree and happy-go-lucky. While one character frets about the end of the world as we know it, the other is cracking jokes. The "straight man" in old vaudeville comedy routines was a use of juxtaposition.
  • Highlighting Everyday Absurdity - Life is weird, which you know if you've ever made people laugh with a story of something that pissed you off. It wasn't funny at the time, but, with some distance and perspective, you realized how silly it was, and told it in a way that showed others how funny the situation was. Without laughter, there are a lot of aspects of my job in human services I wouldn't know how to cope with. When me and my co-workers are having a bad day, you can tell because the office door is closed, and all you can hear is laughing. It's not because our consumers are ridiculous; it's because everything is. It's all in how you look at it.
  • Exaggeration - Sometimes, it's all about scale. Something may not be funny all by itself, but, when you inflate it to something we can all recognize as funny, you're all set. Getting cut off on the highway might not be humorous, but what if it's by a seven-foot-tall man driving a Mini, and wearing a rainbow wig? I'd be a lot less mad and more smiling to myself, if I saw that.
  • Repetition - My husband will sometimes pound jokes into the ground. He doesn't do it to annoy me or because he's unfunny; he does it because I laughed the first time, and I laughed harder the second time, and giggled helplessly the third time. It does have to contain some humor value during that first iteration, but, especially if you can mix it with some of the above elements, repetition will usually inflate humor value.
  • Absurdity - I use absurdity and unexpected humor sparingly, because I think they can be overdone really easily, and stretch a reader's willingness to suspend disbelief. But tossing in something that doesn't belong, or a humorous statement out of the blue, can increase its humor value.
  • Understatement - This is the dry kind of humor I really like, though it's rarely laugh-out-loud funny. If it's pouring down rain, I might come inside, drenched head to toe, and remark, "Sprinkling a bit out there."
There are people much funnier than me who could enumerate all the various techniques and how to employ them, but those are the ones I deliberately think about when I'm trying to make something funny. Like everything else, though, humor can and should be researched. Watch funny movies, read funny books, listen to comedy routines that make you laugh. Note what it was that made you laugh, and think about why.

There are worse homework assignments.

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