Monday, April 1, 2013

Funny Bones: Not Everyone Is Blessed With One

Let’s start with the obvious: Humor is subjective. Some people laugh at The Three Stooges; some of us turn the TV-show to something less slapstick. Some people think The Office is the height of wit and hilarity; some of us don’t care for the mean-spiritedness associated with the show and characters. Some of us think Friends was the height of laughter, and still others were tired of the improbable rent-fixed living situation and Ross-Rachel-will-they-won’t-they before the end of the first season. 

It is what it is.  

The pro-side to humor is that there is no ambiguity. People are either going to get it or they won’t; and they’re going to think you’re a comedic genius or they won’t. You will know pretty quickly if the joke is going to work or not. All you have to listen for is crickets.

The con-side of humor is not everyone has a great sense of humor as you do. You’ll have to remove some of your funniest jokes for the sake of the manuscript. Skimming the fat, my friends, is healthy for all concerned.

So what does seem to work? No one knows, but here are the kinds of humor I enjoy and try to employ in my writing.

Non-Mean-Spirited Jokes. You may think sarcasm and wit is the height of hilarity—and speaking as a sarcasm expert, I do, but unfortunately many people do not speak sarcasm and do not care for it. More importantly, sarcasm—at its root—is an “angry funny” and people, typically, yourself included I’m sure, would prefer the non-angry kind of funny. Angry is construed as “this person is an asshole” and being you would like people to buy into your story and possibly give you money, being an asshole doesn’t typically help people part themselves from their cash. It’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t ever use sarcasm—there are more people who are fluent in it nowadays and thus more accepting—but like makeup, perfume, or knock-knock jokes, it should be used judiciously rather than liberally.

Self-Deprecating Jokes. When you have a “bad thing” happen to a secondary character, a bad thing that seems to add stress and conflict to the character, it is not as funny as if the hero was having the joke happen to him. The key reasons for this, I imagine, are that 1.) bad-funny things create conflict; and 2.) how the character reacts/rises above bad-funny things creates an emotional bond of empathy between the reader and character. You always, always want to create conflict and empathy in your stories; and if you don’t want to give them the Grapes of Wrath kind of conflict (and thus empathy), then you can give them the sorts of things your average reader could probably identify. Leaving the kid at the doctor’s office by mistake. A bad haircut the night before a big interview or wedding. Get caught having sex in the middle of the park or skinny-dipping in the town fountain on a dare. These can be funny things, but they’re funnier if the hero has to deal with the consequences, not an innocent third-party…or even a non-innocent third party.

Having “funny-bad” things happen to villains in a story also isn’t particularly funny. We all want justice, definitely, but if the villain has already learned his lesson or paid the price, shoving them into a hog pen and ruining their best clothes isn’t hysterical. No matter how much they may “deserve” it. There’s something to be said about tempering justice with mercy. Don’t do the “Jay Leno” Self-Deprecating Jokes. Don’t cross a line where you’ve gone from self-deprecating to bitter, mean-spirited, and sniping. This is the “painting the villains in a bad light” thing again. The complete opposite of what you wanted will happen: empathy for the villain and disgust for your character.

Running Gags, Patterns, and Elaborate Set-ups. This one is fussier than the other two, I think. More subjective again. I think we can agree assholes aren’t funny and not taking ourselves too seriously is. As a reader, I appreciate the “inside jokes” of my characters, mainly because they make the characters more human. One of the current running jokes in my life is if I meet a group of friends for drinks, one will ask if I’m wearing any socks, since I have a notorious pattern of when I get sick from drinking, I vomit into whatever convenient article of clothing that’s near me, usually mine, fortunately. Last time it was socks. If you have a cop character who is notorious for leaving behind her gun or dropping her gun during a tense situation, that’s an opportunity for an inside joke. Perhaps a bit mean-spirited, but since it’s on the main character, it seems self-deprecating so it balances out. Elaborate set-ups are like the kind of thing where a character is trying very hard to either learn something or keep something secret and goes to intricate lengths to do it. Things only get worse and worse, and then in the end, the punch line is that whoever he was keeping the secret from already knew or the information he was trying to learn about was known by everyone but him. The humor comes from the exaggeration and high stakes involved.

These are a few of my favorite funnies.

Agree or disagree? What kinds of humor do you like? Who are your favorite authors—or books with humor?


Maureen said...

Well, one of my favorite laugh out loud books is so dated...but Binding Spell by Elizabeth Arthur was a delight.

As for the humor I use, I often have my time traveling witch enjoying inside jokes with herself. Like teaching a parrot to recipe Edgar Allen Poe's, The Raven, but changing it to The Parrot...she knows she's the only one who gets it.

I'm not a fan of snark. I am a fan of the absurd, which is why I adore Leslie's books...

MsHellion said...

One of my favorite humorous books is BEWITCHING by Jill Barnett, about an inept witch. The absurd, whimsical kind of funny; very sweet...and a little bite to it when you meet the hero who has no sense of humor.

I love the Edgar Allan Poe joke--that's funny! Yes, those types of inside jokes we all have with ourselves...

I like some snark, but it must be tempered with more other kinds of humor. Snark and sarcasm can get too snide for me; absurd can cross some lines if it's too out there...but I adore Leslie's books; and there was a book called KNIGHT OF A TRILLION STARS that had a bit of the absurd about it that was hilarious and good. Jillian Stone's steampunk lite books of the Scotland Yard have some absurd elements but they're balanced with the action and wit. All about balance, I guess.

quantum said...

I think that to be successful in a novel, humour has to be latent in your make-up. You can't work at it or it will come across as contrived. If you are a 'funny' person/author, the humour will just flow from you in conversation or from the keyboard while writing. It's hard to define, but I think it stems from the odd ways that a funny person perceives the universe. An eye for a situation which although superficially tragic, with a slight change of circumstance can become hilarious.

I also think that one needs to be in the right mood to read a humorous book. Initially I disliked Sophie Kinsella's shopaholic books, finding the heroine shallow and stupid. But picking up 'Confessions' again, a few months later, it clicked and I loved it. Becky is one of those characters who just can't help getting into scrapes, it's built into her character and she sails through life leaving a jet steam of chaos without really noticing. I needed a second look to recognise the genius of Kinsella!

Terri Osburn said...

Most who have read my books mention the humor first. When I have a new idea, my agent asks, "Is it funny?" Which is interesting since I never set out to writ funny books and I don't believe I write Romantic Comedies. But I also know I couldn't write a book without humor sliding through.

I think of my humor as sarcastic, but maybe not how you describe it. I never think of mine as truly mean. Sarcasm is an inherited trait in my family. When my siblings and I are all together, my daughter calls us the kinds and queens of sarcasm. Since she's my daughter, she sees this as a good thing.

I think I like subtle, intelligent humor. Not so much the physical stuff, but that has its place as well. Lucille Ball made it an art form.

Janga said...

I don't like humor that is mean-spirited, whether the meanness is aimed at an individual or a group. I love satire, but I generally prefer the witty wisdom of Horatian satire to the barbed bitterness of the Juvenalian. Thinking about my favorite funnies among romance novels, I realized most use banter, wordplay, situational humor, or some combination but that the humor feels organic to the characters rather than a display by the author. Some of my favorite authors for humor (Eloisa James, Anne Gracie, Julie Anne Long, Tessa Dare, Connie Brockway) are not conventional humourous writers, but they all weave funny scenes into their fiction and often evoke laughter and tears within the same story. Teresa Medeiros and Julia Quinn are favorites who are often included on lists of romance authors who write humor. Among contemporary romance authors, Elizabeth Bevarly, Jennifer Crusie, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Kristan Higgins, and Trish Jensen are favorites.

An almost forgotten author of trad Regencies, Judith Nelson, is also an author whose books I often turn to when I need a laugh. Her Kidnap Confusion, Medeiros's Charming the Prince, Mary Balogh's The Famous Heroine, Jill Barnett's Bewitching, and Georgette Heyer's Frederica are the most frequently reread among the romances that make me laugh.

Terri Osburn said...

Janga's comment reminded me of an author I failed to mention. Vicki Lewis Thompson is HYSTERICAL in every way. She's been writing Blaze stories lately, which do not provide the opportunity for her humor to shine through, but pick up anything from her backlist and laugh away. To this day, she's the only author who has ever made me cry laughing while reading one of her stories.

MsHellion said...

It's hard to define, but I think it stems from the odd ways that a funny person perceives the universe. An eye for a situation which although superficially tragic, with a slight change of circumstance can become hilarious.

I agree this is humor in the nutshell, the way the writer looks at a situation and presents it. And yes, CONTRIVED IS BAD. But I wouldn't say writers don't work at being funny. Just like comedians don't work at being funny. They work at it; and it takes a LOT of work to make stuff NOT look contrived.

Natural talent is one thing, but practice is what gets the attention. :)

MsHellion said...

Terri, no, I don't think your humor is mean. Yes, there's sarcasm, but it's not the "mean kind" of sarcasm which sarcasm can easily roll over into if the writer is in the wrong frame of mind when writing or whatever.

It's probably better for you if you don't think you write romantic comedies. As Q said, the moment you were aware of it, you'd probably overthink it. *LOL*

MsHellion said...

P.S. to Q--I wasn't a big fan of Kinsella's shopaholic series either because I don't get the allure of shopping, racking up debt like that, and just making everything worse like she did. She did feel shallow and vapid and I didn't feel particularly empathetic towards her.

Which is why I like her Undomestic Goddess book best. *LOL* That was relatable, I thought. You screw up huge at work and you just want to run away...

But I have read the shopaholic series--and you have to be in the right mind-frame. I do enjoy them too.

MsHellion said...

Janga, I'm now going to have to look up the difference between the two satires you mentioned. I didn't realize there was more than one kind. *LOL*

But love the shout outs to all those authors: I agree with your picks! Great humorous reads without really being "humor" writers, it all feels more organic and natural to the character.

P. Kirby said...

Heh. Honestly? I can't say I agree. The use of "don't" in the post making me particularly prickly. *Shrugs*

Short answer is I love sarcasm and acerbic humor that slays sacred cows and mocks the absurdity of life. Stuff that says, "Yeah, there's a dead body on the floor, but check it out, the blood splatters made a happy face!"

And while certain mean humor turns me off (TV show Family Guy is unwatchable for me), I see successful humor as requiring a measure of edginess, a winner and a loser.

I've only watched a few bits of House, but yes, I find House (the character) very funny because he says what other people are thinking, but don't dare say. So...funny, asshole.

Similarly, Captain Mal from Serenity/Firefly puts a big shit eating smile on my face because he's delightfully, obnoxiously funny. Heck, even Harry Potter's Snape is cuttingly droll. As is Alan Rickman's character, Alexander Dane, in Galaxy Quest (one of my fave funny movies). Rickman is king of a dry delivery that is accented by the suggestion that he is rolling his eyes at everyone.

Because DH and I are watching Season 2, on DVD, I'm reminded that Tyrion from Games of Thrones (and the books) is exquisitely, brutally funny. He wields his sharp observational humor like a scalpel, slicing through the political and cultural bull of the world of Westeros. The writers who are adapting book to movie must agree, because Tyrion, of all the characters, has the most lines transferred directly from print to screen.

Janet Evanovich's earlier Plum books are always a reliable laugh for me, but not necessarily for the slap-sticky stuff, but rather the fond barbs she slings at the cultural trappings of life in the burg. I love it when a writer loves a setting enough to pick out its failings and hold them up to the light.

Actually, an underlying tone that suggests the writer/characters recognized the absurdity of life, even at its worst, is how I define a great voice. That's ultimately the root of my humor (I'm told I'm a funny writer). I know we're all ultimately food for worms, so why take stuff so seriously? Especially...the serious stuff.

Maureen said...

Thanks, Hel. I enjoyed the parrot joke. The think with Miranda is that being a time traveler she often is the only one who gets her own jokes, but that is okay with her. You do what you can to keep a smile on your face...

Pat, I think there is a difference between black comedy and humor. Blood making a smiley face is black humor and it has it's place. I can totally appreciate it. And the thing about any rule is the delight one takes in breaking it...