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How to Write Humor and Win Laughs by Andrew Rambo (an Essay for the Insecure) Chapter I: The Basics (…and some intermediate stuff, too) 1) I wish I could write funny stuff. What simple tips do you have to help me out? Writing humor is not a funny process. There is nothing amusing about toiling for hours to get that special joke placed in that special spot in your story so that your readers can laugh out loud. There are no smiles being generated by the writer who creates dozen of Venn diagrams looking for the perfect punch line. And there is no pleasure for those who can’t get so much as a snicker from the audience. Surprisingly, the most successful humor writers of our time are not the happy persons one would expect. In fact, a 2006 study by the CDC showed clinical depression afflicting nearly 83% of all American satirists. With Canadian satirists suffering slightly higher numbers at 92% (though this was attributed, most likely, to just living in Canada in general). With such dour statistics why would anyone choose to write something vaguely funny? Why? Because only clowns need to cry, that’s why. 2) God, I bet it’s fun to be you! You are sooo funny! Everybody loves an FG (Funny Guy). He makes you laugh, his timing is perfect, he never seems to slow down, and everybody smiles when he comes in the room. So if he’s so great, why don’t more people try to be like Him? Because nobody wants to be that insecure bastard who’s only method of successfully interfacing with society is by hiding behind a woven armor of sarcastic comments and one-liners. Laughter is his only validation that he’s more than the 20- 1 sided dice rolling, X-Men collecting, Yu-Gi-Oh mastering, Star Wars quoting, geek that not even ‘Easy Dawn’ would date back in junior high. That’s why. Unless you are intimately familiar with at least 4 of the 5 descriptors above, you should give up writing humor and do something successful with your life. However, if you can relate, then I’m very sorry for your life. So you still want to write funny stuff? Okay, your funeral. 3) Hey, you crack me up. Say something funny! So how can you, as hilarious as you think you are, possibly break into the saddened and riddled life of a humorous writer? By not depending on simple one-liners, that’s how. What? Now you’re talking crazy talk. No I’m not. Yes you are! No I’m not at all, and stop touching me. However, by continuing to talk to myself like this, people may believe that I am crazy. 4) You are crazy! But I’m great at telling jokes at parties. Telling jokes is much more successful in person where intonation, strategic pauses, and facial expression and body motions can really bring a joke to life. Guess what. Ain’t got that on paper. Now don’t fret, little soldier, you do have the ability to create some sense of pauses and rhythm with punctuation…such as with ellipses…. (I love ellipses, editors hate them). This also gives me pause to mention some of the other tools that written humor has over spoken humor. Parentheses (also hated by many editors) can do a great job (well, maybe not all editors…I mean, mine’s pretty cool) of 2 allowing you to carry on either an internal monologue (of course, there was that time she changed the name of my story…) about what is going on, or even running a completely parallel train of thought (‘Ohz’ doesn’t look anything like ‘Oz’…but she had to get all bitchy because my story had ‘Wizard’ in the title, too. So what?). Spoken humor doesn’t have a very successful mechanism to do this (besides, one of the characters was a Curious Badger. NOT some spooked feline in my story…), however it can become tiring if used to excess (stupid editor!). Likewise, if you utilize parenthesis to highlight a story for humorous effect it needs to be peppered throughout the story. Not only does it give a style to your story, but some readers will look forward to the comments. If you are too sparse with them, then readers are confused as to why you started to use them in the first place. Do it or not. Don’t tease. Which brings us one of the mantras of writing humor. Mantra #1 All or Nothing. Commit. Don’t half-ass it. If you’re going for humor then do it. Don’t make it difficult for a reader to figure out if you are meaning something to be funny or not. Subtle is good. Very good. But too subtle is…well, lame. I’m not saying you have to go all out wacky or over the top, but make sure you have enough humor (dry, wacky, subtle, whatever) that the reader understands what you are doing. Drama can have a little humor and a little drama. But humorous stories can’t have just a little humor. 3 Pop Quiz! Note the use of the ellipses in the above paragraph. Read it out loud if needed (not just the ellipses you idiot, the whole sentence with the ellipses). Don’t get me wrong, that sentence is not a comedic masterpiece, but without the created pause with the dots it has no chance of being noticed or considered borderline humorous. Likewise, the ‘well’ gives us a form of rhythm that can be easily replicated with intonation and facial expression when spoken. It isn’t as perfect as a spoken delivery, but close. Pop Quiz of the Pop Quiz! I assume you caught the parentheses? Some may say that particular style of ‘gag’ (read it again if you forgot…I’ll wait) may alienate or offend the reader into thinking you are insulting them by implying they are dumb. The best response to that is ‘screw them’. Mantra #2 Never Apologize. People that pick up a humor piece usually know what they are getting into. The worst someone can do is put down your piece. It ain’t like they’re going to take away your birthday—at least not until we get another Republican in the White House. Oh wait. I insulted half of the country…I was just kidding. PSYCHE! Don’t apologize for a humorous line. It doesn’t work, and though it may offend some people it will more likely offend others that thought it was funny in the 4 first place. The primarily offended will still be offended (‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t make it go away) and now you blew it with your fans. You suck. No more stories for you. 5) So what happened to all those headings? Exactly. If you are going to start with a running gag, make sure it pops up frequently enough (and usually with some level of predictable rhythm/pattern) or else abandon it completely [see Mantra #1]. 6) You’re so awesome. I bet you never write unfunny stuff! That’s right. Good eye, kid. 7) So you said not to write jokes. How can I be funny, then? Everybody has their own favorite style of humor. Puns, one-liners, insult jokes, riddles, dry humor, slapstick, furries humor, stories, topical humor. It is near impossible to explain why certain things make certain people laugh. To paraphrase a historical figure, I think it was Andrew Dice Clay, “…You can amuse some of the people some of the time, but you cannot amuse all the people all the time. Wooah!" You have to find your niche for making people laugh and go with it. But for me, the most effective kind is ‘Story humor’. 8) ‘Furries humor’? You’re not ready, yet. 5 9) “Noah, I need you to build an Ark....Right!” The ultimate master of storytelling is/was Bill Cosby. His riffs on Fatherhood, Chicken Hearts, Noah building an Ark, and going to the dentist are still the best executed comedic storytelling you probably are not familiar with. A few of today’s greats, in my humble (but correct) opinion, would be George Lopez, Eddie Murphy, and Christopher Titus (the latter of which has an incredible ability to make you laugh at his horrible, yet true, childhood). Now before everyone starts arguing about why I left out guys like Robin Williams, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Blue Collar Comedy Guys, and Dane Cook. First of all Pryor and Carlin are legends and everybody knows they’re great. Williams, though fantastic, is more reactionary, impromptu comic whose style wouldn’t work well on the page. The Blue Collar guys are popular and funny but are a bit more about one-liners. And, of course, Dane Cook just isn’t funny. (See Mantra #2) What makes storytellers so funny is that they aren’t creating humorous stories to tell. They are just finding the humor in simple boring day life. Humor is everywhere if you just step back and look at it. However, since most of the funny stuff is happening to us, we don’t find it even slightly amusing. Consider your last trip to the DMV. I’m sure it was hilarious. Nothing is funnier than watching a 45 year old obese woman with powdered donut dust on her fingers, type on her computer keyboard as though she’s never seen the alphabet in her life—even though she’s been working there for 12 years—while a line of 37 people on their lunch break wait for a 83 year old man to finish asking her where he’s supposed to go to take his vision test so he can renew his license even though he’s standing in front of a three-foot tall sign that says “VISION TEST HERE”. Meanwhile, 6 the angry man with the mullet in front of you is complaining, loudly, that he needs to hurry so he can meet with his parole officer. Now that’s some funny shit. So write it! 10) Nice try, Buddy. But I like to write genre fiction, not just humorous skits. Then take elements from life and put a spin on them! Take the above idea and throw in a dead person (dead people are all over the place in genre fiction). Have a recently deceased guy pop into heaven who then has to wade through a DMV type of line to get into the Pearly Gates. He gets in the wrong line. Everybody’s all pissed they have to wait to get in. The damn nuns get in through a 12 Sins or Less line. Heck, the thing practically writes itself. 11) Should you use ‘damn’ and ‘nuns’ together? Nope. And that’s why it works. You aren’t trying to be offensive, yet most offensive things take people off-guard. Knocking readers ‘off-guard’ is a great way to ‘lower their defenses’ and prepare them for more humorous stuff. Unfortunately, most things that knock people off-guard are offensive to someone. C’est la vie (See? I just pissed off America by using French). A level of discomfort allows readers to laugh. They don’t want to. But often times do—besides, no body is watching while they read. Reading a dark humor piece to yourself is much like being Sigourney Weaver—no one can hear you laugh. Now don’t get me wrong, there is a big difference from being a shock comic in a club (i.e. Eddie Murphy) and writing the same thing on paper. When Eddie says 7 something offensive, you can tell by his eyes and broad smile it’s still a joke. Remember, those clues to the true intent of the joke isn’t there when you write it. In fact the mood of the reader usually dictates the interpretation. Mantra #3 Context is Everything. If you want a gag, any gag—offensive or not—to succeed you have to set it up in the proper Context. Either by setting up a situation people can relate to and then have something go wrong that normally wouldn’t go wrong. Or by having your character interact with another character so that somebody is the ‘straight man’ (he can be gay if you want, though) to respond—or not respond—to any humorous dialog. 12) I don’t have a clue what you are talking about. For example: in Section 10) (see? There was a reason I numbered them) if instead of writing a Twilight-y Zone type of story with a guy in an Angelic DMV, you were to have it take place on a different planet (Korvac), with a different race (Korvackians), and had a guy die and go to Garrgortin (the Korvackian afterlife), then none of your readers have a reference point. The humor would likely fall flat (especially if you set it up like a Korvackian LPR—you know where they get Crinleks to ride Muttlars). It doesn’t matter if it ‘works’ better in the ‘world’ you created if there is no Context that a reader can identify with. Another example: in Section 6) and 8) the gags can only exist because of a ‘straight man’. Section 7) introduced the idea imbedded in normal sounding stuff (likely, 8 many readers glossed past it, not terribly interested in the list in the first place) and were then hit with it later due to the straight man’s question, causing them to go back and reread the list. Two things happened. One: the reader got Ninja-attacked by a joke (snuck up on him). Two: some readers had to stop, rewind, and reread what they missed, thus giving the joke another chance at working (however, this can disrupt the flow of a story, and may not be a good thing in a high action sequence). 13) Honestly, I thought the joke sucked. And not just because I didn’t get it. That’s okay. You don’t have to make every joke be great. Some won’t be ‘got’ by your readers. It’s a mistake to target every one for everyone. Like the old series “MST:3K” (if you don’t know what that is, I hope to god you aren’t planning on writing sci-fi humor), they threw tons of jokes at the screen with the vast majority fit for standard consumption. A few were targeted to uber geeks, or politically savvy individuals. To those who didn’t get those jokes, they didn’t think anything of it and just went on laughing at the next gag. The same thing will apply to your writings. 14) So I can write what makes me laugh? Of course! Keep in mind that the vast majority of editors are extremely good at their jobs. They revel in tearing apart and destroying the words you’ve poured out onto the page. Therefore, their life is devoid of all happiness, save that little bit of joy gleaned from lapping at the hopes and dreams wrenched from a writer’s soul. What does this mean for you as a humor writer? They aren’t going to get the jokes, anyway. After the 9 third or fourth note in the margin about not understanding what you are referring to, they will give up and let your humor run wild! That being said, it is important to not throw every obscure reference that only you and your “Doctor Who” watching, “Battlestar Galactica” worshipping friends would get, into your stories. Remember when Dennis Miller—the master of obscure references— used to do Weekend Update on SNL for 15 minutes? It was awesome. Remember when Dennis Miller was asked to do his shtick on Monday Night Football every week for 3 hours? Remember seeing him employed lately? Exactly. Don’t flog that horse. (Refer back to Mantra #3.) 15) So I got to make the jokes simple, so even Southerners can get them? Yes and no. First of all, editors don’t like you to clutter your stories with a lot of pictures—so you are going to just have to forget about pleasing most of the Southern states (Mantra #2). However, if you can create a well executed joke that makes the reader think, then that is usually more successful than a straight gag. For example: Section 4) had a gag about ‘…a Curious Badger. NOT some spooked feline…’. The joke is essentially the same thing if you put in ‘Cowardly Lion’, however by phrasing it differently the reader inputs the punch line for you. A lot of times—in my experience—a gag is more successful if you don’t write it all the way out, but the reader deduces it. It makes them a participant in the humor (unfortunately if a joke bombs, it’s still your fault). One thing that should be avoided is stacking too many jokes into one space. For instance if you are doing a pun type of joke with a reference joke that combination is too much for the reader to want to commit to. 10 For example, in Section 11) the line: ‘Reading a dark humor piece to yourself is much like being Sigourney Weaver—no one can hear you laugh,’ really doesn’t work. It’s not a good gag because there are too many assumptions on the reader’s part and Context could get muddled (yet I intentionally wrote it that way as an example—I rock). The line plays upon the quote ‘In space, no one can hear you scream,’ taken from the Alien movie tagline. By inputting Sigourney Weaver’s name we have to assume the reader instantly associates Sigourney Weaver with the Alien franchise (however, she has done many other movies as well). Likewise, it also assumes the reader is clearly comfortable with the play-on-words ‘…no one can hear you laugh,’ and realize we are intentionally misquoting the original. If it was rephrased ‘Reading a dark humor piece to yourself is much like being in outer space—no one can hear you laugh,’ that works much better, because the purpose of the play-on-words can be better associated with the original due to the Context ‘in outer space’. Otherwise, some readers might be trying to figure out why Sigourney Weaver doesn’t like to laugh. Mantra #4 Tell Only One Joke at a Time. This is not a hard and fast rule, but definitely a very good one to stick to early on. Don’t overload your reader with too many complicated gags. It’ll wear them out and begin to get monotonous. 11 16) Did you intentionally write a bad gag to use as an example, or did you just proofread and discover something sucked? Not important. But while we are at it, let’s do a Vivisection of this essay. Vivisection you ask? Instead of dissecting out the elements on a completed article, I suggest we break it down while it’s still being written! Vivisection Specimen #1: Section 1) is an example of starting in a serious sounding vein that ends in a not so serious one. This is an example of knocking the reader off guard with something they aren’t expecting. A statistic is used (bogus as can be) to help ‘strengthen’ the factuality of the statement. Without the ‘Canada’ statement the reader may decide this essay is way too boring to continue reading (most reader’s abandon after the first paragraph if it is too droll for them). Specimen #2: Section 2) has a wonderfully, horrible example of using an overused, unfunny line: ‘Okay, your funeral.’ This phrase is such a part of the lexicon it isn’t even considered a funny phrase. Back in 19 dickety-doo it might have been cutesy (oh, I get it. I’ll die if I do it!) but now it’s as funny as ‘ex-squeeze me?’. Specimen #3: Do I even need to point out Section 3)’s horrible talking-to- himself catastrophe? If you thought that paragraph was even slightly humorous you should go hang out with David Carradine, Grasshopper. It’s a disaster on so many levels. First of all, there is a Contextual straight man to talk to—however, there are no italics or paragraph marks to show it. Secondly, it totally violates the pattern/rhythm of the rest of the essay. No other ‘conversations’ take place outside of the Section headings, so this seems out of place. If you’re going to do that, continue doing it (see Mantra #1), and 12 give a better Context (see Mantra #3). Finally, the ‘gag’ is explained within the same sentence (‘…by continuing to talk to myself like this, people may believe that I am crazy,’) don’t explain the damn joke (see Mantra #2). This one is extremely FUBAR’d. Don’t ever do something like that in a story. Specimen #4: Section 4) may be in violation of Mantra #2 with the ‘Psyche,’ line. Not positive on that, but either way, the phrase is as old as the ‘gag me with…’ some sort of utensil. I don’t recall which… Specimen #5: Section 6)’s humor is based on the extreme arrogance of the writer. This can be very effective if Mantra #2 is rigorously not broken. Stephen Colbert has been able to turn extreme arrogance into a very funny career. Specimen #6: Section 7) is similar to Section 1)’s use of misquotes and bogus facts and is only funny to those that know the line (Abraham Lincoln’s) and know who ‘Dice’ Clay is. It probably violates Mantra #4, but the gag is secondary to what is trying to be said (about not pleasing everyone…). Specimen #7: Section 9) has two big problems. Firstly, the Rule of Three’s (3 items listed where the first two set up a pattern and the 3rd breaks it—in this case no direct pattern is set up, but referred to later) is horribly broken with the listing of 5 individuals ‘cut out of the list’. Secondly, the ‘punch line’ is an attack against Dane Cook (no apology—Mantra #2—he’s still not funny) but the whole sequence really doesn’t add anything to the essay, just a selfish rant by the writer. Not all jokes should be used that the writer likes (this will be discussed in a future Chapter). 13 Specimen #8: Section 16). Probably too soon on the Caradine joke. This will also be discussed later with the determination of Topical vs Accessible humor (that is assuming this essay gets renewed for the Fall season). 17) Wow, that’s a lot of crap you wrote. Think anybody will read it all? Probably not, but then again most of the stuff FGs write usually gets passed over. The important thing is to keep writing, and then reading what you wrote to see if it makes you laugh. You usually know how you want the humor to unfold in your head, and sometimes the phrasing and rhythm is still off, but when you read it your brain fills in the errors. Have other people read it and see if they get the jokes and if it works. It’s difficult to ask people if they like individual gags as they read. So, sit where you can watch them read. If you get the smiles that you want, then maybe you don’t suck so hard after all. And really, isn’t that just all any of us want: To not suck too hard in life? Remember, a smile may only last a few seconds. But it’s a lifetime of validation for us humor writers. 14
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