Tuesday, February 22, 2011
How do you write funny stuff?
by Bill Kirton
There must be something funny in the air. I wrote this and slated it for publishing before Susan asked What makes you laugh? But I'll leave it here because it's different enough. I always try to bring humour into my books and stories. I’ve written songs and sketches (skits) for revues which I performed with my wife at the Edinburgh Festival and, on the whole, we got good reviews. Of course, the thing you remember most isn’t the rows of people laughing and applauding but the odd individual sitting stony-faced and obviously wondering what the hell the others are laughing at. But it’s when you get asked ‘how do you write funny stuff?’ that it becomes really difficult.
There are plenty of theories, of course, lots of them stressing the cruel nature of laughter. They suggest it’s an expression of superiority, the purest sound of schadenfreude. But that’s too crude. Laughter’s a shared reaction – and it doesn’t have to be at someone else’s expense.
If we stick with the theories for a moment, the one I like best is the one which says that laughter’s actually an intellectual thing. It’s the mind seeing a set of circumstances, assuming they’ll develop in a particular way then having those assumptions undermined when something unexpected happens. At its crudest, it’s the banana skin scenario. A person (preferably one of rank and substance) is walking along and suddenly becomes a disarticulated mechanism. If the result is a serious injury, the laughter dies at once, which rather discredits the ‘laughter is cruel’ theory. It’s the juxtaposition of apparently mutually exclusive sets of rules. A medal-laden head of state processing along a red carpet is a ‘moral’ entity, for want of a better word, embodying the pomp, ceremony and grandeur of an eminent human being and a representative of the rest of us. When he ends up in a blushing, tangled heap, he’s just a thing that’s subject to the laws of gravity. The mind appreciates the gap between the two and we laugh. The laugh demonstrates our capacity for appreciating distinctions, for being capable of judging and assessing situations.
If you’ve read this far, thanks for your tolerance and indulgence. Because such theorising doesn’t really achieve much and definitely isn’t funny. So how do we ‘write funny stuff’?
Well, when I wrote those songs and sketches, the characters used to do the work for me. For example, when Mary (the virgin) discovers she’s pregnant, she breaks the news to her fiancée, Joseph who, according to the Bible is then ‘minded to put her away privily’. I love that. It skates over the whole crucial scene there must have been between the two of them. Imagine your own fiancé(e), whose wish to remain intact you’ve respected, coming in and saying ‘By the way, I’m pregnant’. How do you get from there to the seeming acceptance of ‘OK, babe, I’ll just put you away privily’.
Or what sort of conversation would Jude the Obscure share with Tess at the Casterbridge disco? And how did Adam and Eve relax when he came home from a long hard day in the garden? (This was before they were aware of their nakedness and original sin, remember.) Then there’s Lady Macbeth’s musings on the impending royal visit as she takes her dog Spot for a walk.
In all these cases, and in others, such as Hannibal Lecter’s quip that he was ‘having a friend for dinner’, it’s the co-existence of two separate levels of interpretation that generates the humour. Groucho was the master with cracks like: ‘You scoundrel! I’d horse-whip you if I had a horse.’
All of which sets me up perfectly for comments such as ‘What do you know about laughter? None of your stuff’s funny’.