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 fiancĂ©e, 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 fiancĂ©(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’.


Susan Santangelo said...

I think your stuff's funny! You made me laugh, and that's a good thing on another snowy day in New England. I just have to figure out how to find humor in showeling out the car. Again.

Susan Santangelo said...

Here's something else that made me laugh today. There's an Op Ed piece in ths morning's NY Times headed "My Life As A Dog." It's written on what would have been Sen. Ted Kennedy's 79th birthday by the staff person who was in charge of answering Splash's (his dog) fan mail. Link is http://nyti.ms?glo2PR.

Shane Cashion said...

I too find your stuff funny, Bill. In answer to "How do you write funny stuff," as a reader, it's rarely about the punchlines for me, and more about the style of the writing.

When thinking of funny writers, two always immediately come to mind. The first is David Sedaris. He writes in such an original way that I find his stories about the most mundane tasks to be hilarious. His short story SantaLand Diaries is the funniest story I've ever read.

A second writer with that gift who sadly killed himself is John Kennedy Toole. A Confederacy of Dunces is arguably the most original, and humorous book I've read. And again, it's not the "jokes," but rather the brilliant style of writing.

Jean Henry Mead said...

You've been making me smile and laugh for several years, Bill, with your blog, "Living, Writing and Other Stuff." I like puns and play-on-words rather than slapstick and I still don't understand why people who watch "America's Funniest Videos' find it humorous when people fall and hurt themselves. Humor is obviously in the eye of the beholder. :)

Mark W. Danielson said...

Bill, I've always loved UK humor. It's much more intelligent and witty than what we normally see here across the pond. Americans need to work on their funny stuff. If we were so good at it, why would we import so many Canadians to make us laugh?

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks, all, for the kind comments. (Trouble is, they made it seem as if I was asking for reassurance when I ended on that 'your stuff's not funny' quip.) I agree totally that the sort of funny stuff that brings most pleasure lies in the actual writing - the choice of words, the rhythms, the actual timing of a phrase, they all produce something deeper than just a laugh or a smile. They have a feelgood factor, an appreciation of an individual mind at work, a sharing of a cleverly constructed perception.

Susan, I must confess that, when we had our long freeze back in December, laughter was hard to generate.

Shane, again I'm in total agreement about David Sedaris. He does elevate the mundane and ordinary into wonderful, intricate experiences. And A Confederacy of Dunces - inspired.

Jean - yes, how people can continue laughing when someone is in obvious pain I can't imagine. Even worse is the morons who just keep filming without making any attempt to go and help the victim.

Mark, my only disagreement. We have nothing to teach the USA about humour (except how to spell it, maybe).I love the work of many American stand-ups and certainly of such shows as The Simpsons. The subversive nature of some of Homer's throwaway lines is masterful since it's achieved without calling attention to itself and in such a seemingly harmless way. Its frequent pillorying of the Fox network and the philosophy which drives it is brilliant.

Jaden Terrell said...

Humor--or humour--is one of the hardest things to pull off in my opinion. It's not only the idea that has to be there, but the timing and rhythm of the language. In spoken language, the body language and vocal inflections contribute, but in a written work, the placement of the words is critical. My hat's off to anyone who can do it!