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Friday, April 21, 2017

Writing Humor Is So Hard It's Not Funny

     Humor is like pornography in that it's easy to recognize, but hard to define. Robin Hemley distinguishes comedy from tragedy this way: "Simply put, tragedy has serious and logical consequences. Cause and effect. Comedy usually doesn't. You throw a person off a tall building in a comedy, he bounces. You throw someone off a building in a tragedy, don't wait for the bounce."

     While I don't read that many books by humorists, I do appreciate humor in novels and works of nonfiction. Memoirs and biographies devoid of humor tend to be tedious and not worth the effort. All really good writers, I think, can write funny stuff. When bad writers try it, the results are disasterous. In the crime fiction genre, my favorite authors--Donald Westlake and Ross H. Spencer--are funny. Here's what some professional writers have said about humor:

Comedy writers have a long-running debate....It is known as the Mickey Mouse Question, and it goes like this: Mickey Mouse is not a funny character. He neither tells jokes nor does anything funny, he has no point of view, no real character, and his girlfriend is an uptight bore. Bugs Bunny, on the other hand, is a brilliantly inventive comic genius, sharp-witted, physically agile, a fearless wise guy who thinks nothing of donning a dress, producing an anvil out of the air, kissing his enemy on the lips, and in the face of death and torture calling out a cheery "What's Up Doc?" Bugs is much funnier than Mickey, no contest. Why, then, is Mickey the billionaire movie star?...Creating a television sitcom means choosing between Mickey and Bugs, between a universe of likable, not-terribly funny people and a universe of vaguely disturbing, very funny people. Networks tend on the whole, not to like funny characters very much. If they had their choice, every sitcom would be a family or group of Mickeys, with maybe a Bugs living next door. Writers, unfortunately, on the whole prefer a big group of Bugs with a Mickey around saying things like, "What's going on here?"
Rob Long

What is the secret of writing funny? If I knew, I would write my own ticket. But I venture this thought: The art begins with a sense of sadness. This is the clown's gift.
James J. Kilpatrick

Humor is the hardest to write, easiest to sell, and best rewarded. There are only a few who are able to do it. If you are able, do it by all means.
Jack London

I don't think a man can deliberately sit down to write a funny story unless he has got a sort of slant on life that leads to funny stories.
P. G. Wodehouse

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.
E. B. White

With humor you have to look for traps. You're likely to be very gleeful with what you've first put down, and you think it's fine, very funny. One reason you go over and over it is to make the piece sound less as if you were having a lot of fun with it yourself. You try to play it down.
James Thurber

Writing comedy is quite a joy for me. There's an instant reward. If I've written a really funny line, then, for a moment, I become the audience and I laugh. I enjoy it, I know it works.
William Peter Blatty

If you have doubts about whether something's funny, play it straight. Nothing is worse than a lame joke. And if you're not sure humor is appropriate, it probably isn't.
Patricia O'Conner

Writers often have a predilection for humor based on wordplay. Caution is advised, especially when using puns. They can reek of corniness, and they don't alway work on paper.
Roger Bates

You must never make one character laugh at what another says or does....You must never offer the reader anything simply as funny and nothing more. Make it acceptable as information, comment, narrative, etcetera, so that if the joke flops the reader will get something.
Kingsley Amis

Writing humor is more difficult than delivering a punch line to a joke you tell while standing by the office water cooler. For one thing, our society is much more practiced at telling jokes than at writing them. Also, a joke written on paper has no facial expressions, pauses and emphasis to go with it. It's devoid of the most important elements of comedy--timing.
John McCollister

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