It never fails. In almost every movie, television show, and book, the alien characters are always trying to understand the concept of humor.
Lieutenant Commander Data wants to tell a joke. Spock gets confused at Dr. McCoy’s continuous snark. Castiel can’t tell when the Winchesters are serious or not.
There’s a reason why non-humans struggle with humor: It’s complicated!
It varies from person to person, from culture to culture, and it really doesn’t seem like there are any rules to it. Ask any writer and they’ll tell you that writing comedy is difficult. I’ve attended multiple seminars and conferences and workshops dissecting the steps to successfully writing funny material, and everyone who talks about it says something different.
So writing a post about how to write humor seems a little counter productive to me. I’m sure my methods will be different than everyone else’s, but I’m going to share what I do and what I’ve learned about humor in hopes that it will help someone else navigate the complex landscape of laughter.
Types of humor
Humor may vary from person to person and culture to culture, but it all falls into definite categories. Granted, everyone probably calls it different names, but the ideas are the same. I think there are four types, and I call them Shock Value, Slapstick, Situational, and Character.
Shock Value Humor
You aren’t going to find shock value humor in many novels because, in my estimation, it’s the hardest to communicate with the written word. It’s pretty crude stuff usually.
Vulgarities. Profanity. Being totally inappropriate or offensive on purpose in order to shock and stun someone. You’ll find a lot of shock value comedy in stand up routines and late night monologues.
Honestly? Sometimes it is genuinely funny. But for me, this type of humor gets really old really quickly. This is one of the reasons why I don’t go to see comedy movies in the theaters, mostly because I find the humor in those movies to be so vulgar or so insubstantial that it’s not even entertaining.
Personally, I’m not a fan of shock value humor, and I don’t recommend it for writing comedy. It devalues your work and labels your writing style as cheap.
The next type of humor is also difficult to write. It’s a lot of fun and very effective if you can pull it off, but you have to manage the perfect balance of bright, vivid description and snappy voice in order to make it funny.
Slapstick is physical comedy. It’s humor in action. If you can’t describe what’s happening in a few words with the force of an engaging voice, the joke will fall flat.
Have you ever heard someone try to tell a joke and botch it? That’s what writing slapstick humor is like if you can’t balance the elements properly. It goes over like a lead balloon.
Excerpt from FINDING FIREFLIES:
I’ve got to get out there. I’ve got to grab her before someone else does. Literally.
That would have been funny if I weren’t trying to escape the confines of the Buick. I’m covered in powdered sugar. I’m not wearing shoes. My hands are still sticky, and now I have to get the pamphlet to her too.
I toss the bag of donuts on the dashboard. I’ll clean the mess up later.
I fling the door open and try to get out.
I unbuckle and lunge out of the car, remembering to grab the pamphlet at the last moment.
Keys. I need the keys.
I dive back into the car to grab the keys, and my sticky hands can’t seem to hold onto the keys. They fall to the floorboard.
Jordin hasn’t moved. And I need the keys. So I bend down to reach for them, but my shoulder hits the steering wheel, which jars the dashboard and knocks the bag of donuts off. My first clue is the feel of about a cup of powdered sugar trickling through my sandy-colored curls.
And I thought I was covered in powdered sugar before.
My hair. My face. My shirt. My—everything—is dusted with powdered sugar. And now the rest of my donuts are scattered across my nasty floorboard.
But I got my keys!
I stand up. Jordin is still standing on the street.
The next type of humor I consider the easiest to write. Situational comedy (or sitcoms, as they’re called on television) rely on circumstances and events to generate humorous situations.
Let’s take Everybody Loves Raymond as an example of a situational comedy. You’ve got a husband and a wife with twin children living across the street from the husband’s elderly parents. The husband’s brother is around too. All of them are fairly codependent, passive aggressive, and very very Italian. That, my friends, is a recipe for some very funny stuff.
Another example is just about anything from the Carol Burnett Show. Maybe I’m old school, but for me Carol Burnett and her ensemble of Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway, and Harvey Korman are among the greatest legends of comedy in the history of entertainment.
They created different characters and put them in funny situations and sketches on stage in front of a live audience. So anything could (and often did) happen.
The key to writing situational comedy is to design circumstances that are potentially funny and then exaggerate them. Like children making mom and dad breakfast in bed. Like a precocious child getting loose in the cosmetics section of a department store. The options are endless.
The one rule of situational comedy (actually of most humorous writing) is to never ever write anything that takes your readers out of the scene. As a writer, you are creating an environment for your readers to experience, and if you break the rules of your own environment, your readers notice.
Imagine you’re telling a story about that toddler being loose in the makeup department, and before you finish it (or in the actual conclusion), you tell us about the kid’s step-uncle on his father’s side and how he broke his tailbone motorcycle racing.
Not connected. Not relevant. Not funny. Keep your focus where it should be. On the loose kid in the makeup department. Now maybe he’s shopping with his step-uncle on his father’s side, and the uncle slips on a puddle of face ointment the child spills and that’s how he broke his tailbone. See the difference?
The last type of humor on my list is character-based humor, and for me it’s both the most difficult and the most effective type of humor. It’s the hardest to pull off because first you have to get to know your characters well enough so that you understand their sense of humor. And then you have to get to know yourself well enough to know when you’re censoring them too much.
Aspects of character-based humor include voice, dialect and idiom, and dialog between characters. Now here’s where the profanity/vulgarity issue rears its head again, but if that sort of content comes from character, it’s not shock value.
If you’ve got a rough character, someone from a sketchy background or a harsh environment, he or she is going to use rough language. That’s just common sense. You should expect it. And if a character from a “bad” background uses “bad” language, it shouldn’t be a shock. It’s character.
The difference between shock value and character based humor is saying what the character would say versus saying something crude just to surprise people. There’s a big difference.
With character-based humor, you’ll see many examples of simile and metaphor, using exaggerated terms to define everyday objects (I.e., The complaining man had a nose like a blimp and a voice like kitty litter in a garbage disposal.). Below is an example from my upcoming release, New Name, where a mercenary named Rain Stormcloud is trying to help my main character, Aura Morningstar, pick out a name for her baby:
Excerpt from NEW NAME:
“Let’s find a name.” Aura powered down her electronic book and folded her hands over her belly. “What have you got, Rain?”
Rain cracked the book open and grinned. “How about—Gertrude?”
Aura sagged. “Gertrude? Rain, seriously?”
Rain cackled. “Look! It means spear maiden. Spear maiden? How freakin’ awesome is that?”
“Not Gertrude, Rain.”
Rain chuckled and picked up the book again. “You’re no fun at all, Sassy Pants.” She flipped a few more pages, swinging her leg freely.
She wore loose brown pants that hung low on her hips and showed off the straps of her black thong, and a loose jade-green tank top with a neckline that plunged low enough to reveal nothing underneath.
“Ah, here we go.” Rain shifted, giving Aura a fully unobstructed view down her shirt.
“I dread to think.” Aura rolled her eyes to the ceiling and kept them there. Living with Rain had taught her the subtle skill of averting her gaze.
“Wilhelmina?” Aura laughed. “Rain, what?”
“Protectress.” Rain pointed to the book. “That’s what it means.”
“I don’t think that’s a word.”
“Of course, it’s a word. The book says so.”
Aura burst into giggles. “Where did you get this book?”
“Just found it somewhere.” Rain turned it over in her hands. “It’s old.”
“It would have to be.” Aura frowned thoughtfully. “For it to be an actual printed book, it has to be at least 70 years old.” She shuddered. “And those names. Gosh. What happened to names like Anne or Jessica or Mary?”
“Boring as hell.” Rain snorted. “This kid is going to kick ass, sorellina. She needs to be remembered for being one bad ass mother, and I ain’t never met a bad ass mother named Anne.” Rain screwed up her nose. “Anne. Anne?” She blew raspberries. “No, she needs a name with umph. Like Hildegaard.”
“Hildegaard?” Aura burst into more laughter.
“Battle maiden!” Rain shook the old book. “Come on, sorellina, this kid’s going to be legendary, and she needs a legendary name.”
“And nothing umphs like Hildegaard.”
The best humor you can write comes from character. It will make your readers laugh harder and longer and remember the line. Your book will be known for its characters and their sense of humor, rather than your own, and when it comes to telling stories, that’s the kind of humor you want.
Writing humor takes practice. Watch things you think are funny. Watch things other people think are funny. Listen to people tell stories. Learn to recognize the flow of telling a funny story. Humor has a rhythm, and if you want to make people laugh, you have to learn to hear it.