Thursday, March 19, 2015

Make Me Laugh

Photo from the archive of American Television
According to the calendar I was given, today is "Let's Laugh Day." I guess that means I'm supposed to either write something funny or talk about writing funny. The former would be a post that sucks more than a vacuum cleaner. I'm not sure I can do the latter a whole lot of justice, either, but I'm game.

While I do have a sense of humor, I don't/can't write comedy. Sure, my characters joke around a bit, and I hope my readers get a smile or two, but to bill my books as humorous fiction would end up in more 1 star reviews than [insert metaphor here.]

Writing humor is one of the places where using metaphors, clich├ęs, and the like becomes an asset rather than a liability. Comparisons can work to your advantage. I saw this quote the other day: "Game of Thrones is a lot like Twitter. There are 140 characters and terrible things are always happening." Even though I've never watched Game of Thrones (and, as an aside, at this point I wish I did get HBO, because my daughter was an extra in one of the episodes this season), I 'get' the humor.

Insider jokes can work to a degree. Movie examples: The scene in the Indiana Jones movie where Indy reaches for his whip, but it’s not there, so he just shoots the guy. If you hadn’t seen the setup in the other movie, it wouldn’t have been funny. Or in Mr. Baseball, where Tom Selleck is confronted with a platter of sushi and decides that the little mound of green stuff is the safest way to begin. Sushi wasn’t so popular when that movie first came out, and you could tell who in the audience was ‘in’ on the setup by the pre-reaction gasps.

But writing humor is hard. When we watch a comedian, we have the voice inflection, body language, facial expressions, and timing to help sell the schtick. When the robber says to Jack Benny, "Your money or your life" and he tilts his head, lifts his hands, and waits for several long seconds before saying, "I'm thinking," the humor is front and center. Writing denies us that luxury.

Janet Evanovich, well-known for her humorous Stephanie Plum series, said, “I refuse to be politically correct.” … "We can use humor to say things that may be too painful to say any other way.” And, speaking of Janet Evanovich and her Stephanie Plum series: I handed my husband one of her books and said, "You might like this." Which led to us having to invoke the "No reading Janet Evanovich in bed" rule, because bursting out laughing kept waking the other of us.

And, although my husband and I both found Evanovich funny, our basic ideas of humor are quite different. He orders slapstick comedies from Netflix, watches reruns of the Three Stooges, and doesn't see anything funny in a romantic comedy. I'll try to explain why I've laughed so hard I'm crying at something I've watched on television, and he looks at me in total confusion. And, frankly, I doubt he'd have though it was funny even if he'd seen it himself.

Comedy uses surprise. Who didn't laugh when Grandma Mazur shot the chicken on the dining room table? Or when the character in the beauty salon says, "I have a gun," and six old ladies under hair driers pull weapons from their purses?

But no matter what, whether your humor works or it doesn't, the story has to work.

What books have you read that you've found funny? Which ones were billed as funny, but you didn't see the humor?

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

19 comments :

  1. Humor in books is so hard to do. Usually I will smile when I read a funny book but seldom will I laugh out loud. Even books written by comedians will seldom raise more than a small chuckle from me. (The one exception was a Dave Barry book I read years ago that had me in tears I laughed so hard. The book was a collection of his syndicated columns and this one particular piece was about guys and barbecues, It was a real gem.)

    Anyway, I know what you mean about being able to laugh at a comedian on-stage--with the voice inflections, the looks, the body language--but having the humor fall flat on the printed page. Long before I ever watched Lewis Black in one of his performances, I checked out a book he'd written. I didn't like it at all. It read way too mean to be funny as far as I was concerned. Of course, I "got" his curmudgeonly act when I finally watched his routine, but before, when I knew nothing about him? I couldn't understand why the pure vitriol on the printed page was supposed to be funny.

    I've never read Janet Evanovich, but from your recommendation I'll give her a try.

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  2. The medium does make a message. Dave Barry IS laugh out loud funny.

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  3. I miss Erma Bombeck. I love Dave Barry. I love seeing comedians. A laugh a day keeps the psychosis at bay. I can't think of a specific book at the moment, but I love when crack up over something clever in a book. I love a character with a good sense of humor, even if the book isn't a comedy. I agree that not all comedians books are funny (and not all comic routines work). And the type of humor should suit the story. Hubs and I share a gallows sense of humor, but he is more three Stooges and I am more Eddie Izzard.

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    1. I miss Erma Bombeck as well. For me, the 'best' humor is when there's something ordinary that can be turned into funny, which is probably why I don't like slapstick much.

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    2. That turn-around is what makes humor work on paper. I wrote a humorous column for several years and was known as the Erma Bombeck of the town I lived in. I took some humor courses via tapes from Erma and one of the main things I remember from those was her advice to set up a story in one direction, then twist it at the end.

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  4. Oh yeah, Terry ... humor is etherial. One person's joke is another's offense and vice versa. All you can do is write what YOU think is funny and hope one or two others think it's funny too ... but I guarantee that there will be many who do not. I like slapstick (seeing folks get hit in the head with wrenches in Dodgeball puts me in spasms), but that is pretty hard to do in writing. In books, irony is more effective, but it can be ... well ... etherial. Sometimes you just need a wrench to the head to get the point across.

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    1. Chris, that's so true. Just as one person's favorite book is another's 'throw across the room' read, it's even harder to figure out what's "funny."

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  5. I don't intentionally read or write humor, although my books occasionally include dialogue or scenes intended to bring a smile to the reader. I never liked slapstick. Exception: Dick Van Dyke. In my humble opinion he's a master at it because he doesn't make it look totally stupid. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, I seem to recall reading some funny stories years ago -- just don't remember what they were.

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    1. Dick Van Dyke came to mind, although his humor was only 'semi-slapstick' overall. Love the way he dodged the ottoman after the falling gag got old. Or Laura with her toe stuck in the bath spout.

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  6. Someone mentioned Erma Bombeck and there will never be another one like her. But for books that are not strictly "humor" books but have a lot of humor in them (like Evanovich), try Linda Grimes. IN A FIX and QUICK FIX were terrific.

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    1. Thanks for those recommendations. I'll have to check them out!

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  7. Ooh, Alan Bennett is one of my favorite funny guys -- although he writes serious stuff too. Check out The Uncommon Reader (it's about the Queen - I bet you didn't know she was funny.) Also The Clothes They Stood Up In. Quirky British humor, I just love it.

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  8. I just read The Martian a few days ago and it was funny and tense. I wish I could write humor better.

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    1. Writing to make people laugh is a talent most of us don't have, I fear. At least I don't have it.

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  9. debby turner harrisMarch 20, 2015 at 6:49 PM

    I regret so say that I am not the Family Wit. That honor is in contention between my writer-husband Bob and my writer-son Jamie. Time will tell who comes out the winner.
    In the meantime, thanks for some valuable thoughts on the nature of comic writing.

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    1. My dad had the sense of humor in the family.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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