Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Make It a Comedy

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr
When I was growing up, my grandfather used to crack a lot of corny jokes. We’d always give him a hard time about it, but he would say, “Better to make ‘em laugh than to make ‘em cry, right?”

“Right,” I would say. And the older I get, the more I realize just how right he was.

The popularity of recent comic series on TV like Orange is the New Black, Divorce, and Breaking Bad points to the possibility that as a society, we are taking things less seriously these days. We seem to have evolved to a point where we are now able to laugh at tragedy in the face, without belittling it of course, but simply to show that even things as sad and terrible as prison, divorce, or drug dealing can all be seen through a comic lens. Finding that comic lens often takes a great deal of perspective and distance. We need to have the ability to “laugh it off.”

There’s a saying among filmmakers when they’re deciding on the tone of a story: “If it’s painful make it a drama. If it’s too painful, make it a comedy.” I think we can all agree there’s truth in that. Often the best way to write about difficult things is to make light of them. It seems to me that the most successful writing always offers both a good laugh and a good cry. Author Orson Scott Card once said, “metaphor holds the most truth in the least amount of space,” and maybe comedy can often convey the most pain in the least painful way.

Sometimes, we don’t even mean to be funny when we are writing about something painful, but we find out that we’ve accidentally made it funny when our readers say something like, “I laughed so hard at that part when…”

“Huh?” We ask. “Uh, that actually wasn’t supposed to be funny,” we respond, stunned. But if we can get over ourselves enough, we realize that, actually, there is something to chuckle about there.

For instance, I was surprised to find out that a scene from my memoir in which my mother sunbathed nude in our backyard wholly visible to our neighbors’ kids through the chain link fence with nothing but cut off plastic spoons on her eyes, had made multiple readers laugh out loud. For me that had been one of the most humiliating experiences of my life, but here were all these middle-aged readers giggling at it. The shame I felt and still feel over my mother’s craziness during my childhood goes deep. It’s painful for me, but, to these readers, it was hilarious.  What made it so funny? Maybe it was the cut off plastic spoons. Maybe it was the image of the kids peeping at a naked woman through a chain link fence. I don’t know, all I know is, I certainly wasn’t laughing when I wrote that, but somehow I had the sense to write it in a way that lacked enough self-pity so that it could be seen in the reader’s mind more absurdly than I remember it.

I’ve learned from those readers that I should be on the lookout for those emotional truths that contain an element of absurdity. There is usually some angle from which these things that have made us cry can also make us laugh.  Now, in revisions especially, I look for places where I’ve written something that carries a lot of emotion, and then I look to see whether I can tinge that scene, balance it somehow, with a touch of humor. It may not always be better to make 'em laugh than to make 'em cry. Sometimes we need a good cry, and sometimes things are just plain sad they must be presented as such. But sometimes the things we’re writing about can actually touch our readers more deeply if we can find a way to make them laugh.

Candace Kearns Read is the author of the memoir The Rope Swing (Eagle Wings Press, Sep 2016). She is a screenwriter who has also been a Hollywood script reader for actors and directors, including the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Michelle Pfeiffer. Her screenplays have been optioned by producers and developed with Fox, Disney, HBO, and Lifetime. She teaches creative writing for Antioch University and the Young Writers Program at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She’s the author of the screenwriting handbook Shaping True Story into Screenplay, and co-author of the memoir Bogie’s Bike. Her essays have appeared in fullgrownpeople.com, The Manifest-Station, and The Rumpus.

9 comments :

  1. What a fabulous post, Candace! We often hear that a certain viewpoint or perspective lies in the eyes of the beholder. Similarly, the reaction to our written words lies in the eyes of the reader. Those who are not emotionally involved may see great humor is a situation we found beyond humiliating. As you wisely note, leaving out our self pity allows readers the freedom to experience our words from their perspectives — hence the humorous responses. Tears also are highly individualized. Some readers will cry over a scene others read through with dry eyes. The chord our words strike with each reader lies in that reader's own experiences and view of life in general. Such varied connections allow our words to speak to many different people. In reality, isn't this a gift?

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    1. Thank you, Linda. Yes, the range of our various perspectives is truly a gift, and the magic of writing is that it can reach so many, and find the humanity in us all.

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  2. Excellent post, Candace and so very true!

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    1. Thank you, Elspeth! Glad it rang true.

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  3. Comedians often have the deepest wells of pain. When life kicks you in the face, you can laugh about it or cry and I have found crying just gives me a sore throat and a sinus infection. I prefer laughter.

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  4. I can definitely relate - not so much in writing something, but nevertheless telling the story: I told a friend about my mother burning my diaries when she discovered and read them (an awful time of my life), and my friend quipped: "Were they inflammatory, then?" It felt good to laugh about it in that moment.

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  5. Things that were humiliating in the past, whether happening to you or a family member, often seems funny later. But, oh, no. Not at the time. Authors draw on those moments in their books. I know I have. Great post, Candace.

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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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