Writing Humor – A Classically Educated List

Few things are, I was rudely reminded, more difficult than writing humor.  I used to write a lot of humor until I discovered that writing things that aren’t humor is often both more lucrative and more rewarding.

The Malakiad Cover Image

But that changed last month.  I sat down with one of my contributor’s copies of The Malakiad and found myself laughing out loud at my own jokes (I know this is bad form, but for a bit of perspective, please bear in mind that Eddie Murphy would laugh at his own jokes on a certain Saturday night TV show before telling them.  That means that I can do whatever I like).

I realized that, huge effort or not, I had to write the sequel to this one, even if the publisher refuses to buy a sequel (to avoid this sad outcome, please go out and buy several copies of the first book at your earliest possible convenience, and gently persuade your friends to do the same.  At gunpoint if necessary).

Of course, I immediately found it tough going.  Humor is not for the faint of heart.  Want to know why?  Cool, because we’ve created a list.

1.  Humor uses up ideas at a breakneck pace.  If you’ve ever been to a standup comedy show, you’ll have realized that (unless it was really, really bad) the rhythm of the jokes is pretty rapid, with setup following punchline and vice-versa.  The idea is to keep the audience engaged.  Of course, it’s impossible to keep this kind of pace up in a 300 page novel (and if you know of exceptions, I want to read them, so drop me a line in the comments), but the temptation to make the book funny all the time is there.  Even so, all those funny ideas about Greek heroes and anachronistic secondary characters you thought would fill up a whole series, disappear quite quickly.

2.  Different kinds of people have a different kind of sense of humor.  This is probably the deepest pitfall of all.  My own sense of humor ranges from dry British wit to no-holds-barred, absolutely-nothing-is-off-limits humor of the type form the 1980s.  I don’t get offended at any kind of joke, no matter who it lambasts, as long as it’s funny.  I accept that humor is often cruel, and still revel in it.  But even though I’m extremely liberal in what I’ll accept, there is stuff that some people find hilarious that I think is juvenile and, not to put too fina a point on it, just plain dumb.  Nose-pick jokes.  Fart jokes.  The kind of stuff that makes four year-olds giggle has it’s place, just not in my library.

3.  There are different narrative structures to humor, and you have to choose between them.  Beyond the different types of sense of humor, the way its presented also makes a huge difference.  You can structure humor as a series of punchlines peppered within a different context, or you can tell, completely deadpan, a story whose premise is funny per se.  Or, you can go after the absurd.  In a novel, you will have the space to attempt all three, which makes attempting to balance them out a bit of a daunting task.

Example of Offensive Humor

4.  Humor is cruel.  This is the biggie.  We live in sensitive times in which most people who actually read are likely to be offended by perceived lack of sensitivity in a humorous work.  The problem is that humor often laughs at the subject as opposed to laughing with him.  Much of what humans find funny is based on taking a stereotype or common situation and then either turning it on its head or presenting it in such a way as to become ridiculous.  The problem is that those stereotypes are often offensive to someone, and the common situations are common because a lot of people do certain things, and they don’t necessarily want to be made fun of.  My solution to this one is to ignore the possible backlash and to write whatever the hell seems like a good idea at the time.  So The Malakiad pokes fun at everything from Greek Heroes to Jehova’s Cooking to Political Correctness.  I try to be an equal opportunity offender because everyone and everything has inherent humor in them… if only they also had the capability to laugh at it.  I strongly believe that the humorless, whether it be Puritans, Prohibitionists or any other holier-than-thou group are the ones who most need to be laughed at.

5.  The readers of your serious work might hate your humorous novels.  This is a risk, of course.  My SF novels tend to be aimed at people who enjoy thinking things through, a reasonable adventure or mystery, with a love story and usually an underlying philosophical question in there somewhere (I don’t do message fiction–I prefer readers who think to readers who want to be immersed in an echo chamber).  It’s quite likely that a lot of the readers attracted to that kind of book will find a novel about a Greek called Kopulus somewhat… well, I’d better leave it there.  Let the critics think up their own insults.

6.  If the book is actually funny, not funny is a painful Muriel’s Wedding sense, but actually funny, the critics will hate it.  Critics have no sense of humor.  Live with it and move on.

Hope that is enough to keep anyone from attempting a humorous novel.  The marketplace is crowded enough without you, so go write that deep, heartfelt experimental piece instead.  We won’t miss you in the least!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author with several novels and over 200 short stories published.  You can buy The Malakiad here.

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4 comments

  1. Unfair question – my son is working on a degree in English Lit/Classical Studies and has a dry sense of humor. Do you think someone like that would like your book?

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    1. Totally unfair – part of my job as a writer is to help promote my books!! He might – the humor is much more British than American, so it may work well for him. Never know until you try! 🙂 . And if he does or doesn’t, let me know – I always love to hear what readers enjoy (or don’t).

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