Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Being funny

A question on Linda M Faulkner’s blog about ‘being funny’ set me thinking about the process of trying to make readers or audiences laugh. There are some, such as Michael Malone on his May Contain Nuts blog, who seem to find it effortless. And the trouble is, when it isn’t apparently effortless, it isn’t funny either.

There are plenty of theories, of course, lots of them stressing the cruel nature of laughter. They suggest it’s an expression of superiority, the purest sound of schadenfreude. But that’s too crude. Laughter’s a shared reaction – and it doesn’t have to be at someone else’s expense.

If we stick with the theories for a moment, the one I like best is the one which says that laughter’s actually an intellectual manifestation. It’s the mind seeing a set of circumstances, assuming they’ll progress in a particular way then having those assumptions undermined when something unexpected happens. At its crudest, it’s the banana skin scenario. A person (preferably one of rank and substance) is walking along and suddenly becomes a disarticulated mechanism. If the result is a serious injury, the laughter dies at once, which rather discredits the ‘laughter is cruel’ theory. It’s the juxtaposition of apparently mutually exclusive sets of rules.

A medal-laden head of state processing along a red carpet is a ‘moral’ entity, for want of a better word, embodying the pomp, ceremony and grandeur of an eminent human being and a representative of the rest of us. When he ends up in a blushing, tangled heap, he’s merely a substance that’s subject to the laws of gravity. The mind appreciates the gap between the two and we laugh. The laugh demonstrates our capacity for appreciating distinctions, for being capable of judging and assessing situations.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for your tolerance and indulgence. Because such theorising doesn’t really achieve much and definitely isn’t funny. So how do we ‘write funny’?

Well, when I used to write sketches (skits in the USA) and songs for performance, the characters used to do the work for me. For example, when Mary (the virgin) discovers she’s pregnant, she breaks the news to her fiancé, Joseph who, according to the Bible is then ‘minded to put her away privily’. I love that. It skates over the whole crucial scene there must have been between the two of them. Imagine your own fiancé(e), whose wish to remain intact you’ve respected, coming in and saying ‘By the way, I’m up the spout’. How do you get from there to the seeming acceptance of ‘OK, babe., I’ll just put you away privily’.

Or what sort of conversation would Jude the Obscure share with Tess at the Casterbridge disco?

And how did Adam and Eve relax when he came home from a long hard day in the garden? (This was before they were aware of their nakedness and original sin, remember.)

In all these cases, and in others, such as Hannibal Lecter’s quip that he was ‘having a friend for dinner’, it’s the co-existence of two separate levels of interpretation that generates the humour.

All of which sets me up perfectly for comments such as ‘What do you know about laughter? None of your stuff’s funny’.


  1. Everything I know about writing humor (or humour, for those of you on THAT side of the pond) I learned from this man:


    And whether you want to write humor or not, I highly recommend his book on writing called "The Deer on a Bicycle". He gives some great advice to writers in general about the nature of the business and the beast.

    As Patrick says (and I paraphrase): Any editor in his right mind will want a good piece of humor. The trick is to find an editor in his right mind.

    Kari Dell

  2. A wise (and funny) man, Kari, although I only just forgive him the duck message.

  3. If laughter is a shared reaction, what about laughing alone? I'd never thought about it before, but yes, when I read something funny I always want to read it out loud and share the laughter. Humour must be a form of communication, more about feeling equal. Even if you are making fun of someone else, you want to share it with someone who agrees with you.
    BTW, don't worry, I've been reading your work out loud too.

  4. Anneke, do you do that thing where you're watching a piece of comedy with someone and when you find something funny - you check to see if they are sharing the laugh with you? Bill, you are so right, it takes some form of intelligence to set the two things in their comedic context. And thanks for the name check, dude.

  5. Bill,

    A great article that answers much of my questions on "Writing Funny" - in addition to those you answered when commenting on my blog! I really like your concept of mutual exclusivity. And your comment about Adam and Eve got my memory recalling Mark Twain's short story, THE DIARY OF ADAM AND EVE - I actually dug it and and will be re-reading it.

    Thanks, also, to the other commenters and their great suggestions, links, and advice. The funniest people seem to make people laugh effortlessly. But, as well know, TONS of work goes into making anything seem effortless.