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Funny You Should Say That (or is it?)

It's odd that one of the most popular kind of writing, and one of the most powerful literary tools gets so little attention: humor.  We teach just about everything else in literature classes, but we don't spend time discussing what is funny and why it is funny.  We certainly don't seem to talk about it much to writers in workshop.  We notice it and identify it, but we don't talk about how to improve it or even much about the nature of it.

I wish I were funnier.  I'm hardly ever funny on purpose.  Which is pretty funny, since most of the world strikes me as being humorous.  It's funny that I'm not funny.

Yesterday, my science fiction class watched Galaxy Quest.  It's a great tool for introducing parody and satire.  Before we see it, I do a full-class presentation on Star Trek and conventions, since Galaxy Quest is funnier with that background knowledge.  Even the kids who had seen the movie and liked it said they got a lot more of the jokes after hearing the background material.

What got me thinking again about the subject of humor was the laugh out loud moment in the film where Sigourny Weaver says, "Let's get out of here before one of those things kills Guy."  I admire how they set that joke up.  A lot of what is funny about Guy in the story is his belief that he is "crewman #6," an expendable character in a Galaxy Quest plot.  They really work that story line well through the movie, all the way until his epiphany where Fred Quan says, "Maybe you're the plucky comic relief. You ever think about that?" which is also a funny line.

It's cool how Galaxy Quest gets laughs through a variety of techniques, from just slapstick (a disoriented Laredo falls down after being brought onto the ship, or the moment when the little aliens are deciding what to do with Taggart and decide to hit him with a rock and eat him, then they hit him), to verbal humor ("Could they be the miners?" "Sure, they're like three years old."  "MINERS, not MINORS."  "You lost me."), to Fred Quan's funny underreactions to events in the story (he's eating cheese and crackers during the terrifying descent onto the planet to retrieve a berilium sphere) to stuff that's funny for reasons I don't know how to explain (Taggart battling Sarris the first time where Taggart thinks he's just humoring some fans, but he's actually firing on a real enemy), to the totally funny scene with where the pig lizard is digitalized onto the ship, to the sex jokes, including the perfectly executed, "Oh, that's not right."

Some jokes are immediate.  Some are set up.  Some are running.  Some are cumulative.  Some come from irony.  Some come from allusions to other things.  Some are visual.  The movie is a comic tour de force.

Funny stuff in films can be instructive, but I think funny on the page is different.  When I try to list what seems funny in writing, my list is short.  Douglas Adams, of course, Connie Willis, and William Goldman's The Princess Bride (the first sword fight made me laugh for several pages in a row).  Neil Gaiman can be funny (Anansi Boys is very good).  Bill Bryson has some great bits in A Short History of Nearly Everything.  I'm leaving names out, I'm sure, but funny looks like a rare commodity.

So, what do you guys know about funny?  How is it done?  Where are the examples to learn from?  Is it purely an intrinsic part of some writers and can't be learned, or does study help?
 
Look! I have one job on this lousy ship, it's *stupid*, but I'm gonna do it! Okay? 

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( 35 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
jimvanpelt
Apr. 19th, 2007 01:54 pm (UTC)
Just about every moment with Tony Shalhoub in it is funny. I'm glad Sam Rockwell (Guy) keeps busy. He was great in THE GREEN MILE.
jimhines
Apr. 19th, 2007 01:55 pm (UTC)
You know, humor is one of the only things about writing that came fairly naturally to me ... so of course, I have a heck of a time actually analyzing how it works.

For me, a lot of it is character-driven and playing with expectations. People expect heroic fantasy heroes, and I give them Jig the nearsighted goblin runt. And a cowardly spider who sets things on fire. It's funny, but that's only the start. Watching them interact with each other and with the rest of the characters is where things get really fun, at least for me. (I've been told that Jig yelling at Smudge (the spider) after Smudge sets his hair on fire is one of the best lines in the book.)

It's the same with Galaxy Quest. The character set-up is amusing, but it's the interaction that really makes me laugh. The characters have to be real, as opposed to just a cardboard setup for jokes. We have to care about them in order to care about the story and the humor...

Peter David can make me laugh out loud, but he can make me cry on the exact same page. I don't think that's a coincidence.
jimvanpelt
Apr. 19th, 2007 02:01 pm (UTC)
Jim, I was hoping you would chime in here. Thanks for the insights. If more occur to you later, please post again. Maybe you could think about what you would say if you were were on a panel at a convention entitled, "Humor in Theory and Practice: How Do You Make Them Laugh."
(no subject) - jimhines - Apr. 19th, 2007 02:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimvanpelt - Apr. 19th, 2007 03:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
catrambo
Apr. 19th, 2007 03:29 pm (UTC)
I adore that movie, which I avoided for a long time because I thought it would be bad. Imagine my surprise when I finally sat down and watched it. Humor is something I've been thinking about lately, because I love a good funny story and yet when I try to be funny it just gets all crazy goofy and then plummets into the abyss of inanity. Nonfic? There I can be funny. But make characters be funny? Argh.

Jim's goblin book is one of the funnier things I've read and it's that humor that makes me keep pushing people, particularly fellow gamers, to read it. Some other humor in the F&SF field -- Terry Pratchett is another person I'd point to as an excellent humorist, as well as Esther Friesner. Terry Bisson's Billy stories crack me up every time. The Jasper Fforde books are clever AND funny. There's also Spider Robinson's Callahan series and all the other bar story ilk, like Tales from the White Hart. John Bellairs' The Face in the Frost is hysterical at times and also nicely creepy.
jimvanpelt
Apr. 19th, 2007 03:42 pm (UTC)
(busily writing down titles)
muneraven
Apr. 19th, 2007 03:32 pm (UTC)
Funny is a two-edged sword
I think most writers are either naturally funny or they aren't (to varying degrees). And one is not necessarily better than the other; I mean,as a reader, I LIKE books that aren't funny often more than I like books chock full of humor. But I like a nice balance the most . . .humor sprinkled in amongst the drama and angst!

As a writer I can do funny easily. Too easily. It is simpler for me to have my protagonist joke than to suffer. Much of my rewriting involves removing witty dialogue and replacing it with more tension and action.

So being able to be funny is a two-edged sword. One that has "stabbethed" me many times (Thanks JimHines...that IS a funny word).
jimvanpelt
Apr. 19th, 2007 03:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Funny is a two-edged sword
One of the reasons I want to know more about humor is that it can deepen tragedy or horror. Humor ought to be another writing tool, but it seems to me it's bigger than that: for some people it's about a way to look at the world, so it's not just a matter of pulling humor out a hat, like a good simile or metaphor. It's more a matter of squinting at the material in a way that the funny stuff comes out. Still, I can see set ups too. There is technique.

But you may be right about having a natural bent toward it. I certainly do not want to produce strained, painful, obvious prose that is achingly not funny.
Re: Funny is a two-edged sword - tbclone47 - Apr. 20th, 2007 02:50 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Funny is a two-edged sword - jimvanpelt - Apr. 20th, 2007 03:56 am (UTC) - Expand
kenrand
Apr. 19th, 2007 03:56 pm (UTC)
practice makes nyucks
Jim, I've tried to be funny since I was in sixth grade and discovered that I could make Ruth Nuniker laugh. I wrote more than 200 humor columns for weekly newspapers (and the Seattle Times, Monterey Herald, Buffalo News, etc.) between 1988 and 1995. I've written a gob of humor short SF-fantasy tales (watch for The Gods Perspire, a collection of my funny shorts due in late 2008 from Fairwood Press) and I've written several intentionally humorous novels (and many that were'nt intended to be funny, if you get my drift). The over-arching lessons I've learned are easy to digest: practice, be honest, be clear, be brief, ignore critics, read Twain, and practice. Then--practice.
jimvanpelt
Apr. 19th, 2007 08:54 pm (UTC)
Re: practice makes nyucks
Yay, Ken! I'm an idiot. I forgot that you write humor all the time. Maybe this is the result of my half-a-dozen 14-hour days in a row at the school (the end of the year fills up our evenings with awards ceremonies, parent teacher conferences, newspaper production, etc.) Our building has almost no outside windows, so I haven't seen the sun since Saturday.
(Deleted comment)
jimvanpelt
Apr. 19th, 2007 08:53 pm (UTC)
Devon, you are a genius (but everyone knows that). I love your last line! What a great metaphor for humor.
the_flea_king
Apr. 19th, 2007 04:56 pm (UTC)
I wrote a comic strip for about 2 years, and a lot of my short stories are humorous in nature. My first Interzone sale is the only one I think I've really published that was funny though, and not everyone finds it funny.

Sense of humor is very subjective, probably more so I think than anything else. What makes one person laugh will have absolutely no effect on another. I had comic strips that were favorites of one group of people, and were the least favorite, even hated by another group. I don't know what makes one person find something funny, and another not find it funny at all. But I have put some thought into categories of humor.

1. Scatological. Some people like sexual/scatalogical jokes most. Their favorite jokes are gross-out laughs, like the hair gel scene in There's Something About Mary. Poop, fart, etc.

2. Slapstick. A famous comedian whose name escapes me once said "Tragedy is when I fall down an open manhole. Comedy is when someone else does." Buster Keaton, 3 Stooges, and other physical comedy falls into slapstick. Humor of other individuals being hurt, not not seriously. Also, every Warner Bros. cartoon ever made.

3. Random/Expectations play. Humor that plays on expectations and taking 90 degree turns from them. This is particularly popular in my generation. A good example of this would be the comedy stylings of Steven Wright. He sets up up think he is going to say one thing, says the opposite, and it's hilarious. I love this kind of humor.

4. Morbid/Dark/Sick. Humor that plays on disgust in weird ways. Jokes dead people, about dead babies, about incest, rape, etc. There's a lot of this kind of humor where I am from. Lots of jokes about pedophile priests. I personally go for this stuff for some weird reason, in tht it makes me laugh, but I don't necessarily feel good about it.

5. Inside. Humor that is only funny because you understand a complex context necessary to see why the joke is funny. This is what I do mostly. I do a lot of geek humor in my writing that only seriously hardcore nerds get.

6. Punning/word jokes. The lowest form of humor! Similar to jokes of expectations play, making "fun" with words and expectations about what words should be used. Hate this stuff, personally.

7. Situational. Humor that is funny because we can identify with it. The "That's so true!" humor. Jerry Seinfeld's standup.

8. Shame/Embarassment. Almost every single sitcom in the U.S. Humor based on being in really embarassing situations. Many episodes of the Seinfeld TV show come to mind. The Office, British version, was the master of this. This stuff makes me uncomfortable and doesn't really make me laugh, but it must be popular, given how much there is.

There's a lot more, I think, but those are the main ones that I think about. Generally, I think comics/comic writers tend to specialize in a couple of those. Some of them work at ends to one another, and can't be combined very well. I think the important thing to remember is, you can be funny without being funny to everyone, and you shouldn't let that bother you. There are too many different forms of humor. Find one you're good at and stick to it.

jimvanpelt
Apr. 19th, 2007 05:16 pm (UTC)
Great post, Jeremy. I'm cutting and pasting all this good stuff into a file for myself.

I've bought a couple of books about humor over the years. The ones I have haven't helped.
mallory_blog
Apr. 19th, 2007 05:46 pm (UTC)
I've written a few pieces which were intentionally humorous and more that turned out to be, by accident. With the intentionally humorous pieces it seems to me that the writer needs to be speaking about a human condition that is familiar to the reader. In my stuff I end up exaggerating elements to the degree that they become funny. If you have a farting dog in the story then you would expand on aspects of what that 'means' or how it is done in the story like perhaps you and your farting dog live in a high security apartment building and as the farts seep out they hang in the atmosphere and create an unusual side-effect - the people who inhale too much condensed or 'old' fart develop a spectacular singing voice, in high soprano. However, time away from the farted up building causes this enhancement to fail and time in the building causes the singers to be so stinky they can't get a date... So you are now playing with the attributes of a fart or potty humor and you can also mix it up with an apartment full of American Idol wanna-be's who are determined to steal the farting dog in order to win the contest - etc...

jimvanpelt
Apr. 19th, 2007 05:59 pm (UTC)
Humor is so subjective. I can't stand Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Will Ferril or Ben Stiller when they are at their manic worse. In the meantime, while I'm not liking them, they haul in millions of dollars from fans who think they are the very best.

When they weren't scatalogical or just less over the top, like they were in SPANGLISH, THE TRUMAN SHOW, STRANGER THAN FICTION or KEEPING THE FAITH, I liked them (and the funny stuff was funnier). It's all a matter of taste.
snickelish
Apr. 19th, 2007 05:46 pm (UTC)
Out building has almost no outside windows

As it should be, I think. But I bet the parent-teacher conferences are a lot shorter if you have them in the out building. :p

(Now, is that scatological humor, or shame/embarrasment? No, wait, it has to be funny first.)

Jim, I know you like Connie Willis, who is one of my favorite funny authors. "Blued Moon" gets me every time, as well as most of Bellwether. I have one of those "Writing SF and Fantasy" books with a chapter by her on humor - I'll see if I can find the title for you.

Also, Neil Gaiman is wonderfully funny when he wants to be. Anansi Boys is fantastic that way.
jimvanpelt
Apr. 19th, 2007 06:02 pm (UTC)
I'd love to see that! I'll have to find it myself. When Connie gets around to writing her book on writing, I'll be first in line. I've heard her give speeches about writing (she's been doing a series of them at MileHiCon). She's spoken on irony and plotting. Connie on humor is bound to be great.
ladislaw
Apr. 19th, 2007 07:05 pm (UTC)
After years of my writing stories that I always ran past one particular old friend, this friend finally pointed out to me that, although I was hilarious, my writing was never funny. I hadn't ever thought about it. I just wrote what I wrote. Soon after, I wrote "A Crisis for Mr. Lion," which is humorous, and which won Zoetrope's fiction award this past year. Hm. I've tried to consciously employ my humorous "side" more in my writing, but still, I write what I write.

With 7th graders, I used *Tom Sawyer* as a way to discuss humor. What I found is that discussing what's funny *before* we started the novel, and then pointing out how Twain is using humor in the first few chapters, I got kids to respond to Twain's forms of humor as we moved through the book. Twain uses the forms that flea king points to, above, and he also does something you run into on *Seinfeld*: using elevated language for particularly low humor. So rather than a joke about getting sick to your stomach relying on, say, visuals and sounds, Twain uses unexpectedly elevated language to describe the experience.

I also find Flannery O'Connor hilarious. I used to find her terribly dark, but after reading her letters and hearing how funny and personable she was, I was able to see the ways in which she was being funny at the darkest moments in her fiction.
jimvanpelt
Apr. 19th, 2007 07:49 pm (UTC)
Several folks have mentioned Twain. I love the opening of Tom Sawyer:

*********

The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked through them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not service -- she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:

"Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll -- "

She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.

"I never did see the beat of that boy!"

********

I laughed the first time I read the comparison of her glasses to stove-lids, and the punching under the bed with the broom, scaring the cat, as she looked for Tom. When I reread it, after having finished the book, it was funnier still, because I knew more about her and Tom
(no subject) - ladislaw - Apr. 19th, 2007 09:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
csinman
Apr. 19th, 2007 07:24 pm (UTC)
I love that you show Galaxy Quest in a class. You've made my day.

And as for humor: if it can be taught, I'm not the one to do it. It's my greatest strength as a writer, but I'm pretty young. Perhaps the knowledge of 'how to teach' will come in time, so ask again when I'm 50.
jimvanpelt
Apr. 19th, 2007 07:50 pm (UTC)
I'm 52. Don't depend on wisdom coming by then *g*.
(no subject) - csinman - Apr. 19th, 2007 10:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
wisdom - middlevanp - Apr. 21st, 2007 05:26 am (UTC) - Expand
witteafval
Apr. 19th, 2007 10:31 pm (UTC)
I don't really have a new point, but all these comments brought The Empire Strikes Back to mind, regarded by many as one of the darkest Star Wars movies, but also one of the funniest. The director said in an interview that with so many bad things happening in the film, he felt like adding lots of humor would make it more bearable. But it had to be funny without resorting to "gags," because that would have ruined the tone of the movie (as happened in Superman II).
tbclone47
Apr. 20th, 2007 02:54 am (UTC)
Love GQ! I think the humor works so well because the story is well-done, and the characters fully realized.
ruvdraba
Apr. 24th, 2007 10:59 pm (UTC)
I've recently come to your blog from bg_editor's, Jim. Many useful articles here. Here's my contribution to this one.

A useful link from etymonline, quoted from Fowler's Modern English (1926) classifies humour into eight sorts: humour, wit, satire, sarcasm, invective, irony, cynicism and sardonic. It also lists aim, province, method and audience for each.

I don't know that these capture all humour, or even classify them well. (E.g. "observational" humour and "situation comedy" seem to cross multiple classes). But it's interesting that an author can be good at some kinds of humour and not others. Perhaps it relates to aim or attitude? Or maybe just experience with method.

Perhaps there's scope for some exercises there.
jimvanpelt
Apr. 25th, 2007 03:17 am (UTC)
Thanks for dropping by! I do wish I had a stronger grasp of how to do humor, but I suspect that creating humor is a totally different activity than describing or identifying humor. Humor would be like plot, then, where there are all kinds of books describing plots, but they don't help when you go to create one.
(no subject) - ruvdraba - Apr. 25th, 2007 05:54 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimvanpelt - Apr. 25th, 2007 12:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
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