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So, how arrogant is it for me to sit here and tell you what's funny? Incredibly. Let's get that admission out of the way right from the word go. You can't do something like that without having balls the size of Alpha Centuri.
That being said I'm not without my credentials. Every silly I've written for the VC community has either won a golden rat for the year in which it was written or lost out to something else I wrote that year. (I think 97-98 was the only year I wasn't nominated for). So, speaking as somebody you apparently think of as funny, let me talk a bit about how humor works. Or, rather, how you can make your humor work better.
You see, the writing of a silly spec is a tricky activity. It relies on that chaotic beast known as "a sense of humor" and more or less boils down to the fact that not everybody's sense of humor is the same. So this is not a lesson on how to be funny period. "Funny" is in the eye of the beholder. This is a lesson on how to make your funny funnier.
So I've Got This Idea, See?
Congratulations! You've just sat down and given birth to a five ounce baby plot bunny. Currently it's looking at you strangely from behind a pair of Groucho glasses. You begin to suspect you may just have a silly spec on your hands. This suspicion is confirmed when the bunny snuggles up to you, wiggles its tiny nose and whispers "Lestat as an Amway salesman - how about it?"
Ooh! Good one! It's certainly a silly idea! You pat the bunny on its tiny head and race over to the keyboard. You type down a few paragraphs about Lestat walking around with an Amway nametag on his vest and even toss in a line about Armand starting a pie fight. Daniel puts in an appearance while wearing a mime outfit and you know you've got comedic gold on your hands.
Not So Fast
Or do you?
Let's stop for a moment and take a look at what we have. Now again, I'm not saying this isn't funny or that you'd be a bad person or writer for thinking that it was. No doubt about it - we've got a funny concept here. But is it as funny as it can be? Ah, there's the rub.
Let's start over.
Rule #1: A Funny Concept Does Not Equal A Funny Story
Herein lies the subtleties of humor. Just because you've included a funny concept does not mean you've got a funny story. What you've got is a funny concept with a lot of words around it. It's now up to you to make those words do something. Here's an example of what I mean:
Now I'm giving you an extreme example here, of course, but you get the idea. This snippet has nothing going for it except those funny concepts. The humor value of it begins and ends there. There's nothing in the story itself to support them. To extend the earlier metaphor, you've plopped your baby bunny out into the wilderness and expect it to survive using those Groucho glasses alone - sure people will chuckle at first, but once that passes they and the bunny are just going to stare at one another akwardly and clear their throats a lot. Not exactly what you'd call a laugh-riot.
Lestat walked through the rooms of Rue Royale looking through his boxes frantically. "I've got to find that catalog," he said. "How else can I go door to door and sell without it? I'm the vampire Lestat, you know. If I can't do good selling Amway the coven will laugh at me."
Armand appeared. "You're right, Lestat! If you don't I will take advantage of my powers to throw this cream pie at you." Armand threw the cream pie at Lestat just to illustrate his point.
Lestat wiped himself off frantically. "You imp and bastard! Now I'll never sell!"
Armand rolled his eyes. "You think you've got problems? I've got to deal with Daniel!"
The two of them turned to see Daniel standing silently in the next room. His face was completely covered in mime makeup.
What went wrong? Nothing, per se. Again, this isn't a matter of "wrong". It's a matter of improvement, of adding on to what you already have. Rule #1 is to understand that you can't rely on the funny concept alone. The following rules are what you can turn to for suggestions on how to add to it.
Rule #2: Characterization is Key
Even in sillies you have to have characterization. No matter how far-out your concept is (and, in fact, even moreso the more far-out your concept is) your readers have got to recognize these characters. If a search and replace can be done on the character names with no change in the impact of the story, you've got a problem. You need to give your readers something to hang on to.
What can they hang on to? Personality, for one. If Lestat is wearing an Amway suit (or, for that matter, a Batsuit - ahem) then make sure it's Lestat in that suit. Make him the Brat Prince we all know him to be. Have him fuss and bother about how he looks in it, have him go out and overachieve on the job because he is Lestat and he doesn't like playing second fiddle. Have him write a book called The Amway Vampire because after the five he's written he's strapped for inspriation. Have him do the things we all know he likes to do - he's just doing them in this funny situation.
Personality is the heart of your characters. You should look to it first and foremost in every story that you write. If you can write down the personalities of the characters then you can place them in any situation no matter how wild and know you're more than halfway done in selling your story.
If, on the other hand, a bit of the character's personality is lacking then it needs to be part of the humor. Love him or hate him you've got to admit Lestat's a tough guy. If he's showing up in your story as a wimp then you've got to write that in as part of the silliness of the story. And again this can't just be "Lestat is a wimpy guy - what a silly concept" it's got to be an illustration of how Lestat's wimpiness is funny. You can't start off the story with him wringing his hands and acting like a crybaby - not unless the reason why is addressed later on. Why? Because it's against his character.
At bare minimum there needs to be at least one part of the original character that survives into your story - and I don't mean his name. At least one thing about the character's soul and motivation needs to be shown or else you might as well scrap the story and try again.
Rule #3: Stereotypes - Your Friend, Your Enemy
What's a stereotype? "Lestat's a Brat" "Maharet is boring" "Louis is prim" - all of these are stereotypes. You're defining the character by a single trait and using that trait to shape their entire personality. This can be both good and bad.
What's bad about them? See Rule #2. Stereotypes can get in the way of your characterization. Heck, they can get in the way of your character. If your reader sees nothing but line after line of "Lestat is a brat" "Lestat acted brattily" "Lestat pouted because he is such a bratty person" their minds will shut off. They're not going to pay attention to your story anymore. Why? Because it's redundant and it's just a concept. It's not a character. As Marion Zimmer Bradley used to say, stories aren't about ideas they're about people. Stereotypes aren't people, they're ideas.
That being said, stereotypes can come in handy - if you use them properly.
If you can get a handle on a stereotype of your character (ie Louis being prim) you can use this as a starting point for your "far-out" characterization. Think of it like a logic puzzle, or those geometry lessons you had back in high school - you start out with something everyone can agree on then add to it to come up with something new.
We all agree: Louis is prim.
See how that worked? You take a single characterization concept that we can all recognize and by adding in some other things that are established truths you've lead your reader into an idea that, on its own, would have no place in the Chronicles but now makes your silly story sing. In this case the stereotype ("Louis is prim") worked in your favor because it was a strong enough idea to see your concept ("Louis gets the hiccups") through. The humor wasn't the stereotype, it was using the stereotype to get to somewhere else.
We also agree: Prim people don't like talking about sex.
We also agree: People have upsetting reactions around things they don't like.
Therefore: Louis gets the hiccups every time he's near a red light district.
Rule #4: "Silly" doesn't mean "Badly Written"
This is a basic idea - as with any story you still need to have believable dialogue, plot, actions, etc. You can't have a silly story with lines like "I'm going to throw this pie, isn't that funny?" anymore than you could have an angstful story that had a line like "I'm feeling depressed, isn't that sad?" Poor writing is poor writing no matter what genre it's in.
Then there are the things which aren't so much "rules" as ideas to keep in mind. These touch on the heart of humor - which is to say the very subjective heart of humor - which makes them hard to define. Basically they are things to keep in mind when you're writing. Are they things that can be easily taught? No. But they are things that you can keep your eye out for when reading and watching things that you find funny. When you find yourself laughing at something, try asking yourself what parts of the following suggestions were used and why did they work?
Subtle vs. Blatent
Comedy can be found in both small and grand gestures. Swinging reality from the obvious to the not so obvious is an easy way to get humor in the situation. But, as with stereotypes, this can work either for you or against you. You need to go back to that all-important characterization before you can make use of them. Armand starting a pie fight is a funny concept, but a blatent one - if you don't show your reader why Armand is starting this pie fight then your funny concept has fallen flat.
It Has to Make Sense
Many people confuse the word "silly" with "chaotic". Now granted you are given a great deal more leeway in a silly spec than you are in a serious spec in terms of things like plot, continuity and general storyline. You can start off a story with Louis in a Santa suit on the deck of the USS Enterprise far more easily in a silly spec than you could a serious one. But that doesn't mean you can zing the story about with no sense of reason. Again - what's the character's motivation? why is he doing this? what's going on? how are we getting from point A to point B? Be as silly and strange as you want to be - but make sure your readers can follow you.
When I asked people to give me their suggestions for what I should include in this essay each and every one of them said I should touch on the concept of comedic timing. Sigh. Easier said than done. Talk about a subjective subject! But still and all it's an important one.
Timing is everything in comedy. Good timing makes the difference between a great joke and a mildly amusing one. Take this example (and stop me if you've heard this before):
The chicken crossed the road to get to the other side.
Why'd the chicken cross the road? [pause] To get to the other side!
See the difference? Timing (as well as its close cousin, proper inflection) transformed a concept from a plain statement of fact to one of the classic jokes of humanity. Likewise, good timing can transform your funny idea from a mere concept ("Isn't it funny to think of Daniel in a mime outfit?") to something that makes your readers actually chuckle ("Daniel," Armand sighed patiently, "if you're going to keep that up I insist that you stop telling everyone that you're inside of a box. Mimes are supposed to be silent you know.")
Great, you say (or perhaps words to that effect) how do I write silly specs with good comedic timing?
The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice.
Don't hit me.
Seriously, comedic timing isn't something that can be taught. It's sort of like when Data tried to learn how to play poker on Star Trek: The Next Generation - he had the rules and regulations down pat but just couldn't understand the nuiances of betting and bluffing. It's all a matter of understanding how people talk and interact with one another.
That being said, there are a few things to try to keep in mind.
Comedy writers will often talk about "comedy beats" (you fans of Tiny Toons can now picture Plucky being pelted with vegetables). Humorous stories and dialogues have a "beat" to them. They work on a rhythm. This doesn't necessarily have to be "1-2-3-laugh" but it should be something that works behind the scenes to carry your reader along. Your story should evolve a pattern of when and where the humor comes in. What that pattern is depends on you and your story but it should be something that keeps it from being a punchline with every word ("The chicken crossed the road to get to the other side." "Oh yeah? Well suspenders keep a fireman's pants up.") or from your jokes being lost among dozens of pages of deep, soulful angst.
If I had to pick one "comedy beat" mistake that everyone makes when they are starting out I'd say that it was the mistake of not knowing when to pause. Most people already know that you can't include a knock knock joke in the middle of a story wherein Louis dies unless you're putting it there for good reason. What a lot of people don't realize, though, is that you can't conversely put jokes in at every second without giving your reader a small mental break.
As I showed before with the chicken joke, a well-placed pause is a powerful tool. I would even go so far to say that it's an essential part of every joke - and if a joke fails it's because the pause wasn't placed in properly. Comedy works by surprising its audience with things that are unexpected. Therefore it's necessary for the audience to first know what to expect in order to be surprised.
"The chicken crossed the road." is a statement. I don't laugh when I read it because I'm merely being told something. I don't expect anything out of this except some information. However if you write that as "Why did the chicken cross the road? [pause]" my mind starts to work. I start thinking to myself Huh... this seems obvious but they're asking me a question so there must be some riddle I'm not getting. What could the answer be? Thus when you come back with "To get to the other side." I laugh - I laugh because you surprised me. I laugh because you tricked my mind into going one way when it should have gone in another. I laugh because the pause in your question made me think. And, last but not least, I laugh because your obvious answer has successfully made me feel like a moron.
(There's those comedy beats again.)
See if you can notice how the pause works to make the following example funny:
Funny Concept As-Is:
Again - comedy timing used to surprise your reader. You were expecting me to talk about Daniel in a mime suit. You were surprised to picture Marius with Pugsly on his head. The pause worked as a way to divert your mind and as a way to highten your anticipation. The "As-Is" line about Daniel in a mime outfit probably could have worked just as well if placed in a similar context of Armand and Lestat talking about serious, everyday things. It's all a matter of timing.
Armand shook his head sadly. "I can't believe Daniel's wearing a mime outfit."
Funny Concept With Better Timing:
Lestat looked up as Armand entered the room. The angelic-looking vampire leaned against the doorframe and sighed dramatically.
"Tough day?" Lestat asked.
"You don't know the half of it," Armand said. He rubbed his eyes tiredly. "My stocks are down, Benji's in a mood, Louis isn't speaking to me and now..."
"What?" Lestat asked as Armand trailed off.
"And now," Armand said, "I have to deal with the fact that Marius is wearing Beanie Babies as hats."
Try to Turn to the Unexpected
There's two parts to this suggestion.
The first part goes back to comedic timing. Just because your original funny concept is "unexpected" doesn't mean that it's enough to carry the joke. Sometimes your concepts can work on their own but other times they can work better as a one-two punch. Consider this:
Funny Concept on its Own:
You see how it works. We took the shock of laugher from the original joke and carried it through to several more. We didn't just rely on the one unexpected twist. We took that twist and, well, twisted it further. It was then tied in with a good comedy beat of pause-joke-pause-joke to turn a solitary funny concept into several moments of humorous narrative.
"And now," Armand sighed,"I have to deal with the fact that Marius is wearing Beanie Babies as hats."
Funny Concept With A One-Two Punch:
"And now," Armand sighed,"I have to deal with the fact that Marius is wearing Beanie Babies as hats."
Lestat's eyes opened in shock. "You're kidding."
"I'm afraid not."
"But you'd think he'd have learned his lesson after trying one of them as a G-string."
"I mean the allergic reaction alone -"
"Yes," Armand said, waving this off, "believe me, I remember. God do I remember..."
Remember - this is all a matter of timing. Not all of your jokes are meant to be carried out into several more. Let some of your jokes stay as-is. The comedy beats will get worn out if you reader knows to expect that one-two punch every time.
The second part of the unexpected relates back to stereotypes. As you read through your story, try to see if you can't take advantage of stereotypes to give your humor an extra kick. For example, if we take our earlier stereotype that Louis is prim it would be funny to surprise your reader with a scene of Louis getting the hiccups on Bourbon Street. It would also surprise them to find out that, despite being prim, he's got the best collection of erotic paintings this side of Night Island. Both of these suggestions are a good way to put an unexpected twist in a stereotype.
But take care that you're not taking that stereotype for granted. As I said before, if the stereotype is writing the character for you then you don't have a good joke - or a good story.
So pause for a moment and think: is there another, better stereotype I can use in this situation? Think of it this way - would it have been as funny if I had said that Daniel was the one with the Beanie Babies on his head? Not really. Why? Because Daniel's "stereotype" is that he's a very modern guy who's kind of laid-back and not too uptight about doing strange things. So the image of him with a stuffed dog on his head, while amusing, isn't nearly as funny as the mental image of Marius, The Ancient One, The Keeper of Those Who Must Be Kept, going out, getting a Beanie Baby, sitting down, trying to figure out how to use it, and deciding that little stuffed dogs make excellent chapeaus.
So keep your eye out for ways in which you can give your situation an extra twist. Sometimes this is in giving a stereotype a surprise ending (prim Louis has a lot of erotic paintings) and sometimes it's in finding someone who isn't quite as obvious for the job (Marius wearing Beanie Babies).
Sometimes Words That Seem Funny, Aren't
There's an episode of The Simpsons where Homer goes to clown college. In one of the classes Krusty lists off some places that are funny, places with names like "Walla Walla" for example. You then get a shot of the rest of the class where you can see Homer cracking up while his fellow classmates watch silently.
The lesson? Sometimes people will laugh just because they hear a silly word, but for the most part silly words don't make good jokes.
A silly word is a concept. Just like your story idea, it needs things around it in order for it to be really funny. Sure you might get a few giggles with the word "booger" in your spec, but it takes writing talent like Dave Barry's to raise the use of the word "booger" into an art form. Silly words will only work if you make them a part of your comedy beats.
The Bottom Line
You've survived this far, you've read all the rules and suggestions and now your head is spinning. What, in the name of God, does this all mean, you may be asking?
Well here's what it boils down to:
1. Funny concepts are just that - concepts. They are not stories.
And that's basically it. If you can get a handle on these suggestions and ideas then you have all the tools you need to make your funny story funnier. Does everything here represent the be-all, end-all list of what makes for good humor? No, but it does give you a good place to start.
2. Funny stories are made up of funny concepts that work together in some kind of sensible whole.
3. Funny stories work better when the comedic timing is spot-on and the jokes are unexpected.
4. As always, the motivation and characterization of your characters is key.
One Final Note
What, you may be asking, ever happened to that baby bunny from before? Does Lestat's career as an Amway salesman ever take off? Well, I'm told it does. So keep your eyes open for a silly spec in which things we talked about here make a cameo or two.