MAKE ‘EM LAUGH, MAKE ‘EM CRY

Note: This essay is in honor of the month of April, which T.S. Eliot called the cruelest month. It’s a month of rain and taxes, but it’s also a month of practical jokes and humor. We’re all April Fools at this time of the year. So here are a few thoughts about writing in a humorous vein.

Okay. Lessee. Okay. A guy slips on a banana peel and falls on his butt. No, wait. The guy’s all dressed up, on his way to the career interview of a lifetime, and he slips on a banana peel and falls in a steaming pile of dog feces. Make that cat feces.

Did you hear the one about the man who was so poor he was reduced to eating his own shoes?

How about the woman who reads someone else’s mail by accident, misunderstands, and thinks the man she loves is two-timing her. It breaks her heart.

This working-class married couple lives in an apartment in New York. They yell at each other constantly. Their best friends are neighbors, a couple that also yells at each other. Sometimes the two couples get together and they yell at each other. By the way, one of the men is obese, and both of the men frequently threaten their wives with violence.

So this salesman runs out of gas on a country road. A farmer takes him in for the night, but the salesman abuses the farmer’s hospitality by seducing the farmer’s teen-aged daughter, making her pregnant and ruining her life. The farmer forces the two strangers to get married at gunpoint, thereby ruining both of their lives.

There’s this starving coyote, see. His prey eludes him and he accidently runs off a cliff and falls thousands of feet to the rocks below.

A nice Italian or maybe Jewish or maybe both fruit vender is minding his own business when a gangster, a yuppie, and a cop all bash their cars into his pushcart, destroying his inventory and scattering all the money he’s earned that week.

A homeless drunk needs to urinate so bad that he.

STOP!

What?

That stuff isn’t funny.

Maybe I’m not telling it right. People have been laughing at this material forever.

It’s not funny. It’s sad.

I didn’t say it wasn’t sad. What do you think humor is, anyway?

Humor comes from sorrow, suffering, pain, cruelty, loneliness, and anger. Why is it all the Warner Brothers cartoon characters have speech impediments? What’s funny about speech impediments? I don’t know either, but those voices make us laugh. And speaking of cartoons, check out the topics covered by the comics in today’s paper. An average day might serve up unruly children, meddlesome parents, nagging wives, boring husbands, divorce, overeating, poverty, taxes, crime, political corruption, sexual harrassment, job stress, school stress, traffic accidents, sports accidents, phobias of all kinds, greed, jealousy, illnesses ranging from the common cold to Alzheimer’s Disease, and many different kinds of death, from shipwrecks to the electric chair. For starters. Real thigh-slappers.

There are two reasons not to be surprised that funny short stories originate in pain. First, good short stories must have conflict. Second, good short stories are about life, and life is full of pain. The Buddhists are right: the human condition is full of suffering.

So that’s the bad news. The good news is that we have humor to help us carry the load. In fact, the humor can carry the load for us. Got a problem? Turn it into a joke. Why do so many overweight people, of all ages, laugh so much?

If suffering is essential to humor, so is surprise. Another word for surprise, when we’re talking about skillful writing, is irony. Irony is a one-two punch. A good cop/bad cop routine. You set your reader up gently to expect one thing, and then pow. This device can work wonders at the sentence level, with twists of phrase that leave the reader reeling and rolling. Irony is even more important at the plot level, with events seeming to lead in one direction and ending up in another. Irony in a plot often involves the concept of karma or so-called poetic justice.

Another essential quality of good short fiction is originality: the humor has to be fresh. It’s true that there are only a certain number of jokes in the world, and they’ve all been told before, but there is an endless source of fresh humor in our imaginations. Even when we deal with familiar ideas, we can be original.

Another essential ingredient of successful humorous short stories is intelligence. That should go without saying, but there’s so much dumb humor in our culture, even dumb humor that’s funny, that I make a special point of requiring intelligence before I’ll call a short story good. It can’t trade on its humor alone; it has to engage the brain, not just the funny bone. The story must be, on some level, about something that matters. Obviously a story is first and foremost a story, and its first job is to entertain. This is especially true of humorous stories. But if you don’t give the reader something to think about, your story won’t last in the memory any longer than a comic strip or a sitcom.

Finally, of course, a good humorous story requires style in spades. Why is it that all the jokes I told at the beginning of this chapter introduction fell flat? No style. Zippo. Dullsville.

Everyone knows that the joke itself is only half the reason we laugh at a good comedian-if that. At least as important is the delivery. To tell a good joke you have to love language and practice daily all the many magic tricks you can do with it.

Become a magician and make your readers laugh so hard they hardly notice that they’re crying as well.

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6 Responses

  1. Your thoughtful essay makes me think of old Bob Hope? He was a master at combining style and humor. The perfect pause, the double take, the straight face as he delivers a punch line. He could make an elephant laugh.
    I love the thought of humor coming out of sorrow. So true and yet so cruel… Thanks for this, John.

    • Thanks, Nancy. Yes, Bob Hope was a master, and a lot of his humor came from his subtle combination of bravado and a sense of inadequacy. He could wear a tux and host the Oscars, but he was also Paleface and Bing’s buddy who never got the girl.

  2. Thanks for getting us going, John. I’ve always felt an “outsider” when it comes to humor …. never laughed at the old movie cartoons. Even as a kid, I’d be saying, “People don’t bounce back from a tree like that!” My idea of humor is Woody Allen-type. Angst, maybe, but no slipping on a banana peel.

  3. In FOLLOWING THE EQUATOR, Mark Twain wrote, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” Makes sense. No humor, nothing whatever to be unhappy about – in other words, absolutely nothing to write about. Who in hell would want to go there?

    • Not me, Larry. Good point. As long as we’re getting theological (and why not on Good Friday and the first night of Passover) let’s point out that all Creation is a cosmic joke: good cop, bad cop. The Master Joker gives us joy and pain in equal measure.

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