Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tony Noland Talks Funny

It's guest-post Thursday!* Today, Tony Noland drops in to talk about humor writing, something Tony has a lot of experience with. (He's been trying to do it for years.) Tony blogs over at Landless, where you'll find his thoughts on language and writing, a mess of limericks, long short stories, short short stories, and really short short stories. He also shows up at the blog Write Anything from time to time.

Please note: Tony doesn't use the serial comma. But he's also not a serial killer, so we'll just call it even.

For this guest post, Andy asked me to do a post having something to do with writing. Or maybe it was language. Actually, it could have been either one. I wasn't paying very close attention, since I was applying a tourniquet to the gunshot wound in my left thigh when his DM came in. You see, my day job involves the overthrow of pesky governments. When it's done right, you would be surprised how effective the tiniest of nudges can be in driving an unstable situation toward a desirable outcome.

Still, hemorrhage or no hemorrhage, I'm always happy to talk about punctuation, style, mechanics, tips & tricks and other matters related to writing. Or language, if that's the topic at hand. It's a bit of a pity that I'm not going to talk about any of those things, but it can't be helped, I suppose. You can't throw a fit on the Internet without hitting half a dozen blog posts on any or all of those topics. No, I'm going to talk about something I rarely talk about, and that is how to write funny material.

Now I know that many of you will INSTANTLY think of that well-known truism about humor attributed to Pliny the Elder. In fact, Aristophanes had very similar views on the analysis of humor, views which have as much relevance as Pliny's. Considering that Aristophanes shot people in the ass with lightning bolts in his play "The Frogs," you can understand that we're not talking about an amateur, here. No, from the days of Pliny and Aristophanes to Moliere, Twain and Steve Martin, there is a remarkable consensus among funny people about what it means to be funny.

The consensus is, "Don't Ask."

Dissecting a joke is like dissecting a skunk while blindfolded — it does nothing to aid understanding, nobody around you appreciates it and you kill the skunk.

So why do it? Why do people insist on trying to figure out what makes something funny? Because they want to be funny. And why do people want to be funny? Because funny people get laid! A lot! Just ask any funny person, they'll tell you the same thing!

Can you learn how to write funny stuff? Well, you can learn the mechanics. For example, the Rule of Three is a good start. Jokes based on threes are funny, while other numbers are not. A, then B, then C. A sets the premise, B is consistent with A and sets the pattern, C is inconsistent and breaks the pattern in an unexpected way. Simple opposition jokes (e.g., good news/bad news jokes) work because the setup of the joke is inherent in the context. For example:

Doctor: "I've got bad news and worse news."
Patient: "What's the bad news?"
Doctor: "According to these test results, you only have three days to live."
Patient: "My God! What's the worse news?"
Doctor: "These test results came in yesterday."

We don't expect doctors to be so heartless, just like we don't expect bartenders to have only one testicle. That breaking of the established (or presumptive) pattern makes the joke funny.

At least I HOPE it was funny...

Man: "Tell me the truth, darling. Was it good for you, too?"
Woman: "Well... no, it wasn't."
Man: "In that case, lie to me."

So, yes, you can learn the mechanics of writing humor, just as you can learn the mechanics of writing horror, romance, fantasy, detective noir, Firefly slashfic, whatever. Still, humour writing is a tricky thing, perhaps rivalled only by erotica for the delicate balance that has to be struck in how the reader is led along. For example, take profanity. Some people find profanity to be hilarious when dropped unexpectedly into the end of a sentence. Other people do not like unneeded profanity, and will instead find it offensive.

See what I did there? By referring to profanity in a post about humor, I set up an expectation that a profanity joke was in-bound. You might still have that expectation. When there was none, the expectations weren't met, and the joke was broken. Whether you were leaning forward to get the profanity joke you were hoping for, or steeling yourself to tolerate the profanity joke you were dreading, the process of telegraphing a fuck fuck joke serves to build up the reader's engagement in the piece.

So, what's the best way to be funny? Simple: watch funny people. Read funny books. Listen to funny monologues.

HEY! I didn't say "watch people that other people think are funny." I didn't say "read books that are popular because other people think they are funny." If you aren't laughing at them, they aren't funny TO YOU. When you go on to write funny stuff, you need to tap into your own sense of humor. If you don't find Garrison Keillor funny, then you will NEVER be able to write gee whiz, aw shucks, down-homey humor. It will always sound artificial when you do it, because you don't love it.

Of course, if your idea of funny is to say "fuck fuck" in the middle of a blog post, you're only going to appeal to a certain segment of the reading public. But guess what? That would be true anyway!

Internalize the humor, look for the comedy amid the tragedy of life and don't overanalyze it. Just be funny.



You can read Tony's Firefly slashfic and other works at Landless, and follow him on Twitter at @TonyNoland.

*Not a real thing.