Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On Writing Comedy

Have you ever tried to soften bad news with a joke? The person is waiting for you to say something, pressure mounts, and you’re searching through your brain’s archives for something that would lighten dramatic information with some comedy. Making people laugh is hard. Writing comedy is challenging, even for the most talented writers. Award-winning writer and humorist, Gordon Kirkland, says the humorist’s first commandment is “Know thy audience”.

“Humor is both a genre in its own right, and an important ingredient in many other genres,” Kirkland says. “William Shakespeare wrote comedies, tragedies and romances. Even in the most tragic of tales, he knew the importance of inserting a humorous scene every so often to bring the audience some comic relief, from all the death, deceit, and unrequited love in the rest of the play.”

Here are Kirkland’s three elements to humor writing, which can be used together or on their own.

· The Unexpected or Surprise Twist;

· Creating a Sense of Superiority; and,

· Playing on Incongruities.

The Unexpected or Surprise Twist

Humor is often built on surprise. Creating an image in the reader’s mind, and then completely destroying it with a sudden change in direction is an excellent way to evoke laughter. For example, the following passage is from a piece I wrote about something I had to give up after breaking my spine:

“I miss the feel of hot, sweaty flesh, pounding rhythmically beneath me, and the sounds of heavy breathing and snorting as I go up and down – at times barely able to avoid falling off. I miss the rush it gave me as it forces adrenaline through my system. It wasn’t that I experienced it all that often, and frankly, I wasn’t very good at it, but every time I did I had a really good time. Had I known that I’d have to stop doing it, I would have done it a lot more when I could. That’s why I find it hard to believe that there are people out there who have no desire to even try it. I’m sure some of you just take doing it for granted. I did, and of course now I wish I hadn’t.

Yes, I sure do miss the joys of riding a horse.”

The first paragraph is ambiguous enough to create the impression that I am talking about another, enjoyable activity. By going into a lot of detail, I strung the reader along, even further down the wrong path. The short, kicker paragraph provides the surprise by quickly letting them know that what they are thinking is way off base. Had I introduced the idea of horseback riding in the opening, the reader would have created an entirely different image in their minds about the ‘hot sweaty flesh pounding rhythmically beneath me”, and the surprise would have been eliminated.

Creating a Sense of Superiority

Much so-called humor writing is based on creating a sense of superiority, in the reader, the author, or both. Ethnic, racial, and sexist jokes all play on creating a sense of superiority. While political correctness might keep us away from writing that sort of material, it is still possible to use a sense of superiority without offending people. Slapstick comedy, practical jokes, and embarrassing the key subject all rely on using the reader or viewer’s sense of superiority over the person at the butt of the joke.

When I speak to writers groups about writing humor, I start them off by asking them to think of their most embarrassing moment. Odds are at the time, they might have said, “Someday I might laugh at this situation.” Sharing those stories entertain the reader, partially by giving them permission to feel a little bit superior to you, the writer. For example:

“I opened the refrigerator, and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a snack item that my sons had obviously overlooked. There, on a side plate, wrapped with cellophane, was some leftover meat pate. I spread a generous helping on a cracker, and quickly discovered why no one had eaten the rest of this culinary delight. It tasted terrible. I re-wrapped it, and returned it to the refrigerator, because I know that there is one person in this household who can eat disgusting things like broccoli without gagging, so I assumed the pate belonged to her.

When I mentioned my unappetizing experience to my dear, kind, loving wife, she gave me one of those deer-in-the-headlights looks and said, ‘You didn’t…’

She tried to tell me I had eaten cat food, but I pointed out that the cat food was clearly visible on another shelf.

‘Dear, she said, already starting to laugh, ‘I put cat food on that plate, and mixed in the anti-flea medicine to make it easier to give it to her.’”

In this case, the reader’s sense of superiority is played in two ways. First they can laugh, at the thought of someone eating cat food, and secondly by enjoying the other person’s misfortune. In case you’re wondering, I had no trouble with fleas that whole season.

Playing on Incongruities

Humor is often developed by joining two or more subjects that don’t seem to belong together. This might be achieved by creating a seemingly improbable action such as childlike behavior in an adult. It can also be developed by having the subject display an emotion that is the opposite to what might be expected in the location or setting. Incongruity is a device that opens the door for another comic devise – exaggeration.

“After our second child was born, my wife and I discussed the two options of permanent birth control… I lost. (Although I still say my wife cheated on the tie breaking arm wrestle.) In a visit to my doctor, who, until that moment, I had considered a friend, we were shown pictures of what the procedure involved. My wife seemed to enjoy them. I, on the other hand, sat in the fetal position, in a corner, with my hands over my ears, singing, ‘La! La! La! I can’t hear you…’”

Some readers, mostly those who haven’t seen the pictures described in the above passage, might find it incongruous, that a fully-grown adult would behave the way I did. Obviously, the images invoked fear, even though I was in the relative safety of a doctor’s office, especially when you consider that I thought he was my friend. I also have to admit that I exaggerated a little when I wrote that passage. My wife actually won the tie breaking arm wrestle fair and square.

The Most Important Rule

In conclusion, I will let you in on a little secret about what makes written humor or stand-up comedy successful. You must give your readers and audiences permission to laugh at you.

Gordon Kirkland is the award-winning author of six books, based on stories that first saw publication in his syndicated newspaper column, which ran in American and Canadian newspapers from 1994 – 2007. Kirkland took his innate sense of humor and combined it with a love for a good mystery to create his latest book, Crossbow, which was released earlier this month.

To learn more about Gordon, his writing, and Crossbow, visit his website.