Believe it or not, I get a lot of questions about humor – more specifically, “how do you come up with funny stuff when you write?” Funny you should ask. Interesting question. Like many people that work creatively, I don’t think a lot about how I do what I do. But since I get this question so often, I think it’s high time to start thinking about it.
What is funny? Experts have argued over that question for as long as there have been jokes. (The oldest known joke is – naturally – a fart joke that dates back to Etruscan times.) I’m not going to deal with the question of the nature of humor here. I’ll limit myself to a discussion of how I inject humor into my writing.
Fundamentally, I think you have to “think funny”…if you don’t have a sense of humor to begin with, you’ll have a difficult time with writting things that are funny. I’ve been told I have a pretty dry sense of humor. That’s partially true. I also appreciate a wide variety of humor styles. To write funny stuff, I believe you have to look at life in such a way as to see the humor in things. The way I come up with this stuff is to try to think of a funny way to say something, within the context of a thought I’m trying to communicate. For instance, if I was going to talk about the absurdity of something and try and get people to think things through, instead of saying “pause for a second,” I might say “pause with me for a nanosecond,” simply because the word “nanosecond” sounds funny, it’s absurdly precise in this context, and it’s unexpected.
Surprise and the unexpected can be a good source for comedic effect. Saying “There’s no business like snow business” may employ a pretty lame pun, but it turns a familiar saying in a new and unexpected direction, and helps make a point, in this case, about how, when facing a blizzard, stores sell out of merchandise when people suddenly – and irrationally – decide to lay in provisions (even though we all knew the snow would melt and be gone by the next day).
Language itself can be funny. I like to use archaic language – “whilst” instead of “while” and that sort of thing. It gives my writing a certain tongue-in-cheek style. The same is true about using overly-formal syntax, especially when combined with casual or contemporary phrases. Think of this as linguistic anacronisms, the verbal equivalent of having Hamlet take a call on his cell phone. It can be funny (or just amusing) in addition to helping to change up the rhythm of my prose.
Making up words can be laugh-out-loud funny. My daughter is especially good at this. She coined the word “yesternight.” Perfectly logical and useful word, if you ask me. Don’t know why nobody’d thought of it before, really. But the humor of it was found in the fact that it’s not an accepted word – yet you could see how her mind worked and came up with it. Brilliant. I used the word Panhandlistas to overly-glorify local residents, with a made-up word that alludes to all the other -istas (Sandinistas, etc.).
I also like to poke fun at things by gilding them a bit. For instance, I rarely refer to the city of Amarillo without saying “Amarillo (Centrally Located Between Two Oceans!™)” – to make it seem as if Amarillo has latched onto some kind of big marketing/selling point and is running it into the ground. I once came up with a long list of other potential city slogans, then realized that if you live here, you’d either find the list striking a little too close to home, or see it as “that’s not funny…it’s sick.”
Hyperbole is a good technique for humor. For instance, instead of saying “if there’s no blizzard, parents are going to be unhappy that school was cancelled,” I wrote, “should we get but a light dusting of the icy stuff, you’re gonna see a lot of parents gathering outside the school board offices with pitchforks and torches, doing their very best imitation of that iconic scene out of Frankenstein.” Exaggeration and excess is generally a funny thing. If I can use exaggeration to make some insignificant thing seem bigger and more outrageous, it can turn the banal into humor.
I once took a flight out of Baton Rouge with a friend/coworker. We were on our way to getting fogged in. I looked out the window and said “it’s a real ‘Linda Blair’ night out there.” He thought for a moment, then grinned…”I get it…Linda Blair was in The Exorcist, where they used green pea soup as stunt vomit…thick as green pea soup is a prosaic way to refer to fog…man, that was deep.” I don’t know about that, but it made him laugh. (That’s also a pretty good idea of how my twisted mind works, by the way.)
I like to throw in pop culture references whenever I can find a relevant one. Millions of years ago, there was a mountain, where Amarillo stands. Today, Amarillo is flat as a pancake, as it’s built on the caprock – what’s left of the mountain. In my book, that makes Amarillo “The Mountain Formerly Known As…” (like the “artist formerly known as Prince”). The end of my recent “Snow Job” post features a repeated line from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, where Jack Nickelson repeatedly types “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” That’s an oblique way of alluding to something that is a cultural touchstone – sort of a shorthand way of making a point.
Of course, if you’re really unable to write funny, you can always simply throw in a joke. In that spirit, I’ll share with you one of my favorite jokes, that, coincidentally kind of sums up the whole “being funny” kind of thing.
There was a guy who was thrown into prison. After lights out on his first night, he heard one of the other prisoners shout out “Number 59!” All the other prisoners laughed. The new prisoner turned to his cellmate and asked, “What’s that about?”
The other prisoner explained, “There’s only one joke book in the prison library. We’ve all memorized it, with each joke by it’s number. We don’t tell the jokes any more – we just use the number, and everybody ‘gets it.’ Saves a lot of time.”
So the following day, the new prisoner checked out the book, and spent the next few weeks memorizing it. Gradually, he began to catch on to the nightly ritual, laughing along with the other inmates. Finally, one night, he worked up enough courage to tell a joke on his own.
After lights out, one of the prisoners called out “Number 21!” Everybody laughed.
“Number 37!” called out another. The inmates erupted in laughter.
The new prisioner called out “Number 68!”
The newbie turned to his cell mate and asked, “what did I do wrong?”
The cellmate shook his head sadly, and said “Sorry kid…some people just don’t know how to tell a joke.”
Now THAT’S funny.