Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Humor Me

I've been told that death is easy, but comedy... that's hard.

Actually, it's not as hard as you might think.

Laughter is simply our brain reacting to discord and fear.

Discord is something unexpected, inappropriate, unusual, or exaggerated.

A fat guy on a little bicycle is funny, because our minds see the absurd dichotomy of a large man and a small vehicle.

Fear is the distance and disconnect associated with bad events that we don't want to happen to us.

A fat guy on little bicycle, peddling very fast because he's on fire, is funny because we can picture ourselves being on fire and it's not a pleasant image.

Conversely, the fat guy in the Burn Ward, getting his dead skin brushed off by a heartless nurse, is not a funny image. Unless the fat guy is also a clown. Clowns are funny.

Just about every joke you've ever heard is based on these principles. Knock knock jokes go for the unexpected. Puns are all about substituting meanings. When Moe hits Curly with shovel, we're secretly glad we're not Curly. Or Moe. Or anyone in that gene pool.

Whenever there is some kind of tragedy, jokes spring up as a way for people to deal with it. When horrible things happen, humor is used to lighten the situation and to increase the distance between the affected and the observer.

The trick to writing humor is observation. What is a normal situation, and how could that become absurd?

The trick to writing humor in fiction is to use these absurd observations to add to the suspense of the scene, and to forward the story.

Here's a scene that I cut out of DIRTY MARTINI. I think it's amusing, but it took away from the action rather than added to the action. This was right after several police offers have been horribly killed. Jacqueline Daniels, the hero, is at the crime scene with Police Superintendent O'Loughlin (a woman), Rick (an FBI Agent) and Harry McGlade, who needs a favor from Jack.

-----------------------

I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not, but even though I didn’t agree with our new Superintendent, I was starting to like her.

But damn, she needed some fashion tips. Hadn’t this woman ever heard of shoulder pads? Her blazer made her look like the humpback witch from Snow White.

"Hey, you. The chunky one in the suit. You look like you’re in charge."

The Super eyed McGlade as he strutted over. He waved a piece of paper at her.

"This is how much the city of Chicago owes me for that space suit."

"Six people have died," O’Loughlin said evenly.

"You don’t owe me for them. Just the suit."

When she didn’t take Harry’s receipt, he stuffed it into her jacket pocket.

"Now about this liquor license," he said to me. "The mayor of this toddling town has refused to let me open a bar because of some silly misunderstanding that happened between me and one of his ugly nieces. I hit it to get on the family’s good side, but she was a real cave troll. I needed two Viagra and still had to prop a Hustler on her back." McGlade grimaced. "She had a beard, Jack. It was like kissing my grandfather, except with tongue. So I don’t call her the next morning, mostly because my face is chapped raw, and she goes crying to Uncle Big Shot and now I’m persona non grata."

Rick asked me, "Who is this guy?"

"That’s Harry. He’s a kindergarten teacher, works with special needs kids."

"He’s annoying me," the Super said. "He needs to go away."

McGlade grinned at O’Loughlin in a way I’m sure he thought was endearing.

"You look like you haven’t been laid in the last decade. Put in a good word for me with the mayor, and I’ll step up to the plate." He squinted at her chin. "Got a razor at your place?"

The Super called over two patrolmen, and had McGlade arrested. He offered up some prime examples of current urban colloquialisms as they carted him off.

--------------------------------

Now let's analyze the jokes in this scene.

--------------------------------

I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or not, but even though I didn’t agree with our new Superintendent, I was starting to like her.

But damn, she needed some fashion tips. Hadn’t this woman ever heard of shoulder pads? Her blazer made her look like the humpback witch from Snow White. Humorous image, comparing a bad blazer to a cartoon witch.

"Hey, you. The chunky one in the suit. You look like you’re in charge." Absurdity--you don't speak to authority figures like this.

The Super eyed McGlade as he strutted over. He waved a piece of paper at her.

"This is how much the city of Chicago owes me for that space suit."

"Six people have died," O’Loughlin said evenly.

"You don’t owe me for them. Just the suit." Fear--making light of a tragic situation by downplaying it.

When she didn’t take Harry’s receipt, he stuffed it into her jacket pocket.

"Now about this liquor license," he said to me. "The mayor of this toddling town has refused to let me open a bar because of some silly misunderstanding that happened between me and one of his ugly nieces. I hit it to get on the family’s good side, but she was a real cave troll. I needed two Viagra and still had to prop a Hustler on her back." Inappropriate, rude, absurd image.

McGlade grimaced. "She had a beard, Jack. It was like kissing my grandfather, except with tongue. Absurd image. So I don’t call her the next morning, mostly because my face is chapped raw, and she goes crying to Uncle Big Shot and now I’m persona non grata." Hyperbole--exaggeration for comedic effect.

Rick asked me, "Who is this guy?"

"That’s Harry. He’s a kindergarten teacher, works with special needs kids." Discord--Harry is obviously a selfish pig, not a Kindergarten teacher.

"He’s annoying me," the Super said. "He needs to go away."

McGlade grinned at O’Loughlin in a way I’m sure he thought was endearing.

"You look like you haven’t been laid in the last decade. Put in a good word for me with the mayor, and I’ll step up to the plate." He squinted at her chin. "Got a razor at your place?" Absurdity--he won't get his way by acting like this, but is too dumb to realize it.

The Super called over two patrolmen, and had McGlade arrested. He offered up some prime examples of current urban colloquialisms as they carted him off.

--------------------------------------

I didn't mind cutting this scene, because it didn't add to the story much. The bit of story I had to convey was that McGlade needed Jack to help him with the mayor. Everything else was extraneous. So the scene was axed.

It's okay to go off on small tangents, but in this case it was taking away from the scene rather than adding to it.

Now here's a scene in WHISKEY SOUR that made the final cut. Jack is overburdened with work, trying to catch a serial killer, and she's forced to deal with the FBI. I wanted to parody the almost preternatural detecting power FBI agents often have in books, so I made my Special Agents, Dailey and Coursey, so by-the-book they were absurd.

-----------------------------

"For example," Coursey took over, "our suspect is a male Caucasian, between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-nine. He's right-handed, and owns a station wagon or truck. He's blue collar, probably a factory worker, possibly in the textiles industry. He is an alcoholic, and prone to violent rages. He frequents western bars and enjoys line dancing."

"Line dancing," I said.

"He also wears women's underwear," Dailey added. "Possibly his mother's."

I felt a headache coming on.

"As a juvenile he set fires and committed relations with animals."

"With animals," I said.

"There's a high probability he's been arrested before. Possibly for assault or rape, probably on elderly women."

"But he's impotent now."

"He may also be gay."

I lifted my coffee cup to my lips and found it was empty. I lowered it again.

"He hears voices."

"Or maybe just one voice."

"It could be the voice of his mother, telling him to kill."

"Maybe she just wants her underwear back," I offered.

"He may be disfigured or disabled. He might have severe acne scars, or scoliosis."

"That's a curvature of the spine," Dailey added.

"Is that a hunch?" I asked.

"Just an educated guess."

I thought about explaining the joke to them, but it would be wasted.

"He may have been dropped on his head as a child," Coursey said.

He probably wasn't the only one.

"Gentlemen," I wasn't sure where to begin, but I gave it a try. "Call me a skeptic, but I don't see how any of this is going to help us catch him."

"First of all, you should start staking out western bars."

"And local textile factories that have hired someone with a criminal record within the last six months."

"I could stake out the zoo, too," I said. "He may be sneaking in at night and committing relations with animals."

"I doubt it," Coursey furrowed his brow. "The profile says he's impotent now."

I rubbed my eyes. When I finished, the two of them were still here.

---------------------------

This scene was kept in, even though it is a slight diversion from the plot, because it adds conflict to the story. Jack is forced to work with these guys, and they are hindering her from doing her job. Unlike the humor in the first scene, where I was being funny just to be funny, the humor in this scene has a point and adds to the suspense and tension of the story.

Here's one more scene, from RUSTY NAIL. Harry McGlade has been kidnapped, along with Jack's friend Phineas Troutt. Phin wakes up tied to a chair, with Harry tied up behind him.

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A sound, a low rumble, comes from behind him. Phin can’t turn far enough to see. It comes again, louder.

Snoring.

"Hey! Wake up!"

"I’m awake. I’m awake."

More snoring.

"Goddamnit, McGlade, wake up!"

"Huh? What’s happening?"

"We were drugged at your wedding."

"I got drunk at my wedding? There’s a shocker."

"Drugged, McGlade. We were drugged."

"Is that you, Jim?"

"It’s Phin. Wake up and tell me what you see."

A long pause. Phin wonders if the moron fell asleep again.

"I’m in a chair, tied up. Looks like some kind of factory or warehouse. There’s a cargo docking bay off to my right, but the door is closed."

"What else?"

"We gotta get out of here, Phin. If I don’t get this tuxedo returned by tonight, they’re charging me for another full day."

"Concentrate, Harry. What else is around you?"

"There’s some kind of office in the corner. Door closed, no lights. On my left... holy shit!"

"What is it?"

"This has got to be some kind of bad dream."

McGlade yells in pain.

"Harry? You okay?"

"I bit my tongue to see if I’m dreaming. I don’t think I am. Or maybe I bit my tongue in my sleep..."

"You’re not asleep, Harry. Tell me what you see."

"I think my tongue’s bleeding."

"Harry!"

"Okay. I see a long steel table. Got a bunch of equipment on it. And some stuff, new in boxes."

Phin doesn’t like the sound of that.

"What kind of stuff?"

"A blow torch. A power drill. A set of vice-grip pliers. And a chainsaw."

This has gone from bad to worse.

"Maybe they’re building a birdhouse," McGlade says.

-----------------------------

Again, the humor adds to the suspense of the scene. McGlade's attitude isn't the attitude of someone who is about to be tortured to death, and that is funny. But their situation isn't funny, and that's why the humor works. Something horrible is going to happen.

And later, something horrible does happen. And again I use humor, or rather my characters use humor, in order to deal with the horror.

Is humor needed in books? Does it make them better? Should you include humor in your work?

My answer is a resounding maybe.

Real life is humorous. People laugh all the time. Studies have shown that laughter, and smiling, are ridiculously healthy activities. Comedy has been around for thousands of years, and for good reason: People enjoy it.

Laughter brings people together, and laughter can make your reader enjoy your writing more. People like to be around those who make them laugh, and your characters are no exception.

Humor can make your hero more relatable, empathetic, likeable, charismatic, sympathetic, important, and identifiable.

Humor also can set a tone, capture a mood, make the reader more of a participant in the story, and become something you're known for, like Dave Barry, Janet Evanovich, and Carl Hiaasen.

Whether humor is right for your story depends on the story you're telling. Steven Speilberg knew this, and wisley cut the pie-fight scene from Schindler's List. But I believe that most stories can be enhanced by humor, even if humor isn't the main goal.

James Rollins is known for his over-the-top technothrillers. My favorite James Rollins book, ICE HUNT, features a brash loudmouth commando named Kowalski, who has some incredibly funny lines and scenes. His new one, BLACK ORDER, also has several laugh aloud moments, and this adds to the book rather than hurts the tension, because you become more attached to the characters and more fearful for their lives. Plus, it's fun to laugh.

Barry Eisler's first novel, RAIN FALL, wasn't without it's wry moments. But in recent titles, most notably KILLING RAIN and THE LAST ASSASSIN, Rain's friend Dox supplies a great deal of humor, much of it riotous. Besides being funny, Dox helps the reader to better empathize with Rain by showing a softer side of him.

Two of my favorite new writers, Jeff Shelby and Harry Hunsicker, walk the line invented by Robert B. Parker and use liberal amounts of humor mixed in with the tension and violence. Because of this, their characters are more instantly likeable than the darker, brooding heroes that populate noir and hardboiled ficiton.

One of my favorite writers, David Ellis, has an incredibly dry sense of humor in person, but this has been mostly absent from his legal thrillers. His most recent, EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, features a first-person narrative and several very funny lines and observations. Because of this, I identified more closely with his hero, and became more afraid for him than I had in any of the previous novels.

I believe that humor for humor's sake doesn't work. But if used to add to the story, to enhance a scene, and to develop characters, humor is something that is greatly appreciated by readers, and it can make a book even better.

So how do you know if you're funny or not?

Humor is subjective. Very subjective. Some people like the droll wit of Oscar Wilde. Some people wet their pants watching Rob Schneider get kicked in the groin (who are these people and how can we stop them?) It's entirely possible that something you think is funny will fall flat. This will happen. Even the best comedians have jokes that bomb.

There are three steps to figuring out if your joke is funny or not.

1. Do you find it funny? Chances are, you won't laugh at your own jokes (I rarely if ever do.) But I use the above criteria to recognize where jokes fit into the narrative, and can make a guess if it works or not.

2. After writing a joke, I test it by giving it to readers. My wife. Mom. Writing friends. Close friends. Agent. Editor. None are afraid to tell me, "That's not funny." They'll also tell me where they laughed. Or I'll watch them read and ask them.

3. If the readers are laughing, or if they aren't, figure out why. It's very much a process of evolution. Sometimes the idea behind a joke works, but the timing is off. Or the wording is off.

The more you learn, the better you get. My test is: If one person laughs, and one doesn't, it stays. If no one laughs, it goes.

38 comments:

M. G. Tarquini said...

Should you include humor in your work?

I'm so completely f*cked if the answer to that is no.

Julia said...

CLOWNS ARE SCARY

Other than that, great post. If (no WHEN) I get published, I'm going to have to buy you a drink, because I've learned more from your site than anywhere else.

Jude Hardin said...

I've often wondered why most men laugh at things like The Three Stooges, while most women do not.

Anybody have any thoughts on that?

I guess we have to be well aware of our audience when writing humor. What's hilarious to one person might be considered stupid (or even offensive) to another.

Jaye Wells said...

" I've often wondered why most men laugh at things like The Three Stooges, while most women do not."

The Stooge-brand of humor is slapstick and thus more physical. I can see a correlation between women preferring "talking" and men preferring "doing" (mind out of the gutter, please). It's a good question.

OTOH, I like the Stooges. In fact, my father-in-law is a relative of one stooge or another. Luckily my husband was adopted, but I sometimes look at my son and wonder if the genes passed down anyway.

Great post, Joe.

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Joe,

I noticed less and less humor appearing in the novels of a favorite writer. In a letter, I asked why, and he said his editor thought the humor might confuse thriller readers as to the type of book.

Do you ever get that from your publisher?

Stephen

David Terrenoire said...

People think Beneath A Panamanian Moon is funny.

It wasn't intentional. That's just the way Harper thinks.

moonhart said...

I like physical comedy but only if it is moving the story forward. I think a lot of the Stoogies stuff is strictly physical...brilliant in its way, but also too one dimensional for me.

I write romantic comedy. I am really curious to see if one scene in particular will make it through because of the physical comedy and the sheer absurdity of the situation. Mind you, the entire premise of the book has a certain amount of absurdity to it. Anyone picking up a "light paranormal romantic comedy" should be open minded enough to embrace the chaos.

Heck, situations degenerate into absurdity on a regular basis, but often only a few people notice. ;)

I think comedy is harder than tradegy because tradegy is universal. Humor is subjective.

Great post, Joe.

tp

moonhart said...

P.S. Clowns are definitely scary.

Stephen King played on that fear perfectly.

tp

Bernita said...

"Is that a hunch?"
...struck me as the funniest item of all.

Jude Hardin said...

Great googally moogally, Jaye! Your father-in-law is related to a Stooge?

I hope he doesn't read "...or anyone in that gene pool."

You sound like my kind of woman. I want to marry someone who can laugh at Curly getting his eye galged by a thumb or the coyote being blown to kingdom come by some ACME dynamite. Alas, like they say, all the good ones are already taken.


Moonhart:

People often laugh at tragedy, too.
Some people call it "sick" humor, but I think it's a defense mechanism. In certain professions, where you deal with death and gore and sadness on a daily basis, you either learn to laugh or you quickly burn out.

Like the old Jimmy Buffet song says, "If we couldn't laugh, we would go insane."

You're correct that comedy is subjective, but occasionally something comes along that's nearly universal in its humor. The Andy Griffith Show, with Don Knotts as Barney Fife comes to mind, as does some of Mark Twain and even some of Shakespeare.

Justin R. Buchbinder said...

Some people wet their pants watching Rob Schneider get kicked in the groin (who are these people and how can we stop them?)

Like you, JA, I once wondered WHO Rob Schneider was sleeping with in Hollywood. Despite his ugliness, nothing besides at least mediocre sex could bring about the likes of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.

But then a friend of mine, deeply embedded in all things Hollywood, brought light to the situation.

The Ugly Girl himself is, in fact, a superstar abroad. In Australia, in Europe, in Asia and Africa, they love themselves some hotel bellhop from Home Alone 2.

Rob Schneider is an American monstrosity... but so long as the overseas go to see him in trove, we'll be seeing Deuce Bigalow: Futuristic Alien Gigolo come 2008.

PJ Parrish said...

Good post, Joe, which I read with great interest because I have tried to write humor and failed miserably. (first rule of writing: Be true to your writing nature. Or maybe your sun sign? I'm a heavy dose of Scorpio). I really admire folks who can write funny while telling me a good story. But I've read humor that makes me want to throw the book across the room. Kinda of like crime fiction Carrot Top.

The trick, as you said, is knowing when the humor is in the way or gratuitous. Ditto with violence or sex. Humor, to me, isn't the end, it is the means.

For the record, the Three Stooges crack me up. I also love pro football. So watch the sexist assumptions, Jude! :)

JA Konrath said...

I asked why, and he said his editor thought the humor might confuse thriller readers as to the type of book.

Actually, I pitched my new book to my editor and she told me that it had better be funny...

Jude Hardin said...

Kris,

Give me a call if you're ever up near the Jax area.

Oh, fooey. You're married too, aren't you?

Like I said, all the good ones are already taken. :(

Christine said...

Well, now, Joe, I found it funny, but not funny enough to stay. I think it might have worked better with dark humor rather than 'punchlines'.

But that's me.

And the Three Stooges (the show, not the actors) are stupid, that's why women don't laugh at them and men do. :P

JA Konrath said...

My wife loves the Stooges, and the other day I asked her The Question.

"If you were forced to, which Stooge would you sleep with?"

She picked Curly.

Jeri said...

Totally off-topic, Joe (and maybe a topic for another post), but I noticed you used present tense in RUSTY NAIL and past tense in WHISKEY SOUR. What made you decide to use one or the other?

Back on topic:
Another female Stooge-lover here (married, sorry, Jude :-).

I recommended clown-punching to add levity to any book. Or your day, for that matter.

Jude Hardin said...

Christine,

Why I oughtta...

Joe,

Did your wife make you answer The Question as well?

Nyuk, nyuk. I'm warped.

Kim said...

I think I need a post on how to write straight.
I try and try to write a serious bit of fiction and the reader somehow finds it funny.
That's why my hubby writes in sympathy cards.

Anonymous said...

Here's a woman who's not a fan of the Stooges. Why? Simple. It's the same slapstick jokes over and over and over (and over) again.

After awhile, the ol' bonk on the head just ain't so funny anymore. Yet, oddly, my husband keeps on laughing...every time.

Patti

JA Konrath said...

From behind, Larry sort of looks like a chick.

I'd do Larry.

Jude Hardin said...

"I'd do Larry."

Now THERE'S a visual, folks.

I don't know, Joe. Moe had that whole confidence thing going on. Pretty attractive. I would have to flip a coin (and then, heads or tails, commit suicide).

Jude Hardin said...

Anon:

Don't you know that Homer Simpson is everyman? All we want to do is sit around the house, drink beer, eat sodium-rich snacks, watch guys get bonked on the head over and over and over, and fuck.

Isn't that what life is all about?

Jude Hardin said...

Jeri:

You're married too?

Darn it.

Aren't there any single gals out there who would appreciate a guy with a wry sense of humor (if you think PULP FICTION is the funniest thing you ever saw, then you're the one).

I'm better-looking than any of the Stooges (don't get any ideas, Joe), yet not unapproachable-good-looking like Barry.

And I was only kidding about that Homer Simpson stuff.

Really.

I try hard to limit my sodium intake.

Jeri said...

Re: Stooge-doing. Definitely Shemp.

And anonymous has a point: it does get repetitive after awhile, which is why I only enjoy the Stooges' shorts. It's not a style, IMO, that works well in feature-length form, a point that might also apply to fiction. Short stories can get away with extreme or experimental styles and tones that would grate on a reader's nerves after 10K words.

Julia said...


"If you were forced to, which Stooge would you sleep with?"

She picked Curly.


Your wife has good taste. Curly is da man.

PJ Parrish said...

I love the fact that the crime writing blog world is big enough to accommodate trenchant discussions on both French labor laws (Barry Eisler) and Which Stooge Would You Do? (Joe).

Moe would be finished in two minutes. Larry wouldn't know where to put it. Shemp was a closet eunuch. That leaves Curly. Besides, ever since I saw Yul Brenner in The King and I, I've have a thing for bald guys who can dance.

Jude Hardin said...

LOL Kris.

I'm practicing now.

One, two, cha cha cha.
One, two, cha cha cha...

JA Konrath said...

I worry, though, about the sounds Curly would make.

Wubb uuub uuub uuub uuub! Nyuk nyuk nyuk! Naaarrraaarrr! Cewtainly!

Don't you think that would ruin the moment?

Jude Hardin said...

LOL Joe.

Of course, if Curly gets too loud you can always clobber him with a pipe wrench or something.

Julia said...

I worry, though, about the sounds Curly would make.

Wubb uuub uuub uuub uuub! Nyuk nyuk nyuk! Naaarrraaarrr! Cewtainly!

Don't you think that would ruin the moment?


Well, the choice was which stooge. You have to take the good with the bad.

JA Konrath said...

Or a ball gag.

Jude Hardin said...

Under normal circumstances, a ball gag would be the perfect choice. The thing is, "wubb uub uub uub uub" would merely change to "Wuhh uuh uuh uuh uuh."

The more I think about it, the more I'm leaning toward Moe. Let's face it. If you're doing a stooge, everything being over in two minutes is a good thing.

kathie said...

Clowns are devisive and therefore must be categorized as evil...hehehe...BEst post I've seen in forever. Just inspired me past my block. Thanks!

JA Konrath said...

If you're doing a stooge, everything being over in two minutes is a good thing.

That made me spit beer.

Jude Hardin said...

Try your best to swallow that beer next time, Joe! Spitting it out is alcohol abuse!

PJ Parrish said...

"Let's face it. If you're doing a stooge, everything being over in two minutes is a good thing."

You guys crack me up. Now I'll be hearing in my head all day "Moe, Larry, the cheese! Moe, Larry, the cheese! No, the LIMBERGAH!"

This does not make for good mood setting as I sit down to write chapter 45 today. I gotta stay away from this place...

Andy said...

I don't know if you still read comments this far back on your blog, but the line "Is that a hunch?" has inspired me to go out and buy your books. Well played, good sir.