I had a conversation this week that briefly touched on comedy in writing, and got me thinking about the topic, so I figured I might take a little time today to ramble about that, begging the pardon of all who stumble in here.
I’ve actually reviewed a good few comedy books on here, all of them among my favorite works. Whether it’s anything by Terry Pratchett, or The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, some of the best books I have ever read have had comedy as a key component of their narrative, so clearly I love being made to laugh.
But despite that, I am very wary of comedy in books.
I think I can say why, too. Most of the funny books I read almost have comedy as an incidental part of what they do. I always think of Terry Pratchett’s work as fantasy first, funny second. For all Douglas Adams most well-known work is assuredly a comedy, the space elements stand out before the comedy to me, though admittedly the two are deeply intertwined in his case.
I think what I’m trying to say is I am very, very, very wary of a book that set out from its very inception with an intent to be funny. Anything that had ‘comedy’ written in the biggest letters at the top of the concept page is probably going to be a bad work, and it will be so for two reasons.
1. The comedy will be forced, as it is the focus
2. The story is coming second, and the story is everything to me.
I’m well known for how picky I am about media. I am possibly one of the only people on the planet who despises every single Marvel superhero movie that has come out, and wishes the words ‘cinematic universe’ had never been uttered.
I’m hard to please, picky, but I do take some pride in the fact I can at least articulate why I don’t like things (and never have an issue with people liking things I don’t, for that matter).
Forced comedy is definitely among the top of my list of things I hate in any form of media. If you have to pause for me to laugh, you are doing it wrong. If you have to explain the joke to me, you are doing it wrong. If you fail to subvert my expectations, you are doing it wrong.
Sadly, I do feel like a lot of what is churned out year by year for our consumption in the mainstream commits these sins on a regular basis.
Of particular annoyance to me is any time the movie, book, song, show treats me like an idiot. I love humor that I can pick up on my own, especially the more high minded comedy my country is well known for. I love humor coming at me on two levels at once, I love subtle running jokes, and I love plays on words that aren’t immediately obvious, or only work when you say something aloud. The dawning moment when I realize what just happened is the experience I am looking for most in my comedy, especially if I had to engage my brain to get it.
For this reason, I can’t stand shows like Family Guy, The Simpsons, and even shows like Friends, The Big Bang Theory and The Office have this problem for me.
Yet, at the same time, I adore the absurdity of anything Monty Python, the camp and candid humor of Rocky Horror Picture Show and more.
It’s all about hitting that funny bone in my head without waiting for me to ‘get’ it, or playing a bloody laugh track. I will laugh if I find you funny, not because you showed me the reaction you expect of me, thank you.
In the practical terms of writing, I think setting out to be funny is a very ill-advised move. It is so easy to slip into the grumbles I listed above without even realizing it, especially if you are letting the scene play out like a sitcom inside your head.
The only thing worse than an expectant laugh track in a show is a pause for one in a book.
Write about what you intended to write. Let the words flow. If a barb needs throwing, throw it. If someone finds the whole thing ridiculous, show it. If there is a play on words to be made by Bystander 328, let them have it… but don’t head there intending to write that in. Let it come naturally, and let it be on the reader to notice it or not – you are not obliged to write down your prose to the level of the lowest common denominator.
Comedy in My Work
I don’t generally write comedy, period, and will often try to steer away from anything funny as I am so so so aware that what is amusing is always subjective, and that I am not in myself an inherently funny person (well, purposefully, anyway.).
Just occasionally, though, a line or quip makes it through. Generally, these come when I just cannot envision the character not saying or doing the funny thing and still being themselves, and thus it must be written.
Gratifyingly, on the occasions I do this, my alpha readers generally laugh at the moment in question, or grin, and that is a whole world of satisfaction for me, right there. I like to think that as sparse as I sprinkle such things through my work, it makes each one valuable and memorable. More though, I like to think it means I have placed my quips correctly and carefully, without forcing anything.
Comedy is difficult. While all jokes may be based on setting up an expectation, then somehow subverting it, the ability to do this with consistency, aplomb, and good delivery is an incredibly hard life skill. There is a reason comedians are not a dime a dozen, at least good ones. Those who can pull it off have a true talent, and a very unique insight into human behavior to do it. I have nothing but respect for them, and the greatest way I can show that is by not stepping into their arena unless I can do it justice.
Now if only we could convince TV executives of the same…