Top Three Failures in Humor (when it comes to writing)
What is the impetus for this post? Well, dishing out my opinions on self-published books, I’ve encountered many faulty attempts at humor, and it seems authors are sometimes a little short-sighted to what they’ve done.
Again, this is something I’m guilty of—and probably most of us are. When it comes to humor, we think, I know what’s funny. And that may be true, but we tend to forget the medium matters as well. I would never decide to render Picasso’s Blue Guitar (one of my favorites) into writing. If I did, I’m pretty sure it would suck, or turn out to be a static piece describing it, which would suck too. Words can only do so much. This goes the same for humor. Things get lost in translation. So here are my top three bad translations of humor into writing.
Funny conversations had with friends or family
I’ll give you an example. If anyone still knows the movie ‘Swingers’, remember the part where they order food, and the delivery guy comes. At that moment, Vince Vaughn tells Jon Favreau’s character to let the guy in, asking, “Is he pretty? Is he brown? Have him take his shoes off!”
I laughed my ass off at this part. This is spot on what guys to do each other—humiliation for the sake of comedy. However, take those same lines from above and put them in your novel and…something else comes out. A lot of times this kind of dialogue hits negatively, sounding confrontational, if not openly bigoted like the lines above.
Why does it fail? Context. When guys do this to each other, we can tell from the tone of voice and the manner of expression what the intent of said discourse is. But, when it comes to writing, all of that tacit information is thrust solely upon the dialogue, which usually is not strong enough to carry the weight. Some might add explanatory sidenotes to set the atmosphere or give detail to what is going on, but this too ultimately falls flat and draws us out of the scene, which no writer wants.
Best thing to do: rethink it and present it in a different way. I’ve had to do this multiple times and have always found other avenues to making the characters appear comically and light. Sometimes the best thing to do is dump it.
A recent book I read had a kid hide an important canister in his pants without thinking. When his friends saw it they started laughing at the position of it, eluding it to being the young boy’s possible ‘immense’ privates. Though the author danced around it, it came off childish with such young protagonists, and the overall comic effect failed. In fact, it reminded me more of locker scenes from movies where a guy might shove a banana down there and parade around. Haven’t we seen this lackluster humor enough?
Why does it fail? As hack-neyed as this joke was, most jokes in this fashion won’t work well because they are ‘body gags.’ As an American, I don’t particularly enjoy these kind of jokes—ie. someone falling down—but here, in Korea, where I currently live, this is gold, and it even makes me chuckle sometimes. Why? The physicality of it. The extreme lack of grace and the wry facial expressions these comedians put into it are one hundred percent timed for the maximum effect. When reading, it is much harder to pull of such silliness.
Best thing to do: Making us laugh at such ridiculousness is hard—granted, but not impossible. I’m reminded of Ignatius Reilly form Confederacy of Dunces. Look what O’Toole did with him. He painted every detail of the character into such an absurdity that any action he did came off comical. It doesn’t have to be slapstick, but the entire character has to somehow imbue this gracelessness to present it just right. Other characters, as other comedians, can’t pull it off.
This reminds me of a childish book from a while ago. In it, the author wanted to make the circumstances so outrageous that the reader would end up laughing. What he wrote didn’t end up this way, and I kind of picture him lying in bed reading it, getting a grand kick out of himself. I only say this because I heard that’s what James Joyce did with Finnegan’s Wake, which upon release, left many questioning his sanity.
Why does it fail? Our worlds of humor sometimes only land for a select few, and at other times, only for ourselves. True, Finnegan’s Wake has some funny parts in it. That doesn’t mean we get every joke old Joyce was in on–same too, with the outlandish rant the book I read above had. Personally, I feel the author took it one step too far and he lost control of it. Humor is also knowing when too stop.
Best thing to do: Look at the greats and…copy! Yes, copy! Not the exact words but the degree. Think Huck Finn where Tom Sawyer devises one of the most ridiculous plans to hatch out Jim the slave. With every new aspect added, it gets more and more entertaining. I laughed out loud in many places, but this is also because Tom grounded it. It was just crazy for crazy’s sake. For all comedy, set-up and timing are important. Wilde had it. Vonnegut had it. Read enough…and something’s got to get through.
If there’s anything I missed, please, please, please, comment below. Thanks much!