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Putting humor into words (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, I made some general points about humour in fiction writing.
Genuine
Humour must:

  • be about people, be people-based
  • have purpose
  • ring true

In particular, what Ricky Gervais calls “decapitated jokes” do not represent humour in fiction and nor do anecdotes.

One other key point in writing humour is that the author must be absent. My axiom is that bad writing draw attention to the writer and good writing draws attention to the story and nowhere is this more evident than in humorous writing.

There is an almost irresistible inclination on the part of authors to try to be funny — after all, we are trying to amuse our audience — and this often leads us into imposing ourselves in our stories, to their severe detriment.

The British comic writer David Nobbs acknowedged this in an interview when he was asked what he felt his failings as a young author had been:

Getting the jokes in and showing people how clever I was and therefore occasionally failing to be clever most dismally.

Nobbs’ best comedy writing is seamless; you never get the impression there is an author there at all, so you stay absorbed in the story. The humour is all generated by the characters, most famously the troubled and put-upon Reginald Perrin, whose view of the world is so slanted that he can hardly help being funny.

We need to separate the creation from the creator, as science-fiction author Ray Bradbury observed: “The one important thing I have learnt over the years is the difference between taking one’s work seriously and taking oneself seriously. The first is imperative and the second disastrous.

Similar successes are Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and A.P Herbert’s A.J. Wentworth B.A, neither of which contain a single joke but are enormously funny and entertaining, with all the humour generated by the range of believable characters. And in the pursuit of humour, characters must remain believable, or their power is lost.

As the American poet Marianne Moore suggested, as an author “you must put believable toads in your imaginary garden.” And for the toads to be believable, they must have a basis in reality.

The professional speaker David Brooks advises: “The best stories to tell have two unique characteristics. They must be real, and they must be your own.”

That leads to a second point; how to make real events and those you have made up appear to be part of a seamless work. I offered some ideas on this in an interview I did recently.

Another insight was offered by the TV presenter and writer James May, who said: “I will recognise the strangeness of genuine fact when I read it.

It’s a neat point; truth is often funnier than fiction, in a not-easily definable way. We therefore have to make our fiction real, and our realities into fiction.

Our aim must therefore be to create something containing, as Francis Bacon said: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.

Some ideas on how achieve that in the next part…..

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Putting humor into words (Part 1)

The world is sometimes thought to be divided into those people who have a sense of humour, and those don’t. Laughter is universal among human cultures, and so we could perhaps infer from that thet everyone has a sense of humour.
road sign

In fact, surveys show that most people think they possess a sense of humour, although other people are slower to spot this characteristic in them.

For example, many people who can remember, and faultlessly trot out, hundreds of standard jokes are usually rather dull people; the same can be said for relentless narrators of anecdotes, who seem to have a story for every occasion. As the late columnist Jeffrey Bernard once wrote: “Anecdote is not a form of conversation.”

These are not the sort of people who are likely to write humorous books; their humour is received, not self-generated, and contains no originality. By contrast, people who spontaneously generate humorous material tend to possess one inherent characteristic — the ability to laugh at themselves. To be able to view the world as absurd, it is necessary to be able to view ourselves as absurd, or what we possess is not a sense of humour, but megalomania.

But what is the basis of humour and how can we best transport it to the written word? A great many serious thinkers have considered the conundrum that is humour. What is funny? Do we all find different things funny, or is there a common theme underlying humour?

The Canadian author and psychologist Stephen Pinker describes humour as an “anti-dominance mechanism”; we laugh with other people in our group and laugh at an adversary whom we wish to strip of their assumed superiority.

Humor is the enemy of pomp and decorum, especially when they prop up the authority of an adversary or a superior. The most inviting targets of ridicule are teachers, preachers, kings, politicians, military officers and other members of the high and mighty,” he wrote in his book How the Mind Works.

The corollary is, Pinker says, that we engage in banter with our friends to show that we can use this mechanism with them in a non-threatening way.

Kidding is a precision instrument for assessing the kind of relationship one has with a person. You don’t tease a superior or a stranger, though if one of you floats a trial tease that is well received, you know the ice is breaking and the relationship is shifting towards friendship. And if the tease elicits a mirthless chuckle or a freezing silence, you are being told that the grouch has no desire to become your friend (and may even have interpreted the joke as an aggressive challenge.)

People
When it comes to writing, this theory of humour translates to one important point. We laugh at people, not things. And we laugh with people. Humour is a people-based business. So any attempt at written humour must bear this basic truth in mind.

In the first place, it means not throwing in humorous material, or a piece of coruscating wordplay, if it doesn’t fit the story.

British comedian and writer Ricky Gervais wrote: “I’ve seen so much stuff that’s been ruined by writers’ getting carried away with getting a good joke in. We threw jokes on the floor if they made someone look too clever or undermined the story.

In similar vein, talking about his TV writing, Gervais wrote: “You can’t just have decapitated jokes. Then what you’ve got is a sketch show.

Another universal truth about humour is that it has to be true to be funny. Again, this relates back to the notion that we laugh at people, not things. If we cannot make the connection between the humour and real life, if the humour doesn’t ring true, it fails. One of the problems for humour writers is precisely that real life is funnier than our imaginations.

Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, who wrote the British comedy shows Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, said: “After we wrote each episode, we would show it to some secret sources, always including somebody who was an expert on the subject in question. They would usually give us extra information which, because it was true, was usually funnier than anything we might have thought up.

Jay added, about a particularly humorous episode: “I can’t tell you where, I can’t tell you when and I can’t tell you who was involved; all I can tell you is that we knew that it had actually happened. That’s why it was so funny. We couldn’t think up things as funny as the real things that had happened.

This is undoubtedly true. We only have to look at the depths of idiocy (and consequent humour) on websites like E-mails from Crazy People or Failblog, to see that real life has reserves of humour that far outstrip the imagination of the poor author.

The final requirement for humour is that it must have a purpose. Humour without purpose takes us back to the joke-telling and lengthy yarning genre or the “decapitated jokes.” The purpose can be satire, or the humour can operate in its own right to construct character and environment in a novel.

It can even work as a plot device. Talking about the writing of the British TV comedy Fawlty Towers, John Cleese said he tried to make the most important plot moments the funniest in the show, to disguise the plot and make it less visible.

In the episode Communication Problems, the plot turns on a bet that Cleese’s character (Fawlty) has made, and this is wonderfully created (but obscured) by a hilarious dialogue of misunderstanding between Fawlty and his hapless Spanish waiter Manuel.

Humour must be about people, must have purpose, and it must ring true. Humour is not just jokes and stories. Plus humour is usually predicated on an us-versus-them basis, “us” pricking the ego of “them“. The controversial Dutch cartoonist, Gregorius Nekschot, sums this last up as: “Harmless humor does not exist.

He may be right, but humour can vary from the gentle (P.G. Wodehouse, David Nobbs or Garrison Keillor) to the harder-edge satire of Tom Sharpe and Carl Hiaasen, to work like Nekschot’s own, which many people consider deliberately offensive.

But all of these forms of humour need to be well treated and well crafted in order to stand up in a book, a topic I’ll discuss next.

(to be continued)

Categories: Humour, Technique Tags: , , , ,

That’s a premise

Lajos Egri. That’s the man.

It was he who said you must always believe in what you write. If you don’t, he says, how can your writing have any feeling of authenticity? And if you are not authentic, the reader will find out very quickly.

As I write satire, the temptation is always there to stick in some outrageous barb aimed at my satirical target. But, thanks to Egri, I have learned that jokes have to have a purpose (if not, they are what Ricky Gervais calls ‘decapitated jokes’), and they also have to be true to the story. If they’re not, they have to go.

“Kill your darlings,” said William Faulkner. In other words, don’t ruin your consistent voice for a the sake of a snappy phrase.

Egri had an even more direct rule, which is simply:

“Every story must have a premise.”

Say what?

Egri said that if you can’t sum up your book in 10 words or less, then you don’t know what your own book is about, so how can you expect to write consistently?

“If there is no clear-cut, active premise, it is more than possible that the characters were not alive. How could they be? They do not know, for instance, why they should commit a perfect crime. Their only reason is your command, and as a result all their performance and all their dialogue are artificial. No one believes what they do or say.”

I was about one month into writing Forward O Peasant when I came across this advice, and it stopped me in my tracks. What was my story about?

Following Egri’s guidelines, I was eventually able to sum my book up in the premise: “Greed contains the seeds of its own downfall.” Suddenly, I knew what my book was about, and all the characters’ actions began to make more sense.

Egri, by the way, never wrote plays or novels, and was a true nuts-and-bolts writing mechanic. He wrote two famous books: The Art of Dramatic Writing and The Art of Creative Writing, snippets of which can be found lurking on the Web.

Categories: Technique Tags: , , , ,