Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How Can I Make Funny?

by Rachael Phillips
First, I suppose we must examine why we should use humor in our writing. One look at the U.S. census gives us a mega-hint: America's population stands at 312 million plus. Every single one of these people needs a laugh. Most could use two.
How do we create humor? After conducting extensive research--and being charged with only a few misdemeanors--I formulated the following suggestions:
  1. Do stupid things. Staying in hot water pays off--if not in your insurance rates, definitely in your prose. People who survive telling their mothers-in-law mother-in-law jokes or accidentally overdrawing their bank accounts to write tithe checks either develop a great sense of humor or die trying.
  2. Collect people who do stupid things. If you're married this should be simple. If you're single and have no parents, children, siblings, roommates or relatives, go to the airport, museum, corner convenience store or Sunday school and find some. No one in the history of the world has observed your particular collection of people with your unique twisted point of view. Record your fellow humans' odd appearances, names, mannerisms and actions in written or computer files. Retrieve them later and shake-and-bake as you design characters and plots.
  3. Read the funny papers. Humor gives birth to humor. Barbara Johnson, author of Stick a Geranium in Your Hat and Be Happy and numerous other funny books, collected clippings, sayings, comics, pictures and other chuckle-inducing goodies in a shoebox to read on her tough days. Organize your own collection of never-fail belly-laughers, including forwards, blogs, articles, etc., in a computer file, folders or shoebox (or a safe, if they're potential blackmail material). When your article, blog or chapter needs funny and you just received an audit notice from the IRS, your collection can help jump-start your sense of humor when you need it most.
  4. Waste lots of time doing nothing. In a multi-tasking world, doing only one thing has become a lost art, and doing nothing is mortal sin. But if we don't think, we won't laugh. Tell jokes to your plants. Sit and stare at your feet a while (feet are always good for a giggle or two). Try to slide a Cheerio from your nose into your mouth. Do anything that takes you out of grown-up mode and gives you a grin. You'll write funnier, and your kids/grandkids will love the Cheerio trick.
  5. Generate lots of bad writing. I've written biographies, magazine articles, Christmas novellas, devotional pieces, Bible reference materials and romance novels. But my weekly humor column often presents the biggest challenge. After five years of columns, I often must freewrite pages of totally lame stuff before I sense it's going somewhere. The key here, as John Vorhaus, author of The Comic Toolbox, says is to "kill your ferocious editor" and simply record the weird thoughts in your head. Of course, you'll have to resurrect him/her later in the final stages of your piece. But humor writing involves relaxing, not reporting, and it always requires taking a risk.

These techniques have worked for me, and so far, my bail hasn't been too awfully exorbitant. What methods do you use to make funny?

10 comments:

  1. Rachael, you always make me smile. Thanks. I try my best to infuse humor into my books, but it's more the ironic (and I like to believe witty) type of humor as opposed to pratfalls and the like kind of funny. Not that I haven't done that, too. LOL... At least some of my readers "get" me and like the humor. Keep writing! Blessings.

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  2. JoAnn,
    Hey, a grin's a grin! Irony and more subtle types of humor often work better than slapstick.

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  3. Rachael, #2 cracked me up. :) You've got a great sense of humor.

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  4. Thanks, but my children don't think so :-)

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  5. Very good post!

    On the topic of humor in writing:

    1) A lot of times humor arises from unpleasant situations. For example, the cartoonist of Mad Magazine's Spy Vs. Spy was a political exile.

    2) Some times, the people who use humor the most effectively don't write comedies. I remember reading (and laughing out loud at) a paragraph towards the climax of a book that was one one-liner after another. The book? Pet Semetary by Stephen King. King's non-fiction has lots of humor. I also remember consistently laughing when I heard a Christian author speak at a church once, by name of Frank Peretti.

    3) Sometimes names helps as well. Allistair MacLean caused me to smile in his novel Bear Island with some of his characters. There was John Cummin-Goin: People didn't know if he was comin' or goin' (MacLean's lines). He also violated the rule of having characters with the same first letter of the first names: There were two Mary's. The main character (this book is 1st person POV) called one Mary Dear so she wouldn't be confused with Mary Darling. (He also had three or four characters with multiple syllable last names beginning with H, but that's a different story.) I have a couple of character's names designed to make you smile. Such as Jen and Barry Logan, who sometimes host ice cream socials.

    One more note. In our Toastmaster District, there are at least two contests a year -- a humorous speech contest and the International Speech contest (called International because it continues to the International conference; all other contests end at the district level). The clubs I've been in know me for my sense of humor, but I find it harder doing the humorous speech contest! I know how to use humor in a serious speech, but I struggle coming with a speech with the purpose of keeping someone laughing. (One reason I never seriously considered making my living as a cartoonist, because I doubt I can deliver a funny comic seven days a week year after year after year.)

    May the Lord Jesus Christ richly bless you.

    Jeff

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  6. Thanks, Jeff! Great comments here. Much humor is indeed born in the midst of pain--a gift that God gives to help us cope!

    I LOL'd at the Marys! When I think of authors who use funny names, C.S. Lewis in Screwtape Letters comes to mind--Slubgob, Wormwood, etc.--perfect for his characters.

    Humorous speeches take lots of practice. I get to entertain 150 Lions Club members and their spouses/dates for Valentine's Day--which I enjoy, but will take plenty of work. May the Lord bless you as you test the humorous speech waters, as well as writng!

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  7. I got my best laugh because sometimes I'm just plain slow. Early in the morning, browsing the pages of a few friends, I end up Looking at this column to learn to be funny. Step 1 - Stay in hot water. Let's see, I take no baths and I keep my showers quick. Saves water. But Rachael says I should stay in hot water. More practical when I don't have to go to work. Maybe it will get my body's blood moving better. Then I will wake up, think better, and maybe I'll start being funny.

    FromHenry

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    1. Henry, hot water or no hot water, you're a hoot!

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