September 29th 2013
The Skill List Project: Comedy
This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I talked about discipline, because I thought we’d finished talking about matters related to story content. However, I forgot about a big topic we haven’t touched yet: comedy. So let’s deal with that this month.
First of all, let’s recognize that different people laugh at different things. This is one of the risks of writing an out-and-out comedy (as opposed to comic moments in an otherwise non-comic story)—you limit your audience to people whose sense of humor matches yours. I love Terry Pratchett‘s work, and of course, he’s enormously popular…but I’ve read reviews by people who turn up their noses at his books. Obviously, those people don’t find the books funny.
So it goes. I don’t always laugh at things that other people find uproarious. But the same principle applies to em>any writing. You’re never going to please everyone.
Commitment to Comedy
The next thing to realize is that writing comedy requires personal investment. Just as you shouldn’t write SF without having read extensively in the field, you shouldn’t write comedy if you haven’t delved into it deeply. Nothing is more painful than someone making “jokes” that don’t work. Even brief moments of comic relief can damage a story if they aren’t done well. If, for example, you’re writing something “serious” and you throw in some awkward attempts at laughs, you can make the reader think, “Hey, that sucks. Maybe this writer isn’t very good.”
And let’s not even think about the horrible effects of jokes at the expense of specific social groups. Anything that makes you seem sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. can do more than just ruin a story; it can wreck your career. Perhaps justifiably. No one is immune to making clumsy remarks that might be misinterpreted, but that’s nothing to be proud of, nor is it an excuse—one of the purposes of rewriting is to get rid of faux pas. If you don’t pick up on problems, that’s a blind-spot you ought to fix. (Unless, of course, you’re deliberately trying to be offensive…in which case, let’s just say that you’re seriously limiting your audience and leave it at that.)
So you have to read a whole lot of comedy, and learn from it. You have to learn what works and what doesn’t. Even more, you have to learn how it works. I’ll wave my hands at some general principles, but you really have to study specifics if you want to understand how to execute comedy.
Learn about set-ups, laying pipe, callbacks, punchlines, timing tricks, and all the other techniques people use in every field of comedy. What’s the difference between situation comedy and a comedy of manners? Which gimmicks work on a page of prose, and which require a specific tone of voice and delivery which may only be possible in a live performance? How do you simulate techniques of delivery, to the extent that simulation can be done on the page?
You don’t need a clinical understanding of humor (although plenty of comedians have written books attempting to dissect how humor works). But you do need a well-informed grasp of humor’s elements and how they go together. You can’t write fiction if you can’t structure a paragraph; you can’t write humor if you can’t structure a laugh.
(By the way, don’t just read comic SF. Read comedy from every genre you can find. One reason is that the supply of comic SF is reasonably small; sure, there’s some good stuff, but the body of work isn’t huge. Another reason is that comic SF tends toward parodies and satires of the genre, rather than other types of comedy. I like parody and satire, but they can be limited in scope and often self-indulgent. Aim higher.)
Jokes? We Don’t Need No Stinking Jokes
Some years ago, there was an Olympic-level figure skater who was really good at jumps. She’d skate the length of the ice, then do a jump; then skate to the other end and do another jump; then skate to the other end and jump again. None of the other competitors could jump as well as she could…but she never won. She didn’t have much of a program; she just jumped. She didn’t frame her jumps with other content. She was exceptionally athletic, but not very entertaining.
Raw jokes in isolation tend to be the same. Ultimately, you’re writing a story, not a series of jokes. Humor that arises naturally from the speech and personalities of the characters will be more successful than “funny stuff” in isolation. On Seinfeld, Kramer got applause every time he entered a scene because Kramer was Kramer. Whatever he did was amplified by the viewer’s knowledge of the character. Even if a particular set of lines weren’t that funny, the viewer’s knowledge of the character could exaggerate the lines’ effect. (Of course, if you didn’t like the character, those weak lines became even more unlikeable.)
The same is true in prose fiction: the reader’s feelings toward a character affect the response to “funny” things that the character says or does. In comedy, characters often do things that are ill-advised…but a character’s personality makes the difference between “lovingly stupid”, “annoyingly stupid”, or even “exhilaratingly stupid”. The success of the humor depends on who’s saying or doing it, and what the reader feels about that person.
There’s a feedback loop between what a character does and what the reader perceives as that character’s personality. If a character usually has witty clever dialogue, we’ll perceive that character as clever. When the character says something superficially nonsensical, we’ll think, “Oh (s)he’s making a joke.” We do this all the time in real life; we laugh when our friends appear to misinterpret something straightforward or when they say something “stupid”—we know them and know they don’t mean it.
In other words, humor is often dependent on our understanding of someone’s personality. In a story, humor contributes to characterization but it also relies on characterization. We don’t understand the humor if we don’t understand the people involved.
Slipping Off on a Banana Peel
I have a number of friends who write humorous stuff and we all talk about our “commitment to comedy”. We care about selling good laughs. We care about doing it right. I haven’t said a lot here about how to be funny; my message is to take comedy seriously and to aim for it to arise in a natural way, as opposed to it being something separate from character, plot, etc. In a good story, nothing is separate—it’s all a sweet gestalt where the elements are so tightly bound together that any given sentence is doing multiple things simultaneously.
James Alan Gardner
James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.
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