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Transcript for Episode 1.21

Writing Excuses Episode 21: Humor


This episode is about humor, how to make people laugh, with a particular focus on writers. How do you write humor, why do we write humor, more suggestions about how to write humor, and a writing prompt to get you started. Now if we can include cute, naughty, bizarre, clever, recognizable, and cruel elements in our jokes, we’ll get the laughs. Like a brick doesn’t.

How do you write humor?

  • I write things that make me laugh and hope that other people have the same sort of sense of humor. Then I go back, look at what I’ve written, take it apart, and see why I laugh. This helps me refine the punchline. Most of my humor is punch line driven, not funny situations. Dialogue. You do beats — 1, 2, bam — 1, 2, bam.
  • I write dark humor. Most of it is audacious — did he really say that? It’s surprising.
  • most of mine is based on the character’s voice.

Why do we write humor? Like fantasy, why not?

  • we write humor because if we want to be evocative of emotion, humor is one of them. We need to make people laugh, cry, scared, excited.
  • the best stories have a humorous element.
  • I write things that I think are funny. Horror needs humor. For example, when the protagonist is a 15-year-old sociopathic serial killer, if he’s not funny, people will not identify with him. It’s hard to identify with sociopathic killers.
  • Larry Niven said that humor is an interrupted defense mechanism. Often we laugh because the alternative is to shriek in terror or to cry. Even puns, are a corruption of language, and we either get angry or laugh.
  • It comes back to fulfilling promises. Humor is fulfilling promises in unexpected ways.
  • or breaking the promise, but we can point to how it fulfills it.
  • surprising but inevitable — a joke is often funny because we don’t see it coming, but it needs a good setup.
  • fantasy walks the line between the original and the familiar. It’s the strange attractor of the familiar and the original. Humor is the same. For example, Terry Pratchett describes a man doing something very unusual as being like a dog trying to play a trombone. The combination of a dog and a trombone is humorous.
  • the descriptions where a narrator is telling a joke by describing something using words you wouldn’t expect. The Norse god moves his arm, and the muscles flexed like parking Volkswagens.
  • or Douglas Adams, “the Vogon ships hung in the sky exactly the way that bricks don’t.” [and the tech laughs]
  • written humor is very different from performed humor

how do you write humor?

  • Scott Adams says you need to hit at least two out of the six: cute, naughty, bizarre, clever, recognizable, cruel. However, this seems to give a tool for analyzing jokes, but not necessarily for writing them.
  • a lot of it is trial and error. One thing I tried made people laugh if they knew me. Now I try to make the humor text-based instead of personality-based.
  • part of that is establishing a narrator, then playing off the narrator’s voice.

How do you do that?

  • watch the evening talkshow monologues — Leno? Most of them are strawmen, put’m up and knock’m down, one-liner after one-liner. Then watch Craig Ferguson (? I don’t know the US shows). He has a 15 minute monologue, with the jokes connected, and he’ll set up a joke early and then pay off on it later.
  • preparation — lay the foundation, then hit the joke. A lot of it is foreshadowing. You need to foreshadow jokes just like you foreshadow plot twists.

[We’ll skip lightly past the spoiler about a person in one of Brandon’s books who curses using nuts, walnuts and such, and then makes a final reference to seafood — and yes, guys, I do know the joke, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Southwest. Kind of a regional joke though, I’ve known people on the East Coast who wouldn’t have any idea what you were talking about.]

Can of Worms: humor, non sequiturs, puns, how to be funny without losing your character or plot

And the writing prompt: write something funny in which strong profanity is appropriate but doesn’t happen.

See you next week.

Current Mood: bouncybouncy
Current Music: International Harvester, Craig Morgan