Writing Excuses 17.18: How to be Funny, with Jody Lynn Nye
Key points: Take expectations and twist them. Be the anodyne for the evening news. Exaggeration. Tweak the standard tropes. Break the rule of three. Move the boundary between violation and the benign. Tragedy plus time or distance. Puns. Juxtaposing the modern with the ancient or the fantastic. Absurdities and anachronisms.
[Season 17, Episode 18]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, How to be Funny, with Jody Lynn Nye.
[Jody] 15 minutes long.
[Brandon] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Jody] I’m Jody.
[and there was no Howard there!]
[Dan] We are so excited… Jody, we have known you for so long, and we’re kind of shocked to realize we’ve never had you on the show. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
[Jody] Well, I write science fiction and fantasy, most of it with a humorous bent. I have been writing since I was a small child. But I started getting read by other people in the late 70s, early 80s. I played Dungeons & Dragons long enough ago that I’m playing now with the grandchildren of some of the people I used to play with.
[Jody] I… Let’s see. I do calligraphy, I do baking of fancy cakes, I like to travel, I like photography, and of course many people know that I love my cats, and most things are all about the cats, and everything goes to feed them.
[Dan] Just so that the audience understands like the sheer level of genre godmother that you are, you helped edit some of the initial Dungeons & Dragons books. Correct?
[Jody] Not exactly. My first job in publishing was typing the players guide monster manual in DMG for Gary Gygax from his original notes. Correcting spelling and bits of grammar and things like that, that, my boyfriend at the time who was one of the founders of TSR said, “No, no. Don’t change anything.” I realized then that they weren’t going to be able to tell.
[Jody] So I made it a little easier on the final editor.
[Dan] Awesome. You also helped start Dragon Con, correct?
[Jody] I was there early.
[Dan] You were there early. Okay.
[Jody] I was… I think I have been to all of them.
[Jody] So, Dragon Con is a wonderful convention to attend. It is the largest fan run convention in the world. It is a… Let’s… A small place, but still cozy in its own way. It has as many as 50 tracks of programming, something for everybody. There are skeptics tracks, science tracks, many kinds of writing tracks. There’s even a puppetry track.
[Jody] Anyone can find anything to participate in.
[Brandon] It’s a giant fun party.
[Dan] Yeah, it is.
[Jody] It is Mardi Gras for nerds.
[Dan] Mardi Gras for nerds.
[Jody] That’s its nickname.
[Brandon] The last convention I did before the pandemic was being Writing Guest of Honor at Dragon Con. So…
[Jody] You and I were on a panel together. That was fun.
[Dan] Now, we are here, live, at a much smaller convention. LTUE.
[Dan] We’re so excited to be here.
[Dan] Howard is not here with us, and yet, Jody, you have pitched to us how to be funny as an episode topic.
[Brandon] It’s always more funny when Howard isn’t here.
[Dan] I know.
[Brandon] See, Howard always gets on the panels whenever we’re going to discuss funny and says, “Nothing is more boring than talking about humor.” That just really sets the stage.
[Brandon] For being funny. So, we’re doing this without his knowledge, because we… We’re the kids playing when the master of humor is away. We’re going to be funny, darn it!
[Dan] I don’t know if we’re going to be funny, but we’re going to talk about how to write funny stuff. Jody, you’ve written a lot of very funny books, a lot of humorous books. Let’s start with the question of when and why do you decide, well, this book I’m going to make sure that it’s not just a fantasy or not just a science fiction, but it’s going to be a funny one.
[Jody] I like to take expectations and twist them. I like to go for something that people have probably seen a lot too much of, and go with it. I have written now, with Robert Asprin, many, many books with him and in a couple of his series since then. The MythAdventures of Aahz and Skeeve.
[Brandon] No relation.
[Jody] No relation whatsoever. They don’t even look alike. In spite of the green stuff.
[Jody] Right. I always wanted to be the anodyne for the evening news. I wanted to give something to cheer people up when they were devastated at having turned on the news, realize that 800,000 gallons of oil has just poured down Main Street, and you’re going to be stuck in traffic for eight hours. When you get home, pick up one of my books. It’ll make you feel better. So that was my sort of reckoning, my idea. I like humor. I was brought up on the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello, Saturday morning cartoons, comic books. All sorts of things alongside real books. There weren’t enough funny ones. So…
[Brandon] Yeah, you say that.
[Jody] I am filling that gap.
[Brandon] Real books… I’ve… I’m on record…
[Brandon] Talking about Pratchett, saying that I think humor is a higher art form than other forms of literature. Because it adds another aspect that you have to do. Really good books, like Pratchett or the MythAdventures still have… They’re going to have character arcs. They’re going to have narrative, they’re going to have plot, they’re going to have literary styling. You have to do all that, and be funny. It just makes it harder. When it works, it is just that much better.
[Jody] Oh, yes. Pratchett is amazing. I thought that… I think that he was our Shakespeare, because he understood everything about human nature in the same way that Shakespeare did, and liked us anyway.
[Brandon] Yup. Yup. You always feel like… That’s a good thing to bring up. There’s like… There’s all kinds of humor. It’s all valid. It doesn’t… Whatever you find funny. But Pratchett, I always felt like his arm’s around my shoulder, pointing at things that we all do. But he’s not laughing at me, he’s encouraging me to laugh with him at me. Which is different. We always say, “He’s laughing with us, not at us.” He is laughing at us. But he’s got his arm around your shoulder, and you don’t feel bad. When I read his books, and he’s making fun of something that I do, I feel better about myself after having laughed. I just love that aspect of his humor.
[Jody] I have seen… I have known people that he poked fun at, that he’s put into the stories, such as, I know two of the three witches, the originals. That when he talks about Magrat, for example, who became Queen, that she was shaped rather like two peas on a shovel, well, the lady upon whom Magrat is based is a plump lady who is by no means just two peas on a shovel. She’s tremendous fun. Gisa North who is Gytha Ogg, Nanny Ogg, is in fact, personality wise, quite a bit like her literary counterpart, but a complete opposite bodily. Of course, when he decided to create Lady Sybil who was one Anne McCaffrey crossed with Barbara Woodhouse clone, Anne McCaffrey absolutely adored it. She loved being sent up in that way, because he got her. But it was also quite a bit of Barbara Woodhouse, who is famous for… She was a dog trainer. She would command dogs, “Sit!” in this huge stentorian voice. Not unlike Anne who was trained for opera and also had a huge voice and could make people sit down, too.
[Dan] Now, I do want to point out that not all humor has to be gentle or kind or loving. A nice counterpoint to this story, I had the chance on a book tour to go through Roald Dahl’s hometown in England. The librarian there told me, just giggling through her hands the whole time, that when he wrote the witches, everybody in town knew exactly which ladies he was making fun of. They all hated it, and everyone else thought it was hilarious.
[Dan] Let’s pause here, and give you a chance to pitch one of your books to us. What do you have out that’s recent or that you would really like people to go look up and read?
[Jody] I am…
[Dan] And buy, which is key.
[Jody] All right. I am very fond of my latest series, which is the Lord Thomas Kinago books, which are humorous space opera, which are essentially P. G. Wodehouse in space. They are the feckless young lordling and the sensible, self-effacing gentleman who more or less keeps him out of trouble. The names of each of the novels… Lord Thomas is far too wealthy to have hobbies. He has enthusiasms. So, his enthusiasm of the moment is connected to the title of the book. So, View from the Imperium is about photography and image capture. Fortunes of the Imperium is about superstitions. It’s not that he actually believes in any of them, but he loves the trappings. He’s got a fortuneteller’s tent and a crystal ball and a phrenology chart. Rhythm of the Imperium, naturally, is about interpretive dance.
[Dan] Of course. That’s perfect. All right. So, let’s talk about how to be funny. Making people laugh at dinner is very different than writing a book that is funny. So, when you set out to do it, how do you add humor to something? How do you be funny on command?
[Jody] There are so, so many facets to humor, but in Lord Thomas’s case, exaggeration is one of the ones that I like to use the most. He is very, very wealthy, so he can do what he likes. He is very, very overprivileged, and so are all of his relatives who, pretty much, except for a couple of his cousins, are odious people. But they are exaggerated in the same way that P. G. Wodehouse pictured a lot of the aristocrats that Bertie Wooster palled around with. In fact, Lord Thomas has aunts in the same way that Bertie Wooster had aunts. Some of them he could stand, some of them he could hide behind when the others were raging at him, and some of them were just terrible people altogether. But that’s half the fun of it, is the exaggeration. There’s a lot about the standard space opera that, with just a tweak, could be extremely funny. I played with a lot of those tropes. But at the same time, they’re… It’s a fairly serious story because he has a lot of elements of him that he’s very sensitive about, that a great deal of the bravado is to hide the sensitive person inside. So I had to tell a good story at the same time writing a science fiction story that also had humorous elements to it.
[Brandon] Something you said earlier that I would like to emphasize here is playing with expectations. Right? A lot of our humor comes from there’s a thing you expect, and then it is broken in a way that makes us laugh. The most obvious of this is probably the rule of three, right? You’ll see this all the time in humor. In normal narrative structure, you often want to use the rule of three to emphasize in some way. So you will list three things, instead of two, and the third one is the most powerful of them. Even if you’re just listing reasons that someone wants to go to dinner and it’s not supposed to be funny. But you can use that third one as a twist when they’re expecting growth. That’s one of the ways to be honey… Funny. It’s like, oh, these first two are building on each other and getting increasingly more relevant, and then the third one is completely irrelevant, and it makes you laugh. But you can also use that to say something about the character, which is always a lot of fun.
[Jody] Sort of faith, hope, and nattily.
[Dan] I love that. So, Howard is not here, but he has a whole class on humor that he has taught on our Writing Excuses retreat before, that talks about how humor is like the intersection between something that is benign and something that is a violation. Often, the process of telling a joke or setting up a punchline is moving one of those circles in order to create overlap. That this would normally be far too violating or horrific to joke about, but I have nudged it just far enough that a corner of it has dipped into the benign circle on our Venn diagram. Then, all of a sudden, I can say it in a way that makes you laugh instead of makes you shocked or horrified.
[Jody] Such as… There’s a saying that comedy equals tragedy plus time. You’re in an awful situation, and quite a lot of situational humor… And I’m not talking about sitcoms which have become not very funny things that have laugh tracks…
[Jody] That say you should be laughing here even though you don’t want to. But it can also be comedy equals tragedy plus distance. Something that is happening far away could be a lot funnier, especially keeping the nasty bits out of the view of the audience, so that you can laugh at the circumstances around them.
[Dan] I do love Mel Brooks version of that, where he says tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall in a sewer and die.
[Jody] I was going to use that very same…
[Brandon] That’s playing with expectations right there.
[Dan] Yeah, it’s playing with your expectations, because we think we know what it’s going to be. It’s adding distance, because it’s not funny when it happens to me, but it is funny when it happens to you. It’s also… If I just said it would be really funny if this guy in the front row fell in a sewer and died. Like, that would not be funny.
[Brandon] Oh, I think that’s hilarious.
[Dan] Well. Telling jokes to sociopaths is an entirely different process.
[Jody] They think everything’s funny.
[Dan] When you set it up properly, and say it in that form, then it moves that violation far enough that the benign can take over and it can be funny.
[Brandon] I’ve got a question for you, Jody. When I’m working on humor in my books, and I don’t generally write humorous books, I write books with humorous elements occasionally. One of the things I’ve found is that sometimes the things I think funny just do not land with certain members of the audience. The way I mitigate this is by trying to have different kinds of humor. So that nobody will find everything funny, but somebody will find something funny. Do you have any advice on different kinds of humor that work well in books?
[Jody] Well, puns, depending on the book, puns work well. Puns are a very intellectual form of humor. No matter what some people might say. Because you have to understand the context in which they appear. Juxtaposing the modern upon the ancient or the modern upon the fantastic can be a lot of fun. For example, take Shakespeare in Love, where you had Shakespeare going through all the rituals of writing that quite a lot of us have little rituals that get us in the mood to write, and also the fact that he was seeing an analyst, which was completely modern. Certainly there would have been nothing like Anthony Sher doctor in real life in Elizabethan times. But it worked so well. There was a beauty to it, that they were able to present that kind of absurdities and still make it seem as if it was a historical kind of story. So, that kind of anachronism is often funny.
[Brandon] Yeah. I mean, we talked about Pratchett. Like, a good third of the humor in those books is that exact joke, just done again and again in different and interesting ways.
[Jody] Yeah. He was tremendously good at that. It is very hard to do slapstick in a book. But we can also play with timing, so that we can, using punctuation, capital letters, italics, spacing, and making sure that you have to turn the page before you get to the punchline. Ellipses are your friend. So are m-dashes.
[Jody] You can place… You can make the audience breathe so that you can get your punchline in there. Then, the line that follows it should be benign enough, just sort of carrying things on, so that they laugh at the joke and they don’t actually miss anything important. So it is setting up a joke as if you were telling it out loud.
[Dan] Well, that’s great. Thank you so much for being on our show today, Jody. We love you, we think you’re so smart and wonderful.
[Dan] What is our homework?
[Jody] Your homework, since we were talking about humor, is to take something that you have written before. Take one of the scenes and make it funny. Draw out what it is you can exaggerate, make absurd, minimize. Give these incredibly important stakes to something that would otherwise seem trivial, and have fun with it.
[Dan] Great. Well. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.