Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Onward into the Realm of Humor Writing

If you caught my post the other day, I started commenting about Five Practical Tips on Writing Humor, specifically the final point about having to have a working story when writing humor.

The next tip I wanted to look at is: "Comparison Joke is Your Best Friend"

While a girl's best friend are diamonds, and man's best friend is his dog, it seems a humor writer's ally is making funny comparisons. The thing is, although it is indeed easy to make up comparisons, they're more or less quick laughs, and if over used, get really old. I hardly see more than one or two comparisons in a single short story, and these comparisons are often used in descriptions. Think of it as a metaphor.

But I take greater issue with the example that Alex had chosen, a la:

Game of Thrones is a lot like Twitter: There are 140 characters and terrible things are constantly happening. 

This is a bad example, a very bad example. Not because it's not funny, but because it's a flawed joke for a couple of reasons.

1) It sounds like it came from a stand-up comedic act. It's the sort of one-liner you'd expect a comedian to say, and although not inherently bad, doesn't work so well with narrative writing. Stand-up comedy is performance; you stand on stage, throw out jokes, wait for the audience's laughter--and if no laughter, use a quick recovery joke and move on.

A writer isn't so lucky; they can't recover from writing a bad joke. Everything has to be a preemptive and carefully thought out, paced properly, knowing when a joke is appropriate and when it's not. It's tough and it doesn't always pan out. However, it should all flow together. A joke like the above sticks out; it's there to make a funny and be gone, doesn't build a picture or acquaint us with the narrator's voice. Yeah, I know, it's an example to show us what a comparison joke is; but if you're going to use an example, should at least do it right. Like here's one I came up with:
Bertha's menopause was so infamous, that people started calling it 'Grizzly'. For after dealing with Bertha, they felt like they'd been mauled by a grizzly bear.   
My example compares menopause with a grizzly bear attack. Whether you find it funny or not, you at least get an idea of how terrible Bertha's menopause is. Something like this could easily be slipped into a story, perhaps The Adventures of Bertha's Grizzly Menopause.   

2) Limited-appeal. If you're familiar with Game of Thrones and Twitter, the joke is spot on and humorous. But if you aren't familiar... it's a "Huh?" moment. This is why I think Family Guy and all its spin-offs are complete failures when it comes to humor, because most of the jokes are pop culture references, of some era or another, that fly right over your head. If you get it, cool. If you don't, you're wondering why the hell you're watching it--or in our case, reading the story. You don't want that.

Thus, I point to my example once again. I purposely did not use any pop culture references, instead, opted for more widely known things like menopause and grizzly bears. You'd have to be seriously ignorant to not know either of those things.

3) It has a time-stamp. The minute you use pop culture references or anything widely popular at the moment, you immediately put an expiration date on the joke. There's a good chance Twitter may not be around ten years from now; as with all these social media sites, they're only used until something better comes along. Remember MySpace? And who's to say the same won't happen to Facebook or Twitter? Don't hing your bets that those things will last.

Instead, aim for laughs with some longevity. Take Shakespeare for example, even after 400 years, his comedies are still found to be funny. The Taming of the Shrew is practically the basis for most comedies consisting of a squabbling married couple.

I know I may be bashing pop culture jokes, but they really are weak jokes, and I would like to encourage people to think a little harder when it comes to comedy. A joke about Twitter and a popular fantasy series can't be re-used or recycled decades later. And when they're gone, no one is going to know what the hell your joke was about, making it a dud.

There is of course the exception of pop icons, such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, The Rolling Stones, etc. But that's because we're constantly re-using these icons' images in every generation, so they never die out. You'd have to be living in a cave not to have heard about them! But because they're so popular, you risk making a comparison joke that has already been done before, or is flat out of fashion (I'm pretty sure everyone is tired of sparkly vampire jokes by now).

Once again, I prefer relying on creativity rather than whatever is currently popular.

So that wraps up this discussion. That was the last nit-pick I had with Alex's tips (Although I'm sure I could come up with a few more reasons... Nah.) Next, we'll look at parodies and one of my favorite comedy shows of all-time The Venture Bros. (New season starting in June!)


  1. You're spot on with that. Stand up and writing are different creatures which is why comedians aren't always good writers. Ben Elton is a superb stand up comedian, but his books are quite dull. The only comedians that write well are those who either treat their books like a stand up routine or take a different tack altogether.

    1. It goes to how that just because you're funny in one medium, doesn't mean you can pull it off in another.

  2. You're right about pop culture references, too. I've already (unfortunately) dated a couple of my stories that came out in 2010. Crazy how 3 years can seem like a decade. Must have something to do with the speed our culture's evolving...and I'm sure there's a joke in there, but I'm still half-asleep.