Lesson Two – Where to find humor. Where to use humor. (And when to beat a hasty retreat!) Part 2
Having determined where and how to find humor, the second stage is knowing when not to use that humor. Personally I use the following list as a guide.
- Where the humor feels forced or sluggish.
- At times of high tragedy or horror
- When the antagonist is the one making/setting the joke.
- Where the humor is cutting and hurtful to minorities, children and other “vulnerable” groups.
1. There are times when chatting on list, or writing a book, where the humor is flowing almost nonstop and then suddenly there’s a post, or phrase, where everything seems to end. The joke/chat is no longer funny. To an experienced humorist it’s akin to having a freight train running into a cliff. (Then we have to ask ourselves, how did the train get hold of the Nike’s?) There’s no certain way to determine when this point occurs but if, when you write a humorous response, you hesitate, then sit back and wonder if it is really going to work—and if it might offend someone—then the chances are you’ve reached this point. Forced humor is an embarrassment to the reader, and reflects back on your ability as a writer. Besides which, it’s good to punctuate the laughs with the sorrow, it will heighten the experience of both. Not to mention, even humorists need a break.
2. Times of high tragedy and horror are a bit easier to determine. People who live in a serial rapist zone, for example, very rarely make jokes about it. I was living in
Virginiawhen the Virginiasnipers were killing innocent people on what felt like a daily basis, I heard no jokes about it while I was there. When horror and tragedy are really close to a character the wounds are too fresh for even humor to ease. People don’t want to think about fear, and humor makes us talk about it and face it. Even with books that are designated laugh fests this tends to hold true. Jeff Strand’s Graverobbers Wanted, No Experience Necessary, deals with a bumbling, untrained amateur detective’s attempt at finding a serial killer. A man whose crimes involve the creation of snuff movies using tortured victims. Regardless of how depraved the killer gets none of his scenes are funny except maybe in a grotesque parody—not the type of humor to make you laugh. All the humor revolves around Andrew Mayhem and his, generally, clumsy detective work. (Even his name, as you can see, is humorous.) For these kinds of scenes and situations use humor to direct the readers attention away from what’s happening and focus on the things that make the characters human. It will also add a bite to the scenes where horror and fear are predominant.
3. The antagonist can make jokes, but it is rare. An example of this, where it worked, was in the TV show The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne. Michael Praed played both the hero and the villain in the fourth and fifth episodes. In the final sword fight he was faced off against himself as Cardinal Richelieu the antagonist. The one classic line during this battle where Richelieulace paused for a moment to look at the protagonist and said “My, you’re a handsome devil!” deserves to go down in history as one of the best ever. I believe this works because of the nature of movies, and the opinion of the antagonist coincides with the viewers. Unfortunately, in prose, giving the villain the good jokes can make him far too likeable. A funny villain is almost as popular as a bumbling hero (check out Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series). If you do want to have a humorous antagonist, keep his humor dark. The kind of joke you don’t want to hear. Wasn’t it Hannibal Lecter who said “Why don’t you come over for dinner?” Of course for slapstick laugh fests villains can be funny. Just make sure for this style of book that the humor exaggerates their evil side, and someone has to suffer. The last thing you need is to have a villain that the readers will hate you for when you kill him off.
The only common exception to this section of humor appears to be funerals. Funerals are tragic but people often make up jokes or anecdotes about the deceased—here you will almost always find they are jokes that evoke memories of a happier time or event with the dearly departed or as praise for their character.
“They were going to send Old George to Hell, but Satan surrendered.”
4. Stand up comedians frequently pick on one group or another to make their audience laugh. This works well in a nightclub or theater because they can pretty much gauge which groups the patrons are most likely to dislike or need to ridicule for their own wellbeing. Writers don’t generally get that option, the reader base is widespread and goes over a fairly cosmopolitan audience. If you decide to write pieces that put-down one group or another you will effectively reduce your potential readership drastically. If you really want to have put me-down-jokes the safest ones are those directed against the main character through either dialogue or situation. A book which does this really well is Barry Hughart’s, Eight Skilled Gentlemen. Ox, is the not too bright, but well muscled assistant to the genius detective Master Li and the book is written from his point of view.
“Ox, I must congratulate you on your level of self-control. Not one single question,” he said with a wink.
He knows he’s trained me well.
Some authority figures, like The Boss are also fair game.
Physical and situational put-me-downs work well too. Everyone empathizes with a heroine who is klutzy enough to walk out of the house with a different shoe on each foot or to have a mother who puts you into the most ridiculous of situations (such as Alexis Fleming’s, Stud Finders Incorporated, where the heroine’s mother believes she’s hired a stud to cure the heroine’s low sexual self image). Events like this are things that most of us feel could happen to us one day and the put-me-down humor alleviates the embarrassment and elevates the character back to a normal status. The areas best avoided are party politics, religion, handicaps, minorities and gender/genotype specifics. Unless you're writing a book aimed to entertain one group or another of these divides be careful how you employ them in your jokes.
Summary: Humor is a part of real life and is used as such in your writing. But if you really feel uncertain if a joke, or silly mishap, is unsuitable for the moment it is always best to err on the side of caution and stop. Come back to the post/novel later and maybe, by then, things would have changed and a humorous opening is available to you. Just don’t worry if you can’t find one and don't feel you have to put one in. Sometimes the best thing for a funny story is to leave a few jokes out.
Try thinking back and see if you can remember a time when someone, including yourself, may have attempted something humorous only to have the joke fall flat as a resounding failure. Can you determine what caused the joke to fail? Was there a way the joke could have been presented differently and succeed or should the whole thing have been left humorless without any comedy attempt made?