Thu 4 Dec 2014
by Julie Duffy
Continuing in our series of writing for genres, this month we’re talking about Humor. Or Comedy. Or both.
Comedy Or Humor?
Kurt Luchs, founder of The Big Jewel and a writer whose humor has been featured in The New Yorker, The Onion and McSweeney’s, knows a thing or two about the topic. He makes a distinction between humor writing and comedic writing.
“Humor to me is something written by a humorist, which is to say something funny, yes, obviously, but also something smart and exhibiting some sense of literary style based on a deep knowledge of literary history,” says Luchs.
“Telling jokes and sort of stringing them together until you fill out the page or you feel like stopping, does not constitute humor writing. That’s what Dave Barry does. Is it funny? Quite frequently. Is it comedy? Definitely. Is it humor? I would say no, because it’s got no sense of literary style, no layers, no nuance, no form. For that reason I doubt people will still be reading him in the next century, but I bet they’ll still be reading Benchley, Ian Frazier and Veronica Geng.”
If we agree to draw this distinction between comedic writing and literary humor, does that mean Humor is the only kind of funny writing that has any depth?
Perhaps not. Eric Bosarge of Eric’s Hysterics was quick to remind us that, “comedy is really just drama in disguise,” which helps to explain the peculiar ability of humor to make serious point—something we’ll talk about a little later in this post.
Christopher Fielden has a more broad definition of the genre:
“Humor is a genre that should bring a smile to your face while you’re reading it.”
Milo James Fowler agrees and reminds us about the role of the author’s intent.
“Writers of humor want readers to enjoy themselves.”
There is, of course, an audience for both literary humor and for ‘stories that make you laugh’, but Luchs’ definition is a useful one to bear in mind as you try to find homes for your writing.
Reasons To Be Cheerful
Why write humor?
Sometimes the answer is simple:
“It’s more fun to write than any other genre,” says Fielden, who likes fun so much that he created a uniquely silly prize for his literary contest: the winning stories are bound into an anthology, strapped to the front of his motorbike and driven from his home near Bristol, in the southwest of England, to Hull, on the opposite coast, and back—a round trip of almost 500 miles.
Sometimes the motivation to write humor is a reaction to events in the news, or to problems in society. Consider the Ezra Pound quote supplied by Kurt Luchs:
“Journalism is news. Literature is news that stays news.”
Sometimes it can even be a reaction to the prevailing tone in your favorite genre.
Milo James Fowler’s comic science fiction hero, Captain Bartholomew Quasar is pompous, ridiculous and hugely popular. He recently won Fowler his first book contract. So why write funny science fiction stories?
“A lot of today’s science fiction is pretentious, bleak, and nihilistic. Where’s the fun in that?”
But there is also a more serious side to Captain Quasar’s adventures, says Fowler.
“The fallibility of human nature is something we all can relate to. We should laugh at ourselves on a regular basis.”
Christopher Fielden agrees, “[Humor] can allow you to tackle sensitive subject matters in a way that people can relate to and appreciate.”
Just as long as you don’t forget to bring the funny, says Fowler. “There may be serious societal issues or thinly disguised current events at the heart of the story, but laughter is the ultimate goal.”
Making Funny Stories Funny … And Stories
Inspired to write a humorous story? Stop! Read on for tips from our experts about how you can write humorous stories that are more than a wannabe stand-up routine.
“Humor is there to enhance a story, but the story itself is still the most important thing,” warns Christopher Fielden.
Eric Bosarge had a similar comment.
“I look for the piece to be grounded by a clear narrative thread and for the story to progress.”
And beware trying too hard:
“Some writers try and be funny for the sake of being funny, or try and be laugh-out-loud funny with every word. This can lead to melodrama, an overuse of exclamation marks and poor story structure,” says Fielden.
Fowler agrees. “Don’t go for a punchline. Readers can see one of those coming from a mile away.”
Kurt Luchs offered this guide through the process of writing and revising a humor piece:
“Every single sentence needs to be either a setup to a joke, the joke itself, or a follow-up joke that may itself become another setup. There can be sentences without laughs, but no paragraphs without laughs.
“There should be running gags that ratchet up the premise in some interesting fashion, or even parallel sets of running gags that intertwine and conclude in some unexpected but satisfying way. The thing should both climb and cohere.”
“A good humor piece is as tightly and carefully constructed as a sonnet.”
Humor In A Flash
Happily, humor is one of the genres that lends itself to flash fiction the best.
“The longer a piece of humor is, the harder it becomes to sustain and the harder it becomes to keep building into a fitting conclusion by topping itself right up until the end,” says Luchs.
He describes the natural limit of most humor pieces as 500-1000 words, but that doesn’t mean that all short, funny tales are good flash fiction.
“A flash-sized tale is not an oversized joke,” cautions Fowler. “Weave the humor throughout your piece.”
And don’t forget to revise rigorously, says Bosarge. “[Writers] should look over the story and ask themselves, ‘did I miss any opportunities for a laugh’ before hitting send.”
Ending On The Right Note
“Endings are hard, and hardest of all in humor,” says Luchs. “Ideally the ending should be the funniest—or one of the funniest —parts. Again, if the piece has been cleverly constructed, and the writer has several plates spinning in the form of running gags, an ending will often emerge naturally out of that. Circularity, returning to the beginning in some way, can work, especially if there is some extra twist.”
Another option is to amplify the humor—or the satire—by changing the tone at the end. Luchs explains,
“Sometimes it’s better to let the ending twist away from humor a bit, if that fits with the premise. There is a reason that many albums by the audio comedy troupe the Firesign Theatre end on a wistful or tragicomic note instead of a punchline.”
An ending he can’t abide is the ‘shaggy-dog story’, where the entire story is a set up for a single punchline.
“We have an editor whose only job is to hunt down the authors of shaggy dog stories and put them out of their misery. It keeps him busy year round.”
We can only hope, here, that Luchs is being humorous.
On Selling Humor
Selling humor is hard. It was the one thing that everyone I interviewed agreed on. It doesn’t pay well and there aren’t enough markets. (Santa, are you listening?)
“There are perhaps half a dozen outlets worth being seen in,” says Luchs, “and even they don’t pay.”
It’s also hard because humor is such a personal taste.
“…. I just keep sending my work out there until an editor snatches it up.” Fowler adds. I can almost see his wry smile, even over email.
Christopher Fielden felt so strongly about this that he started his own humor contest. Luchs edits his own humor publication. Fowler has gone with a small publisher to bring out his first Captain Quasar novel.
“My advice is,” says Kurt Luchs, “if you don’t love this thing, if you aren’t passionate about it for its own sake, stay away.”
If you simply can’t help yourself, then take some encouragement from the words of the often-published Milo James Fowler:
“Some stories take a couple rejections before finding a good home; others take a couple dozen. I’ve sold 97 short stories so far, and I haven’t lost hope on any of my homeless tales yet.”
How does he recommend we follow his example?
“Weed out as many unnecessary words as possible. Polish until shiny. Rinse and repeat. Dunk and swish. Line dry. When ready, submit to a publisher as weird as you are. Then go write something new—and funnier.”
Now, doesn’t the thought of that make you smile?
Julie Duffy is a writer of short fiction and host of the annual creativity challenge StoryADay May.