Funny Ha Ha

‘You should write a post on being funny,’ fellow minion Yvonne suggested. She was trimming my hair for the wasping season, entirely as though a special haircut for killing wasps wasn’t a bizarre thing to ask for. But then Yvonne, hairdresser extraordinaire as well as much-loved local Indie, has got used to my oddities. I wanted something long enough to push through the back of a baseball cap (because otherwise the wasps get caught in it) but layered enough to poodle-up a bit for parties. Yes, ridiculous, so we giggled.

There is something very unfunny about analysing humour though, and something even less amusing about claiming the right to pontificate about it. However, the idea took hold and here we are looking at getting laughs. The topic fascinates and repels me because people who tell me they are funny are a pet hate. It’s not for them to decide! I may laugh, I may not, that’s up to me.

I’m therefore not going to dare to try and tell you what’s funny, I’m going to look at ways to use humour to corner your reader into the reaction you want for them at that moment in your writing. I hoped to have three points, the best gags work in threes, but actually I thought of four. So this article is officially not funny at all.

To start with, there’s telling jokes.

Gags come with signposts—knock knock, the number of somethings it takes to change a lightbulb, surreal elephant situations, puns—you don’t have to say, ‘I’m going to tell you a joke,’ but the lead-in flags it up anyway. What reaction do you get? Usually a groan. Sometimes a polite titter, after all, you’ve given the instruction to expect merriment.

How can you use standard gags in writing? You can certainly use them to set up a character. Is one of your protagonists a habitual joker? Are the gags good or bad? Well-timed or inappropriate? Are they the only form of communication this person understands? A paramedic who uses a string of terrible puns to take your mind off your pain is different to the boyfriend who does nothing but joke when the conversation gets serious. The uncle who amuses kids with silly jokes in a crisis isn’t the same as the one whose humour is always just slightly off-colour. Loads of fodder to show-not-tell here, and if you are short of gags to use, Rich Meyer and Carol Wyer are both full of’em.

Then there’s writing about funny things.

Does your protagonist keep getting into ludicrous scrapes à la Bridget Jones? Do you want your readers to love her for the whimsical humanity or despise her for crass stupidity? Let me tell you tell you about the time my friend Rachael tried to put a new roof on her garden shed. She laid the bitumen-coated roofing felt out on her lawn to cut it to size, but then couldn’t kneel on it because the sun heated it up too much. So she left it for a cooler day. That night it rained and she woke up about four in the morning in a panic. The shed had no roof on. She dashed out in her nighty, pausing only to put wellington boots on her feet and a huge straw sunhat on her head. She picked up the roofing and leapt onto the compost bin to chuck it manfully over the shed. She slipped and fell, toppling upside down into the bin…where she stayed for several minutes, stuck, helpless with laughter and wondering what anyone who had heard the noise and was looking out of their window would make of her predicament.

You’d like my friend Rachael. She’s resourceful and practical and laughs at herself easily; but then you knew all that. Did you smile, grin, nod, or just move on? You probably didn’t laugh out loud, the tale built too slowly and there was no surprise. There’s plenty of character development fodder in funny situations but you might not have your readers snorting back tears on the bus.

What about black humour?

You could well get your laugh. You may or may not have been funny but you’ve timed the light relief perfectly, your reader needs a break from the hell. I’m reminded of a stage direction in Ben’s play about death, which puts the audience through some heavy-duty angst here and there. It reads, they laugh, but it isn’t funny. Just like I do when aforementioned pal Rachael (we drove ambulances together in younger days) says, ‘Remember when we dropped that diabetic down the stairs?’ It wasn’t funny then either, but we laughed instead of crying and we still do. If you want to put your readers through the wringer, give them a well-timed spot of relieving amusement, they’ll love you for it and you might just get that out-loud giggle. Whether you deserve it or not.

Finally, there’s just being funny.

The most elusive of all, I wish there were a formula but there isn’t. Who makes me explode embarrassingly in public places? Terry Pratchett, Bill Bryson and, oddly enough, Anthony Trollope. Your list will be different but the traits are similar. I think the trick is that they’re not so much out for the laugh as genuinely amused themselves.

So, if you want to be funny, by all means learn the rules of comedy but tell me about something that really tickles you…and help me see it the way you do. Surprise, incongruity and the rule of three can help you do this but if you’re trying too hard to make me laugh it probably won’t work. Or maybe the secret is something else. I wish I knew.

Author: Carolyn Steele

Carolyn writes websites, copy and nonsense about emigrating. She also occasionally ambles off to do something daft in case it’s interesting enough to write about. Her latest book grew from the blog Trucking in English, and you can learn more at her blog and her Amazon author page.

14 thoughts on “Funny Ha Ha”

  1. Bill Bryson is my favorite. The only author who consistently wheedles actual out-loud laughs from me. His casual dry remarks fill even his most academic works, that are, I might add, masterful scholarly projects which are enhanced from being peppered with witty asides. So much easier than reading dry science. His works about the English language and Shakespeare are highly recommended by me. You will learn tons of amazing facts and I dare you not to snort your coffee in public. Consider yourself forewarned.

      1. If you want to know anything about science, try Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Everything’ and for more personal humor his autobiography ‘Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid’ All his travelogues are always good. His ‘Journeys into English’ and ‘The Mother Tongue’ are not only interesting, but helpful for writers.

        Bill Bryson is an American author who has lived in Britain long enough to garner almost every honor possible there. No doubt he will be a ‘sir’ very soon.

  2. Yup, everyone thinks they have a sense of humour. Teaching humour is like explaining a punchline; they can get it later, but they won’t laugh. Yes, I am spelling humour the Canadian/UK way and the auto-correct is giving me angry red marks… is that funny or mildly amusing? It does bring up the idea of differences in humour between cultures, even ones that are separated by a common language. ; )

  3. Thank you, Carolyn, and I’m sure the wasps appreciate being killed by a well-coiffed assassin. Anyway. I took a humor workshop once as part of a week-long writing conference. The instructor gave out charts about why certain things are funny. The funniest thing about the class? The instructor, and the deadpan look on her face when she watched me walk in the door and said, “Why are you here? You already know this. Go write something.” But I stuck around because she was amusing and I didn’t care for any other workshops being given during her time slot. Turns out some things are funnier than others. The three series, definitely. Certain words and sounds. Mainly I learned the “Rule of Ten.” Which means that for every ten jokes you brainstorm, nine of them won’t work.

  4. Marvelous post.
    I agree with Laurie that the bees appreciated the new hairdo.
    I love all sorts of humor, from Seth McFarlane, to Stella Gibbons. There is an unforced response to something that is intrinsically funny. My pet peeve is when the humor is contrived, or is incredibly derivative. My son is constantly sending me youtube videos of normal people who are funnier than Conan O’Brian. Why is that guy on TV? And, don’t try and pander to what you think I will find funny. I laugh at a lot of weird stuff.
    🙂

  5. “Laugh?!… I thought I’d never start!” One person’s funny is another person’s… ‘Yawn,’ well… not so funny. My wife, Zoë, used to play opposite the likes of Terry Thomas, Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards on live stage, doing what was aptly called ‘farces’. Timing, Zoë says, is everything. Not what’s done, not what’s said, but the timing of what’s said or done. You can take as many ‘Learn how to be funny classes’ as you like; however if you don’t have that natural, comedic timing, somewhere inside, you’ll never be funny.

    Great post, Carolyn.

  6. I love English humour that creeps up on you from behind. Not averse to a bit of slap stick either, but I can’t tell a joke to save my life. The only time I’m funny is when I have an attack of foot-in-mouth. Sadly that still happens more often than I’d like. 🙁

  7. As you know I love humour. I was brought up to appreciate it and enjoy reading humorous books. Ben Elton is one of my favourite authors.
    This is a great post and yes, I’d like your friend Rachael. She sounds huge fun.
    I think some people are more able to write humour than others and I would merely add that if you try too hard to be humorous, you will fail. (I also agree with TD on this subject) It is about putting in the right amount at the right time and Carolyn, Laurie and Yvonne, I think you have the knack.

  8. Apologies for the general reply to everyone, the wasps are keeping me busy. But more of them next month. Thanks for all the comments. Like many Brits of a certain age, I grew up with the Goons, and later Monty Python. These days I laugh until I cry when I watch Bill Bailey, but we’re all so different. Oddly enough I don’t enjoy Ben Eton’s books as much as his stand-up and scripts, genius though he is. I wish I could work out what the difference is.

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