Saturday, May 4, 2013

Comedy -- Writing Funny

Historically the jester was the only one in the court who could make fun of the king. He was able to do this by hiding it within the jest. By making it funny and couching it in just the right phrase it becomes fairly painless. That doesn't mean that the jester never missed the mark and got sent to the dungeon, but for the most part he got away with murder.

These days comedians like Jay Leno, David Letterman, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart point out the idiocies and absurdities of the moneyed and powerful elite. These guys are at the top of their game because they are so capable of hitting their target accurately. They strip bare the absurdities and juxtapositions down to the bare truth that we really knew was there all along. We laugh because we are surprised that they will say it. We laugh because we understand. We laugh because they are right.

They are funny instead of venomous because they back it up with love. Love? Yes. They aren't spewing angrily about any of these issues. They love the very absurdity they witness all around them. On some level they love the people that perpetrate the absurdities. It is about teasing with the truth.

 The first time I wrote something funny I was not at all aware that I was being funny. I was writing my annual Christmas letter and was relating the story of how I had been charged by a buck while raking leaves that fall. I found out that I had been funny when my cousin later told me that she had nearly died laughing over my tale.

So how do you make your writing funny? I had to go back and look at the story I had told.

First of all you need to go beneath the surface. It isn't enough to say I was terrified. I had to explain how terrified I was in pretty specific terms -- and very human terms. I need to be showing you the part of me that you can identify with. So when I realize that this enormous buck is running across the street and lowering his head at me there were all sorts of things running through my head in the space of a few seconds. I was measuring the distance from me to the front door. Nope. I would be a bunch of little Laurie kabobs on his antlers before I could reach shelter. Could I defend myself? The wooden rake in my hand seemed so tiny compared to him and those antlers that I may as well trying to defend myself with a toothpick.

Second, it is HOW you say things. I didn't just say that I imagined being gored by the antlers. I added to the imagery with an off-beat comment about Laurie kabobs. It made light of a serious situation without dismissing how serious it was. Another part of the story was that he had been tracking a doe that had come running through the neighborhood just seconds before he had shown up. She had dashed between two homes before he came along so she was nowhere in sight. All he saw was me instead and I was not his type and that really ticked him off. Describing the eight point buck as a horny beast allowed me to employ a double entendre.

I was also able to be a bit self-effacing by adding that this was the sort of reaction I got from males -- now apparently of any species.

Third part is how you write. Short, zippy sentences keep the story moving quickly. Take little time describing the scene. How you tell the story should take care of that. I was raking leaves in my yard. That should conjure most of the setting -- grass, autumn, dry leaves crunching, a cool day. It is hard to be funny when you get too verbose. On the other hand, if I had been writing this into a romance I would have gone into the details to set a mood whereupon Ryan Reynolds (or George Clooney for my age group) could sweep in and rescue me from certain impalement. In my version, if either man had shown up, he would have caught his designer sweater in the branches of the wild plum tree and I would accidentally stab him in the eye with the rake.

Ultimately Bucky caught the scent of his lady love again and the valiant ungulate swain took off on her trail again. My knees gave way and I sat down where I was and tried to get my lungs working again. Now that I was safe again I was able to wish them well on their honeymoon.

My second comedy outing was trying to write a funny poem for a contest. I was wracking my brain for what was funny. The answer came to me in the bathroom (a.k.a., the thinking room) when I looked at myself in the mirror. Ah, yes, the bad hair day. So off I went describing how difficult my hair could be, including the fact that it seems to be deserting me. I was stumped for an ending though. I finally remembered a former coworker who used to threaten to shave her head every time she got stressed. Aha! My ending appeared out of the mists of time. I ended up winning third place for my first foray into humorous poetry:

Bad Hair Day (Attitude to Match)
(c) 1996 by Laurie Kay Olson

I have that hair, you know the kind,
It won't settle down and make up its mind.
It flies, it lumps, it bumps, it swirls,
It won't like flat, and it won't go in curls.
I'm getting to work late again this week,
But I hate to go out with hair that's not sleek.
I brush it, I spray it, I comb it and then -
Just one little sneeze and it's hopeless again.
I know that I'm lucky to have hair at all,
I don't have to shop for it down at the mall.
Be that as it may, I just want to yell!
Sometimes I think I'm in follicle hell!
I'm getting so mad, I'm in a huge snit -
I'll just shave my head and be done with it!

 This success led me to apply to write a humor column for the Colorado Daily Newspaper. For samples of my column, click here. The column on sports even garnered me my first piece of fan mail.

I find writing humor and comedy extremely rewarding. I love making people laugh. I love laughing at myself.

Humor is the best medicine and the doctor is IN(sane).

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