Serious Humor

Yesterday, a good follower posted on her own blog about humor during serious scenes.  She claims that such humor is insensitive and annoying.  She’s a great blogger, but I have to disagree.  Since the topic is something I’ve thought about at length, I’ll clear my head about it here.

Twice during this last episode of the Phil Phorce, I was told that scenes were flagging in entertainment because I hadn’t included my usual humor.  This was for a very good reason: I felt the humor would dispel the mood I wanted to create.  The scenes were too serious.  Since I wanted them that way, it made sense to include less humor than usual, to keep the story from becoming a comedy.  Unfortunately, that took away from the feel of the story as a whole and made these scenes much less interesting.  Even looking back to find those scenes, I could immediately pick them out as incongruous.

Does that mean that I should crack jokes right and left during death scenes, then?  No, or else the death would feel silly and useless.  The emotional impact I was looking for won’t be there because no one seems to care.

In the movie Stranger Than Fiction, the jokes and tears flow in equal amounts.  It’s hilarious and sad at the same time.  In one scene, the main character has just found out that he’s a main character and is scheduled to die in the very near future.  As soon as the author types it, he’s done.  He’s in tears, telling the one person he thinks can help.  He says, “I may already be dead– just not typed.”  This can be taken in both directions.  I tend to see it as a joke, but other people, more emotionally involved in the movie, see it as despair.

In another excellent movie, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, the main character has just found out that her beloved employer has decided it’s his time to die.  She asks, “Are you dying?”  Her employer says, “Lightbulbs die, my sweet.  I will depart.”  This quote comes just seconds after the employer says, “We had an appetizer spread prepared, but Mortimer ate the pancakes.”  Mortimer, in this case, is a zebra.

Both movies were written by the same writer, who obviously knows how to craft an emotional story without sacrificing humor.  If that is so, there must be a right way to do this.  The latter movie, in fact, is so silly I can’t believe it can be serious at any point– and yet, it’s emotional too.

Perhaps you could keep from poking fun at things in the story.  That’s well and good.  You never want to poke fun at plot points.  If you have a giant bunny chasing the main character, the last thing you want is to have a side character exclaim, “Ack!  It’s the giant bunny of the apocalypse!”  But… if you have already established the bunny’s evil nature (see the recent post on suspense), you can poke fun as much as you want; no matter how many jokes they make, it’s still evil.

In the Doctor Who universe, there are aliens called Daleks.  Daleks look like giant salt shakers.  This led a well-established Whovian to remark, “They’re giant salt shakers of DOOM!”  It’s hilarious, but it doesn’t make the Daleks look ridiculous because they’ve already been established as killers.

In short, it doesn’t matter what’s chasing you; if it can kill you, it’s probably bad.

One thing that will break up any scene, whether silly or serious, is a contrived joke.  A joke you had to search for will almost always flop.  Charley R. and I have had this conversation before; the idea that books for young people must be funny is a wrong one.  It’s nice when there is humor, but it should never be forced.  Similar is the idea that characters should laugh.  Characters should never laugh.  If they laugh, they’re probably happy, and that means your story is horrible.  Kidding.  But if they’re laughing, the audience feels required to laugh too, and that’s never nice for them.  Your characters can make jokes, but the audience should be the only one to laugh.

In Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, there are only three jokes that any character ever tells.  The characters to whom they are told doesn’t laugh.  They might smile briefly and ask about something serious.  The plot moves on.  However, the characters say funny things all over the place.  The audience laughs, but the characters don’t.

To take this even further, the characters shouldn’t even laugh at the funny surroundings.  In the same movie, every corner of every scene is filled with hilarious props.  The still-steaming dishwasher is filled with neckties and board games.  During the aforementioned scene containing lightbulbs, the employer’s name tag says he is “Not Steve.”  There is a zebra in the apartment.  If you were to translate the movie into a book, these would become jokes in the narrative.  Thus, jokes both in narrative and conversation are okay, but the characters shouldn’t laugh at them.

If that is so, humor during serious scenes is okay because the characters never notice.  The audience might notice, but if they’re sufficiently involved in the characters, they won’t care how many jokes you crack.  The humor shows the reason the characters care that this person is dying– this is the sort of thing we’ll miss when he leaves.

What do you think?  Are there rules for humor during serious scenes?

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36 thoughts on “Serious Humor

  1. I think there shouldn’t be any rules in serious scenes, as long as they’re done well. Like in one scene in The Fault in our Stars by John Green, (Warning: the next part might be considered a spoiler, but I made it as vague as possible) a certain character dying of cancer hosts his own “pre-funeral” that his friends go to. I was laughing out loud and crying at the same time (I kid about the crying part. I’m too cool to cry, but you get the point.)

    And I haven’t seen Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, but I will just for the “Not Steve” joke. That made me laugh way more than it should.

    1. It’s funnier when the narrator says at the beginning, “…and one guy in Detroit inexplicably called him Steve.” But yes, you should watch it. Some of the acting is bad, some of the scene changes are abrupt, but the writing is amazing.

  2. Humour during serious scenes is . . . hard. Not in the least because, sometimes, the tone of the book is so infused with humour that removing it altogether can be painfully jarring. That said, there are certain types of humour that work well – especially if one or more of the characters is a funny type. Take Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet”; he dies joking, but it doesn’t take away from the scene because it’s in his nature to do that, and if anything it heightens the pathos because it reminds us why we love him as a character, just before he’s taken from us.

    So yeah, I think it’s a delicate balancing act. A serious scene that takes itself TOO seriously can be worthy of ridicule in its own right, remember!

  3. Head Phil, are you dying?
    I love Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. How do you feel about turnips?

    All joking aside, rules for humor in serious scenes– I think I agree with your judgement that humor should be used sparingly in such scenes, but if the rest of the story was humorous, maybe there needs to be some subtle humor. Maybe. You need to not over do it. Things like The ping pong ball yelled a war cry in the language of toasters. “DING!” . I really liked that. And that was subtle.

      1. Then you probably wouldn’t like turnip pudding.

        Yeah… plotting death and avoiding it… hello, morbid. I noticed it was rated PG-13. Do you know why?
        (I love movies about writers and/or books, if Stranger Than Fiction is good, I want to see it… unless it’s like a sad dog movie– they spend the whole movie endearing us to a pet and then the dog dies.)

      2. Yes, I do know. I’ve watched the movie. And no, it ends well, and the author is so cool. Sure, she’s obsessed with suicide and death, but it’s such an interesting portrayal.

      3. Thanks, magicviolinist! I did look at that.

        Head Phil, you were supposed to say “Probably not” so I could say “That’s a shame, because I made some. Fetch, Mortimer! Stupid zebra.”

  4. I love the quote from “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” about lightbulbs. (How do you use italics in WordPress)?

    Characters aren’t supposed to laugh?!?! :O Thanks for that bit of advice. *Hastily searches “laugh” in story, gasps, then deletes them all.*

    1. There is a button with an italicized I on my compose-posts page. But if you need the HTML, that’s “em” between the less-than and greater-than signs (commonly on the comma and period keys, respectively). Then, to turn that off, you put /em into the same triangle parentheses. I hope that helped.

  5. I’ve already broken this rule. I have a character who’s very optimistic and cheerful and tends to laugh a lot. Not really at jokes in particular, especially since he’s usually the only one to make them and you don’t laugh at your own jokes (unless you’re me, of course). He just laughs a lot.

    1. Eh. Sitcoms are okay… but since they have laugh tracks, you feel obligated to laugh as well. Have you ever watched a sitcom without the laugh track? There is nothing there. None of the jokes are funny anymore. But if you watch a funny movie, which doesn’t have a laugh track, you’ll be laughing just as much. Sitcoms cheat to make you laugh.

  6. I have a question. Suppose character A cracks a joke. A really, really funny joke. Wouldn’t it be apt for character B to laugh, or risk the character interaction being a bit…weird? You have a point when you said that if a character laughs, it forces the reader to do the same. But if the character doesn’t when he/she ought to, the scene just appears sort of strange. Because it wouldn’t happen that way in real life.

    1. It depends on the scene. If it’s a somber scene, no one would laugh, even in real life. If character A is a villain, character B wouldn’t laugh. If it’s a scene where the characters just escaped a near-death encounter, character B might laugh. But usually, when the plot is going at the correct rate, no one laughs because they’re concentrating too heavily on the problems at hand. However. Partials, which I just reviewed, had several instances wherein a character was made to laugh. I guess it’s subjective– just keep researching, and I will too.

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