I decided a couple days ago to write a post about humor, especially workshopping it. I decided that to figure that question out, I’d watch some Firefly, because it’s one of the funniest TV shows I’ve encountered without ever detracting from the plot. Funny thing I realized, though, after watching about seven episodes: it’s much easier to keep watching than to write a post about how it works.
I said a couple weeks ago that humor can be learned, and practiced. I wouldn’t have said that if I hadn’t believed it to be true. Humor is a tool like anything else, and to learn humor requires the same process as anything else: experience. I can’t tell you how to make a joke, nor can I dissect humor and tell you what makes it tick. All I can do is tell you how to make your humor better— how to practice it.
The first thing to realize, I think, is what jokes communicate. Jokes are, primarily, funny— there’s no getting around that— but they also occur at the expense of someone or something. It’s your job as a writer to figure out what that is. If a joke is in the wrong place, it means it’s happening at the expense of something you don’t want belittled. If it’s in the right place, the humor occurs at no one’s expense, or purposefully detracts from a certain character’s standing, or lends to the mood in that way. Howard Tayler, cartoonist, has to keep a drama running as he makes a joke every day. He’s said several times that he can’t make a joke about things that are happening— that would be at the expense of the plot, which would destroy suspension of disbelief. Since he needs that, he can’t destroy it with a joke.
But in the right place, humor can be just the thing. So my first advice to you is this: make all the jokes you can, as you’re writing. After you’ve written them, look at them and figure out, individually, if each joke detracts or lends to what you’re trying to do. If it makes a character seem petty who ought to seem heroic, delete it. If it makes a dire scene seem more dire, it’s perfect. Let it be.
Another thing to realize is this: what I mean by “joke” in this post doesn’t actually mean joke. A standard joke has a setup and a punchline. In a normal joke you might tell, you need to take a little time to set things up and then deliver the punchline— the audience might know that you’re about to crack a joke, but they’ll go along with it because they want to laugh. That won’t work for you in a drama. You can’t have the setup and the punchline all wrapped up in a bow. Your joke has to spring, seemingly organically, from the story.
How do you do that? Second piece of advice answers that question: make your humor arise from the characters. Instead of setting up a punchline, try and make things funny that a character would say normally. A perfect example of this is Firefly, mentioned above. Joss Whedon’s characters almost never set up jokes blatantly. Instead, they say something that makes perfect sense from their perspective, but is hilarious in the perspective of someone else. For that exact reason, I can’t give a good example, because it takes knowledge of the characters to understand them. Nevertheless, character.
That said, here’s another thing to realize: anything can become funnier. (This strays into the concept of “the right word” for a sentence.) Think about Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Knights Who Say Ni:
First of all, think about the general theme of the joke. King Arthur and his men are stopped by a knight who claims a toll. By itself, that’s not that funny. But add the fact that the knight is overly tall, calls himself one of the Knights Who Say Ni, and demands a shrubbery, it becomes a whole lot funnier. Also, consider if the knight had claimed he wanted a bush. Is that as funny as a shrubbery? No, it isn’t. The weird sound of “a shrubbery” makes it funny, as well as the humorous sound of the word. Bush just doesn’t cut it.
Third piece of advice: choose the correct word. Many of the jokes in Firefly wouldn’t be the same had the characters simply changed one word, but as it is, it works. If you’re trying for a joke and it’s not working, but you know the spot is the right one, change some words around. Find the silliest synonym for a word and put that in instead. It might just do the trick.
This post wasn’t quite as profound as I wanted it to be, but I hope it made some sort of sense to you. Make sure your jokes are in the right place (that usually means they should mean something bad for the main character, even if the main character is making the joke). Try and get the humor to come out of the character rather than from a canned setup and punchline. Lastly, if you want a joke but it’s just not working, change some words around. Things can be made funnier by mere syllables. I hope all this has made sense to you, and I hope it works for you. I’ll try and think about this some more as I attempt to raise the humor level in Gifts of Rith— until then, discuss among yourselves. Anything I missed?