Writing funny

Okay, I give up. I can’t do it. I can’t write funny. Those of you who can do it, I can hear you out there going: BWAAAAA-HAAAAAH! Because you know how hard it is. Sometimes you don’t get as much respect because you write humor or lighter stuff. Book critics and award judges have a pie-chart they use to decide what to pay attention to and it divides up roughly like this:
Hardboiled depressing stuff 25%
Burned-out ethnically diverse PIs 20%
Cute guy writers from UK 15%
Cozies 15%
Small press neo-noir with cleavage on cover 10%
Chick lit crime 10%
Humorous crime 5%
Now consider that Carl Hiaasen alone takes up about 8% of humor and you can see that those who write funny stuff get the crumbs. That’s because any idiot can tell a joke. But very few can tell one for 250 pages.
A couple years ago, Kelly and I were between Louis books and we were sitting in a cafe on Fort Lauderdale beach. We were watching the flesh parade, sipping our wine, and trying to figure out what the next book was going to be about. Nothing was coming. I looked out over the ocean and saw one of those cruises-to-nowhere heading out of Port Everglades. These are mini-ships that go out to sea just far enough to get legal, they hand you an umbrella drink, then they break out the blackjack tables. You get drunk, lose a lot of money and then they turn the boat around and you come home. Tourists love this.
You can guess where I am going with this. My sister worked in the gaming industry all her professional life. We were on our third glass of wine. And suddenly, we were going to write a mystery series set in the gambling world. And it was going to be FUNNY!
(Hint. no. 1: Don’t drink while plotting.)
The next morning, I woke up with a hangover and the book still in my head. Worse, the main character had started talking to me. When that happens, as you know, you tend to listen. Especially if they are loud. 
(Hint no. 2: Don’t listen to every voice in your head. Sometimes you’re just picking up random stuff, like that gospel station from Watonga, Oklahoma that comes in clear as a bell when you drive west on I-40.)
The problem was, this woman was very insistent. She was fresh, she was funny. She was going to make me rich. 
I sat down at the computer and started typing. Soon Kelly was contributing to what we came to call “The Vegas Book.” Four months later, we had a 95,000-word novel! All excited, we sent it our agent. She was sort of cool but promised to send it to our publisher. They turned it down. So did ten other publishers. 
What the hell was the matter with these editors? We had won awards! We had made the Times extended list! Didn’t they get it? This was great stuff. This was FUNNY!
(Hint no. 3: Just because you once played air guitar to “I Feel Fine” doesn’t mean you can step in for The Edge.)
The Vegas Book went into cold storage. We went back to writing our gritty Louis books. Then about a year ago while I was cleaning the office, I found the Vegas Book on an old external drive. Yeah, I opened it. You know what they say about letting your manuscript “bake” a while before you go back in and read it cold, how this will help you rewrite with a clear eye? The Vegas Book had turned into Limburger.
(Hint no. 4: Don’t serve Limburger at your Super Bowl party this weekend. It is fermented with brevibacterium linens, which is the same bacteria that makes our feet stink.)
It was as clear as, well, that gospel station. The Vegas Book wasn’t funny. Technically, it was a hot mess because in my effort to show I could do what I thought was easy, I had lost all control of the very things that had made our other books successful. Worse, it just didn’t feel true. The Vegas Book was as fake as Vegas.
I still want to try this again some day. I have this new idea and darn it, the characters — there are four women this time, God help me — are really hilarious. But I am thinking that maybe writing humor is like a foreign language. Maybe I can hear it okay but I just can’t translate it. 
Sigh. I am not an unfunny person. I can even tell a joke. (Well, only one and it’s so filthy few have heard it). So why can’t I write funny? You funny types out there….tell me the secret. No joke.

36 thoughts on “Writing funny

  1. My problem is that I can funny enough in an article to get it published, but cannot find a way to put my off the wall humor into a full-length novel. I think the trick is to have that one character to live vicariously through. Let him be the funny guy. Then shoot him around chapter 8. By then the reader should be fully entranced by my devlish whit and charm. Pat McManus is my all-time favorite humor writer. He writes the back page for Outdoor Life. He wrote a mystery and I couldn’t wait to read it. Guess what? Absolute bomb. It just didn’t work in a novel. If Pat can’t do it, no way am I going to try.

    • Ron, your story about McManus reminds me of a TV critic I used to work for. Around the watercooler the guy was so funny he had an audience. But some switch went off when he wrote. He was dull. About television no less!

  2. I’m trying to think of any humor novel I might’ve selected to read and I honestly can’t think of a single one. I agree it’s extremely difficult to write, but thinking over my reading preferences, I wouldn’t want to read a humor novel anyway.

    Not that I mean I just want gloom and doom, but capturing normal brief humorous moments in any character’s life is plenty.

    Humor, more than anything else, is difficult to write and identify with the reader. For example, the tendency in humor these days is to be filthy or foul. While that will resonate with some readers, it will totally repulse others.

    Maybe there are plenty of people who have done it successfully, but I would feel like I’d lost the battle already if I set out to “try” and write humorously on purpose.

  3. Writing funny is a gift. I think it’s best in spurts rather than thinking of it over a full 250 pgs and it has a lot to do with a great premise. It’s like watching the trailer to a funny movie where all the funny parts are in that 60 seconds. Just make more funny moments. (That sounds like the writing advice Elmore Leonard gives about “don’t write the stuff that people skim.”)

    But about that premise. I’m reading the book WARM BODIES since the movie releases Feb 1. It’s a weird Zombie book but ck out the youtube trailer on the actual first 4 minutes of the movie. The dialog lines by themselves aren’t funny without knowing they come from a Zombie guy shuffling through an abandoned airport. “I should stand up taller. People would respect me more.” The Zombie guy eats the brain of a girl’s boyfriend and falls in love with her. Yeah, Meg Ryan meets Stephen King.

    I have a romantic comedy manuscript that will never see the light of day. But since I love well-placed humor, even in a thriller, I HAVE TO do it. It feeds the part of me that thinks I’m funny and it makes characters more relatable & memorable.

    • Jordan, I have had many discussions on this topic with my friend Elaine Viets. I love her books because the humor is just right. Not cartoony. She has ideas for darker novels but says she just can’t do it, that it feels false when she tries. Works both ways…

  4. I think the genre has something to do with it, Kris. Crime is not normally funny, and the mix seems to escape most readers. OTOH, the exquisite zombie legal thrillers of K. Bennett are genre benders to begin with (the author is very humble about how great they are).

    Being able to go over the top with style, without losing the comic touch, takes a real gift. I don’t know if anyone has ever matched Douglas Adams in that regard.

    All the other essentials of fiction have to be working, too. Which is why I’ve never been able to get past page 50 of A Confederacy of Dunces.

    If someone is serious about comedy (yes, I mean that), one ought to invest a buck and read the notes from the legendary comedy writing class taught by Danny Simon

  5. I found this post funny. I’m not rolling around the kitchen floor but I am smiling. Isn’t that enough?
    Love Carl Hiaasen, but I also love Dean Koontz and his Odd series. There is suspense and fear and blood; and I smile through the whole thing, because Odd Thomas has to go down in history as one of the most lovable characters of all time.
    It’s all about the characters, for me.

  6. Actually, I have a problem with Hint #1

    (Hint. no. 1: Don’t drink while plotting)

    I’ve come up with some of my best plots while drinking. Granted things tend to much funnier under the influence.

    However readers should be required to drink while reading those stories.

  7. I write humorous cozies, and this presents a problem in terms of reader expectations. I wrote a new mystery proposal and a beta reader wasn’t impressed. “It’s missing the humor,” she said.

    Evidently, my mystery “voice” has wry humor and this is what my readers want. It’s situational humor, not slapstick funny. It’s also evident in the main character’s outlook on life. So if I decide to rewrite that rejected proposal, I need to infuse my trademark sense of humor into the story (and I’m a serious person in real life, so where does this persona originate?). I have to remember to write what I like to read, and those are stories that make me chuckle as I turn the page. You can’t force it; it’s either in your voice or it’s not.

  8. Writing a comedy is hard. Writing supense/thrillers is hard. Weaving comedy into a gripping suspense/thriller requires genius. Carl Hiassen is hilarious and I am a big fan, but his stories, imo, are not compelling or tension-laden.

    Nelson DeMille, with his smart-assed but engaging, John Corey, writes edge-of-your-seat thrillers that leave one laughing every other page(e.g. “The Panther”). Amazing!

    • “Weaving” is a good word. Our protag Louis has been accused by readers (nicely) of being humorless. Yes, he is laconic. But part of his character arc over 12 books has been a sort of emotional loosening up. The new book has a scene that’s genuinely funny (sez my editor) but I don’t think it would have worked 4 books ago.

  9. Comedy requires a certain “voice” and not everybody is Douglas Adams. I’ve read plenty of books with funny moments and wisecracking heroes that weren’t otherwise comedy. They had very serious moments, too.

    I think there’s the narrative comedy, like Douglas Adams, then there’s the situational comedy, like P.G. Wodehouse. Or like that one book, I forget the title, about the fat lady who went to her family’s will reading with a hired companion so they’d think she was married, and she winds up having to lose weight in order to inherit, and falls for her male companion. It was hilarious, but in an absurd sort of way.

    • I am trying now to think of a novel that made me laugh out loud. Nothing is coming! But recently on a flight to Newark I was giggling so much reading a David Sedaris essay the flight attendant asked who I was reading. (Kindle…no cover!) He cracks me up.

  10. I can’t do funny either though I often laugh at my own first drafts:) I think comedic skill is a truly rare talent and when I think of the writers who make me laugh – like Jasper Fforde- there’s an element of abandon that is hard to achieve without, as you say, losing a hold on the key elements needed in making a story authentic, compelling as well as funny. I’ll try sarcasm occasionally in dialogue but that’s as far as I’ll dip my toe in the dangerous comedic waters.

  11. I do love to write comedy and hope for the day when I can put together a Douglas Adamsesque story to befuddle the masses into giggly fits. But alas that day is not yet upon me. While I think I’ve got what it takes to hit the funny bits individually, I’ve found it is a lot harder to keep a plot string flowing in a comic novel. One of these days it will happen, but not yet.

    In the mean time I have settled myself to one character within my thrillers who is the comic wit. He is also the ultra violent type. Kharzai Ghiassi is a CIA Deep Cover operative with a Jerry Lewis/Danny Kaye personality. He is also a natural born killer. He started out as a comic relief background character in my first book who grew into a major minor character. When I left him out of my second novel readers asked why, so I felt compelled to put him back for the next few.

    Could I write him as the singular/primary protagonist in a novel? No, I don’t think so. Because then I’d have to get more introspective on him and there are few things in the world darker or scarier or depressinger than the inside of a class clown’s soul…especially one who kills people for a living.

  12. Interesting point, Basil, about secondary characters. They can get away with so much more than the protag can. We often lavish our best characterization efforts on them. We’ve written books within a spear-carrier becomes a spotlight hog and our editor warned us to be careful. And you’re right that readers can get very attached to these folks.

  13. Well, I think you’re funny. Seriously. The best one I heard was, “In Germany, comedy’s no laughing matter.”

    Now Westlake was funny – killer funny.

  14. I can write funny. I can talk funny. Really, people laugh all the time when I talk. But… I’m just that way. If I make any effort to be humorous in speech or writing it just falls flat. I have to be careful coming up with personas in technical writing. They’re nearly always funny, and they’re not supposed to be. I don’t try to make them funny. It just happens. I had to do a brief bio on myself for a TW project last year. I was told it was the funniest out of the group. While I was aware that it was funny (after the fact), I didn’t try to make it so. It just happened. Had I tried to make it funny it wouldn’t have been. I think Monty Python infected my worldview at an impressionable age. My guess is that Carl Hiassen doesn’t try to be funny; he just is.

    Writing a single funny scene is one thing. Sustaining it for 300 pages is another.

    The one author that consistently makes me laugh out loud is Terry Pratchett.

    • What’s weird is that Carl is a normal quiet guy in real life. Now Dave Barry is exactly as he writes. Wacko. He was on Morning Joe today…he’s just like his books, I swear. Terry Pratchett…good stuff!

    • There’s no “funny” in technical writing. I’m reporting you to that humorless T/W organization in DC!

      Sorry, it’s been so long now, I’ve purged the name from my memory. Boy! Those were the days, and I’m glad they’re long gone.

      I confess. I did that for 20-some years ๐Ÿ™

  15. Funny is found in the expression on the face and your body language. It is also found in the pause you hear between words. The trouble with writing is you cannot see the expression or the body language of the storyteller, you must read it. You cannot hear the pause, you must comprehend it within the text you are reading. That’s why it’s so darn hard.

    Stephen King is funny in his book On Writing. Loved it!

    • Never thought of it that way, that humor is primarily a physical thing. Does this mean audio books work better than printed humor books? (I don’t listen to audio so have no frame of reference.)

  16. One of my most beloved back-pats is my honorable mention in the 2012 Erma Bombeck writing competition. My essay on my love affair with my George Foreman quesadilla maker held its own in a field of about 400. For two years I was part of a slice-of-life blog that just hurt me with funneh.

    The most brutally funny and sardonic book I have ever read is “Kinflicks” by Lisa Alther. It never lets up for a second. The first line sets the stage:

    “My family has always been into death. My father, the Major, used to insist on having an ice pick next to his placement at meals so that he could perform an emergency tracheotomy when one of us strangled on a piece of meat.”

    I bow to that imagery.

    My WIP has an air of snark. My MC, who in a moment of self-deprecation describes herself as a snotty self-centered silk-stocking Dallas lawyer, inherits a teeny little Chihuahua and a ratty old motorhome from her uncle. As she is entranced with the adorable little dog, he promptly pees on her. Ya know, that sort of thing. We’ll see if I can maintain that air, even though the story takes a very dark turn.

    I typically don’t care for books that tell me they are funny. That is my call, not the writer’s. Kinflicks is not a happy book, but the voice is astonishing. It is my “Damn, I wish I had written that book” for dark comedy.


    • Was just reading a Kindle sample that included a description of Ivan Boskey. Remember him? That was back when a scam was really a scam. Anyway, Boskey had this little dog he loved and took everywhere. Then the dog took a dump on the rug in Boskey’s office. The next day the dog vanished never to be mentioned again.

      I thought it was funny. Like the yapping dog in the elevator, the guy blasted. Don’t remember the movie, but I nearly died laughing.

      And what about all the jokes in The Sopranos? And Goodfellas? Am I missing something or just reading into it?

    • I always thought Sopranos was wicked funny, but definitely on the twisted side.

      I am working on a scene involving a sawed-off shotgun and the phrase “Simon says . . .”

      First, I have Chihuahuas. Second, my MC spends a fair amount of the first act alone, so the dog becomes a secondary character. And her awkwardness with the dog adds some comic relief and character development as she falls in love with the little scrap of fur.

      A while back I did a short serial on a website that featured a small dog and got an email that said, “don’t even think about hurting the dog.”

  17. Funniest scene I’ve read in a while was in Metro Girl by Janet Evanovich. Alex and Nascar Guy try to have sex in a Mini Cooper parked in an alley next to a dumpster. Funny situation, funny descriptions, and great dialogue.

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