Friday, July 8, 2011

Oy to the Vey: How to Write Funny

Today I’ve been tasked with talking about “how to write funny.”

Uh oh.

Or, as my people like to say, “Oy to the Vey.”

I think people have a fear of writing comedy, and rightly so! It makes you vulnerable and exposes you, in the same way that writing any heartfelt emotion does. You fear that people will laugh at you, not with you. Or that people won't “get it” (read: get you.) Or worse yet, they’ll take it seriously and take offense!

Comedy is not tragedy a la “my husband cheated on me, I walked in on him and his mistresses whipping each other with wire hangers, no more wire hangers!” so people fear that comedy isn't as “deep.” But just because it's humor doesn't mean that it's not poignant, deep, or emotional.

Indeed, comedy is the mirror we hold up to our life. Sometimes that mirror is jagged, our reflection distorted and beneath the humor we can sense myriad emotions that make up our human experience. To write comedy we must first make observations about everyday life, the miraculous and the mundane, and tell the truth about it. Truth might be uncomfortable, but truth is the essence of comedy.

Start there, tell the truth, share an experience that is universal. Hold up the mirror and reflect something that your audience will recognize and relate to. Be believable (and be bold).

Comedy is also giving yourself the freedom to use your imagination. Think about the truth freely and try inserting a ridiculous premise into a situation. Ask yourself "what if" and be as outrageous, outlandish, ridiculous or bizarre as you dare. (A fantastically clever example of this can be seen in Jenny Lawson, The Bloggess.

Comedy is...

- The ability to poke fun at yourself (and others)
- Unexpected pairings
- The absurd and the ridiculous
- Sarcasm
- Extremes
- Absolutes
- Numbers...instead of saying "I have a million things to do", try "there are 4,721 items on my to do list." (Made up numbers like “eleventeen” are even funnier.) And finally, when giving examples of something, three is the key number for funny.

Did I say three? Oops.

Now that we've covered the what of comedy, let's talk about the how. The big challenge (for me at least) is that in writing humor, you don't always have the benefit of delivery and so much of humor is in the delivery.

Some ideas to help with delivery are to write the way you actually talk, (maybe tone down the potty mouth, though). Use your own vernacular, unique voice, accent, what have you. You can break grammar rules to be funny and your style can be relaxed and conversational.

Also as a rule, simplicity and economy are key. Use simple sentences and words so that your idea is easy to understand, the fewer words the better.

Speaking of rules, when you keep breaking the same rules in comedy that's called “your style.” Isn't that great?

Ann Imig, whose comedic style I greatly admire was kind enough to share her insights with me, while on her vacation no less:

- Belong to a historically oppressed people. Jews are funny to distract people from trying to kill us.
- Three times is funny. Odd numbers are funnier than even.
- Juxtaposition is funny as long as you don't call it that.
- Your family is funny
- Details are funny.
- Kids are funny because they are direct and honest. Direct and honest is funny.
- Too many adjectives and adverbs kill funny.
- Short, quick and rhythmic is funny.

And last but not least, I leave you with this, believe in yourself and ask ‘does this make ME laugh?' Then it will undoubtedly make us laugh, too. (Or maybe it won’t, and there is nothing as depressing as silence where instead a wild chorus of laughter, and hoots and hollers should be. And then you’ll look down and realize you’re not wearing any pants, well at least that’s funny... wait a minute you always wear pants on Tuesdays, this can’t be that your English teacher in the third row? You know the one who said you’re more Gregor Samsa than Franz Kafka? But your English teacher “retired” to Boca after that “incident”...WAKE UP!!!)

Special thanks to all of the funny ladies who contributed to and inspired me to write this:
Ann, Jessica, Lori, Marinka,, Poppy, and Sherri.

Today's guest post is from Yuliya, who you can find at She Suggests and also on Twitter.

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