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YMMV: You Aren't Funny

🤐 Boy, What a Joker, What a Funny, Funny Guy...

There's a lot that goes into telling a joke. Picture yourself at a party, standing around the kitchen, shooting the breeze, and then people start trying to make each other laugh with jokes. It's your turn--all eyes are on you. So you start with the setup. You're hamming up the absurdity a little, and you're taking note of how your audience is responding. If they're enjoying it, you lean in and stretch things out. If their attention is flagging, you move ahead more quickly. You're gesturing, you're doing voices, and you're building up to the big finish. And then you get there. You pause for emphasis. While you deliver it, you raise your voice by a few decibels so every knows that this is the punchline. And the people laugh. They reward your effort, because, as noted above, there's a lot that went into telling that joke.

Now throw all of it away, because none of it works on paper...

You Aren't Funny

I'm going to step out on a limb and say that I'm speaking from a position of authority here. I have sold short stories at pro rates, and the bulk of my work is comedic. When talking about myself as a writer, I use the word "humorist." I routinely give presentations to groups of people and make them laugh, and I read a whole lot of work from new writers, and I can assure you that the humor almost never works. Hell, even "new" writers who've been doing this for a while struggle to land a joke. It's really hard to do well and consistently. Because the fact of the matter is that being funny in writing is a deceptively different beast from being funny face-to-face. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that the way we're conditioned to tell jokes face-to-face is setting us up for failure at being funny in prose.

What I'm getting at here is that it's not your fault you're not funny... but you're still not funny.

Part of the problem is that you don't have anyone around to tell you that you aren't funny. (So in way, I'm doing you a favor. You're welcome.) When you're telling jokes, it's usually not to strangers--it's to friends and family members. If a joke doesn't quite land for them, they're going to politely laugh anyway. I know someone who routinely cracks jokes where the punchline is something about a dead pet, and we've been politely laughing for over thirty years now. We really should have stopped decades ago--that's on us. Regardless, people who like you aren't going to take you aside so long as you're not actively embarrassing anyone. So the feedback you're getting about the quality of your jokes is not all that helpful.

(Interesting side note: human beings fake smiling a lot as a matter of basic interaction and we're not intuitively good at detecting when someone is faking. At the risk of delving into evolutionary psychology, one might say that there's a social benefit to pretending it's nice to see someone and also to being blindly accepting when they're pretending that it's nice to see you. This is just one of those lubrications that make the wheels of society turn more smoothly. Funny thing, though: it's not hard to tell the difference if you know what to look for. So if you ever want a better understanding about what people really think about your sense of humor, watch their eyes, not their mouths.)

Another part of the problem is the limited toolset. When you tell a joke in person, it's a performance. It's all about building up to the punchline, and then making absolutely sure that the audience knows when you get there so they'll know that it's their cue to laugh. This is not a dig, by the way, it's just etiquette. People are busy and distractible. When you put a big flag on your punchline to let the listeners know what they're supposed to be paying attention to, it gives them a moment to think back on what you just said and find the humor there. And as mentioned up above, you're using a lot of tools to make this joke land--responding to audience feedback, using voices, inflection, timing, gesture, etc. None of these are available to you when telling a joke on paper. You have zero control over how your joke is going to be received.

This leads to one what is arguably the biggest problems of trying to be funny in writing: when it fails, it fails hard. And it usually fails. To wit, in 2010, John Scalzi published a now infamous blog post called "The Failure Mode of Clever." In it, he talks about interacting with fans of his work online. These people are complete strangers to him, but they would reach out to him on social media or via email and say something that they think is clever. But since they don't know how to be funny on paper, they end up coming off as complete and utter assholes. And when confronted about it, they'd have no idea that their "joke" had misfired so badly as to make one of their favorite authors hate them.

Oh, and you know what doesn't help? Our cultural understanding of humor is, if I may put it delicately, god-f**king-awful. I think the millennials and zoomers have been slowly improving things on that front, but mon dieu, whole swaths of my generation are deeply, deeply unfunny--even in person--because they learned how to tell jokes from watching South Park. I'm not going to take away from what a cultural touchstone that show was, or claim that it was never actually funny, but it's entire modus operandi was to make fun of people so mercilessly that you couldn't believe what you were seeing, and at a certain point it just gets exhausting. I was a vegetarian when they did the episode about how not eating meat made your skin break out in vaginas, so I definitely took some shit for it. But I didn't get roasted nearly as bad as a coworker who was a ginger; people were calling him a "daywalker" for years. It's not just exhausting, it's occasionally quite petty. I remember the two-parter dedicated to how Family Guy wasn't funny because it does a lot of cutaway gags.

That's right, the "Oh my god, they killed Kenny" guys spent forty-four minutes berating another show for having gags that weren't tied to the plot. Let he who is without sin, etc.

So, that's a pretty healthy list of things that are working against you when you try to tell a joke on paper. Your sense of humor is not as refined as you think it is, and the tools you have for telling jokes do not transfer at all. The good news is that being funny in writing is a learnable skill. You just have to understand the purpose of humor in your prose and the way the mechanics differ when you don't have control over anything but the words on the page. So let's take a step back and ask ourselves what a joke is, what purpose it serves in your writing, and how to not suck at it.

First up, what is a "joke"? At its core, humor is tied to social bonding and the diffusion of tension. You hear a noise and are frightened, but then you realize it's just the cat. What's your reaction? You laugh. Talking about a weighty subject and don't want to depress the hell out of everyone? A little light humor can go a long way. Humor is great! It's my medium of choice for storytelling. When done well it can endear people to you or your characters, even if they (or you) are thoroughly unlikeable. And while there are lots of ways to make people laugh, this my preferred formula:

Humor = Surprise + Absurdity

This basic formula covers a lot of ground. The typical structure of a joke is that you're telling a story, leading the listener down one path only to pull the rug out from under them. The reveal--that is, the punchline--is when the listener discovers that the path they're on is not the path they thought they were on, and the path that they are currently on is, in fact, ridiculous. Here's a classic from Emo Phillips:

"I ran five miles today. Then, finally, I said 'Here, lady... take your purse.'"

You think you're hearing a story about a man who achieved a personal exercise goal, but instead you learn that it was a story about an inept purse snatcher. Surprise + absurdity. It works for one-liners, it works for hyperbole, it works for non-sequiturs, it works for story jokes that you tell standing around the kitchen at a party. I use a very basic formulation of this in conversation constantly. I act like I'm going to say something obvious and then say something that's completely wrong, either by ironically inverting it or exaggerating for comic effect. It almost always gets a laugh, and it works just as well in your writing.

But what does humor actually bring to your writing?

As I mentioned above, humor is about social bonding and the release of tension. You can use it to endear your audience to either you or your characters. And if they like you, (or your characters), they will be a lot more forgiving of other shortcomings. Got an unlikeable protagonist? Make them funny. Need to paper over a plot hole? Make it a set up to a joke. This is basically what "hanging a lantern" is in writing. You are acknowledging to your reader that some part of the story doesn't really make sense while also refusing to fix it, and if you can make the reader laugh at the same time, they will easily let it slide. Got a bunch of info to dump on the reader? Make it funny. A spoonful of sugar, etc. A good joke covereth a multitude of sins. You do need to be cognizant of how much humor you're using. Since it releases tension, you can wind up accidentally sucking all the narrative tension out of a story and then your audience doesn't care anymore. This was my reaction to Thor: Ragnarok. None of the characters on screen seemed to care that Aasgard was being destroyed, so why should I?

Humor also involves making an implicit promise to the reader about where the story is going. If your story starts out light and fun, the reader expects a happy ending, and this gives you a bit more leeway to do horrible things to your characters. Think about Home Alone and how far that movie was able to abuse its villains for comedy because you know right from the beginning that this is not the kind of movie where people die. Or, if you want an example of how this misfires, I will point you to the ending of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which is such a jarring tone-shift that nobody but Joss Whedon could actually have gotten away with it.

So far we've talked about the "what" and the "why," which means now it's time to dig into the "how." How can I be funny on paper without it blowing up in my face? And if you want to do this effectively, there is one golden maxim that you must follow. As I have brought up several times by now, the tools you use to tell a joke face-to-face do not translate to written text. But those tools are how you ensure that your joke works. So if you don't have access to them, how do you make sure your jokes work? And that answer is: you can't. You cannot make sure of anything about your humor on paper vis-à-vis your audience. So here's your golden maxim:

Most of your jokes are going to fail. So they need to fail harmlessly.

What does this mean? It means that your humor needs to be invisible. If a reader gets to a joke in your writing but they don't get it, they shouldn't even realize that it was a joke. One of my favorite examples comes from Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. In The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish there's a scene where a group of people are sneaking around in a closed-off wing of a mental institution. The description of that wing: "The dust was clean and crisp and even."

I laughed out loud at that joke. It's great. But if you were to read that and not make the connection to Good King Wenceslas, you will breeze over that line without a second thought. That's because the joke is invisible. It's like the easter eggs in the Marvel movies. They add but don't subtract. If you don't catch it or don't understand it, it will not detract from your enjoyment of the work. If you want a counterexample, read any of Brandon Sanderson's novels that feature Hoid (or "Wit") as a prominent character. He is constantly trying to be funny and it mostly doesn't work, because Sanderson--though a man of many talents--doesn't write humor well at all. Hoid, who is central to Sanderson's literary universe, is freaking annoying, and I do not look forward to the chapters where he shows up and starts talking.

If you can remember to make your jokes fail silently, then every other rule of writing humor can be derived from that. Don't call a lot of attention to them. Don't build up to a single, big punchline. What if the punchline doesn't work? Your reader is going to be annoyed that they had to go through all that rigmarole only to find it not funny. So instead, you take a shotgun approach and tell a lot of little jokes. It also means you should avoid punching down. Because if you're making fun of people for laughs, but the laughs don't come, then all you're doing is being an asshole. Sorry, South Park. Remember, the failure mode of clever is "asshole," so don't ever let your audience know that you're trying to be clever.

This also necessitates that your humor has to be secondary to story. The plot, the character arcs, all of that has to work on its own. Because while a good joke will cover a multitude of sins, it will not make a broken story work. Look at the original Ghostbusters. That is a dyed-in-the-wool slobs-versus-snobs 80s comedy starring some of the comedic legends of its day. But if you took out every single joke, you'd still have a compelling workplace drama about paranormal investigators. Compare it to the 2016 Ghostbusters in which all four members of the team were trying to be the comic relief. It's all jokes and no plot, and while I laughed a lot when I watched it the first time, I didn't enjoy it on repeat viewings because it has no narrative drive.

Because nothing kills narrative tension like sacrificing character consistency in order to make a joke. The characters can be absurd, but they have to be earnest in what they're pursuing, or else the story falls apart. This was my other big complaint about Thor: Ragnarok. The character Thor is inherently absurd, but he doesn't know that he's absurd. As far as he's concerned, he's being a righteous and regal Aasgardian. But in Ragnarok, he was in on the joke, and that kind of killed it for me.

Counterpoint: my best piece of comic writing was published in Escape Pod back in 2017: "Ms. Figgle-DeBitt's Home for Wayward A.I.'s" If you only ever read one story of mine, read that one. The main character is a robot who is trying to bake a caramelized banana upside-down cake in order to redeem himself to his former employer, the Secretary General of the United Nations. He is haunted by the mayhem that ensued when he tried to serve it to a bunch of delegates. He is flummoxed by the missing steps in recipes--things like peeling the bananas before you slice them. He is absurd, but he never breaks character and winks at the audience. He never acknowledges the ridiculousness of his situation. He is just a character going on a journey, and because he is earnest, the reader is able to root for him through the entire story.

My final piece of advice here is to make sure you're getting good feedback. Find someone who will stab you in the front. Right now my wife is beta-reading a book of mine and--while she is quite fond of me and also my writing--she is incapable of not being brutally honest about the quality. Many of her comments have been "Ha!" so far, and she asked me if that was even worthwhile feedback. And it absolutely is, because it tells me that the jokes are working. And if there's a joke that she doesn't respond to because it failed silently? That tells me the jokes are working too.

Next time, why no one wants to read your goddamn memoir...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.