Wednesday, May 28, 2008

CRAFT: Finding the Funny II

An article by Apprentice Writer which recently appeared in RomANTICS (the newsletter of her writer's group):

"Finding the Funny, Part I looked at breaking writing down into micro- (word) and mid-level (sentence and paragraph) writing to locate spots with potential for comic zing. Part II concentrates on the macro-level.

Macro Level: Scenes, Chapters, Characters, and Recurring Themes.
As scope of writing widens, humor insertion becomes more challenging. Writers can experiment with different techniques.

The well-known actor’s ‘rule’ of avoiding scenes with children or animals since they tend to steal the thunder can be put to good use:

“(For my blind date I decided to) borrow (St. Bernard) Mother Theresa. As soon as the leash hooked on to her collar, Mother Theresa grabbed the other end in her mouth and walked herself out the door. At the puppy playground, she lumbered off (until) a tiny yelping whirlwind of tricolored fur exploded from a tunnel. Mother Theresa froze. ‘Clementine, sit!’ the man who wasn’t Harrison Ford ordered. Mother Theresa sat. ”(Claire Cook, ‘Must Love Dogs’)

“Telephone: was Magda. ‘Bridget, hi! I was just ringing to say in the potty! In the potty! Do it in the potty!’ There was a loud crashing noise followed by the sound of running water in the background. ‘Magda!’ I yelled. ‘Sorry, hon’ she said, ‘I was just ringing to say tuck your willy inside the potty!’ ‘I’m in the middle of work’ I said pleadingly. ‘Fine, rub it in, you’re very glamorous and important and I’m stuck at home with two people who (don’t) speak English.’ “
(Helen Fielding, ‘Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason’)

Running gags can be effective, especially when turned on their heads after readers become accustomed to them:

“’You’re going to be okay, sir’ said Detective Mary Mary, yelling over her shoulder for a medic. ‘Call me Jack’ whispered Chief Inspector Jack Spratt (of the Nursery Crimes Division), ‘We’ve been through enough. I’ll be honest, Mary-‘ ‘-You should call me by my first name too, Jack.’ ‘Sorry. I’ll be honest, Mary-‘ ‘That’s better.’ “ (Jasper Fforde, “The Big Over Easy”)

Daring writers can try tweaking reader perception:

“The entire crime writing fraternity bade farewell to the last ‘locked room’ mystery at a large banquet held in its honor. (Then came) shocking news - the ‘locked room’ concept had been murdered – and in a locked room. The banquet was cancelled and police are investigating.”
(Jasper Fforde, “The Big Over Easy”)

Then there is the rich source of humor to be mined from the fact that a large percentage of all laughter is based on incongruity; something unexpected happens. Incongruity can take multiple shapes.

Physical humor – This is the earliest form of humor to develop, proven by babies as young as eight months laughing when someone falls down. For obvious reasons physical humor is easier to achieve in visual rather than literary media, but carefully done it can add a burst of flavor:

“I’m crouching under the utility sink in the laundry room, clutching Doug’s socks. Not all his socks, just one from each pair, to slowly drive him insane or better yet, drive him back home. I consider trying to stuff myself into the one empty dryer, I consider standing next to the wall (to) blend in with the surroundings, (then I) dive to the floor, pull the stacked laundry bags out (of their shelf), tuck myself in, and pull them back over me. The door opens and Doug walks in.” (Eileen Cook, “Unpredictable”)

“Somebody pushed her out of Heaven. She could have landed anywhere in the earthly realm; pavement, grass, the middle of the ocean…MarineLand in Niagara Falls. Or more precisely, the killer whale tank in MarineLand. PLOP.”
(Michelle Rowen, ‘Angel With Attitude’)

Dialogue/actions contrary to stereotypical gender/age/appearance expectations:

“I start crying again, and the grandmotherly old lady lays a gentle hand on my arm and brushes past, muttering ‘Move it, you feeble lush.’ Resolve in future to keep my airborne Marys virginal.” (Lee Nichols, “Tales of a Drama Queen”)

Under- or over-reaction:

“Bill and Enid were walking through Tadger's Wood one day, when suddenly they saw the collapse of Roman Imperialism. ’Gosh’ said Bill."
(Monty Python’s Flying Circus)

“Lord Berne gazed in the general direction of France.”
(Loretta Chase, “The Devil’s Delilah”

Juxtaposing a highly charged moment with something ordinary:

(Deciding whether to help release an aristocrat from chains and possible torture in an Egyptian dungeon:) ’That man is an idiot.’ ‘Yes, madam, but he’s all we’ve got’ said Beechey. ‘I may be stupid,’ Rupert said, ‘but I’m irresistibly attractive.’ ‘Good grief, conceited too’ she muttered. ‘And being a great, dumb ox’ he went on, ‘I’m wonderfully easy to manage.’ ‘He’s cheerful, madam’ Beechey said, ‘Is it not remarkable how he’s kept up his spirits in this vile place?’ Obligingly, Rupert began to whistle. ‘Obviously he doesn’t know any better,’ she said.
(Loretta Chase, ‘Mr. Impossible’)

Mix-ups are a useful device:

“This morning (I) got my antihistamine and spermicide sprays confused. I now have a vagina that can breathe more freely and nostrils I can safely have sex in for at least six hours.” (Kathy Lette, ‘A Stitch in Time’)

Unusual perspective:

“…this was right around the time endive was discovered, which was followed by arugula, which was followed by radicchio, which was followed by frisee, which was followed by the three M’s – mesclun, mache, and microgreens – and that, in a nutshell, is the history of the last forty years from the point of view of lettuce.” (Nora Ephron, “I Hate My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman”)

The Wrongest-Possible-Person can be tailored to fit many scenarios:

’Dear Sir, You sound too good to be true, but perhaps we could have a cup of coffee together anyhow.’
‘Dear Madam, Might I have the privilege of buying you coffee at Morning Glories at 10:00 a.m. this Saturday? I’ll be carrying a yellow rose.’
(at Morning Glories): ‘What are you doing here and where’d you get that rose, Dad?’ (Claire Cook, ‘Must Love Dogs’)

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Obviously, this is only a starter list for humor-seekers. More can be found in workshops, advice from favorite comedy writers, and, not least, by stopping to analyze “Why and at which writing level?” every time you read something that makes you laugh.

May the comedy muse smile on you in your quest to brighten your readers’ day.

(Some quotes modified to fit article format)"

Any favorite funny quotes from Gentle Readers?

5 comments:

Amy Ruttan said...

"He must of have got tired of running around in his wheel and scarpered."

"No wonder I couldn't entice him out with a piece of cheese."

This is Red Dwarf, where Kryten a robot, upset at being classified a woman built himself a penis, called Archie that escaped in the woman's quarters.

There was also a GREAT bit in Dr. Who where he just regenerated as David Tennant and he opens the door to his Tardis to see all these mad nasty aliens.

"WHO ARE YOU!!" The aliens scream and he answers back in a loud screaming voice "I DON'T KNOW!!"

priceless.

Also there was this bit in Vicar of Dibley. Where the woman who was the village Easter Bunny left that mission to everyone in the village. So as the Vicar rounds the corner to see hundreds of people dressed as rabbits, one of hte other characters yells out "GREAT, we have enough rabbits here to stage a productions of BLOODY Watership Downs."

Man I'll stop rambling now.

Julia Smith said...

LOTS of guffaws from this general direction.

- 'the ‘locked room’ concept had been murdered – and in a locked room.'

- 'when suddenly they saw the collapse of Roman Imperialism. ’Gosh’ said Bill.'

- 'antihistamine and spermicide sprays confused'

As for lines that slay me:

I'll have to give film lines.

- 'I'm in pain, and I'm wet. And I'm still hysterical!!' (The Producers)

- (explaining the Trinity) 'God is like a shamrock - small, green and split three ways.' (Nuns on the Run)

- (group chants) 'We're all individuals. (one man) I'm not.' (Life of Brian)

M. said...

Amy - I didn't know ANY of those but they're great! Though the thought of an independently thinking/ambulatory penis is somewhat ominous.

Loved the Watership Down line.

Julia - Haven't seen the producers - I'm guessing the line is from someone who was perhaps slapped and doused with water to shock him/her out of hysteria and it didn't work?

Nuns on the Run was a funny movie, and you've quoted possibly the best line in the whole film. I wonder how many people know that Harry Potter's Hagrid used to be a nun?

And 'Life of Brian' is truly priceless. The bit I liked was the holy man tricked or maybe annoyed into speaking his first words in years.

Julia Smith said...

M - bull's eye on 'The Producers' quote. If you haven't seen it, the 1968 version is the one to see. Gene Wilder was the hysterical accountant.

J.K. Coi said...

M. This was a great article in our ROMantics and I loved reading it. Thanks!