Mr. Tolstoy, we love your little book, Peace, but have you considered, for excitement’s sake, adding a bit of war?
However, there’s no need to rely on serendipity to make things grow. Ideas, concepts, and pretty much the entire real world are extraordinarily flexible in the humor writer’s mind, and therefore, on the printed page. Adding some deliberate stretching delivers some of our best laughs.
According to the latest poll, congress has a ninety-nine percent approval rating among people who didn’t understand the question.
Humor writers have a unique love of exaggeration. However, they are not alone. Artists love caricatures with big eyes, big ears and big noses; clowns wear size 100 shoes, and movie directors turn a burnt meal into an exploding oven. Exaggerating our everyday experiences rarely fails to produce a smile or a laugh. If we actually saw the real world in those proportions, we’d all be under psychiatric care.
However, exaggeration is much more than simply making something bigger or smaller. Exaggeration is bigger than you think.
Any physical attribute can be made bigger, smaller, hooked, twisted, broadened, squeezed, heightened, shortened, or added to a bowl of mixed nuts! Why settle for making something bigger when you can make it freakishly HUGE! Consider some of the classics: Uncle Buck’s pancakes, a toddler in a ten-gallon hat, a woman’s bust rivalling the Grand Tetons… You get the idea. Big is a relative term.
By order of the base commander, our Fourth of July celebration will use traditional fireworks only. Please put the tactical nukes back in storage.
Going small is simply a variation on a theme, easily pushed to a similar extreme.
That restaurant serves such small portions. The last time I ate there, a housefly stole my entree.
And you can do the same with any other modifier: hooked, twisted, tall, etc.
Actions and Reactions
Slapstick, exaggerating a characters actions beyond reason, is often viewed as childish. While it’s true that slapstick is often used in children’s cartoons, some of the most popular comedies in television and film use it extensively. Gilligan’s Island has been in syndication for fifty years, and was Number One in worldwide syndication for many of those years!
Many writers miss opportunities for slapstick scenes in novels and short stories, feeling that it won’t translate to the written page. Not true at all! Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slapstick, easily comes to mind (Wonder why?), and many slapstick scenes have found their way into books both classic and current.
Exaggerated reactions to actions or situations are also common:
Last week’s Large Hadron Collider experiment reached a record temperature of 5.5 trillion degrees Celsius. The science team was ecstatic! It was champagne and toasted marshmallows all around!
The Fine Art of Caricature
Read the tragic Moby Dick to see the exceedingly obsessive Captain Ahab driven to his own destruction. Watch the comedic As Good As It Gets (TriStar Pictures, 1997) to see Melvin Udall, a misanthrope with OCD, pushed to the limit.
“If there is some mental health foundation that raises money for people like you, please be sure to let me know.” – Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Frank Sachs
Exaggerated character traits have created some of the most iconic characters in literature, theater and film.
Don’t be afraid to push your limits.
Exaggeration by definition is pushing boundaries, and a writer must push their own boundaries to produce the best results. Most exaggeration that fails to produce a laugh does so because the writer did not push themselves to find the funniest, or sometimes most bizarre, comparison, relationship or association. With exaggeration, there are no limits. (<= Possible exaggeration.)
Next Up: What Does It Mean To ‘Push The Envelope’?
Once again, the United States voter is faced with deciding who should occupy the Oval Office of the White House, while steadfastly ignoring all of our concerns for the next four years.
I’m a little worried. Our latest polling says we’re losing with whites, blacks and Hispanics, but we took 63% of the haven’t got a clue vote.
For humorists, presidential campaign season is a time of great joy and happiness. We’re just so incredibly thankful that our major political parties are providing us with numerous straight men (and women) free of charge. Call them candidates, if you must.
Even if politics is not your forte, there’s a lot to be learned from political humorists. A few examples that immediately come to mind:
Fairness Is Optional!
Presidential campaigns bring out the best, the worst, and the most outrageous humor writing to be found online or in print. Fairness is in no way related to many, if not most, of these jokes.
Don’t try to pick an ideal presidential candidate. Be willing to work with anyone in the My Bitch category.
– Wall Street Banker’s Handbook, Twenty-third Edition
Also, we’ve all seen funny attack ads, fair and unfair, but they are attack ads, the humor just makes them palatable to more people.
Candidate Frank Lee Marco Polo stated the blonde regularly seen in his car is “just a friend.” It appears this is true, but on a government salary, how does he afford her five hundred dollar per hour friend rate.
Most people feel a need to be fair. As a writer, there are times while you’re working when you should ignore that feeling.
Fairness is a choice, not a requirement.
That’s true for both fiction and non-fiction, and it’s certainly true in nearly all brands of humor.
Picking A Side – Also Optional
No political humorist has to pick a side in any campaign, unless they decide to promote a particular candidate. It’s just as easy to play both sides AND the middle, finding the funny in every political party, issue or candidate who happens to hit a news cycle with something less mundane than the weather report.
Absolutely! Our candidate will gladly give a statement regarding legalized marijuana as soon as he finishes smoking this bowl.
Take Advantage of Stupidity
The Holy Grail of political humorists is, of course, the scandal. There’s nothing like a campaigning candidate’s malfeasance, ethical misconduct, or red-handed criminal behavior to tune up the old funny meter. Then, there’s always the chance of an outright miracle. There is not a political humorist alive who won’t get religion if a favored candidate hits that mythical Trifecta, and SHE’s caught with hookers and blow.
Be still my heart!
I would have added a word or two about plain old adultery, but adultery in Washington, DC is about as rare as penguins with fish breath. There’s not much mileage beyond the candidate’s tearful apology as his party leadership dropkicks him out the door.
Worth a Bit of Study
Naturally, there’s much more to learn from political humor. I recommend my patented, Top Secret two-step process:
- Study a bit
- Relate it to your reality.
How did they do that?
Once you figure that out, relating it to your own work, your own humor, is easy. But please remember, even if your main character unfairly wields power, promotes his own agenda, and did something stupid—all in the same day—there’s still no requirement that he run for office.
– Kathleen Madigan
Next Up: Bigger Than You Think
Ah, new drapes! It’s nice to see you haven’t given up Dumpster-diving.
However, most of us are mature enough to ignore personal attacks because we accept reality: There is no cure for jackass.
Sarcasm also appears in many run-of-the-mill arguments, and in marital arguments when making your immediate point is more important than future groveling.
And Pretty Much Everywhere Else
Personal attacks and marital bliss aside, sarcasm regularly arises in our everyday conversations, our writing (emails to novels), and certainly in nearly all comedic performances. It would be difficult to find a television sitcom that didn’t have a wide sarcastic streak. You can even find sarcasm in such odd places as a college classroom.
“Two negatives make a positive, but two positives never make a negative.”
Love It Or Hate It
People tend to have strong opinions about sarcasm. Whether you’re pro or con is, to be tactlessly honest, pretty much irrelevant. Sarcasm is part of our culture, and it’s here to stay. Yet, there’s no avoiding that sarcasm has a negative tinge—often critical, and often making someone the butt of a joke. Still…
I love sarcasm, when it’s done well.
Many people feel guilty admitting that they like sarcasm. The negative aspects make many writers shy away. For humorists, sarcasm is a valid tool, but one with an edge, and it’s very easy to make the argument that sarcasm should be used with some discretion. There are few forms of humor that can so easily become, or be interpreted as, simply mean.
Studies and More Studies
The science geeks have weighed in heavily on sarcasm. It’s considered part of social intelligence, and numerous studies have concluded that sarcasm:
- Activates more parts of the brain than literal truth.
- Is understood by children as young as five.
- Is perceived as more hurtful than plain-spoken criticism.
- Can be seen as funny and mean at the same time.
- Enhances creative problem solving.
- Is more difficult for people over 65 to interpret.
- Is more likely to be used with friends than enemies.
- May be inherited. If your parents were sarcastic, you’re more likely to be sarcastic.
- Can be used as a diagnostic tool. A failure to understand sarcasm may be an early warning sign of brain damage.
In the US, Northerners are more likely than Southerners to see sarcasm as funny, and many foreign cultures are perceived as not understanding sarcasm even though it’s found in almost every native language.
The British Parliament has removed all sarcasm from official records. The National Archives will, of course, display the two remaining pages.
My personal and quite unofficial study found that sarcasm springs from two primary sources: lively conversation and beer. The former produces such great lines as:
I never said he was stupid; I said he misspelled IQ.
And the latter produces a nearly limitless supply of volunteers for future studies.
Useful and Humorous
Most writers have created a despicable character or two (or one hundred), and giving the bad guy a sarcastic mean streak is perfectly acceptable. It also appears in non-fiction that is critical by design, such as a political rant.
My ultra-liberal opponent appears to be having trouble with his microphone, thank God!
A playfully sarcastic character is often perceived as superior, intelligent, charming, clever, and just a lot of fun.
Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.
– Oscar Wilde
On the other hand, the character who takes everything literally is perceived as either naïve or an idiot. Nothing quite says clueless like missing blatant sarcasm.
Sarcasm really is a wonderful tool for both characterizing and giving your reader a laugh. If you disagree, click here.
Parting Funny: I thought I was promiscuous, but it turns out I was just thorough. – Russell Brand
Next Up: Politics as UNusual
A few days ago, I came across an online discussion on self-censorship. Many writers readily admitted that they modify their prose and avoid controversial topics for fear of offending readers.
“Before I bother to care, which congressional district are you in?”
An Obvious Exception
If you happen to write children’s literature, you get a pass on today’s somewhat weighty topic. Censor away, and most parents will thank you for not turning fairy tales into erotic, political hot button thrillers with enough blood splatter to rival a Bronx crime report. Children have video games for that.
Children’s authors are also forgiven for only promoting one four-letter word: love. All others should be learned in a schoolyard. It’s tradition.
If you write for adults, is it possible that self-censorship really is mere cowardice?
I am not a coward! I just happen to like the view under this bed.
Marketing As Justification
Avoiding offense does have some short-term applicability from a marketing standpoint. The public likes pablum, which is easily found on any magazine rack, often the literary equivalent of YouTube kittens. However, there is a much more viable argument, and historical proof, that the public has other tastes as well. Writers who fully express a unique voice often become bestsellers, and possibly, classics. So, marketing sense does indicate that censoring your muse may be a rather stupid decision.
Stupid is a state of mindless.
Offense And\Or Criticism
Is self-censoring really avoiding reader offense, or avoiding criticism? After all, few readers or reviewers express strong negative opinions about the bland, and a fear of criticism is certainly not a new concern:
To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. – Aristotle
Offense (and taking offense) is also ancient, having been around since before humans climbed down from the trees in search of a Starbucks, where in most cases, modern people have replaced a duel to the death between offender and offended with significantly more civilized conversations and attitudes:
It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what. – Stephen Fry
What is offensive humor?
Is it possible to say anything without offending someone?
Probably not, so why not pick a side on any issue, controversial or otherwise.
Today, FOX “News” again refuted the rumor that there is somewhere on planet Earth a liberal who may be worth listening to.
Consider also, nearly anyone’s words can be easily, and even purposefully, misconstrued. It’s likely impossible to remove all offense from everything you write. Say nothing and you may still cause offense:
That’s cheek! He left the page blank!
Degrading Your Writer’s Voice
No one is forced to address topics that they’d rather not. Conversely, fear of offense is a lousy editing criteria.
Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. – Dr. Seuss
Assuming that you’re not writing humorous cocktail napkins for a convent, in self-censoring your writing without an extremely well-considered and decidedly valid reason, the best work that you can hope to achieve is a mere shadow of what you’re capable of producing.
Next Up: Sarcasm: PRO or CON?
Today, you can tie your shoes. Does your failure and frustration so many years ago matter to you now?
All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten, but for some strange reason, the SEC investigators are not buying that answer.
When we tell a joke that, by intent and universal right, should be hilarious, occasionally failing to get a laugh is… Wait for it! …part of the game. It’s normal that a percentage of joke recipients will not get certain references, or not be inclined to laugh on that particular day, or at that particular time, or in their particular mood.
Unconscionable! How could they do this to you?
Actually, your audience is not doing anything to you. Whether readers or a live audience, they are merely following the same standard that you followed when writing your joke. That is, their own sense of humor.
Humor writers prefer to consistently write good jokes. (What a surprise!) However, even the best ammunition has an occasional dud that fails to fire. There may also be other considerations:
The Lovely Two-Percenter
You may know in advance that not everyone has a good chance of understanding your joke.
Operator, may I have Avogadro’s number, please.
While the percentage varies somewhat when talking to humorists, a Two-Percenter is a joke that only about two percent of your audience will understand. This does not detract from the quality of the joke itself, nor should it give you reason to avoid using it. We all have a different understanding of the world; we all miss both humorous and non-humorous references in everyday conversation, and frankly, nobody’s perfect. To be clueless in some circumstances, however modest, is simply human.
I’m phenomenally adept at stating the obvious, so I’m considering writing an advice column.
Mass Appeal Is Not De Rigueur
Writers are under no obligation to only write material with mass appeal. The people who do get a particular joke, appreciate it. Those who don’t will get the next one.
Or Maybe, It’s Just Bad Juju
One secret that the best standup comedians and comedic actors know: Audience response is never 100% or always easily readable.
Many years ago, I performed a very solid standup routine at a local club. The audience was either asleep or dead, and I honestly don’t remember hearing much laughter. As you can imagine, it was a very disappointing night for me. Yet two days later, I ran into the MC from that club who told me, “You killed Monday night!”
Apparently, after I left the club, more than a dozen audience members mentioned my act to the MC with such erudite critiques as, ‘That fucker was funny!’
His Majesty has decided not to have you beheaded. High praise indeed.
As a standup or a comedic actor, you can have a wonderfully crafted act and still run into an audience that gives you little or a lukewarm response. This does not necessarily mean the audience did not enjoy your act. Then again, even the best performers occasionally bomb.
Tough crowd. The most common stage direction was, “Duck!”
As a writer, you rarely get to see your reader’s response to your material. Most often, you rely on reviews or online comments. And yes, some material does fail. However, evaluate carefully. Sometimes, simply NOT being beheaded is high praise indeed.
Parting Funny: If you ever see me getting beaten up by the police, please put your video camera down and help me. – Bobcat Goldthwait
Next Up: No One Respects Cowardice Anymore
I was in my local grocery store a few days ago, purchasing the fat, sugar and cholesterol that I consume to annoy my doctor. In conversation with the clerk at the checkout stand, I mentioned Monty Python and the young gentleman was clueless as to my reference. Naturally, my first thought was that it was most unfortunate that this fine example of American youth had grown up under a rock.
Ah, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a teenager again, and know everything and nothing at the same time?
The truth of my grocery store situation was actually much simpler: Monty Python was before this young man’s time, so he missed such wonderful quotes as:
Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who.
Or the enchanting lyrics of the Lumberjack Song:
I cut down trees, I skip and jump, I like to press wild flowers. I put on women’s clothing and hang around in bars.
And yes, the Lumberjack Song was possibly, maybe, might have been sung by real lumberjacks…if you don’t look too closely.
Summing up: Monty Python was a delightfully unique British comedy troupe that tickled an entire generation, and drove the censors to astounding new heights of apoplexy. It’s difficult to determine which of these accomplishments is most noteworthy.
I have been specially asked not to be rude or inappropriate, which is a bit like inviting a boxer to fight and not asking him to hit anyone. – Eric Idle
Eric! Let’s talk about Eric Idle for a bit.
A member of Monty Python and a true Master of Comedy, Eric Idle captured the magic of silliness and put it on display in books, television, film and theater (including New York’s Broadway). What a fabulous career in comedy!
Consider a few quotes from Eric that I believe should rightfully be chiseled on the mythical Stone of Classic Comedy:
John Cleese once told me he’d do anything for money. So I offered him a pound to shut up, and he took it.
I’m….liberal. I believe in a woman’s right to choose me.
Nowadays, nobody gets irony, because we are now living in the post-ironic age. Once George Bush gets a library, all irony is dead.
Now, you may not believe that silliness has value, and if so, I can state unequivocally that you could not be more wrong. Being silly is a human delight that should be relished (on occasion, of course) by everyone stuck between conception and senility.
And for the record, while Monty Python members John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman, and Terry Jones were the actual culprits who mooned the audience at the performance of Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982), they did so after singing the song written by Eric Idle, Sit On My Face.
That’s right! Eric wrote a song entitled, Sit On My Face. US censors found the song to be “actionably indecent,” and audiences found it absolutely hilarious—garnering uproarious laughter, resounding applause and standing ovations.
How could Eric Idle have ignored the censors and delighted audiences everywhere?
I never think in terms of target audience. I try to write what makes me laugh, so I’m the target audience.
This bit of wisdom from Eric Idle is sponsored by… Jane’s Dairy Farm and Fetish Emporium, offering monogrammed cattle prods for work and play!
So, what does embracing silliness, and writing humor with yourself as the target audience lead to? Books sold. Standing ovations from many, many, many audiences, and possibly a long and productive career.
Eric Idle may be onto something!
Parting Funny: The people I really feel sorry for are Arab Americans who sincerely want to get into crop dusting. – Brian Regan
Next Up: Jokes That Fail