In good humor

How do you want to approach the comedy in your fiction?
By Jack Smith | Published: June 24, 2014


Noelty GlassesMost people enjoy a good laugh. Most people enjoy a good joke, a witticism, an unexpected twist or a good “snapper,” as Mark Twain put it. Fiction can be laugh-out-loud funny, as it was for Ben Fountain reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for the first time. “I still remember reading it on the bus, trying not to laugh hysterically and, of course, failing,” he says. “People could see what I was reading, and they all understood.” But humor in fiction doesn’t have to be hilarious. It can be dry or deadpan, as in Nathaniel West’s work, offbeat or quirky as in James Thurber’s, dark as in Flannery O’Connor’s. The authorial sensibilities vary, but all are known for their humorous take on people and the world. It’s the sensibility rather than the particular breakdown of comic writing that makes the humor work.

If you’re interested in writing humorous fiction, the first step is to decide what your own lens, your particular slant on life is. What makes people, human experience and the world at large, funny, odd or bizarre to you?

The humor impulse

Sam Lipsyte, author of The Fun Parts and The Ask, has his own take on what works. “Every writer has a slightly different filter,” he says. “Every person does. We are always creating narratives from the information we absorb through that filter. The shape and tone of these narratives have much to do with our temperaments and our world views. There happens to be a comic streak in much of what emerges from me. I see the world as collisions and mergers of the comic and tragic.”

Elizabeth Stuckey-French, author of The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady and Mermaids on the Moon, also believes that her penchant for humor writing comes from a native sense for the comic, originating, in part, from extended family stories “about people and the weird, funny, awful things they do,” she says.

Amanda Filipacchi, author of Vapor and Nude Men, speaks of her own sensibility as “a slightly unusual way of looking at people and at life.” If she has an artistic mission of any kind, it’s “perhaps to slightly alter people’s perception of reality,” she says. “I’d like to help people see things in a fresh way. I am often also naturally drawn to writing satire.”

Knowing what your particular sensibility is can help you clarify the narrative voice in your work. What does this voice suggest about your take on the world? Do your characters tend to view things in this way? If you tend to use humor in your fiction, it’s important to consider what the purpose is. Do you want to be funny, or does your humor serve another, larger goal? If so, what is it?

Purposes of humor

Perhaps the most popular purpose of humor is to entertain, and clearly this is one key purpose of fiction itself. But if humor’s sole purpose is to entertain, it may lose its effect, especially if it depends on one-liner jokes or slapstick. If it’s “simply slapstick, it’s not satisfying,” says Stuckey-French.

Humor can certainly entertain, and should, but it can serve a much larger purpose. It can illuminate something about humans and the world in which they live. For Fountain, whose Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was a finalist for the National Book Award, humor has a fundamental place in contemporary realistic fiction. “Practically every human situation is shot through with humor of one kind or another, if not inherently, then by virtue of the human animal’s need to play, to amuse itself, to be entertained, to cope,” he says. “Including humor in even the most ‘serious’ kind of story is, to me, simply a way of staying true to the experience.” Humor is a matter of rendering human life authentically. Fountain rejects an attitude in contemporary American fiction that equates utterly depressing writing with the “profound and serious”: “The best fiction, the fiction that stays truest to how complex and ambiguous most of human experience is, is fiction that weaves humor into the characters and narrative. Because it’s there, usually, the funny stuff, along with everything else, the sadness, the tragic, the pathetic.”

Jack Pendarvis, author of Awesome and Your Body Is Changing, underscores the close link in human experience between funny and sad. A comic mode allows him to explore what is true of humans and their struggles to achieve happiness in an imperfect world. As a comic writer, he enjoys exploring how silly the deepest longings can make us. “My hope is that people will respond to the characters with empathy – because we’re all in that boat – though that doesn’t always happen,” he says. “Sometimes people will think I am being harsh with a character when in fact I completely identify with him or her.”

Dark humor, also called black humor, is a literary mode that finds the comic in the bleak, the devastating and the miserable. One expression of this mode is hard-boiled realism. Stuckey-French judges her own fiction to be somewhat dark because she often pairs it with serious issues. But the purpose of humor in her work isn’t, she points out, to make light of the issues themselves, which include sexual abuse and nuclear poisoning. The humor comes “in the way that people cope with those things.” In doing so, they reveal their basic humanity, which, as Stuckey-French shows, is in itself at times humorous.

Black humor can be a response to the primal nature of human existence – a complex conjoining of the comic and the tragic. “Comedy and drama,” says Lipsyte, “are about looking unflinchingly at our condition as doomed beings who still, out of some primal drive, continue to play the game. Humor stems from life, which you are trying to create with words.”

Satire is yet another comic response to one’s view of humans or the world at large. As a comic mode, satire can be burlesque with the hope of correcting a given folly or abuse, or it can be a lens on the world, illuminating flaws, shortcomings and pernicious practices by way of the ridiculous, the grotesque or the hyperbolic. Filipacchi sees her work as serving the second purpose. “When I write satire, the purpose is to highlight the absurd or unsavory aspects of the world, of human nature and/or of our society.” Her satire tends to be dark. For instance, in Nude Men, a 29-year-old man can’t restrain himself from giving in to the sexual advances of an underage girl. In dealing with this perverse temptation, Filipacchi calls upon reductio ad absurdum, satirizing temptation’s power over people struggling to resist it.

Key humor techniques

Whichever form you write, straight realism with humor, dark humor or satire, you have a stock of humor techniques to draw upon: understatement, overstatement, irony, paradox, juxtaposition – to name key ones. Incongruity is at the heart of humor, as Fountain notes. “Humor, as my wonderful professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, Louis Rubin, once said in class, is incongruity,” he says. “Put two things together that don’t usually go together, and see what happens. Tragedy? Comedy? Often both.” Pendarvis appreciates the kind of humor that “comes from the incongruity between a character’s dreams and his or her lack of ability to achieve them, or the depth of a character’s emotions versus his or her unfortunate way of expressing them.” Incongruity allows him to blend the tragic and the comic.

Another humor technique is using flawed or questionable logic. “One thing I seem to be fond of,” says Filipacchi, “is manipulating logic in ways that seem logical but that produce a completely insane result.” In Love Creeps, for instance, the protagonist, who has lost her desire for basically everything, stalks someone at random. She’s operating under the absurd notion that “if she goes through the motions of desiring someone, it will result in the birth of real desire in her,” says Filipacchi.

A third humor technique, one which Stuckey-French uses, relates to a character’s voice – to the character’s internal thought and reflection. To manage this technique, says Stuckey-French, you may have to bare your own soul. “You have to be willing, through your character, to reveal your own vulnerabilities, judgmental attitudes, petty thoughts, self-pity. To put these thoughts in the mind of a character, you’re acknowledging that you’ve had the thought, and that can make you feel exposed. But everyone has similar thoughts. In fiction, they are funny.” In The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, for instance, on one occasion the reader is privy to the protagonist’s concerns about her family’s old house being so filled up that there’s hardly room to breathe, and she ends on this unflattering thought: “And they’d been so eager to fill it up with kids! What the hell were they thinking?”

Humor can also be achieved stylistically, by the manner of the delivery. As Stuckey-French points out, this happens through clever word choice, pacing and time. “If you listen to the delivery of stand-up comics, you’ll see how carefully they manage those things,” she says. “Writers need to do the same, at least during revision.” Note the pacing in this passage from The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady: “The whole being-in-limbo thing, the looking-to-get even thing, was getting old. She was growing weary of wanting to kill Wilson, of imagining herself killing him. She was itchy to actually do it.”

Finally, technique-wise, there are certain old standbys, among them puns and wacky character names. But before you employ these two techniques, give them careful consideration. “Nah” to both, says Fountain, “not for the kind of work I’m trying to do. I’m trying to play it straight, if that makes any sense. Trying to tease out the humor from what’s inside the situation, as opposed to tricking it up with word play or witty names.” Fountain believes that overloading names with humor is a cheap shot. He does make some allowances, however. “It can be sort of funny in Dickens; in Wodehouse it’s funny, but when you’re reading him, you’re buying into an entire absurd universe where the silly names make perfect sense.” Pendarvis points out that in really bleak fiction, wacky names can “temper the bleakness of the comedy,” as they do in Catch-22 or in the film Dr. Strangelove. But this technique is a risk, he says. “You have to be one of the greats to get away with wacky names, I think, and it has to be in a certain kind of piece, which almost never exists,” Lipsyte says. “I just stick to this rule: Cute is the enemy of funny.”

Successful Humor

If you want to handle humor successfully, be sure you read good models. “Read the sort of books you want to write,” says Stuckey-French, “and pay attention to what makes them good.” She also encourages reading widely: “Stretch yourself now and then by reading the sort of book you wouldn’t ordinarily pick up. Find writers who give you permission to let loose. Writing well is a matter of setting free your own voice and your own observations about the world without censoring yourself.” For Lipsyte, one reason to read a lot is to make sure you’re not repeating well-trod territory. But beyond this, he recommends reading as part of a larger goal of immersing oneself fully in life: “My mind is a swirl of the books I’ve read, the people I’ve known, the movies I’ve seen, the good and terrible things I’ve lived through, a lifetime of small peeves and pleasures, stories people have told me, things I’ve overheard and a lot more.”

If you read carefully, you will get a good sense for how the professionals handle humor well in fiction. But what about the creative process itself? Should you plan your strategies out in advance, or should you just let the humor happen?

You should do the latter, say several pros.

The process, says Lipsyte, is “not something that’s strategized.” Filipacchi adds, “Consciously trying to use a technique to produce humor is not likely to be very successful. It seems to me that humor is more likely to be successful when one follows one’s instincts.” Stuckey-French never plans ahead for humor, and Pendarvis says, “I never think about humor first. I’m always thinking about character. The humor, when it comes, is usually a byproduct of the character I’m writing about.”

So get into your character. Get into your story, and let the humor spring forth on its own from these two basic contexts. “The humor needs to serve the story, needs to come out of the story, as opposed to being slapped on from the outside,” says Fountain. For Stuckey-French, this means letting the humor come “through your character” and not attempting to put “humor into what you are writing.” But do be careful, she cautions, about humorous treatment of characters. If your humor is largely at the expense of characters, your readers won’t care what happens to them. It’s best, she says, not to be “cruel to your characters, or callous and dismissive.” Her advice is, “Keep a balance between the sentimental, warm moments and the dark. Life has both.”

Writing effective humor requires a masterful handling of techniques and an understanding of how humor should function in a work of fiction. Perennial subjects of humor are the follies and foibles of ordinary humans struggling to make it in a difficult and sometimes harsh world. How you handle this, whether the humor is mild or acerbic, will naturally affect the tone of your work. What tone do you wish to achieve? Light, dark or, as Fountain puts it, “piebald”? What’s your own sensibility, your take on the world, and what purpose or purposes, will humor have in your fiction? Humor alone isn’t enough. As with all things funny, you need more than just a punch line.

Jack Smith is author of Write and Revise for Publication and two satirical novels, Hog to Hog and Icon.

Excerpt from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

BillyLynn pb cThey are huge. They could be a new species, or throwbacks to some lost prehistoric age when humans the size of Clydesdales roamed the earth. TV’s toy-soldier scale doesn’t do them justice, these blown-up versions of the human frame with their beer-keg heads and redwood necks and arms packing softball-sized bulges, plus something not quite right about their faces, their eyes too close or too far apart, a thumb-mashed puttiness to cheekbone and nose. All the parts are there but the whole is out of joint, a hitch of proportion, of cranial size relative to facial scheme, as if by achieving superhero scale the players have outstripped the blueprint of the human face.

“Arncha glad you aren’t that guy’s toilet seat?” A-bort whispers to Billy, nodding toward that pile of human spam known as Nicky Ostrana, the Cowboys’ All-Pro offensive guard. Where else but America could football flourish, America with its millions of fertile acres of corn, soy, and wheat, its lakes of dairy, its year-round gushers of fruits and vegetables, and such meats, that extraordinary pipeline of beef, poultry, seafood, and pork, feedlot gorged, vitamin enriched, and hypodermically immunized, humming factories of high-velocity protein production, all of which culminate after several generations of epic nutrition in this strain of industrial-sized humans? Only America could produce such giants. Billy watches as tight end Tony Blakely pours an entire box of cereal into a mixing bowl, follows that with a half gallon of milk, and serenely falls to with a serving spoon. One. Entire. Box. Any other country would go broke trying to feed these mammoths . . .

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Ben Fountain © 2012, Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers.

Excerpt from Love Creeps by Amanda Filipacchi

Unknown-3Alan arrived early Saturday morning for the first class. He was the only man.

The teacher began: “I will show you how the knowledge, passion, and nurturing of the goddesses can help transform your life.”

Alan didn’t really understand why the teacher was referring to goddesses. He glanced down at his school catalog, which he had brought along. He saw he had misread the title of the class.

He rose and began tip-toeing out.

“Where are you going!” the teacher exclaimed.

“I’m sorry, I thought this class was, ‘How to Access the Goodness Within You,’ not ‘the Goddess.’” He chuckled sheepishly.

“If you leave, you are doing a disservice to the women in this room. You are creating negative energy—the energy of withdrawal—which men love creating, and which is why we need classes like these. And you will certainly not have achieved your goal of accessing the goodness within you.”

Alan found it easier to sit back down than to create the energy of withdrawal.

Everyone was then told that during this seminar they were to address each other by their first names, preceded by the words “Sister Goddess.”

Alan thought they might make an exception in his case and call him “Brother God Alan.”  But they didn’t. The teacher said that since gods, in our sexist world, were still considered more important and powerful than goddesses, it would be unfair toward the others if Alan got to be a god. He would therefore be Sister Goddess Alan. No special treatment.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Amanda Filipacchi © 2005, St. Martin’s Press.

Excerpt from The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte

Fun PartsMy wife wanted another baby. But I thought Philip was enough. A toddler is a lot. I couldn’t picture us going through the whole ordeal again. We’d just gotten our lives back. We needed time to snuggle with them, plan their futures.

But Peg really wanted another baby, said we owed Philip a brother or a sister. That seemed like a pretty huge debt. What do you do for the second child? Have a third?

“Peg,” I said. But I had no follow-up. Or was it follow-through?

Peg sat at the kitchen table scribbling in the workbook she’d gotten from Arno, her German tutor. The handwriting didn’t look like hers, though I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her handwriting.

“This is a dealbreaker,” Peg said.

“The deal being our marriage?”

“Please don’t leave me,” she said.

“Who said I wanted to leave?”

“If you refuse to have another baby, that’s the same as leaving me.”

“This is emotional blackmail.”

“The emotional aspect is implicit. You could just say blackmail.”

“But why, Peg?”

“This morning I smelled the top of Philip’s head. That sweet baby scent is gone. Now it jut smells like the top of any dumbshit’s head.”

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Sam Lipsyte © 2013, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Excerpt from The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

The Revenge of the Radioactive LadyBy the time Marylou Ahearn finally moved into the little ranch house in Tallahassee, she’d spent countless hours trying to come up with the best way to kill Wilson Spriggs. The only firm decision she’d made, however, was that proximity was crucial. You couldn’t kill someone if you lived in a different state. So she flew down from Memphis to Tallahassee and bought a house on the edge of Wilson’s neighborhood. Doing so had been no problem, because she had a chunk of money left from the government settlement as well as her retirement and social security. She furnished her new place quickly with generic “big warehouse sale” furniture. Back in Memphis she rounded up a graduate student couple she’d met at church—a husband and wife who both needed to give their spectacles a good cleaning—to house-sit, and then she transferred her base of operations to Tallahassee, informing friends only that she’d be taking an extended vacation.

Completing her task in Florida, unfortunately, was taking a while. Every morning when Marylou and her Welsh corgi, Buster, left their house at 22 Reeve’s Court and set out on their walk toward Wilson Sprigg’s house at 2208 Friar’s Way, Marylou chanted to herself: Today’s the day. Today’s the day. Today’s the day he’ll suffer and die. Every morning she fully believed that by the time she’d walked the three blocks to Wilson’s house she’d have figured out how to do him in, despite the fact that she’d been setting out on this very walk a few times a day for the past two weeks and it was nearly May and the best method and right time had yet to present themselves.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Elizabeth Stuckey-French © 2011, Anchor Books/Penguin Random House.