17 August 2020

Comedy Is Hard

I've often been accused of being funny, except by my former students. I've directed comedy in theater, too, both contemporary (Christopher Durang) and classical (Several Shakespeare including The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night), and my stories and novels always include some humor.

A few years ago, someone suggested I add another workshop to my repertoire: writing humor. I hedged. Then I visited libraries, bookstores and the Internet to find books on writing comedy. I found only a few, and none of them helped me.

Drama is easy. Melodrama is easy. Comedy is eff-ing hard.

Comedy comes from two sources. One is the situation, the basis of slapstick humor. Shakespeare's drunks and fools usually followed this tradition, which goes back to the Greek and Roman playwrights (Remember, Will lifted The Comedy of Errors wholesale from Plautus). This often becomes farce, where the characters become puppets in service to the plot.

The other source is more intellectual or verbal. Puns, wordplay and irony replace the pratfalls, and some people appreciate this more than others. If you tell the same joke to ten people, a few will roar, some will chuck, a couple will smile, and at least one will say, "Oh, that's it?"

Like American English, comedy relies on rhythm. Years ago, I attended a one-day workshop on directing comedy, and the instructor stressed "The Machine," the progression and rhythm that make a scene or play "funny." He said if you change the order or any component, you'll kill the joke. I agree. Years ago, my wife played the fussy roommate in the female version of The Odd Couple, and the other actress insisted on adding "uh-huh, oh really" and other ad libs to the famous exchange about "It's not spaghetti, it's linguini." She never got a laugh. Ever. Not one single night.

The only other specific hint I remember about directing comedy came from my directing mentor in grad school: Gorgeous is not funny...unless she slips on a banana peel. 

My first drafts aren't funny. Humor grows out of revision, usually from a character's reaction to the situation, more ironic than slapstick. If it doesn't feel like part of the character and the whole milieu, it doesn't work for me. I try not to reach for it because if it emerges, it's a pleasant surprise for me, too, and that's how punchlines work. They deliver what the audience expects, but not the way they expect it. 

My favorite authors write humor better than I do. Maybe that's one reason I like them. Louise Penny uses twisted literary allusions and puns, usually as responses from the residents of Three Pines, whom we've grown to know and love over the course of her Armand Gamache series. 

Dennis Lehane's irony--karma comes to town--often involves character, too. Don Winslow can use irony, but he can also go slapstick. His recent novella "The San Diego Zoo" builds on an outrageous situation seen through the eyes of a cop who becomes a laughingstock on social media. The opening line is "Nobody knows how the chimp got the revolver," and the story races to the logically absurd conclusion from that premise. Elvis Cole, the PI of many Robert Crais novels, loves self-deprecating throw-aways. 

Several romance authors write great comedy, too. Look at Jennifer Crusie's dialogue, especially late in a book where her characters paraphrase earlier speeches and turn them on their heads.

None of these writers could steal another's joke and make it work in their own stories. Comedy is personal, and that's what makes it so hard.

You really do reveal yourself on the page. 


  1. You're right it's hard but when it works, it's so nice. Cops use dark humor and sarcasm to relieve stress. I received good training there but you're right again, timing is critical.

  2. Steve, you're right, comedy can be hard to write and the reaction of those in the audience can vary. Like O'Neil, I was schooled in the dark humor of the street where laughter relieves the stress.

    For me to write humor, I usually start with a situation which should be normal, but quickly goes wrong. The characters then react in their own way, which is often not the way the reader expects. [Example: in "Black Friday" (AHMM Nov 2017) during the byplay between the robber and my burglars there to redeem a wedding ring, Lebanese George, the pawn shop owner being robbed, gets tired of having both hands in the air, so he keeps one hand up and uses the other to drink coffee from his cup during the robbery.

    Sometimes, I can even get a laugh from myself when re-reading my own writing, but then I've never been psychoanalyzed.

  3. Steve, you're right, writing humor isn't easy. It's even dangerous: trying to be funny and failing would be almost as bad as being funny when you're trying to be serious. (And I've seen stores turn out both ways.)

    Enjoyed this column.

  4. Verbal comedy in books tends to make disappointing movies. See a dozen Donald Westlake flicks as evidence.

  5. Great column, Steve!

    The most common form of humor in most of the crime stories I read comes in dialogue. I think of Robert B. Parker; the actual situations in his books were rarely funny, but there are Spenser/Hawk interchanges that had me on the floor. Robert's right, though, that this kind of comedy doesn't often translate well to the screen (and also right that there has yet to be a satisfying film version of any of the hilarious Dortmunder books by Westlake).

    On the other hand, I think there have been several films or TV shows that successfully capture much of what makes Elmore Leonard's dialogue funny. I'm thinking specifically of Out of Sight and the tv show Justified.

    My personal definition of comedy comes from Mel Brooks: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."

  6. Steve, I've written comedy for years, mainly standup, have 16 books of fiction, all comedies, and have taught comedy writing at college and at workshops. So yes, I relate very well to your post. I've even written about how to write comedy on these pages! I think the main thing I've discovered since I got my first comedy agent in 1992: you can't teach someone how to be funny. It's there or it isn't, and it can't be forced. I can help aspiring writers see how to 'hone' their comedy to something better - that I can do. But it's like 'where do you get your ideas'. If you have to ask the question, then writing fiction probably isn't your gift.

  7. Well done, Steve. One other comedy/mystery writer is Janet Evanovich, especially her Stephanie Plum series. The original reader of her audiobooks enhanced the situation with a strong New Jersey accent, diminished when she was replaced halfway through the series.


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