07 May 2022

Funny Business


A recent "topic of the week" at the message board of the Short Mystery Fiction Society was one that I found especially interesting. It was "Humor in Crime Fiction." I didn't participate in the discussion, or at least haven't yet, but I've been enjoying reading the views of others on the subject, and the consensus seems to be that a little humor is almost always a plus, even in the more serious novels and short stories. 

I agree. Many of my favorite authors--among them Joe R. Lansdale, Nelson DeMille, the late Donald Westlake, Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, Lawrence Block, Carl Hiaasen--include humor in most (in some cases, all) of their writing, to the point that I and others have come to expect it. And I believe that if Thomas Harris can manage to inject a degree of humor into ultra-violent books like Hannibal and The Silence of the Lambs, most authors could do the same, if they wanted to.

Humor is serious business

I do realize, of course, that some topics don't lend themselves to lighthearted writing--I don't recall anything funny in Schindler's List or Sophie's Choice or Leaving Las Vegas. But in the kind of mystery/crime stories I'm thinking of, the humor doesn't have to be Laugh Out Loud hilarity. It can be something as small as banter between partners, witty observations, weird incidents, or just characters not taking themselves too seriously. Anything that can occasionally bring a smile to the reader's face. Moviewise, the Cohen Brothers seem to be especially good at that ("He's fleeing the interview!").

I also realize that humor can backfire if you're not careful. I saw the following quote in an article called "Why Humor Is So Essential in Fiction" (Joel Sippie, The Wrtier): "The first thing to remember is not to overdo it. Overcooked humor is just as bad as overcooked turkey. No one needs more of either in their lives." But if it is done correctly, it's a great advantage.

In my own writing world

It has occurred to me that part of the reason some of my short-story series have worked at certain markets is that humor plays a big part in those stories. My country-bumpkin sheriff who often enlists the assistance of his former schoolteacher in his Woman's World investigations is usually more irritated by her bossy manner and grammar instruction than grateful for her help, and in dozens of stories in other magazines my amateur crimefighter Fran Valentine is just as interested in trying to find a husband for her sheriff daughter Lucy as she is in solving the cases. That kind of thing seems to also work in some of my longer and more intense crime stories. But--again--I try to be careful not to overplay it. 

Here are a few more personal examples. Two fairly recent Derringer Awards came from (1) my flash story "Tourist Trap" about two people plotting a murder/robbery in ancient Italy and (2) a longer story called "On the Road with Mary Jo" about a pair of dimwitted bank robbers who steal what turns out to be an experimental self-driving car. I made sure both those plots, and the character relationships that go with them, relied entirely on humor. And just last week an old friend from IBM asked me about one of my early stories called "Saving Mrs. Hapwell," which involved a cowboy who finds himself in an awkward confrontation with the husband of an old girlfriend. What my buddy said he remembered most about the story was that it was funny, which I took as high praise. (That story has now been reprinted in nine different markets, including here, two years ago.)

In my own reading (and viewing) world

Not that it matters, but here are a few of my favorite pieces of humorous fiction:

Short Stories:

"The Kugelmaas Episode," Woody Allen

"The Green Heart," Jack Ritchie

"Voodoo," Fredric Brown

"The Catbird Seat," James Thurber

"The Absence of Emily," Jack Ritchie


No Way to Treat a First Lady, Christopher Buckley

Four to Score, Janet Evanovich

What's the Worst that Could Happen?, Donald Westlake

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

Lucky You, Carl Hiaasen


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Airplane! (1980)

Raising Arizona (1987)

Note: It's not fiction, but my favorite funny memoir is Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin.

Questions and conclusions

How much humor do you put into your stories or novels? Do you find humor enjoyable to write? Hard to write? Do you ever seek out funny books or stories or movies to read or watch? What are some of the best you've found?

In closing--and despite what many literary authors and readers seem to think--I believe meaningful fiction doesn't have to be a deep and bleak journey into the misery of the human condition. And with that in mind . . .

Keep writing, and keep smiling.


  1. I've tried putting humor in some of my stories, even in the horror stories. Sometimes it doesn't want to go there! Among the writers who were masters of adding humor were Robert Bloch. (There are even a few grim laughs in "Psycho.") And I was just on a Facebook discussion where somebody was asking about the old British "Carry On" films.

    1. Jeff, I didn't mention horror stories, but I agree, they can include humor also. "Grim" is a good word to use, there. Like so much else in fiction (and life, too), it's a matter of timing. When is it used, and how much?

      I was watching a remake of The Haunting of Hill House last night, on Amazon Prime, and there's already been some humor in that. (With Owen Wilson as one of the characters, that makes sense.) I think Shirley Jackson would've approved.

      I loved some of those "carry on" movies. I bet that FB discussion was fun.

      Thanks as always. Keep writing!

  2. I drop in humor when it isn't expected.

    1. The best place to use it. Thanks, O'Neil.

  3. I think the subtle and not-so-subtle humor in your stories brings more life and reality to them. I like the unexpected drop too!

    1. Thank you, Anonymous--I suspect most of my humor's not-so-subtle, but I'm sure glad you like the stories, and I'm pleased that you feel the humor helps. As Jeff mentioned earlier, I do think at least some humor can and should be used in even the most grim fiction. I recently heard an extremely well-known mystery writer say that there's no place for ANY humor in crime fiction, and I respectfully (well, maybe not so respectfully, anymore) disagree.

      Thanks again, for stopping in at SS.

  4. John, you and I have discussed Jack Ritchie at length. What a master. As for "The Catbird Seat," that was the story that inspired me to create and edit THURBER ON CRIME. By the way, if anyone wants to join the Short Mystery Fiction Society and participate in our discussions, go to https://shortmystery.groups.io/g/main It's free!

    1. Ritchie was indeed a master, Rob, and I'm still surprised, after all this time, that so few readers and writers know of his work. I own only one of his short-story collections, Little Boxes of Bewilderment, but I'm always finding his stories in old issues of AHMM and EQMM, and in anthologies. I remain in awe of his talent and imagination.

  5. Reading Florida crime writers, I prefer Charles Willeford (Miami Blues) over Carl Hiaasen. Willeford's Hoke Mosley series is special.

    1. Jim, I hate to admit I haven't read Charles Willeford. I do like Hiaasen, so if you feel Willeford's Mosley series is better, I'll happily give him a try. Thanks so much!

  6. I love writing humor, but humor relies so much on voice that I have to be in the right mood to get it right. For me, so much of humor is reactions. Something happens and the way people respond is what can be really funny--what they say, do, or think. These reactions can be a small part of a story or a big one, but if a writer does them well, they really help a story do its job: entertain.

    I'm behind on the Stephanie Plum series, but I recall binging the first six or seven because they made me laugh. Another series that started strong with humor is Sarah Strohmeyer's Bubbles series, which started with Bubbles Unbound.

    1. Barb, I somehow overlooked yours and Jim Guigli's comments.

      You are one of the folks I had in mind when I put together this post about humorous writing. And yes, I agree that one does have to be in the right mood to write some of this. Funny is hard to do, but when it works it works.

      I haven't yet read the last couple of installments in the Stephanie Plum series, but I sure remember laughing out loud at many of her (and Lula's) adventures early on. As for Sarah Strohmeyer's work, thank you for mentioning it. I will now try her Bubbles series.

  7. John, then I am ahead of you because I also have Ritchie's THE ADVENTURES OF HENRY TURNBUCKLE.

    1. You ARE ahead of me. (I might have to borrow it . . .)

  8. I find some of my characters inject more humor than others. But I always appreciate humor. BTW, James Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" also ranks high on my list. And I really loved your latest story in AHMM, "The Dollhouse."

    1. Hi Eve! Thanks so much--glad to hear you liked my AHMM story. As you could probably tell, that one was fun to write. Two more in that series are coming up at AH soon.

      I'm sorry to say, I have not read that story of Thurber's. But I will! Thanks for mentioning it.

  9. cj Sez: Great article, Mr. Floyd. I cannot write a story (and I love to write thriller/action/adventure) without a bit of humor somewhere. In real life as in reel life, a bit of humor is a stress respite--at least I personally find it so. Whether it's banter or a single thought, I insert something for the protagonist before going forward. I call my stories kind of Jane Bond-ish which always had some tongue-in-cheek humor in them.

    1. I'm with you, cj--I can't seem to write without putting at least a little humor into it (some stories more than others), and yes, it does relieve stress.

      Keep doing what you're doing!

  10. I love a little humor, no matter how dark the story, but sometimes it's tricky. It depends on the characters, the voice, and the tone of the story. I think it was Reed Farrel Coleman who once observed, "There's a reason there are no pie fights in Heart of Darkness."

    My Roller Derby novels use the women's rink names to hint at what their real-life jobs are. I have nutritionist Annabel Lector, physical therapist Grace Anatomy, florist Desolation Rose, and baker Ginger Slap, among others.

    Can I add a few titles? The MWA collection The Mystery Box has a short story by Karin Slaughter that is a hiliarious parody of a scholarly dissertation. I don't remember the title, but she includes dozens of absurd footnotes. I don't usually think of Karin as a humorous writer, but the story was laugh out loud funny. For movies, I'd add Bull Durham, too.

    1. Steve, I like Coleman's observation. And he's right.

      I especially like your Roller Derby names. Reminds me of Hot Lips Houlihan.

      Thanks as always!

  11. I tend to let humor more often seep into my articles than stories, but I have one coming up featuring a young deputy with some ‘issues’ with her mother and people she works with.

    John, I’ve read your stories and Melodie’s, always excellent. Your Lucy Valentine reminded me of B.K. Stevens. One of Bonnie’s series characters was a rough, tough female private eye, secretly engaged to a police investigator… secretly because this ruff ’n’ tuff PI was terrified of her mother.

    1. Thank you, Leigh, for the kind words. I look forward to reading your story about the young deputy and her issues!

      I certainly remember Bonnie's series, and your mention reminds me of how much she and her stories are missed by both her friends and her readers.


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