Getting funny

My happiest writing moments are when I’m writing something funny. I’m happy reading, too, when what I’m reading is funny, although maybe not happiest. I adore a good book in all its aspects.

Writing funny means keeping an eye out for opportunities. We writers make our characters miserable, and one of misery’s faces is humor. After our mother died, my sister and I flew to Florida to sell Mom’s condominium. We rented a car, and I backed into a police car. That was pretty funny.

So was the time I smashed up a coworker’s brand-new car in the office parking lot on my first day on the job. (And confessed, naturally.)

One of my earliest dates, when I was about fifteen, was with a boy who stood about six foot three. I’ve never made it to five feet. We went to a museum, and afterward, on Fifth Avenue in New York City, he held my hand, which I had to reach up to grasp. For blocks, people pointed and laughed. I didn’t laugh along, but we were funny.

When I was even younger I loved the verse about Ooey Gooey. I used to repeat it to myself over and over with a mixture of horror and delight. For those of you who missed the sad saga, it’s this:

Ooey Gooey was a worm,
a mighty worm was he.
Crawled out on the railroad track,
the train he did not see.
Ooey gooey!

Death at its silliest.

Mark Twain said, Humor is tragedy plus time. I agree, although I wouldn’t agree that all humor is tragedy based. Some humor is clever and some is goofy without a hint of darkness, and there may be more ways to be both comical and sunny that I can’t think of right now. But to stay on the tragic side, I’d suggest two additional equations. One is, Humor is tragedy plus willingness. In an awful situation, if we’re open to laughter, it will leap out – and provide lovely relief. My friend Joan, who had a brain injury, sometimes thinks it’s funny that she can’t remember what she ate for breakfast. She’s not horrified, she’s amused.

The second equation, a geometrical one, is, Humor is tragedy turned on its side. Take “Hansel and Gretel,” one of the least funny fairytales out there, although there’s a lot of competition. For anyone who doesn’t know the tale, Hansel and Gretel’s parents want to leave their children in the woods and let them starve to death. There’s nothing lighthearted about that.

Or is there?

Suppose Mrs. Hansel-and-Gretel says to Mr. H&G, “If we move the children out of their room in the cellar and into the forest, we’ll have more space for our colony of giant slugs.” And Mr. H&G says, “Superb idea, dear, and I can conduct my colorful mold experiments down there, too.”

The pain of being unwanted flips over. Being left behind by Mr. and Mrs. H&G is probably a step up in the world.

It can get funnier if Hansel and Gretel know what their parents are up to. Suppose the first day they case the gingerbread house without nibbling. Suppose they follow the stones home only because Hansel left his stuffed rat behind.

Then, of course, the bumbling witch will be lots of fun. And the ending even more so, with Hansel and Gretel deciding to stay in the gingerbread house. Gretel says, “We won’t make the same mistakes as the witch.” Hansel replies, “How many children do you think we’ll catch today?”

Gross, maybe, but I think it’s funny, and of course humor is personal – in case you’ve soaked seven hankies reading this.

Sometimes it’s a stretch. Back to auto mishaps. I once walked away from a car accident that could have been very bad. Luckily the span of highway I was on was empty at that moment. I was unhurt, and no one else was involved. How to make that into comedy? The only thing that comes to mind is to personalize the road and the guardrail. If the road is ticklish and the guardrail grumpy, possibilities start to emerge.

So here’s a prompt: Make a tragedy or a misery funny. Try “The Little Mermaid” (not the movie version) or King Lear. Or delve into history, which abounds with misery. Rewrite the destruction of Pompeii or the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which is in my distant family history. Have fun, and save what you write.

  1. I've always struggled with writing humor. I think it's like drawing — some people have a talent for it naturally, and other people have to learn. I think another complication is that there is such a broad spectrum of what humor is — as you mentioned, there's goofy, and there's humor in misery, but there's also a wry observation-based, ironic humor. Your post makes me think of my brother, who has the ability to see the irony in everything. Even his essays for US history class were notoriously hilarious — and now he makes his living giggling at his desk at a video game startup dreaming up schemes and objects to make for his players. While I know the point of your post was to encourage everyone to tackle humor, thanks for reminding me to celebrate those who are already masters of humor!

  2. (I'm so glad to have found this blog that shows the real-life-challenges faced by people, including authors! I just finished reading Ella Enchanted for a course in Literature for Children & Adolescents. I'm 35 and got teary/ happy to read the climax of the book, where Ella "looked within where the battle raged." Reading how her character experienced mixed-messages and mixed-emotions was powerful. It makes me even more appreciate the work of people who advance human rights in general. Exciting to see the role of children's fiction in acknowledging/ legitimizing peoples' experiences! Thank you! I look forward to recommending this book to future students.

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