What’s funny

On July 13, 2014, Writer At Heart wrote, I’m having problems with my MC. I feel as though she isn’t very developed. How do I get around to do this? Maybe it’s because I don’t think that she has a great sense of humor.

carpelibris responded with these questions: Why doesn’t she have a sense of humor? Is she overly serious? Socially awkward? Too literal-minded? The reason might give you clues to her personality.

Is she in a situation where humor’s important? Why? How does she respond? What problems does this cause for her?

And Writer At Heart answered, No, she’s not overly serious or any of that other stuff you said. Like, she can be awkward at times or serious, it’s really just me. I can say a joke pretty well, but I just can’t write it down on paper or on the computer. She’s actually very outgoing. It’s not only my MC who I want to be funny, but my MC’s ‘boyfriend.’ I want him to be very funny, someone who can make a girl laugh. 

The school teacherish side of me has to say that if we’re not good at writing a particular kind of thing and we want to be, the remedy is practice. We can write down the joke that we told out loud, which had our friend clutching his sides and weeping with laughter. We can tweak it until we think it’s pretty good. Then we can show it to another friend and see what happens.

Not even a smile? Revise and repeat.

We may never cause the uproarious laughter that accompanied the spoken joke, because our timing, our inflection, our own suppressed hilarity will be missing, but we should be able to get a smile.

If this aspect of writing is as important to us as it is to Writer at Heart, we can read joke books and see which ones make us laugh and figure out how the effect was achieved.

So now I’m tempted. I recently heard a joke on the radio that I loved and want to share. (It’s not mean.) It’s also not funny to everybody. The radio person who told it said that the smartest person she knows didn’t get it. Here’s the joke:

I’m walking down the street and see my old friend, but, surprisingly, he now has a big orange head. I ask him what happened. He says he was in an antique store and bought an old lamp, which he cleaned when he got home and a genie appeared and offered him three wishes. His first wish, he says, was for a beautiful house. He points at an enormous, gorgeous mansion and says that’s it. His second wish was for a beautiful wife. He points at a stunning woman who’s pruning the roses along the fence and says she’s his wife. He goes on. “Then I made my mistake. For my third wish I asked for a big orange head.”

I’m laughing right now. My telling is nothing special. I just wrote it down more or less as I heard it. The surprise and the absurdity tickle me.

I want to assure you all that I’m not violating anybody’s copyright by telling this joke. When it was told on the radio, the person who heard it already knew it, so it’s out there. But we do need to be careful with jokes that come from joke books, which  probably are copy protected. We can repeat them to friends, but we shouldn’t include them in anything we hope to publish.

I adore funny books, plays, movies, but not everybody is into humor or is interested in writing it. Most writers, as far as I can tell, are, sadly (so to speak!), not funny. We can write a career’s worth of serious stories, and that’s fine. It’s like some artists aren’t good at drawing hands but they’re great at other aspects of visual art.

So let’s work on making our MC funny, and let’s call her Marie, and let’s call her boyfriend Jonas. They can both be funny in the way that Writer at Heart would like, that is, they can be witty. In a social situation, people can wait for one or the other of them to make the remark that surprises and brings the smiles. Also, for them to be likable to the reader, they can’t be mean. Their jokes shouldn’t be at someone else’s expense.

Suppose they go together to a Valentine’s Day party. They make their entrance a little late, and everyone is delighted to see them, because they’re the life of every party. On the way in, Jonas picks up a big heart lollipop from a bowl. With everyone watching, he lunges like a fencer at Marie. She steps back smiling, instantly getting the joke. The two of them bow to everyone and say in unison, “Heart attack.”

Not sure how funny a heart attack is, but Marie and Jonas are clever. They’re witty, and no one’s feelings have been hurt.

How did I come up with the heart-attack joke?

It happened to come right away, but if it hadn’t I would have written some notes, which might have gone like this: They’re at a party. A theme party provides more opportunities and more interesting props, could be Halloween, a birthday, Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day. Which of them will make the joke?

• Marie holds a heart doily to her ear. Jonas gets it and says loudly, “Heart of hearing!”

• Heart is also hart. Can I do anything with a joke about the deer? No. Nobody will get it.

• Something with endearments: sweetie, love, dear, darling, sugar, honey.

• Stick with heart. I got it! Heart attack. How do I write it so it isn’t making fun of a terrible illness?

Or you may prefer heart of hearing. Or the endearments may have gotten you thinking.

In a story, a series of jokes will quickly grow tiresome. If Marie’s and Jonas’s repartee continue at length, the reader may stop reading and switch to something that has story momentum. So suppose we leave it at one joke in this moment, and suppose the reader knows that half an hour ago the lovebirds were arguing and even on the point of parting. They’ve made up, and the relieved reader sees that they’re back in sync. The joke isn’t just funny now, it also makes the reader feel good until the next crisis.

Or, suppose either Marie or Jonas is really not a nice person, and the reader is alarmed that they’re happily together again. The joke is still clever, but the tone is ominous.

Or, the reader knows somehow that they’re about to be separated forever, but the two of them are blissfully unaware. Now the humor is tinged with tragedy. The reader smiles through his tears.

Let’s consider other ways Marie and Jonas can be funny, and let’s reprise carpelibris’s questions: Is she overly serious? Socially awkward? Too literal-minded?

Writer at Heart said no, but a character’s foibles can help with the humor. Marie can be overly serious and too literal-minded. People are being witty all around her, and she doesn’t get it. The reader hears the soundtrack of her thoughts. She’s trying to figure out what’s funny, and she has a fake smile pasted on her face. Finally, she thinks she understands. She says, “I get it!” And she comes out with a wild interpretation that nobody meant. They laugh, and she’s mildly puzzled. The reader sympathizes and smiles. But if she’s really hurt it stops being funny.

Jonas can be socially awkward. He always says the thing everybody else is tiptoeing around. He means no harm, but he misses a lot of cues. There can be comic relief when he blurts out the obvious.

In both of these, unlike the witticisms, we’ve made our MCs vulnerable, which probably makes them more likable and certainly makes them funnier. If we think about stand-up comics, many present themselves as vulnerable, and there usually is a dark side to their humor. For example, I heard a comedian named Mike Birbiglia perform a piece on the radio about his sleepwalking. Part of the story involved him walking through the plate-glass window of his hotel room. It was very funny, since he’d lived to tell about it.

There are, of course, many ways to write humor. I suggest you also look back at my other two posts labeled “writing humor,” and you can also check out the chapter “Writing Funny, Writing Punny” in Writing Magic.

These prompts are based on the post:

• Jonas and Marie are going to be separated forever as soon as the party ends. Write the party scene with both at their wittiest, most charming, and most obviously in love. End with the tragedy that separates them.

• Rewrite the scene, but make the romance ridiculously over the top. Their pet names for each other are embarrassing. Jason feeds Marie a heart-shaped cookie, and they’re both dusted with powdered sugar, which they don’t see. Marie is wearing a long scarf, which gets tangled in something while they dance. They’re not nearly as charming as they think they are, but they may be twice as funny. Then have the separation occur.

• Let’s imagine that the story is going to turn sinister when two heavily armed men and one heavily armed woman crash the party, hoping for a place to evade the police. Make Jason and Marie laughable as they were in the last prompt, or make one socially awkward and the other overly serious and too literal-minded. Before the situation turns deadly they are vulnerable objects of fun. When these desperadoes come in, Marie and Jason accidentally notice the danger. They can’t tell anyone or the baddies will realize. (The phone lines have been cut, and cell phone reception is terrible here.) It’s up to our doofus duo to save the day. Write the scene, and use detail to make it funny. I’m rooting for a happy ending, but it’s up to you.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. Spock and Data might be good characters to study for making someone funny who doesn't have a sense of humor themselves. In both cases, their lack of humor gives them a vulnerability that (as a super-strong alien and an android) they wouldn't have otherwise.

  2. Here's the joke that I heard that's similar to your orange-head joke. I thought this version was funnier because he doesn't admit it was a mistake. Interesting that that's the difference between "funny" and "a dud" for me. 🙂 Humor is surprisingly subjective sometimes.


  3. Hey, I'm having trouble with one of my stories. So,I actually managed to get to somewhere near the middle of a story (or maybe even past that,YES! FINALLY!) and I've got a little bit of a problem. I have this part where My heroine, Tamara escapes the king's dungeons. The problem is, it will take her moths to get back home, going on a sort of underground railroad for escaped prisoners or rebels (of which she is both) that requires a lot of hiding and going through creepy woods, and swamps and several close calls with being caught. What I want to do here is show her escaping, and maybe the first stop of the underground railroad, and then end with her running for her life after being sighted by the kings guard, who are searching for her. Then I would like to do a bit of a time-hop and switch the POV to the people back at her castle (which is the rebel stronghold) They are planning a massive attack on the king when she just shows up, a bit worse for the wear. Then I want to do flashbacks on the rest of her escape (the months long part we didn't get to see because we did the time-hop thing) over the rest of the story. My dilemma is that flashbacks can be so risky. They break up the story and can be very annoying if done wrong (I know, I've read a LOT of done-wrong flashbacks. And to prove I'm humble, I shall admit that a great many of them were my own). So what do I do, shall I just write it in the progression it come in (escape-from-kings-prison, months of being on the run, arrival at castle) or shall I do the time-hop/flashbacks?

    • I have a story where 15 of 38 scenes are flashbacks. I don't know if I'll keep them all, but here's my writing method:
      1. Write present scenes
      2. "I'm bored. I'll write a flashback."
      3. "I need to know the MC's backstory. Flashback!"
      4. "I have no idea what comes next in the present. I'll just go do a flashback."
      5. "Well, that's done! Time for more present scenes."
      So, write in chronological order unless you have a reason to write something else.

    • I love reading flashbacks when they are slowly unveiling a secret that will be revealed in the future or hinting/foreshadowing at a future event. It adds to the suspense and then I just can't put the book down!! That's just my two cents on flashbacks 🙂

    • Thanks you guys. Yes, Carpelibris, I do need to show at least some of the fugitive-for-a-few-months, because of certain events and character development reasons. Eliza, I never thought of using flashbacks as boredom busters, but I see how that could work, I do get bored a lot. Kenzi Anne, thanks, you just boosted my confidence. Thanks again!

    • I definitely think flashbacks are important for revealing information which is necessary for people to know. When you need to tell them things but writing it into the normal narrative can become too long and boring to read – not to mention write! – flashbacks are great. I personally think that from what you've said flashbacks are the way to go, just to show what's happened to your character and how she's changed.

  4. Oh, by the way Mrs Levine, I really liked this post, it was great! I liked the joke, my brother thought it was dumb, and I'm about to tell it to my mom. Results will be posted later…

  5. Hey, not to hog space or anything, but I just discovered something that needs my immediate attention. One of my heroines is named Candace-Lace, but I just found out the there is a set of dresses or some other fashion-y thing/s called Candace Lace, and uhh, I don't really want my heroine to be suspected of being named after such stuff. It wouldn't suit her. So does anyone have any ideas for names to go with Lace, because that absolutely has to be her second name. It has to go together with it, as Lace is not necessarily a middle name, it goes right with her first name (Lace absolutely HAS to be the second name). I want her name to match her personality, so I don't really want anything too girly and not tough sounding either. Sweet and/or old-fashioned is good. Probably not a modern name, but if it's pretty enough, sure. Anyone have any ideas? Any help will be appreciated. Thanks!

    • If you look up the meaning of the names Candace, Candase, Khandace, or even Candiace, they actually mean "clarity, whiteness", until combined with Lace. I had never heard of Candace Lace before you commented, so you could maybe still use it. However, if you don't want to, I looked up some names that rhyme with Lace–here's what I found:
      Aase (Norse, "tree covered mountain")
      Agace (this means "good" in Greek)
      Anastase (Greek, "resurrection")
      Ase (Hebrew, "doctor; healer")
      Canace (Greek, "myth name")
      Candiace (Latin, "clarity, whiteness")
      Grace (Latin, "good will")
      Hollace (English, "near the holly bushes")
      Kace (Celtic, "alert, watchful")
      Kandace (Greek, "fire-white", Latin, "pure")
      Morguase (Arthurian Legend, mother of Gawain)
      Tace (Latin, "silent")
      And that's all I've found so far. Hope this is helpful! 🙂

    • Thanks PenelopeQ, I wasn't actually looking for names that rhymed with Lace, but I really love some of the names you've listed, so I'll have to decide. I actually think I'll rename a few of my secondaries with some of these names. I especially like Anatase and Hollace, they're interesting and rather pretty. (Anatase is a type of mineral actually, and I have a story where all the characters are named after rocks, minerals, and crystals of many types, Anatase will be PERFECT for that story.) Thanks again!

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