It’s not always easy to be funny

Live cat is funny. Dead cat is not. Unless it’s the other way around.

One of the perennial frustrations of my writing life is that I have an uncomfortably close connection with Schrodinger’s cat, or at least my sense of humor does.See, when I’m not trying to be funny, I can hum right along and say funny things, or at least say things that seem funny to ME. I can talk and talk, cracking wise and being silly to marvelous effect. The people I talk to and that read my stuff generally seem to agree. However, when I’m actively trying to write something funny… I get nothing. I can feel myself trying too hard, feel the phrases locking up as I try to get them down on the page, feel the kludge and clumsiness of them as they fall flat.

I’ve tried to trick myself into being funny “unintentionally” when I have something funny to write. There I’ll be, hammering out something that’s dry instead of wry, shitty instead of witty, and boring instead of something that rhymes with clever. Then, from out of nowhere, BANG! I try to surprise myself into being funny. I think of something utterly unrelated, like that part of a cow where the milk comes out. With luck, the shock of the non-sequiteur shakes loose some bit of mental gravel that will go banging about in the mental machinery, there to get ground into the magic pixie dust of humor. With LOTS of luck, this happens before the grit in the gears derails my thought process entirely.

The method is a bit like sneaking up behind Bruce Banner and pouring a glass of ice water down his shirt in hopes of getting the Hulk to come out and play. Come to think of it, the results are usually about as chaotic.

While there are some standard forms and methods to being funny, they’re only helpful when using them (and breaking them) is done in a natural way. This might be innate or it might be internalized, ritualized and habitualized through long practice. If you’ve been making people laugh for years and years, your sense of comic timing and comic word choice can appear effortless. In reality, this is no different than someone who is “effortlessly” charismatic, charming, masterful, or regal. Do it long enough, strive for excellence and expertise, use practice and focus to build on native talent, and you’ll look effortless, too. I promise.

What does it mean to have something be “naturally” funny? I don’t mean that it’s funny to everyone, since everyone’s sense of humor is different. For some people it’s nonexistent, but that’s another blog post. No, by “natural”, I mean “anything but forced-seeming”. I’m not quite there yet with respect to my comic writing. It remains, alas, far too heavily tinged with the patina of “please tell me this is funny”, and as yet possesses too little of the firm, confident brushwork that says, “this is funny, let me share it with you”. This is something I continue to strive for and to work on.

If Schrodinger had used a dog in his gedankenexperiment, I’m sure this wouldn’t be an issue. Dogs will laugh at anything.


7 thoughts on “It’s not always easy to be funny

  1. Dogs do laugh at everything – except an empty food bowl. And squirrels. Mine is very serious about squirrels. Love the Schroedinger’s analogy. I haven’t yet had an instance to write funny, which leads me to identify with your thoughts here. I wonder what might happen when/if I do!

  2. I’m been an avid follower of “Today’s Author” since its inception and religiously follow every writing prompt. I live in dread of the day when I’ll come to the site and written in the “Write Now” box will be the simple instruction, “Write something funny…”

    Thanks for the post.

  3. I tend to write humor pieces. I have usually had no trouble with it at all. But it has been hard at times to see what is or isn’t “funny” anymore. I don’t know if it’s where I am at this stage of my life or if it’s just a reaction to how things I think are hilarious have lately been met with chirping crickets, while things I intend to be serious are getting rousing laughter. Either way, I find myself sometimes second-guessing the humor as I’m writing it. As a seat-of-the-pants writer, that’s kind of a no-go.

    It’s odd, though: writing humor is so ingrained in me that even when I sit down to write a “very serious piece” I will find that there’s some form of comic relief that tries to slip in. In a way it just comes naturally but as I was attempting to imply earlier I am finding it harder to recognize it as it is happening anymore. If any of that made sense.

    • The key point is, I think, the intentionality. Wrapped up in the “write something funny” dictum is the unspoken (perhaps even unrecognized) context that you are writing something that is funny to someone. Whoever that someone is, you need to have an understanding of what that someone will find amusing. Just because that someone is yourself doesn’t necessarily make the writing any easier.

      In writing this blog post, I had in mind an audience of the kind of people who read blog posts about humor writing. What would they want to hear? What would they find funny as well as instructive, useful or inspiring? If I were writing solely for myself, I might have couched the jokes differently.

      Who exactly are you trying to amuse with your humor writing? That’s the tough question that deserves some thought. The answer will dictate whether you unsheath your rapier wit in preparation for verbal combat, pour out a sophisticated round of double martinis, or pull a rubber chicken out of your pants.

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