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.