This weekend, we welcome a very special guest…Jody Lynn Nye! Jody is the author of An Unexpected Apprentice, and the Myth Adventures series with Robert Asprin (most recently Myth-Fortunes). Her latest book, A Forthcoming Wizard hit store shelves this spring. Jody became an officially published author when in the 1980s the magazine “Video Action” accepted several technical articles on broadcasting. Her first fiction piece was for Mayfair Games’s Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine game and their Role-Aids game supplement line. She currently lives with her husband and two cats rescued from animal shelters. On her personal home page she lists her email address and asks that people (presumably fans of her work) write her. Please bid Jody a warm welcome!
Seeing the Funny Side
Most of my work has a humorous bent. I enjoy it. I love watching the expressions on readers’ faces when they get to a comedy payoff in something I have written, shifting from expectation to release. There is little so satisfying as managing to get a guffaw out of someone who is perusing a printed page.
Humor has many elements, but where it starts is shared human experience. While culture bends your perception, there are things that are common among all populations in the world. Everyone knows someone who shirks their work, leaving the burden on other people. Everyone knows a child whose parents are overprotective. Everyone knows a bad cook. Everyone knows someone who has been picked on. Everyone knows a braggart. Those are good basic characters to draw from. Just add your own twist on how they react to the world or the world reacts to them.
More sophisticated comedy requires knowledge of a specific culture, such as current-day America. Other cultures or those of a future time might not ‘get’ references to something in the popular media. If you have ever seen the Carol Burnett show’s spoof on “Gone With the Wind,” and started laughing as soon as Ms. Burnett, as Scarlett O’Hara, walks onto the stage in the green velvet dress with the curtain rod over the shoulders and the tassel on her head, you knew the source material – the impoverished Scarlett making a new ball gown out of curtains in the 1939 MGM blockbuster film – and the twist that rendered the skit funny. Ms. Burnett’s line after the sight gag built on it and made it more hilarious. (“I saw it in the window, and I just had to have it.”)
Humor depends upon taking a story and twisting it so that it ends in a different place than the reader expects it to. Something that catches you off guard can surprise a laugh out of you. (You may go back later and think it wasn’t all that funny – but it was unexpected.)
There is a saying that comedy equals tragedy plus time. I also find that comedy equals tragedy plus distance. Some of the most intense jokes I know come from shared emotional situations and are not easily understood or accepted outside of those milieus. The jokes that I have heard told by retired servicemen are downright dark (If you think I am kidding, do an Internet search for a video of ‘the unluckiest man in Iraq.’). Being able to laugh while facing death helped them to cope. Anything that helped keep them sane that wasn’t dangerous or illegal is worthwhile.
Humor can arise from pain. Ethnic jokes told by that ethnicity among itself help put the pain that brought that humor into being at a distance. Jewish jokes came from the shtetl, where death was outside, and humor helped to ease the tension of those trapped inside. African-Americans make pointed jibes among themselves. Ethnic jokes told about other people dehumanize them.
If you have a point to make, humor is a good way to help ease the way into a reader’s consciousness. The famous trial lawyer, Melvin Belli, always said, “Laughing juries never convict.” If you make a reader laugh about something, it defuses the tension that might accompany that situation. It will make it easier for him or her to revisit that scene later in his or her mind. Can you put your reader in your character’s place?
Comedy can be cruel. I try to avoid that in my work. Jay Leno said he teases his audience to get them involved in his act, but he does not make fun of things people can’t help. He said once that if he sees a bald man in the audience, he won’t home in on that. Instead, he’ll make fun of the man’s tie. My preference in my own work is for a more gentle humor. There is so much acid masquerading as satire in mass media today that genuine wit and design get lost. You should laugh at my characters for the situations they put themselves into, not because of who or what they are.
By its explosive nature, a funny story should be as brief as possible. Timing is vital, whether spoken or read. You might think that the ellipsis was invented for writing humor. It gives the reader’s eye a moment to pause, for the punch line to catch up.
Humor, like straight drama, is about a situation that matters to the characters, building tension upon tension through crisis to climax and resolution. In a drama, the pivotal element is serious. On the funny side, I love the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure movies. In the first film, the future of the entire world depends upon two California slackers passing their senior history class final. Not upon the work of a scientist, or the diplomacy between two world leaders teetering on the brink of global catastrophe; no, it has to be two academically-disinclined, musically inept but good-hearted and decent teenagers whose dream is to have a rock band who will save the world. I don’t know how you’d face the greatest figures of history, but chances are your response would not be a slack-jawed, “Whoa!” (Or maybe it would.) At the same time, the characters’ lives are falling apart. They have a lot of other concerns to deal with before they can solve the main problem. It was brilliantly done in a well-written and very funny way. The script was instructive for demonstrating that the more you build on a situation, the bigger the payoff can be. Pull away the underpinnings of your character’s life one by one until they can all be restored triumphantly at the end – or enough that s/he is satisfied with the outcome.
Needless to say, I also like a happy ending when I can get one.
I will use any kind of humor that is appropriate to the story. I love puns. I know some people consider them a cheap shot, but they’re fun. There are situations I don’t think I could or should render humorous, such as child abuse, but almost anything else is fair game. Characters, ditto. It is a fine line to tread to create a villain for a funny story without having him drag down the mood without rendering him so ridiculous that the reader can’t take him seriously, but if I’ve done my job well, the balance of comedy and drama will be maintained.
I’ve been inspired over the years by a number of wonderfully funny people. I grew up on the Marx Brothers films and Warner Brothers cartoons. Mark Twain was the first writer whose humor writing I appreciated. His droll observations made me think hard about his characters and, by extension, the people I met in my own life. Terry Pratchett has created an absurd universe populated by very realistic people who are sometimes in terrible danger, but I laugh and wince, often at the same time. (He also once managed to make me cry with a single word.) Robert Sheckley is responsible for the first humorous science fiction I ever read. Knowing that such a thing was possible encouraged me to try my hand at it. And I owe a great debt to Robert Asprin, my friend and late collaborator, who gave me such pleasure with his counterculture response to the overblown fantasy epics of the sixties, the Myth-Adventures. I still enjoy all those books.
If you want to try writing humor, go for it. Get to the point without wasting energy, take your characters seriously, and let yourself relax. When you find yourself laughing over your own keyboard, you’ll know you have got it.
Then, share it with the rest of us.