History That Never Was

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Guest Post: Avoiding Pratfalls

Hi, I’m Kurt, and I’m invading Dawn’s blog again.

I think of myself as a humorist. My published work has been a mix of funny and serious, but my most recent stories and my best stories have been comedies, and even my more serious stories usually have some humorous elements to them. So I thought today I’d talk about humor.

Humor sucks. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s great when it works, but it goes wrong so frequently. It’s highly subjective and context-dependent. It doesn’t age well. And let’s face it, while it’s easy to make your friends chuckle in casual conversation, those skills don’t translate cleanly to writing. And when humor fails, it fails hard. If someone is trying to be eloquent or trying to tell an emotional story but it’s just not working, you generally get the gist of what they’re doing and appreciate the effort. If someone is trying to be funny and failing, you start hating that person. Or, as John Scalzi so eloquently put it on his own blog: “The failure mode of clever is asshole.”

So today, I’m not going to talk about how to be funny. Instead, I’m going to talk about how not to make an ass of yourself when trying to be funny. And the first rule is:

Don’t be a jerk.

Don’t punch down. Don’t make fun of people. Don’t make jokes about people’s politics or religion. Don’t say something mean and then pretend it’s satire–and if you don’t know the difference between satire and punching down, do not attempt either. You’re not writing an episode of South Park here. Whatever joke you have in mind, if you were to say it over Thanksgiving dinner and get a disapproving glare from your grandmother, it’s probably not what you want in your writing.

Comedy, especially in written prose, needs to have broad appeal, because your writing is already going to be siloed by genre and subject matter. The potential audience is starting out small, so it’s probably a good idea to not alienate huge swaths of it. The other problem with mean-spirited “humor” pieces is that they tend to build the piece around a single conceit, and that means that the piece either lives or dies on one joke. That is not a recipe for success. If you want to cast a broad net, you need to tell lots of small jokes rather than working toward one big one…

You’re sowing a field, not planting a tree.

Joke-telling is a performative art. So much of the impact is driven less by what you say and more by how you say it. If I may invoke the old axiom: Comedy is all in the timing. Well, guess what you don’t have a ton of control over in written prose? Timing. You have some control–writers talk about the pacing of their work–but you don’t have the same kind of fine-grained control that you have when delivering a joke aloud. There’s also tone, inflection, gesture, and all the other bits that are part of the performance. If you’re telling a joke, even one with a long and involved setup, your audience is always going to know that you’re telling a joke, even if you’re not saying anything particularly funny. All of that comes from your performance.

But you don’t have that when you’re writing prose. So you can’t have a long drawn-out build to a devastating punchline. It won’t feel like a joke; it will feel like you started out telling one kind of story and then finished up telling a different kind. Big jokes don’t land. In fact, lots of jokes won’t land. So, how do you counter that? If you read humorists like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, what you see is that the jokes come fast and furious. They are constantly making amusing asides and wry observations. None of these jokes are big, but they are legion. And they won’t all work for you, but that’s okay, because there’ll be another joke in the next paragraph.

Which brings me to my next big of advice…

Make jokes that fail invisibly.

Part of what makes a joke collapse under its own weight is that the reader is not laughing at what is clearly intended to be a punchline. One way to avoid this is to simply not call all that much attention to the punchline. That way, the people who get it will appreciate it, but the people who don’t get it won’t be bothered by it. They’ll pass right over it and on to the next paragraph.

But if you’re going to allow for joke failure, how do you keep the audience engaged?

Don’t rely solely on humor.

There is a temptation when writing humor to focus on your story and characters merely as vectors for joke-delivery. Resist this temptation. Funny stories need to be stories first, funny second. Humor is spice, not substance. It’s such a dominant flavor that it tends to be the only thing you remember about a work. Without an actual story with actual characters, it’s going to feel empty and lifeless, no matter how good the jokes are.

This doesn’t mean that the story can’t itself be funny. It just has to be real. In my own Ms. Figgle-DeBitt’s Home For Wayward AIs, the hero has a goal and goes through a complete character arc to achieve it. It’s a very silly arc–he’s attempting to bake a cake and keeps messing things up–but it is still a complete arc with obstacles and allies and a resolution.

Thanks for reading,


Kurt Pankau is a board game enthusiast, an avid dad-joker, and a sucker for stories about time-travel. His work has appeared in various and sundry places around the web, including Nature: Futures, Escape Pod, and Daily Science Fiction. He tweets and @kurtpankau and blogs at kurtpankau.com. He lives in St. Louis.

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