Writing Right with Dmitri: Keep 'em Laughing
Guinan: It's your timing, Data.
Data: My timing is digital.
Guinan: Now, that's funny!
About a million years ago, in a different universe – the one that had parents in – my dad tried to tell a joke at the dinner table. It was a long, involved joke, about Noah. It seemed that one day, Noah couldn't find the Ark. So he asked the giraffe. 'Have you seen the Ark?' The giraffe shook his head, and it swayed on his long neck. So Noah went to the penguin…
This joke went on for quite a while. My sisters, my mom, and I all sat patiently, smiling to ourselves. When he got to the punchline, where the termite groans and says, 'I can't believe I ate the whole thing!'1, we were kind of tired. But we laughed, anyway. We didn't really like to tell him that this particular joke was a bit past its sell-by date. It had already gone the rounds of everybody in our schools. My mom had laughed heartily when my baby sister told it to her about three weeks before.
I thought my dad was the worst joke teller I knew – until the following Sunday morning. That is when the pastor got up in front of the congregation and began his sermon. 'Friends, I have to tell you this story I heard. It seems that one day, Noah was missing the Ark…' The tittering in the back came from the eight-year-olds, who couldn't believe they'd started the whole thing.
Humour is about timing, it would seem.
Digital or Analogue?
So, if humour's about timing, how can you be funny on a page? Well, you could draw. Or you could pretend to be able to draw, as I do every week. The pretension alone may be amusing. But leaving aside the question of graphic comicality for a moment, is it possible to manage your comic timing in a narrative?
As the funny man would say, 'Oh, yeah.'
Writing a funny piece requires careful phrasing, as tight as ad copy. You don't want to reveal the punchline too soon, but you want to build anticipation. You want the reader to feel the humour building. The best written humour keeps the reader on the edge of his/her seat quite as much as a good thriller – if not more.
What's in a Name?
One way to make a joke funnier is manage your vocabulary. Borscht-Belt2 comedians often insist that certain words are inherently funny. They will advise you, for example, that if you need a 'funny' vegetable, you shouldn't pick a potato3. Instead, you should choose a rutabaga. Rutabagas are funny, per se. It's the sound, you see.
By the same token, Pittsburgh or Poughkeepsie are funny names. (Some comedians insist that 'P' is a funny sound, but let's not go that far in the study of hystericolinguistics.) Personally, I find that American Indian names have a great potential for comedy. Think about it: Kokomo, Kalamazoo, Winnebago – just the thought of the Winnebago Indians makes us chuckle4. In merry old England, towns that start with 'Little' are funny, while in Germany, anything called 'Hinter', 'Ober', or 'Unter' can be potentially hilarious.
See? Nomenclature can be risible.
Know Your Audience
Jokes fall flat if told to the wrong audience. A joke whose punchline depends upon the difference between a black hole and a quasar is probably not going to go down too well at your brother's bachelor party. Unless, of course, he and his friends are astrophysicists. Risque humour is fine in its place, which is definitely not the Women's Missionary Society.
Many years ago, one of the funniest people I've ever known gave a speech to the missionary ladies at a luncheon. Now, Tommy was not there because he was a scintillating raconteur, although he was that. Tommy was not even there because he was a brilliant comparative theologian with university degrees, although he was that, too. Tommy was there to teach the missionary ladies how to talk to foreign students' wives about Jesus – without offending them. Given the usual sensitivity of the middle-class housewife, this was not an easy chore.
Surprisingly, Tommy did very well. His points were clear. He told the ladies a lot they didn't know5. Best of all, he had them laughing with his enthusiastic, but kindly humour. They were so wrapped up in his presentation that when he said, 'Now, this definition fits tighter than a fat lady's girdle,' they didn't even flinch. I don't know how he did it, but somehow, he managed. He got that joke past their internal censors.
Can you do it on the page? Sure you can. Here are a few tips:
- Keep the tone light, and the prose flowing. To be sure it has that ring to it, read your writing aloud. If you don't have any other audience, the cat will do. Try not to be offended if he falls asleep.
- When groping for word choice, pick the funny word. In this case, trying it out on the cat is not recommended. To a cat, any word except 'tuna' is just noise.
- Try to build tension, then release it. It works for suspense novelists, and it works for humour. Wonder why that is?
- One last tip: don’t take yourself so seriously. You may find the joke hilarious. But will someone else? It depends. Humour, like offence, is very much an individual thing. Unless you want to be the only one laughing, be humble enough to take advice.
Now try it out. Send your most humorous efforts to us at the Post. After a hard week of trying to communicate, we may need a laugh.
See you in the funny papers.