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on relating stories in a humorous manner
the struggle for funny
by ken mohnkern
11.27.06
writing


I love authors who can make me laugh. I read all of Tom Robbins' novels because every one of them makes me laugh out loud, even when reading in public. My latest crush is Lorrie Moore because I smile and snort through all of her stories. Carl Hiaasen does that for me too. I have a friend who writes hilarious plays, many taking serious liberties with historical figures. I don't know how she does it.

Well, I want to write funny too. My shrink once asked me what kind of person I wanted to be and I answered, "funny." He looked at me like I was crazy. At that moment I realized that he was as fallible as anyone. I stood by my statement then and I stand by it now.

Sometimes funny things slip into my work, but seemingly by accident. It usually happens when I'm in the zone, on a roll, typing madly to keep up with the flow of words in my head. But when I reread those pieces they are spotty. I might start reading with a grin, but the next several paragraphs drain the life from me. Then just as I'm about to throw the thing away and take a nap another bit of funny shows up. Repeat for ten pages.

I suppose I could read a how-to book. There are loads of books about writing humor. But I cringe from them. I touched one once, but did not get past its table of contents. Standing in the humor-writing section at the B&N is as embarrassing as being in the self-help section. Buying (and, god forbid, reading) one of these things seems like one of the most pathetic things a writer can do.

For one thing, the titles are so, well, unfunny. Good god, isn't "humor" one of the least funny words in our language? And "humorous" makes me think of orthopedics. Isn't that one of the bones in your arm? "Comedy" is not much better, a bland utilitarian word. "Funny," however, is funny because the "fuh" sound at the beginning could easily begin a vulgarity. The titles are set in wacky, multi-colored block letters on the covers of these books. Cover illustrations feature horrifying wide-mouthed caricatures and pictures of rubber chickens and chattering plastic dentures and other "humorous" cliches. I know how it would go if I bought one of these books: I would get it home, look at the horrid cover again, and put my head in the oven.

Maybe my distaste for these books stems from the notion that humor cannot be taught. I assume that these books give techniques and rules to follow, but following rules cannot lead to funny, can it? Ultimately, I guess, I believe that an unfunny person cannot learn how to write funny, so a book won't do anything for me. I am fated to write only as funny as I am, and no funnier. Another factor here is that I think a book can be funny, but a book about being funny will be an insufferable read and I wouldn't be able to get through the thing. E.B. White once said, "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." Can't argue with old E.B. He's famous and he's dead.

I have been told that you can add funny to a story in later drafts. But how? Editing is not a funny activity. It's hard to add funny on command. Humor comes, in my experience, when I am relaxed, and I am rarely relaxed while editing. I get way too nitpicky and critical. I'm no fun when I edit. (I get like David Banner, saying, "You wouldn't like me when I edit." That's some funny I added in a late draft of this piece. See what I mean?) In fact, I tend to cut funny out of my work on review. In review the funny bits too often sound trite or sitcom-y or forced or cliched or too easy, so not many of them survive. I once edited a piece that I thought was funny from five pages to one page for a class. Nobody thought the one-pager was funny, including me. Fortunately the instructor was generous enough to note a single clue that it had once had aspirations of being funny.

So what can I do? Continue to read writers that make me laugh and pay attention to what they're doing, I guess. I can try to establish better writing habits where I get into that funny creative flow and stay there a while. I can maybe be kinder while editing my work. I can tell you this, though: you're not going to find me in the writer's self-help section of the book store.


ABOUT KEN MOHNKERN

There's a fifty-fifty chance that Ken is wearing a shirt with a stain on it.

more about ken mohnkern

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COMMENTS

tracey kelley
11.27.06 @ 9:41a

Oh indeed, funny is hard. Not only because humor is incredibly subjective, but something can be hilarious when spoken and fall flat in word. I have yet to accomplish funny in longform, but I'd like to think I evoke a few chuffs in my columns or in some of my portfolio pieces.

However, judging from the recent lack of interest in my portfolio, I guess that isn't working either.

adam kraemer
11.27.06 @ 10:15a

That's okay. I'm not even sure these days if I have a portfolio or just a Trapper Keeper.

robert melos
11.27.06 @ 10:28p

I guess I'm the opposite. I can't handle serious for more than a few paragraphs, but I can work humor, sarcastic humor, sitcom type humor, innuendo humor, into everything. Editing humor in can sometimes work. I do it all the time, but it has to flow. Keeping the flow is one of the hardest parts of humor.

ken mohnkern
11.27.06 @ 11:34p

Thanks, Rob't. Are you saying that if the humor doesn't get in there in the first draft it's not likely to get in in later ones? The engineer in me wants to have a set of techniques and templates to follow to add something funny here and there. Fortunately I realize that the engineer in me hasn't been fed for a long time and is weak and delusional.

alex b
11.28.06 @ 4:09a

Funny is incredibly inspiring. It also makes me think it's like a well-made designer coat: you had better know what you're doing if you're going to try to make one. Nice piece, Ken!

robert melos
11.28.06 @ 7:23a

No Ken, humor can be placed in at any time during the writing process. What I'm getting at is flow. There's a Tanya Tucker song titled, If It Don't Come Easy. The song states, 'if it don't come easy, there's no natural flow.'

In engineering terms think of it like designing a river. You know you need a bridge to cross the river, and you can build it to stand out like the Golden Gate, or you can build a bridge to fit the aesthetics of the area, something almost invisible. Meanwhile, you don't want to interrupt the flow of your river, so you build something that spans the river without blocking the water or damming it up.

Sorry, the above description is all related to my God complex; tithing is optional but highly recommended.

jael mchenry
11.28.06 @ 9:09a

Generally, when I'm writing, I either get into the funny flow or I don't. But after writing, like Ken, a mostly humorless NaNo piece, I am desperate to write something laugh-out-loud funny.

You can definitely add or subtract jokes during the editing process, but I think if the voice isn't right from the beginning, it's not going to work as well.

Getting the voice right and then knowing your characters are key. If your character is saying something funny, is it something that character would really say? Obviously it will sound forced otherwise. If your narrator is the one being funny, there's still a question of voice and consistency.

Wow, those are possibly among the driest sentences ever written that purportedly discuss humor.

The word "purportedly," by the way: inherently hilarious.

marki shalloe
11.28.06 @ 9:57a

The best path to writing humor is friends who are poor. Rich people, like happy families, are all alike. Poor people are struggling, and struggle is humorous, as anyone who's ever watched Chaplin, or me trying to cash a check at Bank of America, will attest. Poor people have better 'set ups', such as insisting on exchanging Christmas presents but setting the spending limit at four dollars (I gave my last Poor Friend a plastic unicorn upon which you could impale a plastic mime). Poor people eat funny things out of desperation or proximity, like fried bologna on a croissant. Poor people have funny pets, like chickens, or whatever animal just happens to wander up to their porch and be free. Poor people shave their legs with Swiss Army knives and then realize they don't have bandaids. That's the ticket. Poor people. Purportedly.

[edited]

ken mohnkern
11.28.06 @ 10:22a

Hey everybody, meet my friend mentioned in this piece - the one who writes purportedly hilarious plays.

ken mohnkern
11.28.06 @ 11:32a

I agree. Flow matters. And it's something I struggle with every time I sit down to write. I've got to figure out (for my own case) what gets it going, what enhances it, and what disrupts it.

tracey kelley
11.28.06 @ 1:18p

I'm a strong proponent of adding the best parts of anything in later drafts - funny, language, whatever. There needs to be two minds to editing - the "I'm making this better" editing and the "I can't believe I missed that comma" editing. The streams cannot cross, otherwise neither will be any good.

For example, after valuable input from someone who knows a lot more than me, I went back through my IMSS piece adding in certain detail about the character and radio that the reviewer thought needed to be there. I did not look at "the particulars" - I just went into it for that.

Then I read it again, and finessed things. Only then did I read it again for nitpicky stuff.

So it's a structured editing process that can help warm up the funny/more crafty language portion of your brain.

I do that with IM columns, too - I draft around, writing bits and pieces and working on the general flow and don't let myself get "stuck" "trying" to be clever. So then, when lines like "hit a spatula on a Fisher Price xylophone" come up, I drop it in, but don't fret over it. Then I go back a little later in "improve" editing mode and change "hit" to "wonk" and maybe slip in the line "pull the string of a clapper monkey" and POOF! Funny.

In my way, anyway.

juli mccarthy
11.28.06 @ 4:00p

See, to me, Adam's comment up there is a perfect example of how Adam does funny - he plays with words and delivers the resulting silly in a very dry tone. And then he gets the hell out of Dodge, rather then sitting there going, "Get it? D'you GET IT?"


I'm never funny when I try to be. The best I can manage deliberately is hyperbole and sarcasm. I am told, though, that I am unintentionally funny reasonably often, but I suspect that's more my own personality than any skill. I'm funny the way Kirstie Alley is - because it's fun to watch the clueless stumble about.

ken mohnkern
11.30.06 @ 8:14a

According to today's Writer's Almanac, Samuel Clemens said, "The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven."

[edited]

mike julianelle
11.30.06 @ 12:00p

"Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company."

tracey kelley
11.30.06 @ 1:58p

"I'm never funny when I try to be."

Oh yeah, me either. And I can't tell a joke worth a crap.



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