Comedy In Fiction

LaughterOne of my favorite movies of all time, Front Page, features one of the first cinematic examples of what has come to be known as "snappy dialog": a rapid-fire exchange of witty banter and rejoinders. When a stand-up comedian drops a clunker (delivers a joke that earns little to no laughter) he can sometimes be heard to say, "On the way home tonight you're going to get that and laugh your head off!" With snappy dialog, the one-liners dropped in that machine-gun barrage can often go by so quickly you find yourself laughing at it minutes after the scene has already passed.

Examples, you ask? Well, I was recently watching a sci-fi/fantasy show set in the midst of WWII in which, as a byproduct of a sci-fi event, a group of unknowing people are healed by very thorough nano-robots of an alien virus. A woman then walks up to her physician to report, "My leg's back! I had only one leg, and now the other's grown back!" To which he replies, "Well there's a war on. Is it possible you miscounted?" This line is delivered so flatly, almost as an aside before the scene goes back to the main plot, I found myself laughing still minutes after the show had ended.

LaughterIn another example, the captain of a ship on which a bomb is about to explode is on the intercom demanding his crew find a way to jettison the explosive.

Captain: "How about we stuff it in an escape capsule?"
Crewman: "There are no escape capsules."
Captain: "Are you sure?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."
Captain: "Have you looked everywhere? Under the sink?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."

I enjoy comedic dialog, if done well, and strive to include it as much as possible in at least one of my ongoing series of suspense adventures. In an unpublished manuscript of mine there is a scene in which one character comments on a bullet wound that only creased the main character's scalp:

"What happened there?"
"Freak knitting accident."

And the dialog goes on, taking no notice of the joke. The funniest dialog is when it isn't acknowledged by the characters in the scene. In an interview, Mel Brooks once said of an actress, "She didn't do comedy. When she delivered a line, she couldn't stop herself from broadcasting it, all but winking at the camera and saying, 'Here comes the joke, folks!'" The very nature of comedy is the surprise. The funniest dialog is delivered non-sequitur, and it's even funnier when others in the scene act as if it's a perfectly normal thing to say.

LaughterDouglas Adams, celebrated British comedic sci-fi writer wrote this bit of a giggle:

"I have detected disturbances. Eddies in the space-time continuum."
"Ah...is he. Is he."
"What?"
"Er, who is Eddy, then, exactly?”

Here, an anomaly of the English language leads to a misunderstanding, giving rise to comedy.

I've heard other comedic people, writers and comedians, say comedy either comes naturally to a person or it doesn't. It cannot be taught. What's your opinion?

I often think I'm quite hilarious. Some don't agree. Which leads to another point: some comedy is subjective. I, for example, don't find bathroom humor funny, as a rule. The recent cinematic trend in gross-out humor leaves me cold. Other's nearly pass out with laughter. On the other hand, many hold that puns are the lowest form of humor. For me, contrariwise, a well-placed pun or double-meaning will send me into gales. Triple-, quadruple-meanings...the more facets an entendre has, the funnier it is.

Physical comedy is very hard to do in fiction. Don't believe me? Try describing your favorite comic strip to a reader. The challenge comes in explaining an action without dragging the joke on so long that by the time you get to the punch line the reader has already outthunk you and moved on. You need to develop a talent for pithy narrative. Good comedy writing is some of the tightest, most backloaded writing I've ever read. Even if you don't write comedy, it's good practice for any kind of writing.

An example of bad physical comedy in fiction?

"Lucy holds the football upright by the tip, an evil gleam in her eye. Charlie Brown, tongue planted firmly in the corner of his mouth, narrows his eyes and takes aim. He charges, planting his feet to pour on maximum speed. Just as he swings his foot at the ball, Lucy pulls it away. Charlie can't stop, and his momentum carries him off is feet, to where he it seems to him he is actually suspended for several seconds, time enough to scream, 'Aaaaaaargh!' When he falls he slides on the grass for a yard or so before coming to rest, staring at the sky. 'You blockhead!' he hears in the distance as Lucy struts away, not laughing, just disgusted."

This scene comes off as rather sad when written out this way. (BTW: It's my opinion Lucy secretly likes Charlie Brown. Every time she pulls the ball away she's testing him to see if he has yet become the man(boy) she needs him to be to justify her crush. But the subtext of cartoons is a whole other blog topic. One for true fiction-nerds.)

Now consider this physical scene:

"Turning the knob, she tried to open the door quietly, but it creaked as it opened. She tried to step through gaps in the crime scene tape, but it stuck to her pant leg, then her sleeve, and before she knew it she was stumbling through the door, a-tangle in the sticky stuff, hopping on one leg and trying to pull it free of her clothes."

Here the writer could have gone on to describe the scene in greater detail, and if this were any other kind of scene you might encourage them to do so. But in a comedic scene, it's only the action that convey's the humor, not the color of the door or the texture of the clothing that made the tape stick so well, etc.

One more point: strive to make your comedy as inclusive as possible. When you make others laugh at the expense of another, it's fun for your audience, but not so much for its victim. Puns aside, this is, in my opinion, the true lowest form of humor.

What's your favorite comedic moment in television, film or literature? Leave comments below.

Checking the Competition

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I’m on my way back from the Coastal Magic Convention (CMC), where a terrific time was had by all. Kudos to Jennifer Morris, who always manages to efficiently organize so many fun events and informative panels. Plus the Day of the Dead party was awesome!

CMC is a small convention of ~300 people. The size allows for readers and book bloggers to mingle extensively with authors. With five to six authors per panel, there can be a bit of jockeying for who gets to talk next. Mostly people are gracious and generous with each other, though occasionally there can be that author who’s oblivious or tone deaf, and attempts to monopolize the audience’s attention.

(There are also fab people like Megan Hart, in the photo above, cringing as I read aloud one of her sex scenes - fair pay back as she'd just read one of mine.)

I firmly believe that a high tide floats all boats. More books out there means more for readers to find and love. Anytime someone chooses to read instead of any of the number of competing entertainments out there, I’m happy.

But I also understand not everyone feels this way. It’s a competitive business and it’s easy to see another author’s book sales, her awards or fans, as things we could have had that went to someone else.

And, hell, I’d be lying if I said I never feel envy or competitiveness. I’m human and a far from perfect one at that. (ARE there perfect human beings? I’m thinking no.) Still, I try to be aware that those feelings are negative emotions that stem from my own issues and insecurities.

Also, I know that writers in particular tend to have both very large and quite fragile egos. Like giant soap bubbles with lovely prismatic shimmers that dance across the surface as they expand, and grow, and—suddenly burst, leaving nothing but empty air behind.

Because, like those soap bubbles, our competitiveness and egotism are based on a lot of air and very little else.

The other day I saw a writer post to Facebook that she’s surprised when she goes to events and people don’t know who she is. I once introduced myself to a writer who was seated at my luncheon table and, when she didn’t give me her name in turn—she wasn’t wearing a nametag—and I asked what she wrote, she became very offended that I hadn’t known who she was. Once she said her name, I recognized her as a well-known writer, but I’d had no idea what she looked like.

Both of those reactions surprise me.

They remind me of something that happened quite a few years ago now, when Neil Gaiman accompanied Amanda Palmer to the Grammy Awards. If you don’t know, he’s a well-known writer and she’s a rock star. All things considered, he’s far better known in the world of readers and writers than she is in the music industry. Certainly he’s far wealthier. (I know this for sure because she said so in her brilliant book, THE ART OF ASKING.) The Grammys are far more her waters than his, however, and at the time they weren’t yet married. A photo was posted of them by a reporter captioned “Amanda Palmer and date.” They fixed it when a bunch of people sent up a flag, but it was a funny thing. Writers, by the nature of the business, are usually not all that recognizable and are rarely treated like rock stars.

At any rate, when I find myself feeling the spur of that particular demon, the “why didn’t they know who I am?” moment, or when another writer snubs me or pulls a superior/competitive attitude, I try to remind myself of a few things.

  • The only cure for jealousy is putting my head in my own work. Putting my energy into the writing is a surefire distraction.
  • No matter how it seems, we are not in competition with each other. This isn’t Highlander where there can be only one. There can be lots. And it’s more fun for all when there are.
  • We’re all driven by various demons and we usually don’t know what someone else’s are. When someone treats me badly, I try to imagine what makes them unhappy—and to have compassion for them.

What about you all? Any tricks for battling envy or for dealing with competitive attitudes from other authors?