Saturday, August 24, 2013

The answer to "Where does your humor come from?"

A friend and fellow writer, LM Preston, recently asked me where my humor comes from. 

Well, I'll tell you, and I hope it helps you see the humor in the world the way that I do, because if there’s one thing the world needs more of, it’s laughter.

Like Gilbert Garfinkle--the hero of Why My Love Life Sucks (The Legend of Gilbert the Fixer, book one), I like to take things apart and fix them. I always have. Unlike Gilbert, though, the things I most like to take apart are stories, particularly funny stories.

I was born into a big family. I was the second child of six, which means I was a middle child in a sea of middle children. Like most middle children, I wanted attention. After all, that’s easy for the eldest and youngest to get attention. Middle children, not so much, particularly when there’s four.

My dad loved jokes, and I did too. So I would collect them. I know it seems odd, but I would watch sitcoms and take notes. I had a little spiral notebook where I’d write down different elements of my favorite shows, like Taxi and M.A.S.H., including the best lines. Once a week, I’d repeat the jokes I had collected to my family and make my dad laugh.

I also used to write funny essays for school. My class and my teachers loved them. I wasn't the class clown; I was the class wit. I was funny on paper, and I still am. 

Brevity, they say, is the soul of wit, and I know that’s true when it comes to my humor. The more I edit something funny, the funnier it gets. Comedy, I believe, is tragedy dancing the quickstep.

I continued to take apart and try to figure out comedy as I grew up, and I even took a couple of courses on the topic in college, where I majored in English Literature and Theater Studies. I was taught that pain plus distance equals comedy, which is the standard theory. I didn't agree with it. I think that sometimes comedy comes from painful things viewed at a distance; but so many funny things have no element of pain in them, and so many things that include pain and distance aren't funny at all. So I continued to work on my own theory.

A few years later, I got a job as an editorial cartoonist, and that's when I developed my own formula for comedy.

It’s summed up with three S’s. They are Setup, Surprise, and Sense.

Setup is pretty much what your humor is about. It could be the news, your life, or the characters and plot of your novel.

Surprise is the most important element of comedy, because without it, the audience just isn't going to laugh. Think of a joke you've already heard. If you hear it again, you won't find it as funny as you did the first time, and that’s because the element of surprise is gone.

And all jokes have to make some sort of Sense, because if they didn't, they'd just be confusing, not funny. Puns, for example, make phonetic sense.  And when it comes to stories, each character has to act in a way that makes sense in some way for that character.

As for pain, I think it's important that a joke not be too painful for the intended audience. That's when you cross the line from being funny to just being mean and hurtful. Of course, what one audience finds painful, another won't. Sometimes it's a matter of tailoring your humor for a particular audience; and other times it's a matter of finding an audience that fits a particular brand of humor.

Okay, so now you have my formula. The question still remains: where does humor come from? Finding or creating a setup is easy. Finding the sense in it is easy too. But how do you create the surprise--the most important element of comedy?

It’s all about looking at things from a fresh and surprising perspective.

Blow it up under a magnifying glass. Make it big, bigger, biggest. Put it in a surprising context, but in a way that makes sense. If it’s rosy, make it blue. If it’s blue, make it rosy. And take it as far as it will go. I like to say that when it comes to comedy take it all the way, to the edge of that cliff. Then push.

Edit, edit, and edit some more. Can you make that happen faster? Then do. Can you say that more briefly and still make sense? Then do.

I wrote the first draft for NaNoWriMo in under a month...and then I spent the next year editing it. 

Taking a page from Improv, I wrote several versions of many of the scenes so I could choose the funniest one. And any time I saw a chance to make things bigger, I took it. I didn't want Gilbert to be just a regular geek: I wanted him to be the ultimate geek. And I didn't want to give him just any old conflict: I wanted to give him the ultimate geek's ultimate conflict. Gilbert has a compulsive need to take apart, figure out, and fix things, so I had to give him something he would never be able to take apart, figure out, and fix. I had to give him a gorgeous vampire girl who wants to turn him into her platonic BFF, literally forever. How is the ultimate geek supposed to make sense of that?  

If you're thinking, “But that doesn't make sense, and you said comedy has to make sense,” you're right, it doesn't. It defies Gilbert's obsessively logic mind. At least it does at first. There is a logic to that gorgeous vampire girl's seeming insane choice, a logic that takes Gilbert most of the book to figure out.

I’d tell you what it is, but then I'd spoil the surprise, and you know comedy won't work without it. You'll just have to read it to find that out for yourself.    

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