Writing Humor: What Funny and Frightening Have in Common

Humor, horror, romance. . . .  Sometimes I think writing in a genre named after an emotion ain’t one of those Martha Stewart “Good Things.”  Science Fiction sounds easier somehow, just pop in some blinky lights and a little Nerdium Chloride.  On the other hand, with Horror, you have to tell a good story AND scare the bejabbers out of the reader.   I never have to worry whether I have made them feel Historical or Mainstream.  
How ya feelin’ today, Bob? 
Well, that explains the brass.

It’s like the unwritten understanding every stand-up comic has with the audience:  when they see you walk onto the stage they think, “Okay Funny Man.  Make me laugh.”  You not only have the job of inducing chuckles; the audience gets to start in a pissed-off position.

Oh, joy.

Okay, I’m being facetious.  Science fiction is not as easy to write as dumping in the appropriate furniture (clich├ęs).  No genre is.  But, writing humor is not as sphincter-puckering as it sounds either.  It doesn’t matter that you have to make them laugh.  Humor and Comedy are no different than Science Fiction, Fantasy, Western, Historical, or Horror.  The fundamental job of all fiction is creating an emotion on the page.

You don’t do that by telling the reader it’s funny.  Never make a judgment for the reader.  If you have to follow a comment with “ha-ha” or “LOL,” it probably ain’t funny.  The details you pick and the way you present them create the effect.

The house was creepy.

Scared yet?  No, probably the best reaction I can hope for at this point is, “You suck at this game, don’t you?”  Look for details that individualize the subject and make it stand out in the atmosphere you want it to stand in.

How about this?

Like people, houses die slowly when they are left alone for too long. It stood nearly swallowed by the edge of Widowmaker Woods, facing what used to be a road with its blind, broken windows, as if at some point it had wandered away from town and tried to push itself into the hillside. The remaining paint was the color of bone. Most had flaked away, leaving jagged, gray scabs.  And over the last century, the wooden front steps had fallen to the side, giving the house the look of a face with a dislocated jaw.

Everything about this description -- blind windows (eyes), gray scabs, dislocated bones -- tells you the house is diseased and dead.  You might not be scared at this point, but I have a better chance of making you sleep with the light on from the second description than “The house was creepy.”  The paragraph doesn’t tell the reader to feel anything, like a sitcom laugh track that says, “Okay, laugh now,” and simultaneously insults your intelligence.  It brings up images that make the reader uncomfortable.  The reader connects the dots and feels as if he has come up with the idea on his own. 

Okay, same house.  Different way of looking at it:

I called it the “French Vanilla House” because my interior decorator sister corrected me one day: “It’s not white. It’s vanilla!”  Whenever I called it “French Vanilla,” she glared at me like she had just taken a mouth full of alum.  To me, the house looked like it had wandered away from the rest of the town and tried to push itself into the hillside, as if it had done something in one of the other corners of town and didn’t want you to know about it.  The front steps flopped, tongue-ish, out of the face of the house and woozed drunkenly to the side in a way that made me feel as if I got too close, they would look me straight in the boobs and ask me for my phone number.

The details are roughly the same as the horror story but seen from a different perspective.  Different images build a different emotion on the page.

So what details does a writer pick?  This is subjective, but there are a couple of things I do to help.

Before I attempt a description, I feel the emotion I want to evoke.  With the creepy house, I looked for details that made me nervous.  I wouldn’t want to walk up steps that leaned badly.  I also asked myself, “What is scary?”  One of the first things to pop into my mind is the fear of dying.  So, I looked for any details of the house that could be corpse-like.  What did it die of?  Being broken, being diseased, or being left alone.  The name of the woods, Widowmaker, also implies death.  Look for opportunities like that.  Other senses would have worked well, too, like the scent of decay.  With the comedy version, I slapped a smirk on my face and the goofy associations followed.  The “French Vanilla” thing is real, except it was my sister-in-law and it was her PT Cruiser that was vanilla, not a house.  She drove down a dirt road one day, blanketing it in coffee-and-cream colored road dust, hence “French Vanilla.”  All the images are like subliminal messages building an atmosphere the writer wants to convey. 

It is not just the people in a story that have character. 

The other basic, humor writing tools are irony and exaggeration. 

Assigning the opposite emotion to a situation can enhance the atmosphere, just like complementary colors. 

The car bomb did what car bombs are supposed to do -- count backward, violently.  Otherwise, the boom was extremely underwhelming.  Don’t get me wrong.  I gladly would have been anywhere else than that garage, such as in the middle of a root canal on the day my dentist decided to withhold such vital information as he had forgotten to order anesthetic last week.  But there was no fireball.  No one screamed, except for one man, who seemed immediately embarrassed.  I didn’t even know I was hurt until the screaming man said, “Sir, are you okay?”

I blinked at him a couple of times.  “Any day above ground is a good day, I suppose.”  We were in an underground parking garage.  He didn’t get it.

“Well, um, you have a Chevy Lumina logo embedded into your shoulder.”

I twisted my head to the left and felt a bright spike of pain. 

“Yep,” I said.  “You want it back?”

Obviously, a car bomb is a horrible situation.  Terrifying, not funny.  But the deadpan treatment changes the rules and produces a different emotion on the page.  This technique can work for other fiction as well.  When people react in opposite ways than the reader expects, it can intensify the scene.  The writer just has to be careful not to take it too far when trying to evoke something other than laughter.  Too much exaggeration almost always spills over into parody.

And, so, the other humor tool:  Exaggeration.  I look for a truth in a situation, then blow it out of proportion.  This works especially well for thoughts that you don’t want to admit having, yet almost everyone has them.  How often do parents have to bite their tongue?

In the playroom, the two boys got along quietly and peacefully in the same way that twin turbojet engines do.  Eventually, Marcy could take no more.

“You two are in the same room!  You don’t have to yell to hear each other to talk.  If you don’t quiet down, I’m going to sell you on eBay.”

Parents don’t really believe their noisy children fall into the 140dB range of the average jet turbine.  It just feels that way.  And the crack about eBay is what you want to say, not something you would like to admit in front of Child Services.

But that’s it.  Doing it well merely comes from experimenting and practicing and becoming one of those people who are incapable of not writing.

They say that the sweetest sound to the human ear is your own name.  I don’t believe it.  It’s laughter.  Have fun.

Oh, and just out of curiosity have you ever been in a situation where you found the humor in it . . . and maybe you shouldn’t have?  Those can be some of the best and most original stories. Write them!  And, hey, if you feel compelled, I would love to hear about them in the comments. . . .  Of course, I should probably urge everyone to be tactful.  I can just imagine all of the Flatulence at Funerals stories this will provoke.

Knock! Knock! “Grandma, everything okay in there?”

Related posts on inspiration:

Writing: Don't Waste Your Time
Where Do You Get All Your Ideas?
Special Effect