About being funny:
Readers really like good humor.
Readers really dislike not-so-good humor.
The difference between the two is subjective and elusive.
Writing humor can be some of the toughest work we try to tackle. A few pros of course can bring it off quite well. Janet Evanovich is a fine example with her plucky, sometimes riskily rash and vulnerable heroine Stephanie Plum, who works as an untrained and unlikely bounty hunter for her uncouth cousin Vinnie, a bail bondsman. Plum has the sometimes help of inherently humorous sidekicks like plus-sized unashamed former hooker Lulu and some quirky relatives like her prickly outspoken grandmother Mazur. She has a hot-and-cold romance with vice cop Joe Morelli, and she can always turn to the mysterious Batman-like Ranger when she needs serious muscle to help her get out of the latest dire jam she’s managed to get herself into. Evanovich has starred Stephanie Plum in more than two dozen best-selling novels and she’s showing no signs of slowing down as I write this. Humor has sure worked well for her.
Another beloved author for whom humor was a helpful career-maker was the late Robert B. Parker. His humor was less slapstick than the Evanovich style, more understated and wry, an integral element of the interaction between protagonists and their associates. This was showcased in his Spencer PI books and the resultant TV series. Several authors are carrying on the Parker franchise with somewhat varying degrees of success. A couple of them nail the humor style. A couple of them don’t, really.
There are a few commonalities in the styles of these two highly successful authors we can take note of and perhaps learn from.
For the most part, the humorous bits occur outside and apart from the serious scenes. For example, especially in the original Parker books, scenes of tension and lurking danger such as between Sheriff Jesse Stone and the sophisticated criminal Gino Fish, or scenes when somebody is killed in the Plum books, do not contain humor. The authors restrict the humor to the quieter scenes wherein it’s more appropriate. A better way of stating this might be their novels are not constructed primarily to showcase humor. The core structure is a serious engaging plot first, with humor used here and there only as a pleasant bonus for the reader.
In the Plum books the humor is a bit more outrageous. In the Parker books it’s more subtle, handled with a deft light touch.
Neither author in effect tells us when something is supposed to be funny. They let us figure that out for ourselves. I read a book recently wherein the author kept saying things like: “Susan threw back her head and laughed.” This after a bit of so-called humor that was not all that funny and thus did not warrant Susan’s strong reaction to it. By showing Susan breaking out in uproarious laughter, the author is indicating that you, the reader, should too. It’s similar to people I’m sure you’ve met who in conversations laugh excessively at their own bad jokes. Or those folk who append a string of ha,ha,ha’s to their online comments or texts. This author also had his protagonist and associates joking casually and only semi-cleverly while in the thick of mortal combat, which did not sound appropriate or authentic at all. You won’t find either Stephanie Plum or Jesse Stone ever throwing back their heads and laughing—or joking while in a serious fight.
These days TV comics (as on Netflix), both male and female, are almost all heavily foul mouthed, swearing a lot and employing scatological and sexual comments. Sorry, but I don’t get that. I much prefer the more intelligent and cleaner wit of Jay Leno or Jerry Seinfeld, and both those comedians have long been far more popular and successful with the general public as well. Jim Gaffigan uses cleverness to make us laugh, not profanity or sexual blatancy, and he’s one of the most popular comics out there now by far. Likewise, Stephen Wright appealed to our intelligence, not our base instincts. I view those foul-mouthed comics as insulting, arrogantly assuming I’ll accept and even admire their crude below-the-belt remarks. I don’t, and I’m obviously not alone.
If you want to write humor, the best advice I can offer is to study the two example successful authors, Robert Parker and Janet Evanovich, with their quite different styles. Then proceed with caution, perhaps somewhere in the range between the two, generally using light touches here and there only as seasoning for an otherwise engaging and well-plotted story.
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