Dr. Livingstone: Er… I think I’d better come clean with you about this. It’s not a virus, I’m afraid. You see, a virus is what we doctors call ‘very, very small’. So small, it could not possibly have made off with the whole leg. What we’re looking for here for is, I think — and this is no more than an educated guess, I’d like to make that clear — is some multicellular life form with stripes, huge razor-sharp teeth, about eleven feet long, and of the genus felis horribilis — what we doctors, in fact, call a tiger.
~ Monty Python, “The Meaning of Life”
There’s a theory that laughter evolved from an all-clear signal to fellow primates. First the shock – then the HAHAHA!
Imagine your primitive humanoid ancestors cruising the African grasslands:
Ohshit! There’s a Sabre-toothed tiger stalking us through the Savannah grass!
Oh look, George is getting eaten. It wasn’t me! HAHAHAHAHA!
Everyone else’s ape-like ancestors laugh too, because hey, they aren’t George either.
If you asked a hundred people what makes funny, you would get ninety-nine different answers (the last person could be your ex who still isn’t speaking to you). Humour is entirely subjective and as with all writing, the trick is to tap into the widest vein of appeal and run up and down it naked and screaming while holding up a placard with ‘LAUGH!’ printed on it.
The key thing for me when it comes to writing humour is to embrace the weird. For me, comedy includes everything from sight gags, to things that are completely out of place. This is why Engines of Empathy we have strange character names, (E.G.S. Benedict, Anna Coluthon, Saint Detriment – all of which are based on real words) and reality skewed (Sarcasm as a Martial Art, the entire idea of human emotions as a power source for technology, and Quantum Physics as the basis of a religion).
The humour comes from both dialogue and presenting the reader with scenes they can relate to, while twisting them slightly (or a lot).
In the sequel to Engines of Empathy, there is an octopus who displays a knack for word games. In the third book there is a lovesick patch of mould. These characters are almost an aside to the main narrative, but the experience is akin to driving the highway and seeing a two headed cow in the field by the road. You are going to double take and then think, what the hell was that? But you’re not likely to stop your journey to explore it further. Humour should be confrontational and unsettling, but ultimately it should be reassuring.
If you are writing comedy, challenge your audience, but deliver humour in a range of ways. People love to laugh at other’s misfortune (because our genes remember the Sabre-Toothed tigers of millennia past) and we like to see people make mistakes and have misunderstandings.
I don’t think there is a class you can take or a book you can read that will teach you comedy writing. I grew up with family (Dad, Mum and four kids) dinners where we cracked jokes constantly. Someone would say something perfectly innocent and the jokes would just go around the table. We adlibbed entirely and maybe it was genetic but this was where I learned my comedic craft. I adore writers like Sir Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams because they avoid(ed) slapstick and went for intelligent jokes.
The omnipotent They used to say, “Write What You Know.”
This is bullshirt. Seriously – if you want to write Space Opera – you do not need to be an astronomer, an astronaut or a galactic emperor. Writing is about making stuff up. Comedy can draw a lot from real life – but it works best when it is turned to make a situation unexpected (Surprise! Sabre-Toothed tiger!).
I write comedy (and horror, and spec-fic, and audio drama). But I write comedy because I have a history of being immersed in it and I have a natural talent for it. Or it might be the shrapnel still in my medula oblongata from the head wound I got in back in the ‘Nham (Sydenham Primary School – 1979) when a running girl collided with me and lost her two front teeth in my skull. If you can do it – great. If not, don’t worry about it. Write something else – or become a pro-athlete. After all, if you can outrun a Sabre-Toothed tiger, you can always laugh about it afterwards.