Abandon logic. Your character can do or say anything, regardless of how illogical, if it fits their personality and situation. Bend the facts, play with the what ifs, allow yourself to “think silly.” Consider the question, “What’s the worst that could happen now?” Not with tragic results, but using a Transfer of Fear mentality.
Real life provides great examples. Case in point: Remember the VW bus in Little Miss Sunshine and how the family had to push it up to a certain speed before they could leap inside, pop the clutch and drive? Remember the stuck horn that would start blaring at inopportune moments? Those issues were based on screenwriter Michael Arndt’s personal childhood memories of a family trip in just such a vehicle.
Keep it simple. Humor doesn't need a tremendous setup; it can occur in a few words: In Fashionably Late by Olivia Goldsmith, for example, Carl, the heroine’s friend owns a hair salon called Curl Up and Dye.
Use characterization to naturally find the humor. Established foibles and idiosyncrasies can evoke a comedic reaction at the right time. Remember Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark? We first discover his phobia when he hops on the sea plane to get away from the natives with a rare idol; a boa constrictor named Reggie is his pilot’s pet. When the creature slithers into Indy’s lap, we’re treated to a great squicky moment. Later, when he and Marian are entombed in the Well of Souls, he lights a torch and sees thousands of snakes crawling over the floor. “Snakes,” he marvels. “Why’d it have to be snakes?”
In The Edge of Reason, when Bridget returns home after spending time in jail in Thailand, her dad offers her a cigarette and she proudly announces she’s given them up. “Really?” her dad says as they step into an elevator at Heathrow. “I take great comfort in knowing they might kill me before things get worse.” By the time the elevator door opens again, both Dad and Bridget are puffing away.
Know the humor equation. Tragedy + distance = humor. The distance in this equation can take on different forms.
For example, time is a great distance marker. It’s now safe to poke fun at Lincoln’s assassination, the bombing of Pearl Harbor (depending upon your audience) and the O.J. Simpson trial. 9/11 is still pretty much off-limits. Why? Because the images are still fresh in our minds.
Another distance marker is personal experience. Mel Brooks can be seen as funny and not hateful when he uses Jewish humor in such works as The Producers and To Be or Not to Be because he is Jewish. There’s no mean spirit in his intent. Yet, those same movies, if written by someone like Spike Lee or even Omar Sharif, would lose their humorous appeal.
Christopher Reeve was fond of the joke: “What’s the difference between me and O.J. Simpson? O.J. walked.” We laugh if it comes from Christopher Reeve. But if O.J. were to tell that same joke, it wouldn’t be quite so funny, would it? That’s the distance of personal experience.
Comedy is the ability to laugh at anything. Humor is the ability to laugh at yourself. Give your characters a sense of humor. They don’t have to be comedians.
Be patient. Even the biggest name comedians often revisit the clubs where they started out to try new material where they speak, then tweak over and over until they hit just the right note. Hold on to that funny line or scene for a while. Play with it. Can it be shortened for a bigger punch? Does it fit perfectly into the story or are you framing the story around the humor? And if it doesn’t fit perfectly…
Be ready to throw away your best joke. Just like with that ideal scene that won't fit no matter how hard you try to pound it into place, a good joke always needs the right framework to support it. If the framework's not there, delete the joke and save it for another scene, another manuscript, or your next backyard barbecue.
And remember: A sense of humor is like any other muscle—the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. No one is really born “funny.” You experience humor in every area of your life: media (social and standard), family memories, nights out with the girls (or guys)... We have a dozen opportunities to laugh every day. Allow your characters those same opportunities.
These are the tools for your arsenal. The next time something makes you laugh: whether it’s an emailed joke, a scene in a book, a witty bit of dialogue on television or in a movie, or even a silly song, take a moment to figure out what aspect or aspects the writer used to gain that reaction.
Just like any other form of writing, the more you study the aspects of humor, the easier it will be for you to find the places in your own story where that perfect line or scene will give your readers a giggle.
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