Hardly anyone doubts the value of laughter in our lives. It’s good for relieving stress, keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously and according to current research, keeps us healthy. If those aren’t good enough reasons to include humor in your writing, consider the fact that it can be a handy tool for breaking up long-winded narrative. I would never suggest any of us are guilty of that, mind you, but if you know somebody who is, pass that along.
Humor is everywhere if you have a keen sense to recognize it. Not all of it is pretty, however. Consider how much popular humor relates to some pretty painful situations. Conjure up Don Rickles or Rodney Dangerfield and you’ll know what I mean. The late Jim Henson of Muppet fame used a hilarious scene in one of his films. He showed Kermit and Miss Piggy approaching a French restaurant. As they got near the door, they saw a parade of frogs with no legs on crutches hobbling out of the eatery. We often joke about illness, disability, marital discord and problems rearing children, to name a few.
Our families are often the subject of humor. If you think yours has a good sense of humor, watch it go out the window if you write about some family flaws. There’s hardly a memoir writer out there who hasn’t discovered that truth.
There are some caveats when writing humor. It’s generally accepted that the more universal an incident is, the funnier it will be to more readers. Avoid the very unique situation that might have occurred that sent you into fits of laughter if the circumstances are not something the typical reader will have experienced or understand.
Try to avoid writing anything about a real person that they might consider slanderous. No one laughs when they get sued.
There are a number of tricks you can use in your writing to add humor. Play around with some of these and see if you can insert humor into your fiction or non-fiction manuscripts.
Try surprising your readers. Many humorous instances carry a large element of surprise. The reader is being led along toward a logical conclusion and then you shift gears and throw them out of their comfort zone. An example: Rebecca is dreading going home after an aggravating day at the office. The thought of having to nag her kids to do their homework and hear her husband gripe because she forgot to take something out of the freezer for dinner for the third time this week, makes her consider not going home at all. She pushes herself and reaches her driveway. Dragging her briefcase like a ball and chain, she fumbles for her key. Just as she’s about to dump her purse on the ground to find it, her husband opens the door wrapped in nothing but Saran Wrap. “I sent the kids to my mother’s,” he announces with a twinkle in his eye.
Another tool is exaggeration. Talking about the effects of gravity on our aging bodies seems to be a sure winner. We all know support garments can do just so much. Descriptions of men and women who have observed various body parts around their knees seem to strike a universal funny bone. I recently heard a stand-up comic who in a nine-minute routine made fun of sexual dysfunction, Alzheimer’s, other types of dementia and Parkinson’s disease. The last one got the biggest laugh, by the way.
Perhaps that’s because we like to see a writer neutralize our demons with humor. Poking fun at things we fear makes them seem ridiculous and thereby less scary.
Some people use funny words. Don’t ask me why, but rhubarb is considered a funny word. Supposedly, words with a “k” sound are funny. Body parts are often funny, depending on the context. Some consider these words funny: aardvark; floppy; honk; tutu; and the old standby, weenie.
If you’re too worried about offending someone, you will probably not try to use humor. One needs to kill off a hefty herd of sacred cows in order to gain the freedom to be funny. There is probably no subject that somebody won’t find funny if it’s put in the proper context. Sometimes you can inject humor by putting something in the wrong context. Example: the football player in a tutu.
If you have a character that is inclined to be self-deprecating, that’s an ideal way to insert humor into your work. Most of us have just enough self-doubt to be able to identify with such characters.
Writers often ask how they can write humor if they’re not funny. The short answer is you don’t have to be funny to make your characters do or say funny things. If you don’t think you can find funny material, spend some time observing people. Just fade into the landscape and watch people for a couple of hours. You can choose almost any venue to do this. People really do and say some funny things.
I have seen humor in books about the Holocaust, child abuse, Alzheimer’s and every tragic theme you can name. If done well, it adds to any story or non-fiction topic. And remember, you’re making a contribution to the health of your readers when you use it. That might keep them alive longer to buy more of your books.
Real Country by Leslie Brunetsky: Two middle-aged city gals bring their northern urban ways to a southern Appalachian holler. They build a log cabin while tripping over the customs, language, religion and politics of their new Appalachian neighbors. Relocation to a new culture is not for the faint of heart, but Leslie and Hope succeed in making the transition thanks to a large dose of humor and a willingness to adapt. Visit her website www.lesliesrealcountry.com