Wednesday, January 02, 2008

What Makes You Laugh?

by Hannah

Laughter is a mysterious, wonderful thing. The Navaho or Diné people have a ceremony to celebrate the first time a baby laughs. In China, a New Year's cookie called "laughing open mouth" symbolizes happiness for the coming year. Laughter is a magical moment, and humor a magical craft.

If one is writing or revising a novel that falls into the category of humor, what are the rules to make it so? I don't know, despite the fact that what I write is intended to be funny and apparently hits the mark a good chunk of the time. Even when I try to boil down what makes me laugh in other people's work, or in those moments that work in my stories, it doesn't sound like a recipe anyone else can follow.

So to kick off the New Year, I'm asking you, what is funny? Funny as in, makes you laugh even as you shake your head and feel sorry for a character? How much is too much or not enough, given that pace should move, like any other novel, in waves that crescendo toward the close?

My librarians must think me a bit Pollyanna-ish in my constant requests for what is new and funny; they know not to try to sell me on the latest tear-jerker. I only take recommendations on sad and beautiful books from friends; it is a measure of the depth of a friendship when I dive into a book that promises heartbreak and misery.

In asking for suggestions on humorous novels, it is amazing how broad the category is, and how differently people define it. The challenge is that I want real stories, with real problems, a take on the world that delivers punch and still a laugh. My own bookends in this category – the first book I read that captures what I am aiming for, and the most recent – are Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, and Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother.

The set-up of the first, as you know, is hardly grounds for a chuckle, and the latter is a must-read about a gentleman who is slowly going crazy, as is most of his family for one reason or another. Well-crafted characters searching for meaning and truth in their lives. Tragedy at every turn, and yet we cannot help but smile, at the least.

What allows that moment of recognition and self-recognition to not only connect, but make us actually, physically laugh? It’s in the writing, in the moment, in the conflict, in the character, and still it goes beyond definition. We know it when we see it, because we react to it with our hearts and souls.

What do you think? What makes you laugh out loud? What are your thoughts on funny?


Anonymous said...

Your take on Fried Green Tomatoes is exactly right about how to be humorous. I think the best funny books are those that take tragedy to the absurd. Carrie Fisher's Postcards from the Edge comes to mind. Rita Mae Brown is also good, though inconsistent. Six of One is excellent.

You need situations where the choice is simple: you either laugh or you cry. Make them laugh.

How they do it, however, remains a mystery to me. I'd love to be able to do it. I think of myself as a funny person--not a joke teller, but one who appreciates the more absurd aspects of life. Yet, I blanch at the thought of trying to write humor. Though I wrote an essay about my gift for picking the wrong line and was quite surprised at the laughter from the audience. Sometimes you don't even realize it's funny.

A read that you should find the most serious, deadpan friend to read your stuff to and if they laugh, you're OK.

Lisa Marnell said...

Laugh out loud funny is "Joey Pigza Swallows a Key" by Jack Gantos.

The thing is, the main character, Joey, is funny.

The first few pages are a narrative of an hour or more of him struggling at school (struggling with his ADHD. How is THAT funny. It's funny because Joey's oh, so smart, with a smart-alec comment he repeats throughout; when anyone asks a question, he says: "Can I get back to you on that?" as he continues his antics.

Okay, I apologize, in retelling this I probably butchered it. But, trust me, it's funny.

It's his appropriate response in an inappropriate manner.

Sigh, I think I'll stick to the heavy heartbreak and misery.

Eileen said...

I believe humor is one of the hardest things to write. There is a great quote by Sol Saks (he wrote Bewitched) Writing humor is like stripping. Everyone can do it, but not everyone should.

Lisa said...

I think I'm a fan of the tragic turned comic. It seems to me the writers I think are funny tend toward dark humor. Funniest books I've read over the last few years were written by:

David Mitchell - Black Swan Green (one of my new favorite ever books, an early 80s English sort of Catcher in the Rye)

Christopher Moore - All of them, but my favorites are Lamb and The Stupidest Angel

Mark Haddon - Both books

Chuck Palahniuk - All of them, but the first few especially

Augusten Burroughs

David Sedaris

Nick Hornby - How to Be Good

I seem to lean toward English humor and memoirs and essays written by gay guys, apparently.

Oddly enough, I don't seem to have any books written by women that I thought were funny (although someone is bound to come up with one and I'd like to read it!). I suspect that readers tend to be more accepting of flawed male characters than they are of flawed female characters. It's ok for them to be promiscuous, terrible at relationships and irresponsible, but we don't seem to like it as much when women are that way. Now I would like to read about women like that because I know we - ahem - I mean they are out there :)

Larramie said...

Irony and wit presented realistically.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thank you, all. I both love and am awed by your definition, Larramie! Isn't it difficult to define? So many simple summaries could apply to all kinds of writing. I, too, tend toward British humor -- and Southern. What am I doing in New England?! And thank you, Kira, for the books by women, as when I read Lisa's comment, I realized the only woman who'd come to mind when I was writing was Fannie. Well, someday soon, I hope to add to the list!


Shauna Roberts said...

This is a question I've thought about a lot, too, but never come up with a good answer for. I think everyone's dream is to be able to turn it on and off in our writing at will. Instead, at least for me, it appears spontaneously at (usually) appropriate moments without my having any idea how I did it. It makes me uncomfortable not to be able to control it.

I don't usually choose funny books, but I read Terry Pratchett's "Thud!" this past year and liked it enough to start reading more of him. (Unfortunately, it was recently announced that he has beginning Alzheimer's.)

I also like the fantasy parodies by John Moore, such as Heroics for Beginners, in which Prince Kevin defeats Lord Voltmeter through frequent reference to an old instruction manual he found on how to be a hero.

Shauna Roberts said...

In case my previous post left anyone scratching her head, "it" refers to humor.

Anonymous said...

Lord Voltmeter. I love it!

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