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“I wish I could do that!”
“Were you funny as a child?”
“Where do you come up with your ideas?”
I hear those comments every time someone learns I write romantic comedies. These are my stock answers:
Okay, so that’s not entirely true. No one ever laughed in my household.
A lot of writers will tell you the rules of comedy. They’ll mention a “toolbox,” or advise you to “do the unexpected,” use a “twist” to gain a laugh, or other helpful advice that means absolutely nothing to someone trying to write humor into a scene and scared to death of falling flat on her face.
I’ll let you in on a secret. There’s only one thing you must do to write humor. You must have, at least once in your life, laughed out loud. Think about it. What makes you laugh out loud? Your answer will be as individual as you are. For every person who loved Lucy, you’ll discover another who never “got it.”
Comedy is the most subjective art form known. Why? Because each of us brings our unique past experience to the table. Since pasts vary greatly, our opinion about what’s funny varies to the same degree. How else do you explain the Three Stooges?
After accepting that comedic tastes differ, discover what amuses you. If it amuses you, chances are, it’ll tickle someone else’s funny bone as well. Not everyone’s, mind you. Face it, you’ll probably never headline at The Yuk-Yuk Factory on Saturday nights. But you’ll be able to add some zip to a dull scene or give your reader an opportunity to smile for a moment before turning the page.
Let’s try an exercise. Recall something from your past that makes you laugh when you think about it. I’ll bet it wasn’t funny at the time. It could be the day you got seasick and threw up on your boyfriend’s shoes, the time you showed up at an event on the wrong day or in the wrong outfit, the day you got hit by a car. No, wait. That one’s mine.
Yes, it’s true. I consider being hit by a car an amusing anecdote in my life. It was one of those days where everything went wrong, culminating in my darting across a busy street without looking. Now, if I’d wound up in the hospital with a dozen broken bones, a concussion or worse, that wouldn’t be a great example. But after I tumbled once or twice, I got up from the street, dusted myself off, and WALKED HOME.
How can I consider that funny? Simple. First, I have the safe distance of time. It’s a lot easier to laugh at something when it’s not happening to you at that moment. Secondly, there was no injury, except perhaps, to my ego. And looking back now, I see the ridiculousness and the sheer chance of it all.
It’s all about timing. Take the examples I gave earlier. If you’d turned your head over the rail before you threw up, if you’d written the proper date on your calendar or worn the right dress, the outcome would have been different and most likely, not funny. Without seasickness, the day on the water is just another day. Without the mistaken date or attire, the party’s just another party.
There’s your secret; that’s the twist those in the know speak of. Comedy is nothing more than a mistake due to improperly timed circumstances. What happens BECAUSE of poor timing is what makes a situation funny. And oddly enough, the simpler the event, the funnier it becomes when it goes awry. One of my favorite television commercials these days opens with a young man meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. Suffering from a headache, he reaches for a bottle of aspirin in their medicine cabinet, but mistakenly grabs a libido arouser instead. Oops. In the next scene, the young man refuses to come out of the swimming pool. Flash forward and he’s relating the story to his buddies in a bar. He’s laughing as he tells his pals that he stayed in the pool for six hours. On one hand, we see him in the pool, looking miserable. In the next instant, it’s funny to him. Because the episode is safely tucked in his past and no one was hurt by his goof.
Once you’ve defined comedy, you have to hone its existence in your daily life. How? Read funnier books. Turn off “CSI.” Watch sitcoms, stand-up routines, and comedic movies instead. Study why they work. Figure out what about a joke or scene makes you laugh. Is it an unexpected response to a normal situation? A clever comeback? A pun or unusual play on words? All of the above?
Find humor in your own everyday situations. Fall in love with your laugh. Give yourself permission to do something outrageous at least once a week. (Preferably when you’re alone.) Learn to smile at inconveniences that crop up.
A sense of humor is like any other muscle; it needs to be exercised frequently in order to fully develop. Somewhere along the way, you’ll discover that comedy is everywhere. It’s all in how you look at things.
And when you’ve fine-tuned your brain to reflect that, go back to your scene and see the humor that was there all along. Then just reach into your toolbox, do the unexpected by twisting the information, and don’t be afraid to fall on your face. So long as you don’t get hurt, that’s funny too.