It’s not easy, to go by the many writers who can’t get it right, but it’s one of the most important talents in storytelling. Unless a book is a comedy book, one does not need to make an effort to be funny, nor to announce that something is supposed to be funny. The greater skill lies in letting the humor speak for itself. If the situation is comical, be assured the reader will appreciate the opportunity to make that observation herself.
I thought of this while having a cigar on my back patio, listening to children frolic in the pool at the neighbor’s to the southwest. Children having fun, without trashing your place or deafening you, is a situation I find most uplifting. As I did so, I read this passage from Tim Severin’s Tracking Marco Polo. Our travelers are in Afghanistan in 1964, having ridden from Venice:
“…Another point we had to tackle was that we still had no idea how the Marco Polo Route Project was going to get back to England. The University Year began in three weeks, and between us we mustered £40 and one very exhausted motorcycle.
“This unhappy machine was in a state of near-collapse. All the lights had long ago since been shattered; the front brake functioned only very feebly, while the rear brake did not work at all; the gear lever had been snapped off; both wheels, as well as the handlebars, were badly out of alignment, and the shock-absorbers were partially disintegrated. The once proud BSA had been thrashed into a foul mass of dust, dents, and miscellaneous pieces of grass rope holding it together. In order to change gear, the agile driver was forced to bend over and rummage around by his right foot for the sheered-off stub of the gear lever. To slow down, the passenger had to assist by dragging his feet in the dust, and at any speed the cracked steering arms exuded a fine spray of oil. The only consolation was that with the machine in such a decrepit condition there was no likelihood of it being stolen, for Stan was the only person who had the strength, experience and foolhardiness to coax the wreck into motion.”
See what Severin did? The bike is funny. All he had to do was describe the details, then cap it with the observation about its immunity to theft. One pictures the rider and passengers doing and enduring, and one likely laughs.
Here is another example, more recent, from The Energy Shift by Dr. Ritu Rao. Ritu has written one of the smartest and most accessible self-help books I have yet to read. As I edited it, I was ruthless in eradicating many situations where she tried to be funny, and told her rather bluntly that when she tried, it did not work. When she let the comedy of the situation speak for herself, it succeeded in fine form, as shown in this passage:
“Kevin came as a guest of another friend, didn’t know anything about me or my book, but stood first in line to get a copy and a picture. We eventually became friends.
“A couple of weeks later, while I was having a really crappy day, I received a message from Kevin. He said he was trying to eat better, and because of something he’d read in my book, he was able to skip eating donuts at work. He was super excited about it. He said he walked right by them, and called it a win.
“Some people in this world are saving lives in the jungle or making prosthetic limbs for the physically disabled. I helped someone skip a donut.
“As trivial as that was, his message made me smile.”
You see what she did there, I trust. In the process of illustrating a point, she presents the relative smallness of her achievement. Rather than belabor it further, she continues to describe the value of small, helpful decisions that make us feel good. This leads to getting her point across with comedy as a welcome side effect. This is what we get when we let the funny be itself.
Both of these are non-fiction examples, but the guidance applies to fiction as well. If you have set up an inherently funny person, scene, or situation, all you have to do is keep storytelling. The reader will find the humor. Too much belaboring reminds one of sitcoms that use laugh tracks, in my opinion a sure sign that the producers feel that the humor will not speak for itself. If it was that funny, they wouldn’t need to tell us to laugh.
You don’t need to tell the reader to laugh. Trust her to make that decision, and get on with your tale or exposition or whatever.
2 thoughts on “Letting the comedy speak for itself”
I recently heard part of an interview with Gene Wilder. He was very eloquent and interesting. One of his comments (to paraphrase ineloquently) was that if you’re doing something on screen that is inherently funny, you need to play it completely straight. Any attempts to act funny just detract from the humor.
Gene Wilder ought to know, too. Good perspective. I shudder to think how much of my earlier writing failed to grasp this maxim.