Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Tutorials: Comedic Commandos

You may have noticed that people like to make jokes about things. They like to laugh at things in the world around them, whether just to unwind or to help them forget what those things actually signify. And if you’re going to try and write something, you’ve probably realized by now that sooner or later there will have to be jokes in it. That means you’ll have to write the jokes, and that means that you might write bad jokes. But if you just include  a character who’s nothing but jokes, some of them have to work, right? It’s like carpet bombing, but with witticisms!

What you just read constitutes my personal hypothesis (it’s more of a dim hunch. Well, vague notion) about the origins of the Comic Relief. We all know the Comic Relief- even in situations which are already comical, this character just has to be funnier than everyone else. Scooby-Doo is a goofy show to begin with, but Scooby and Shaggy definitely try the hardest. You’ll see them do absurd things by far the most often- hiding under a stereotypically Native American headdress, flying old biplanes through museums, messing with suits of armor, accidentally finding secret switches which teams of scientists have missed for centuries. This works to an extent in comedic shows because the premise is already fairly absurd to begin with. Seriously, a museum owner’s going to let a bunch of teens in a hippie van with no credentials sift through hundreds of priceless relics? Might as well roll with it and see where it goes- that, and cartoons always get a free pass on suspension of disbelief.

But you’re not writing a Scooby-Doo episode, you’re writing a book about a fantasy adventure party’s quest to find a lost Dwarven ruin. So, you need to- sorry, say again? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Look, I don’t care that you’re not actually writing it. It’s an example using the generic second-person because I don’t feel like shoehorning a hypothetical author into this right at the moment. But we digress, dear verbally manipulated readers! So, group of adventurers. Dwarven ruin. High stakes. Lots of loot, lots of enemies, maybe a dragon or two into the mix to really… heat things up. Oh, there’s our starting point! Puns. Puns are very dangerous. It is technically possible to make a very clever pun that has everyone choking to death on their own laughter, but you need a perfect set-up and a word-choice obvious enough that’s it visible, but only just. As the zombie said to the vampire when deciding between wine and whiskey, anything heavier would just be groan-inducing. Case in point? Yes, I’d say it was.

You might feel tempted to insert a comedian-type character purely for comic relief effect. Please don’t. That character will have an extremely hard time breaking out of that role, and you’d have a hard time thinking of other things to slot in. If a character seems like a good fit for funny, well and good, but whether you’re writing a comic story or not, humor is something all of your characters should have. I’ve written a number of articles on villains, and I’ll probably write more as long as I keep seeing the same pet peeves, but my biggest complaint is still that too few villains have any sense of humor at all. Your villain should have some decent zingers too, especially ones that both you and the reader feel terrible for laughing at. It’s hard to provide examples of humor when it’s so situational, thus, boring as it is, I’m going to give you pieces of advice about it instead.

You probably laugh most at the comedians whose jokes come most naturally. Most of the funniest things you’ve said, as told by your friends, are similar in nature. Comedy is irrational by its very nature, a way of understanding and coming to terms with the world around us by making illogical, yet truthful statements about it. Which basically means comedy’s frigging hard to get down to a science, given all you can do is gaze longingly at your surroundings and hope something inspires you. So here’s my first suggestion- don’t try to be funny by forcing opportunities, not to start with. Once you start to get a feel for it (and good luck on this one, ’cause I’m not there yet) you can deliberately set-up big, elaborate jokes for maximum laugh-factor. But initially you’re better off playing the marksman and waiting for a joke to stick its head out, so you can blow it off and mount it on your wall for people to laugh mockingly at.

That analogy’s a bit psychotic, isn’t it? Moving on, humor is also highly experimental. Some people have a better knack for it at the start than others, yes, but ultimately the best comedians are those who’ve used their understanding of people to get a starting point, and slowly built up a repetoire of subjects that they know get the guffawing going when used the right way. As a writer, you can’t rely on a lot of the cheaper tricks such as goofy voices or weird facial expressions, though if you can convey a good image of a character everyone dislikes getting socked in the gut, there are some laughs to be drawn out of it. So, directly counter to what I just said, you’re going to have to make a number of jokes to see what hits the funny spot and what hits the funny bone. Geddit, because being hit in the funny bone hurts badly and isn’t funny at all? Right? As you can see, it’s going to be awkward. But if you can develop a decent array of witty, derailing statements to throw into your writing, it’ll help immensely. Readers are reading your book for entertainment, friend, not just for all the clever themes you hinted at with various subtle metaphors; a lot of readers will completely miss those. But everyone with a soul, or at least with the characteristics which we jokingly refer to as constituting one, loves to laugh.

A genuinely clever character pulls in readers like very few other things. They’re worth cultivating, like little diamonds if you could grow and pick them in a rice paddy, but without the weird racist overtones of mentioning a rice paddy under any circumstances whatsoever. And that’s the last thing about comedy- it won’t have an impact if you censor it. Because censorship is something the Nazis were fond of, and the Nazis weren’t funny people.Now that I’ve fulfilled Godwin’s Law (google it), I’ll just go. It doesn’t get much further from censoring than a joke about making Nazi comparisons. Or is that a form of censorship?

Like I said, humor is contradictory. Also, water’s wet, sky’s blue, birds come in a variety of colors, wingspans and thicknesses of plumage, and I forgot how I was going to finish this article.

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