Thursday, April 8, 2010

Now I want a cheeseburger

My husband and I have recently been watching Star Trek: the Next Generation series, starting with season one and moving on through. I think my favorite character of Star Trek is Data. He's an android, and he's pretty much clueless to human behavior at the beginning of the seasons, and then slowly begins to learn what it is to be human. He's a great device for building emotion and sympathy from the audience.

One of the best questions Data asks: What is funny?

And even when Data attempt to figure out a joke, what ends up being funny is his attempt - not the joke.

Davin did a post yesterday about putting humor in our work. That got me thinking about whether or not it's possible to learn how to be funny. Like Data, I often feel like an android who has no clue how to go about telling a joke or understanding why something is funny. It's timing. It's intuition. It's skill.

Roni over at Fiction Groupie totally stole my idea yesterday to ask if it's possible to learn how to be funny. (I still love you, Roni) Go check out her post if you would like some greater insight there.

Today, I guess, I just wanted to say that I think it's possible to learn how to be funny - there are tricks of the trade, I suppose, but perhaps a deeper question might be should you learn how to be funny? It is certainly tempting - everyone loves the funny man.

Do you think we are better off sticking to what we naturally do best? Or do you think venturing into the unknown and trying on new hats is a good idea? I'm currently trying to write fantasy, and it keeps delving back into major drama/literary/suspense writing - just like everything I write. Go figure. Of course, there is no humor in it that I can see. Yet.


  1. I think some people are born funny. Some people can learn it (like slapstick) and the rest of us just have to be able to laugh. Because without laughter there would be no funny.

  2. I think it's always good to try new things, but be prepared to kill your darlings if they don't fit. But if you never try, you are guaranteed not to succeed.

    Humor is tough because it's so subjective. I'm a Monty Python fan; my wife can't stand any form of British humor.

  3. First: why can't fantasy be
    "drama/literary/suspense writing - just like everything I write"? Some of the best fantasy out there, in my opinino is filled with drama/literary/suspense. Check out anything by Guy Gavriel Kay or the more indepth stuff by Tad Williams, even Tolkien for that matter. You'll find those fantasy epics filled with everything you like to write about!

    As for funny, I think we all have the ability to be funny, some more than others. More often than not, I think funny comes from not trying, rather trying. Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. I rarely try to inject full out humor (i.e. funny) in my writing, but certain scenes come across that way. Perhaps you're trying to hard??? : )


    BTW - Love Stark Trek: The Next Generation. I never could get into any of the series - Deep Space Nine, Voyager, etc. - that followed that piece of brilliance.

  4. @Rick Daley. I feel your pain, man. However, in my wife's defense, she did take pity on my Brithumor addiction and gave me the entire Flying Circus series on DVD.

    My opinion is that, with so many different types of humor out there, surely one can find something to emulate. I don't believe in the hypothetical humorless person. You just have to find what works for you and go with it.

  5. I love Data too!

    I think humor is an inherent gift, to a degree, but with enough opportunity, you can learn to hone it. For instance, if, like an amateur stand-up comic, you have an audience you can try jokes out on and see what does and doesn't make them laugh, you can train yourself to say funnier things the next time. Beta readers would probably be good for this.

    It would certainly be a lot of work, though, more so than for someone who naturally has the ability. And you have to be open to knowing what does and doesn't work-- if you don't care that your jokes aren't funny, chances are, you won't get any funnier. (Think of that old standby character of the smoking-jacket wearing, late-middle-age guy in front of the Improv Club getting booed off the stage with the same act week after week).

  6. I agree that humor can be learned. I think most social skills can be learned if a person feels the need to learn it and can consciously recognize when it's there. As far as whether or not one should learn, I'd also say yes. I love stories that have the full range of emotion, and I try to build that in, at least to a small extent, in everything I write these days. I used to neglect humor, but now I include it more and more--and it isn't easy for me!

  7. Anne: I do most of the laughing, I think, although I really do crack myself up in some of my writing. There's a chapter in Monarch that I think is HILARIOUS, but nobody else does. Oh well! I do have a very strange sense of humor.

    Rick: I hate most crude humor. Monty Python does make me laugh, though. I'm a huge Seinfeld fan. :)

    Scott: You're right about fantasy containing all those elements. I mainly mean that the fantasy I'm writing just feels like all the other genres I've tried. It doesn't feel very different to me in a lot of ways, and I thought that it would.

    I think you're right about funny coming when we're not trying, and that's why I hesitate to try and learn how to be funny.

    I like all Star Trek. I hope to one day own them all!

    Chuck: Interesting, yes, Chuck. There are a lot of different types of humor. I think mine is just super strange and only a few people pick up on it. Oh well!

    L.T.: Good examples! I just get so self conscious when it comes to trying to be funny. It's something that frightens me so much that I think any serious attempts at it would be funny in not the ways I intended. :)

    Davin: Yes, the full range of emotions is important in any work, I agree. I usually have some shining moments in my work where things are silly. Right now, working on my film project, I'm having a super difficult time putting "comedy" into the romantic comedy. Talk about a challenge for me. Sigh.

  8. @Chuck- I have several Monty Python DVD's. The trick is to find the time to watch them.

    @Michelle- I don't mind most forms of crude humor. I wrote a book about a boy who farts, if that says anything. But in my own defense, the humor is not just in the event itself, but also in the set-up, timing, and after-effects.

  9. Rick: For crude humor it is not always the subject matter, but how it's presented, that matters to me. For instance, is the whole point of your book the crude humor, or is there some underlying meaning that the reader will get out of it?

  10. Some people are definitely born with the funny gift. But I think trying to learn a new skill, something that doesn't come naturally, is a wonderful way to stretch yourself.

    You might find that, nope, you really suck at YA vampire romance. But you may discover something you enjoy doing... and add a new trick to your writing horse.

    I always feel so empowered when I learn something new!

  11. I think it's important to learn new things but I also think that we should try and play to our strengths. However, maybe a new trait could become a great strength. Hmmm.

    And I love Data too. =]

  12. I'm with Davin; I think a full range of emotion is a good thing to have at our command, and I think it can all be learned. The thing about comedy is that whatever is funny in real life (either jokes or situations) can be presented as funny in books, but we have to remember that the audience for the humor is the reader, not the characters. And yes, sometimes I get it wrong, too. Stuff I think is hi-sterical falls flat for other people and stuff I think is deadly serious gets a good laugh (there's a long passage in "Cocke & Bull" that I thought was sad and tragic but is, I'm told, comical and more farce than tragedy). Which is good enough most of the time; I just don't want people to be bored.

  13. Amy: Good thoughts! I'm in a position to stretch my writing skills lately, so humor is something I'm keeping at the back of my mind. It might come forward more sooner than later.

    Laura: Ah, strength in weaknesses!

    Scott: Boredom is definitely something to avoid. I know Davin and I have both been worried about our work coming out terribly boring. It's something we're always asking each other, and it's a genuine fear I have in every situation I find myself in - that I'm going to bore people to tears. Silly, I know. I'm the most interesting person you've ever met, I'm sure.

  14. Also: anything but the original Star Trek is an abomination. Just saying.

  15. Scott: I respectfully disagree. Just saying.

  16. Blogger is being stupid and not publishing comments right away. Where is my previous comment and Scott's other comment about Star Trek? Of course, they'll show up eventually. Maybe. Anyone else having this issue on their blogs? Is it just my computer?

  17. All my fiction turns out funny, whether I want it to or not. I guess that's because my life does too. I just naturally find myself in ridiculous situations. This is not necessarily a good thing.

    I've had agents reject my work saying, "It almost sounds as if you intend this to be funny." But we're instructed never to call our work "humorous." "Let the reader judge for herself," they say.

    And then anything funny with a female protagonist is dismissed as lightweight, unpublishable "chick lit". (I keep wondering if they'd put that label on Dorothy Parker.)

    So can you learn to be funny in fiction? I don't know. Should you? Nah. For the current market, it's way more important to learn to write YA. With zombies. And zeppelins. Well, maybe that would be kinda funny...

  18. I can haz funny?

    Okay, for me? Funny happens when I get rid of my filter. I feel we're too often worried about what people think of us to say the random things that pop in our heads, but sometimes the incongruity is what's really amusing. Like the lolcats misspellings... they're stupid, and incongruous, and amuse me no end, so I use that stuff now and then just to entertain myself. If someone else likes it too? So much the better.

    Let the filter go now and then, friends. You might be surprised by the result.

    *steps off soapbox*


  19. OK, how lame is it that I've only now realized why you chose to title this post the way you did?

    Love TNG! And Data!

  20. Anne: Your comment has me in tears! Happy, laughing tears. :)

    Simon: Yes! I think that's such a good point about filters. I have so many of them it's ridiculous, and it's not easy to shed them.

    Stephanie: I'm so glad I'm not the only one who loves Data! It takes one AMAZING actor to pull off that character. I still want a cheeseburger. Sigh. I've been trying to eat less meat lately, but I'm not doing too well.

  21. Great video clip.
    Now, for my answer to your questions, I'm not sure if someone can learn to be funny in writing, but I have, on a few occasions, tried to help kids I teach understand how humor works. It's not so much as to teach them how to be funny, but to teach them how NOT to embarrass themselves by not being funny or by making the teacher angry. Oddly enough, I occasionally have to point out good and bad timing in attempted humor to 7th graders, and some of them actually do learn to get a little better at it -- at least making jokes at appropriate times.
    I suppose that in that way, one can improve one's humor a bit.
    I've also noticed that my smarter kids are generally much funnier than the average or lower level kids. They can make connections and puns much, much faster, and they have the background knowledge required to make the connections in the first place. They also understand humor much better -- for the same reasons.
    I suppose it's summed up best in an anonymous quote I read years and years ago in the Readers' Digest (of all places); It requires wisdom to understand wisdom; the music is nothing if the audience is deaf.

    So, can you teach people to be funny? Maybe not, but you can teach them to be funnier and to understand humor better.

  22. Man. that Scott is such a purist. I love TNG. Esp. Data. When he learns to dance is a crack up.

  23. I love Data! And funny...some people have a knack for funny. But I do think it is something that can be learned. Right? Maybe, possibly, maybe not.

  24. Paperback: I really like what you say about intelligence going hand in hand with humor. I think Data's character might give another layer to that, though, as he is very intelligent (since he's a computer), but he still lacks that human element. It's difficult to put your finger on what that is, almost. Great comment! Thank you for sharing.

    Lois: Oh! Which season is that in? I haven't seen that one yet.

    Kathi: I think it's something that can be learned to a degree - probably easier to attempt in writing than in real life, though. At least in writing you have the luxury of time to "get it right."

  25. For me trying to be funny is like trying to shove a square into a round hole. Even if when I can get it in, it doesn't fit.

    So, I just write what makes me laugh (and coffee shop patrons around the globe throw worried glances at me table.) Always one of three things happen.

    "This sucks."

    "This doesn't suck, but it's not funny. You really should get up off the floor, now."


    People laugh.

  26. Zuccini: I think the only thing we can do is write makes us laugh - if I tried to do anything else it would come out sounding really bad, I'm sure. I think honesty is important in writing, so therefore, honesty in my humor would be important too.


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