Nothing makes my heart sink like an ‘HILARIOUS LoL LoL OMG SO TRUE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’ email forward. Guaranteed to fulfil none of the subject line promises, it tends to fall into one of two camps: ‘women are smart and funny, while men are crap at taking directions’ (if it’s from a woman) or ‘why beer is better than a woman’ (if it’s from a man). Thinking of unleashing your own home-grown tellin’-it-like-it-is just-sayin’-insert-painful-and-dated-cliché-here comedy on the world? Then I beg of you: don’t tell gender-based jokes. Look around you. ‘Life coach’ is considered a legitimate career choice, Tony Abbott leads a political party and doggles exist: we live in a very odd world. Surely ‘My husband couldn’t find the milk in the fridge with a map and a sign that says, “Here Be Milk” ’ is not your A-Grade material. While we’re talking clichés, the following phrases should also be struck from your lexicon forever: talk to the hand; I don’t think so; you go, girl!; go [insert name], go [repeat name]; actually, any variant with ‘go’ in it. (And if you’re someone who forwards anything with ‘LoL’ in the subject line, please stop. Your friends may never admit it, but they’re currently deleting your emails without reading them.)
Comedy is not desperate for your approval, and the reason why most amateur stand-up is singularly awful to watch is because the person on stage is dying for you to laugh. ‘I’m wacky! Check out my funky hair! Please, love me! Wait – don’t leave! Did I tell you the thing about how a beer is better than a women?’ It’s the same with the written word. We’ve all seen examples of a potentially perfect punchline ruined by lumpy, heavy-handedness. It’s like riding a wooden cart along a bridge and watching pieces of it fall off, ricocheting into the crevasse below. Throwing more stuff at it (bigger reactions, another layer of hilarity) doesn’t work. ‘Mayday! Mayday!’ the reader thinks. ‘We’re going down!’ Yes, you are, and you’re taking everyone with you. Do not over-explain the joke. Actually, don’t explain the joke at all if you can avoid it. Comedy that goes overboard appeals to five-year-olds and the kind of people who line up to see Big Mama’s House IV: Still Milking A Dead Horse. Presumably, neither of these people are your target audience. Good comedy requires a delicate touch. (I won’t say ‘subtle’ here, as not all comedy is subtle. Again, an essay for another time.) Convoluted circumstances where you force your punchline into existence don’t work. If your humour is dry – in addition to Bryson and Austen, Stephen Fry, Garrison Keilor and Lisa Lutz are very good examples of this style – it’s always better to pull back. Clever humour is organic, and the best kind sneaks up into the work and sucker-punches you. (There’s that violence thing again.) Similarly, use metaphors and similes sparingly. Lately, I’ve been finding writers who seem to have only just stumbled upon the power of the simile and are so excited by it that they’ll use it as a comedic crutch again and again and again. … like (something) on acid! … like (celebrity) on a bender! (Though not a book, pick up any issue of Women’s Health and choose a page at random; I can almost guarantee there’ll be one on there.) When used correctly, a well-chosen metaphor can be devastating. Over-use them, however, and your reader will think they’re the only weapon in your arsenal. Your work will be devalued as a result.
Finding your own voice is really important.Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s deeply irritating if all you can be is a pale copy of the original. Everyone has influences that shape and form their style – your job is to take the best aspects from yours and marry them with your individual take on life. As a character trait, I believe optimism is helpful to comedians (which is odd, seeing as so many of us suffer from depression); the ability to see the funny side in pretty much anything is a boon to the comedic writing process. The mantra, which has gotten me through many difficult moments, is that an awful day today will make an excellent anecdote tomorrow. The trick, of course, is to work out which anecdotes people actually want to hear about, choose your words very carefully, and deliver the joke without expecting applause. Remember: no one likes comedy that begs. These notes are
just a rough guide to what I’ve personally found works – and, more importantly I think, what doesn’t work – in my own pieces. In the end, all I can write is something that makes me laugh, and if someone else finds it funny, that’s a bonus. Plus, there’s nothing more gratifying than someone telling you that you’re funnier than Big Mama’s House. Praise I’ll take to the grave.
Lia Weston broke the three rules of getting published when her un-agented first- ever novel, The Fortunes of Ruby White, was pulled out of the slush pile and published by Simon & Schuster in 2010. She won the Australian Literature Review’s 2011 Epistolary partnership competition and has had her short stories featured in several anthologies. She also writes a monthly blog for the website Writing Novels in Australia. Currently working on her second novel, Lia runs a bicycle shop by day and works as a freelance editor by night. Lia will be presenting as part of the Fiction Bootcamp in December.
This article was originally published in Southern Write in June 2011 and reposted with the author’s permission.