My, I went on a tear yesterday, didn’t I? Well, better get comfy today, too, folks, because this is going to be another long one. Although, as a writer of comic novels on serious topics (my latest is about when the first AIDS death happened at Harvard, hardly inherently a chuckle-fest), the topic du jour is very close to my heart: making sure the funny parts of your manuscript are actually funny, and revising so they will be.
Why, you may be wondering, am I taking up this topic immediately after the issue of freshness of voice? Well, to professional readers, humor is often a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.
Hey, there’s a reason that my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, opens with the death of the protagonist’s grandmother in a tragic bocce ball accident in Golden Gate Park. (After consultation with his fellow players, the murderer is allowed to take the shot again, with no penalty.) The smile raised by it buys the novel good will with editors for pages to come.
But if a submission TRIES to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.
All very technical, I know. But as I’m relatively certain I’ve said before (about 7000 times, if memory serves), the more you can put yourself in your dream agent or editor’s reading glasses while you are revising your submission, the better off you will be in the long run.
Humor is a great way to establish your narrative voice as unique, but it can be a risky strategy. Why, you ask? Well, unless you are lucky or brave enough to be a stand-up comic, or have another job that allows you to test material on a live audience — okay, I’ll admit it: back when I was lecturing to college students, I used to try out jokes on my captive audience all the time — you honestly cannot tell for sure if the bits that seemed hilarious to you in the privacy of your studio would be funny to anyone else.
Trust me on this one: your first test of whether a joke works should NOT be when you submit it to the agency of your dreams.
So how can you know what works and what doesn’t? Personally, I read every syllable of my novels out loud to someone else before even my first readers or agent see them. If an expected chuckle does not come, I flag the passage and rework it, pronto.
Now, this isn’t a completely reliable test, because I have pretty good delivery (due to all of those years honing my comic timing on helpless college students, no doubt), but it does help me get a sense of what is and isn’t working. Reading out loud is also one of the few ways to weed out what movie people call bad laughs, the unintentional blunders that make readers guffaw.
This strategy only works, of course, if you are open to the possibility that the sentence that you thought was the best one-liner penned in North America since Richard Pryor died is simply not funny, and thus should be cut. Admittedly, this kind of perspective is not always easy to maintain: it requires you to be humble. Your favorite line may very well go; it’s no accident that the oft-quoted editing advice, “Kill your darlings,” came from the great wit Dorothy Parker.
But be ruthless: if it isn’t funny, it should go — no matter how much it makes you laugh. As any successful comedy writer can tell you, in the long run, actually doesn’t matter if the author laughs himself silly over any given joke: the reaction that matters is the audience’s. (And no, the fact that your spouse/mother/best friend laughed heartily does not necessarily mean a line is genuinely funny. It may mean merely that these people love you and want you to be happy.)
Lacking an audience, it is still possible to weed out the unfunny. There are a few common comic mistakes that should set off warning bells while you are editing — because, believe me, they will be setting off hazard flares in the minds of agents and editors.
First, look for jokes that are explained AFTER they appear in the text. Starting with the punch line, then working backward, is almost never as funny as bits told the other way around: a good comic bit should produce a SPONTANEOUS response in the reader, not a rueful smile three lines later. (And to an agency screener, explaining a joke after the fact looks suspiciously like the bit fell flat in the author’s writing group, and the writer scrambled to justify the joke in order to keep it in the book.) If background information is necessary in order to make a joke funny, introduce it unobtrusively earlier in the text, so the reader already knows it by the time you make the joke.
Second, ANY real-life situation that you have imported because it was funny should be read by other people before you submit it to an agent or editor. No fair telling it as an anecdote — have them read it precisely as you present it in the text. Keep an eye on your victims as they read: are they smiling, or do they look like jurors on a death penalty case?
The humorous anecdote that slayed ‘em at the office potluck VERY frequently rolls over and dies on the page. Just because everyone laughed when Aunt Myrtle’s prize-winning carrot-rhubarb pie fell onto your dog’s head at the Fourth of July picnic doesn’t necessarily mean that it will inspire mirth in the average reader. Especially if that reader doesn’t already know that Aunt Myrtle’s pies are renowned for making Mom swell up from an allergic reaction, so Dad generally arranges to have some tragic pie-related incident occur every year — which brings us back to problem #1, right?
Again, this is an assumption problem: there’s a reason, after all, that the language includes the phrase, “you had to be there.”
Don’t feel embarrassed, please, if you find that you have included such a scene: even the pros make this mistake very frequently; you know those recurring characters on sketch comedy shows, the ones that are only funny if you’ve seen them a couple of dozen times? Often, those are real-life characters pressed into comic service. (In the extremely unlikely circumstance that good comedy writer Ben Stiller will one day upon this message in a bottle: honey, that bit with the guy who keeps saying “just do it” has NEVER worked. It wasn’t funny in the often-hilarious THE BEN STILLER SHOW; it still wasn’t funny a decade later, in the not-very-funny STARSKY & HUTCH. Kindly stop telling us how funny it was when the guy did it in real life — it’s irrelevant.)
Third, you should also take a very, very close look at any joke or situation at which a character in the text is seen to laugh immoderately. (And if, after you reread it, you find yourself tempted for even 35 seconds to exclaim, “But everyone laughed when it happened!” go stand in the corner with Ben Stiller.) I like to call this the Guffawing Character Problem; it is ubiquitous in first novels, so much so that agency screeners often just stop reading when it occurs.
Why? Well, to professional eyes, having characters whoop and holler over a joke reads like insecurity on the author’s part: like the laugh track on a TV series, it can come across as merely a blind to cover a joke that actually isn’t very funny. It makes the reader wonder if, in fact, she’s being ORDERED to laugh. Agents and editors don’t like taking orders from writers, as a general rule.
The device also sets the funny bar unnecessarily high: the broader the character’s response, the more pressure on the poor little joke to be funny. If the character’s laugh is even one millisecond longer than the reader’s, it’s going to seem as though the writer is reaching.
Fourth, excise any jokes that you have borrowed from TV, movies, radio shows, other books, or the zeitgeist. And definitely think twice about recycling comic premises from any of the above. This is a freshness issue: by definition, a joke that has been told before by someone else isn’t fresh, right?
This may seem like rather strange advice to those of you who have just spent summer conference season being told endlessly by agents and editors that they are looking for books like this or that bestseller, but honestly, copycat books usually don’t sell all that well. (Witness how quickly chick lit fell off agents’ hot lists, for instance.) As Mae West liked to say, there are a lot of copies out there, but if you’re an original, no one can mistake you for someone else. No one remembers the copies.
Don’t believe me? Okay, name three books patterned after COLD MOUNTAIN. Or SEX IN THE CITY. Or, if you want to go farther back in time, CATCH-22. I thought not.
#5 is really a subset of #4, but it is common enough to warrant its own warning: if you use clichés for comic effect, make ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that you have used them correctly. You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to misreproduce clichés. (I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests and edited hundreds of manuscripts.) If you’re going for a recognition laugh, you’re far more likely to get it with “It’s a dog-eat-dog world” than “It’s a doggie-dog world.”
Trust me on this one. An incorrectly-quoted cliché will kill any humorous intention you had deader than the proverbial doornail. So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are 10-foot, not 100-foot. (How would you lift a 100-foot pole without the assistance of a dozen friends, anyway?) When in doubt about the proper phraseology, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.
Even better, leave the clichés out altogether. Most agents and editors dislike clichés with an intensity that other people reserve for fiery automobile crashes, airplane malfunctions, and the bubonic plague. They feel (as do I) that a writer worth rewarding with a publishing contract should be able should be able to make it through 50 pages of text without reverting to well-worn truisms, even as a joke.
If you are new to writing comedy, allow me to let you in on a little secret: many jokes that garner chuckles when spoken aloud fall flat in print. This is particularly true of the kind of patented one-liner people on the street are so fond of quoting from their favorite sitcoms, movies, and sketch comedy shows. Take a gander, for instance, at these zingers out of context:
From the 1970s: Excu-u-use me!
From the 1980s: You look mahvelous!
From the late 1990s: I don’t know karate, but I do know cah-razy.
Now, if you close your eyes and conjure up vivid images of Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, and Owen Wilson, respectively, saying these lines, these old chestnuts might still elicit the odd chuckle. Go ahead and chuckle your head off, if you are given to atavistic clinging to the popular culture of your past, but please, I implore you, do not make the (unfortunately common) mistake of reusing these kinds of once-popular catchphrases in your writing. Not only are such bits seldom funny out of context, but it will date your book: what is humor today probably will not be in a decade, and one generation’s humor will not be another’s.
In fact, if you aspire to perfecting your comic voice, it might behoove you to take a good, hard look at the careers of Mssrs. Martin, Crystal, and Wilson — and Mssr. Stiller and Madame Mae West, for that matter. All of them started out as comedy writers, writing material for themselves and others, and all became progressively less funny (in this writer’s opinion) as soon as they started performing comic material written by other people.
An accident? I think not. They became less funny because their individual comic voices had gotten lost.
Oh, the people who were writing for them have tried to recapture their quite distinct original voices, but the copy is never as vivid as the original. Why any of you stopped writing your own material is a mystery to me. But I digress…
And so will an agency screener’s mind digress, if you drag gratuitous pop culture references into your submissions. People tend to have very strong associations with particular periods in their lives, and for all you know, the reference you choose to use may be the very one most favored in 1978 by your dream agent’s hideously unkind ex, the one who lied in court during the divorce proceedings and hid assets so cleverly that their daughter’s college fund had to be used to pay those unexpected medical bills of Mother’s. Then the car broke down, and all of those checks bounced, and the orthodontist tried to repossess Angela’s braces…
See what happened? One little pop culture reference, and POW! You’ve lost your reader’s attention entirely.
So even if you are using pop culture references to establish a particular period, do it with care. Be sparing. Even if your teenage son quoted SHANGHAI NOON endlessly for six solid months while the entire family cringed in a Y2K fallout shelter, do be aware that your reader might not have the associations you do with those jokes. There are a myriad of associational possibilities — and almost none of them will make YOUR work more memorable or seem fresher.
Which brings me full-circle, doesn’t it? One of the advantages to using humor in your submissions is to demonstrate the originality of YOUR voice — not Owen Wilson’s, not Steve Martin’s, and certainly not that anonymous person who originated that joke your best friend from college just forwarded to you. If your individual voice is not inherently humorous, don’t try to force it to be by importing humor from other sources. Lifting material from elsewhere, even if it is genuinely funny, is not the best means of establishing that YOU are funny — or that yours is a book well worth reading.
Or better still, remembering AFTER having read and offering to represent or publish.
People still remember Mae West, my friends, not her hundreds of imitators. Here’s to all of us being originals on the page — and keep up the good work!