This subject is no laughing matter.
Just a little heads up: there are going to be a lot of Monty Python references in this post. Proceed at your own risk.
Because today we will be talking about mirth—perhaps the most powerful feeling that can be conveyed in writing, and a particularly prickly subject by nature. Better writers than myself have tried to explain how to do it and all have failed to comprehensively and unilaterally define what mirth is and how to reliably evoke it in the reader.
Can I possibly succeed where everyone else has failed? You’ll have to read on to find out.
First, a Distinction
Anyone who has been keeping up with the Hooked on a Feeling miniseries will have noticed a curious omission among its ranks. I have written posts covering a broad array of emotions, yet never, at any time, have I attempted to cover that most coveted of feelings: happiness.
And I never will.
Joseph of Arimathea would be surprised and alarmed.
Why would I intentionally refrain from addressing such an important emotion in my hallmark miniseries about emotions? Simple: happiness cannot be conveyed in writing. There is no way to transfer it from the characters to the reader, and there is no point in trying to.
I’ll give that a moment to sink in.
Okay, now let’s address all your objections to what I have just written.
You will begin by saying that happiness can certainly be evoked by writing, because any emotion can be.
You are wrong. Writing is an imperfect instrument. Every book starts with a perfect version of the story in the author’s head, which then, as it is translated to the page, becomes corrupted. To quote a famous writer:
Some emotions—including those that can be perfectly described in words—cannot be transferred to the reader, because they get lost in translation. And happiness is perhaps the most obvious of these, because no matter how it is applied, it becomes a different beast by the time it gets imported to the reader’s mind.
If, for example, the characters are happy because they have triumphed over some horrible and heartrending obstacle, then the feeling evoked in the reader is not happiness, but inspiration, which I already covered in a previous post.
“Of course books can evoke happiness in the reader. Haven’t you ever heard of a ‘happy ending’?”
Why yes, I have heard of those. And I am well aware that they are a permanent fixture in the literary landscape.
The moral here is to marry someone who looks like a gender-swapped clone of yourself.
So yes, happy endings exist, but who exactly are they happy for? When we say “happy ending,” we mean that the characters are happy at the end. How does that apply to the reader? If a story has an unhappy ending, does that mean we are trying to evoke unhappiness in the reader?
I should hope not.
Because, after all, the feeling that truly arises in the reader upon reaching a happy ending is not happiness but envy. The reader wishes he was one or more of the characters and able to share in the bliss of their experience. Once again, happiness gets transformed in the process of translation.
“Happiness must be transferable to the reader because we often feel happy while reading books.”
Yes, reading brings happiness. There is no denying that.
But that happiness in no way correlates with whatever feeling the story is trying to impress in us. A reader is perfectly capable of being happy while reading a horror story or a high-intensity thriller, just as well as with a love story or a tale of fantasy and adventure. We feel happy not because the story is a happy one, or because the characters are happy at a certain moment. Rather, the happiness comes because the book so successfully evokes the emotions we want to feel. Horror readers like reading horror stories, and when the feeling of fear is successfully given to such readers, it makes them happy, because fear is what they were seeking.
“Okay, so certain kinds of happiness cannot be conveyed to the reader. But what about the everyday happiness of a character just living life? It’s such a simple form of happiness that it surely cannot be corrupted.”
Oh, but it can.
Simple happiness may indeed be the best. And many books start out with the characters in such a state. A good example of this would be the beginning of The Lord of the Rings—a hallmark of fantasy literature.
The Fellowship of the Ring begins with a village of happy hobbits, all going about their everyday hobbity business, and today is even happier than usual, for they are all about to attend a birthday party with fireworks and good food.
Surely, some of that happiness gets transferred to the reader, right?
Consider the words of the best screenwriting teacher in the United States:
Nobody wants to see the village of the happy people.
If it were possible to transfer simple, everyday happiness from the character to the reader, then every book ever written would be filled with nothing but simple happiness from start to finish. People would pay the authors of the world in mountains of gold, all for a taste of that sweet drug.
Alas, this is not possible. Because when the characters are experiencing simple happiness, it manifests in the reader as boredom. That’s why writers only put it at the beginning of books, so that it will be over by the end of the first chapter.
What is the worst part of The Lord of the Rings? “The beginning,” answers the legions of Tolkien readers. For all its majesty, the book’s slow start has kept thousands of potential readers from proceeding any further. And those who do make the journey only do so because they know the Ring Wraiths are on their way to finally make things interesting.
They make look evil, but they save the reader’s attention from dying a terrible death.
Even the characters themselves are aware of how deathly dull the first few chapters are. Why do you think Bilbo is so eager to hightail it out of the story? He beats his hobbit feet to the road and gets himself to somewhere less soul-crushing.
So, to be clear, I must reiterate that happiness cannot be evoked in the reader from anywhere inside the story, and that any attempt to do so will result in failure.
Fortunately, happiness is not the subject of this post. Today’s emotion is quite distinct from happiness, and I wanted to make that distinction here, so that there would be no room for confusion. Unlike happiness, it is possible to evoke today’s subject in the reader, and it can be transferred to him directly from the characters.
So, without further distractions, let’s talk about mirth.
What’s so Great about Mirth?
Of all the emotions discussed in this series, mirth is the most lucrative.
I’ve got your attention now, don’t I?
If you can regularly make people laugh, you will have as big an audience as you desire. If your humor is sufficiently broad enough in its appeal, you can even make boatloads of cash. Naturally, this is no easy task, or else everyone would be doing it.
However, if it can be pulled off, then it will provide your writing with the greatest of all possible benefits: free advertising.
Let’s take a look back at the benefits we have discussed in previous entries.
- Inspiration is personally transformative for your reader, and has the greatest lifelong benefit.
- Fear ignites the suspension of disbelief, and most powerfully reinforces the illusion you are weaving around your reader.
- Hate makes the story immortal, providing a conduit to future generations of readers.
- Love keeps the book in the reader’s mind, even when they are not reading it.
Now, let us add mirth’s benefit to the list.
- Mirth causes the reader to share the book with others.
Because word-of-mouth testimonials are the strongest form of advertising, and who doesn’t want to share the thing that made them laugh with family and friends?
All the great authors know this. Or, if they don’t, then they are using it without realizing that they use it. Name one bestseller that doesn’t have a sense of humor. And don’t say Stephen King, because his books are downright HI-larious, and his film adaptations are even funnier.
Crazy prepubescent televangelist convinces a town full of children to murder their parents and start worshiping corn? Abbot and Costello were never this good.
If you have no trouble injecting mirth into your books—mirth that will actually make people laugh—then there is nothing I can teach you. You’ve already reached the pinnacle.
So when you start populating your world with characters, be sure to include a few Fred and George Weasleys, or Merrys and Pippins, or prophet Elijahs (the most sardonic figure in the Old Testament, trolling the priests of Ba’al like he was doing standup on the streets of Jericho).
But, if you by chance don’t know how to make mirth, then we have a little more to discuss.
Putting Mirth in Your Writing
And here comes the hard part.
There is no easy way, or even a universally agreed-upon way, to make your writing funny. It’s one of the great mysteries of human psychology that is still elusive to researchers of all stripes, and writers as well.
Of course, there have been attempts—many, many attempts—to nail it down. Some of them can get rather technical in their explanation. One such book that has gained popularity recently is The Humor Code, by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner.
I don’t want to reiterate the entire book here. Suffice it to say that this book’s theory of humor boils down to a rather simple explanation.
In the authors’ opinion, a thing is funny because
- It violates some kind of cultural taboo, and
- It does so without causing actual harm.
This theory, which the authors call the “benign violation” theory, makes a great deal of sense to me, but if I think about it too much, I can come up with counterexamples.
And the same can be said for other theories of humor that have cropped up over the years. Are things funny because they come from a place of pain? Or because the pain happens to someone who is proud? Or are things funny because they are embarrassing or play upon our deep-seated fears? All of these have their evidences, yet all can still be disproven.
More Reliable Methods
By now you must be wondering what my theory of humor entails, as it pertains to injecting mirth into a person’s writing. Well, I can’t claim to be smarter than McGraw, Warner, or anyone who came before them. However, I do know of three methods that have proven effective across generations, and are more likely than not to get a laugh. I would hope that, by giving you the fundamentals, you are able to create your own theory of mirth that works for you and resonates with your kind of writing.
If I can do that, then this post will be a success.
These are my three methods, listed from least effective to most effective.
Method #1: It’s Funny because It’s True
You’ve heard of this one already, I should think.
The world is already full of ridiculous things. It doesn’t take a genius to poke fun at them. If you’re aiming for satirical mirth, then you have arrived, because “it’s funny because it’s true” is the keystone of all satire.
All you have to do is take one thing—one thing that people hate or are annoyed with—and stretch it to ludicrous extremes. For example, a lot of people hate clerks. They’re never as helpful as they’re supposed to be. So, if you write a scene where your character is dealing with a store clerk, asking for directions to a specific item and given only the vaguest and most ambivalent of answers, then you have the start of something. You can escalate this in a number of ways: it turns out that this store doesn’t sell that item, or it turns out that the clerk is secretly moving the item around when you’re not looking, but still acts completely disinvested when you ask him questions, or it turns out that the shopper is mistaken, and doesn’t actually know the name of the thing they want.
And that can be the seed of a really funny comedy. Although if you want to see a great example of shopping clerk satire, you need look no further than a Monty Python’s Flying Circus skit called “The Cheese Shop”.
The skit begins with a customer walking into a cheese shop, with the clerk assuring him that they have all kinds of cheese for sale. The customer asks for a particular cheese, only to be told that the shop doesn’t have any. He asks for other kinds of cheese, but the shop is fresh out of those, as well. The clerk reassures the customer that, as a cheese shop, they have all kinds of cheese, yet every kind of cheese the customer requests is one the shop does not have.
After naming almost every kind of cheese imaginable, the customer finally asks the clerk if the shop has any cheese at all. The clerk honestly replies that the shop has none. Upon hearing this, the customer pulls out a handgun and murders the clerk.
It’s funny because it resonates with those moments where we, the audience, have had to deal with businesses that don’t deliver on their promises. And the same can be applied to other ordinary situations: filling up a car at a gas station, flying with an airline, trapped in a hospital bed, etc., etc. If it’s true, but it’s also a truth that people are uncomfortable with, then it is not hard to make it funny.
Method #2: It’s Funny because It’s Not True
Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
It’s a strange thing to contemplate. The “It’s funny because it’s true” advice is such a broadly accepted philosophy that it might as well be canonized. And yet, there is evidence to contradict it.
If we go in the opposite direction—if we try to derive mirth not from everyday situations, but from things that are fantastic and impossible, we find humor there, too, in amounts previously unseen.
In my studies, I have found such concentrations of mirth in unreal situations that it has led me to question whether the “It’s funny because it’s true” method has any validity at all. Because these more-than-realistic situations have drawn bigger, longer, louder, and more numerous laughs from myself and others.
And this is one of the reasons I have focused so intensely on the Monty Python comedy troupe in this article, because they are masters of the Unreal Mirth.
To illustrate this point, let us draw our attention to the holy grail of Monty Python films, appropriately entitled Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The film is a collection of a number of segments, which make up their own stories while still contributing to the overall plot. One such segment is called “The Tale of Sir Galahad.”
Despite my habit for hyperbole, I do not think I am incorrect to call this the funniest story ever written. It has been known to cause convulsions of laughter, even in people who have watched the segment dozens of times. It’s the most paused segment of the movie, as viewers often have to take a moment to catch their breath or risk passing out. This story evokes mirth all the way down to the bones.
And it is entirely unrealistic.
The premise is ridiculously untrue: Sir Galahad finds a castle in the middle of nowhere populated only by 160 beautiful young women, all of whom have an interest in him and are completely willing to engage in whatever depraved acts the mind can imagine. They won’t leave him alone and they don’t let up for even a moment. Galahad, who, if you know your Arthurian legends, was the most sexually pure of all the knights, tries to retain his composure but is eventually taken in by their offers, only to be “rescued” by Sir Lancelot at the last minute as the maidens tearfully plead for him to stay.
It’s the sort of thing that could never happen in real life, even in the middle ages. And it is all the funnier for it. The human brain can’t handle the impossibility of the situation, and must collapse in a giggling fit as the story unfolds. How many people have been converted to Monty Python by this sequence alone?
And though the Python troupe may have been the masters of unrealistic humor, they were by no means the only perpetrators. Let’s consider the case of Saturday Night Live.
No. NO. Not the current incarnation of Saturday Night Live. I mean the old SNL—the one that used to be the funniest thing on TV.
Think about all your favorite segments from SNL’s golden years: “The Coneheads,” “Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey,” and “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer”.
This last example is one of the best: Phil Hartman plays a caveman who was thawed out from a glacier and now lives in the modern world. Using this opportunity to obtain a law degree, he becomes a lawyer who always wins his cases, not because he’s ever in the right, but because he can always count on the court to take pity on him for being a poor caveman out of his time. It is astoundingly funny, but it is nowhere close to being “true”.
I believe that the “Funny because it’s true” and “Funny because it’s not true” methods provide all you need to know to stir up the mirth in you story (logically, they would have to). However, it is still possible to fail at being funny, even with these methods.
But worry not, because there is a third method which has a higher success rate than any of the others. It is also one of the easiest methods—it can be done by anyone. Yet, at the same time, professional comedians take advantage of it regularly. It might just be the only surefire method for telling an original joke.
Method #3: Plagiarism
It’s more common than you might think.
Granted, it can fail. If too many people have heard the original joke, or if you don’t deliver the joke with the same comedic timing that was originally used, you might not get the same effect.
That said, people have been plagiarizing their mirth-evoking writing for eons. There’s no point in resisting it. That ship sailed more than a millennium ago.
Now, some reader is bound to come across this post and try to chew me out for espousing plagiarism. To that person, I will say that I do not support any plagiarism that fits the legal definition. But that “legal definition” is remarkably narrow. So if one author copies and pastes portions of another’s work into his own, he is doing something evil and wrong. Even if he changes some of the words after the fact, that is still wrong.
However, plagiarism of ideas, including concepts and humorous situations, is not legally prosecutable. In fact, this other kind of plagiarism is extremely necessary to the ecosystem of ideas. Without it, the free flow of opinions, agendas, and platforms in the marketplace of ideas could be stifled.
But having it around does mean that jokes will get ripped off from time to time…to time to time to time.
There are examples everywhere. Most of these just get shrugged off as harmless. However, a few cases have been hotly contested to the point of gaining notoriety, these include:
David Brenner accusing Robin Williams of plagiarism.
Bill Hicks accusing Dennis Leary of plagiarism.
Louis C.K. accusing Dennis Leary of plagiarism.
Joe Rogan accusing Carlos Mencia of plagiarism.
Dennis Leary accusing Dennis Leary of plagiarism.
Plus the most high-profile case of them all:
But since almost no legal recourse exists for joke plagiarism, it will probably continue ad nauseum for eternity. And, in a way, it has now become mandatory. After all, why put all the time and energy into crafting new material when anyone else is free to snatch it from you? The current environment makes joke plagiarism a necessity, whether for good or ill. It might not be possible to change, seeing as how almost all jokes are anecdotal by nature, and prosecuting anecdotal plagiarism is impractical in the extreme. Therefore, you might as well take advantage of this tool while it is available.
But keep in mind that these things are much easier to track in written-word form, and copy-and-paste plagiarism of text blocks longer than one or two sentences can lead to prosecution and is morally wrong. Proceed at your own risk.
The Achilles Heel
Mirth is perhaps the most powerful emotion that a writer can evoke. It is only appropriate, then, that it should also have the greatest consequence for failure.
And it is all too easy to fail at evoking mirth. The joke you are trying to tell always has the potential to fall flat, and it can be messed up in a million different ways. This problem is compounded in writing. As another famous author said:
In written humor, the reader has to do his own timing.
And that is a near-impossible mark to hit as a writer. Furthermore, repeated failures (or particularly large failures) can cause the market to lose trust in your mirth-making abilities forever. As such, when it comes to humor, the writer should pay closer attention to what his editor is telling him. To reference yet another anecdote:
Danny Simon, Neil Simon’s brother, was really very helpful to me when I was 20 years old. He was a merciless editor and that rubbed off on me. This was when I was writing television. Danny and I would work on a skit. It would be coming along fine and then either he or I might come up with a great joke. And he would say, “Yes, it’s a great joke but it’s an expensive laugh.” He meant you’re stopping the action for the joke. I didn’t want to part with it because the joke was great, but then you thought, maybe the joke is too inside and only a hundred people would get it. And nobody knows who Thelonious Monk is. Danny was a merciless cutter.
The most important takeaway here is to hold the humor you write to a higher standard than the humor you consume. Mirth is more dangerous territory than the other emotions you can evoke in your writing.
Mirth really isn’t necessary in your writing…unless you want to be successful. The path is fraught with peril, but no other path is quite so worthwhile. Take my advice to heart, but pay even more attention to the really great humorists, and those who are able to inject any feeling of laughter or of celebration into their writing (for humor is not the only kind of mirth).
Above all else, enjoy the work you’re doing. You can’t expect people to laugh at your material if you don’t take any enjoyment from it yourself.
If you’ve read all the way down to here, then I’m afraid you may be hooked.
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…for the food and stay for the show.”]
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