The other night on David Letterman he started out his monologue saying that only one man wrote the Gettysburg Address, and “it takes seven guys to write this crap!” That got a big laugh.
The line was funny for several reasons. One is that Dave’s duck face, his contagious chuckle, and impeccable timing deliver the humor. Another is his last word: crap.” “Crap” is a funny word without being too offensive as others that some comedians might use to convey the message.
“Crap” is a lot funnier than, say, a tame word like “stuff.”
Often words with the “k” sound make folks laugh. I smile whenever I hear the expression: turkey neck. A memoir entitled “I descend from Kinky Kinfolks Canoodling in Kentucky” will sell faster than one entitled: “My Stoic Ancestors of New England.” If you want to elicit a chuckle from your reader, combine words with the “k” sound. Like “Kris Cringle, Keystone Cops, Crazy Cat. Try out a mélange of the following: kowtow, kabuki, cuckoo, kibitzer, cougar, kitsch, cuckold. I once heard a South Carolinian comedian in describing his culinary habits say he liked to put “ketchup on his ketchup.” The visual was funny, but it’s the “k” sound that cinches it. Imagine had he announced he liked salsa on his salsa. Not that funny!
The third reason this Letterman joke is successful is because it’s true. Audiences laugh when they understand that the comedian has a valid point in what he’s saying. Writing humor isn’t easy. Everyone still cries at Shakespeare’s tragedies. Who plows through his comedies? Words on a page aren’t necessarily funny. You take away Dave’s stance and voice and atmosphere on the Letterman Show, and this line could be read in a flat way. Often comics are humorous because of their oral presentation. When a reader sees your black letters on a white page, there is no voice, no funny face, no back drop, no timing, no gestures. Only words. Because of this fact, I caution writers on a couple of things. First, if you can write funny but can’t talk funny, stay away from reading your works to audiences. The image of you and the sound of your voice are all wrapped up in the delivery, and the words might not be laughable if your mug resembles, let’s say, that of Lon Chaney, Jr. or if you’re a doppelganger for the Wicked Witch of the West. Two, when you take your pearls of witticism to a writing critique, be alert to the edits offered. Make sure your fellow writers have a sense of humor and one similar to yours. Some people possess a knack for destroying the punch line of any joke. This can happen in a critique group. My observation ties in with my next sage advice regarding the business of one man versus seven.
Sometimes, two heads are better than one like when doing a crossword or figuring out a jigsaw puzzle or wearing two pairs of eyeglasses at the same time. Nonetheless, too many cooks can spoil the broth. Seven folks may not have the same vision. Lincoln’s address is poetic in its clearness, brevity and poignancy. No purple prose crept in. Sometimes, a simple line can be slaughtered by too many artists adding their graffiti to it.
At writers’ conferences I am leery of readings. Unless you are a Mark Twain type, who is both storyteller and writer, beware. You might hurt the very prose you’re trying to promote. Unless folks naturally heehaw at your stories, don’t stand up and deliver. I was at an Erma Bombeck Conference a few years ago where they have an amateur stand up comedian night, and conferees can try their hand at being like the legendary Erma. I had not signed up in advance.
After listening to several women rehearse and giggle over each other’s shticks, I phoned my husband and told him I might try it. “Don’t do it!” he said.
“Why not?” I asked
“You’ll regret it.”
“You’re not funny.”
“But, but, but these women aren’t either!” I replied.
I didn’t do it. Actually, I am told all the time that I am funny – by my friends. Seriously, I have performed in front of Rotary congregants, teacher sororities, and writers’ groups and gotten laughs, but my husband had a point. He didn’t think I was funny enough in a room full of strangers who are wannabe comediennes to pull off getting a positive reception by reading my own material.
Since that time, I have taken note of readings at conferences. Even the best writers the presenters and famed authors don’t necessarily do their works justice. Some words are better on the page than spoken aloud. In fact, they say Lincoln’s address was like that. He had a high pitched squeaky voice with a silly Kentucky backwoods accent that lacked gravity. Honest Abe was better at delivering a joke than a serious elegy. Not everyone has Barry White’s vocal chords.
So, this gets me back to my original premise about humor. Make sure your lines are witty on the page, which means they don’t depend on the other senses for the joke to go over. In other words, the reader does not rely on a graphic, an intonation, a visual cue, or a slapstick antic to understand the intended joke. If your phrasing’s clever and you’ve found the “mot juste” for the “coup de grace” punch line, don’t spoil the effect by reading the bit aloud behind a podium, unless you also possess the savoir–faire of a Jay Leno, a Ray Romano, or a Lucy Ricardo.
Besides something called vanity publishing there is also the little mentioned affliction I’ll call “vanity storytelling,” and it often rears its ugly head at writers conferences!
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Writer Magazine, March 2014. It was titled :“ The Abc’s and K’s of Writing Funny.”
Erika Hoffman’s humorous, non-fiction stories often appear in magazines like Sasee of Myrtle Beach or in nationally known anthologies like Chicken Soup for the Soul and Not Your Mother’s Book, but what she enjoys penning are mysteries; some have been published in Deadly Ink Anthologies, 2009 and 2010 and in Tough Lit Mag ( II, IV, V).