Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 13 March 2016

Funny? Don’t make me laugh by Jennifer Young

Once upon a time I found this amusing...
I remember, clear as day, the moment I realised that studying English at university had been a mistake. My tutorial group had been sent off to choose a text which we found funny and explain why. I forget which book I picked — maybe something by Jane Austen — but the moment I sat down to write I was in trouble. The second I began the analysis, whatever had made me laugh ceased to be funny.

I changed my course shortly afterwards, and even now when people ask me, shaking their heads as they do so, why I don’t like Jane Austen, I reply that I don’t like comedies of manners. Which is true, because thanks to that long-ago tutorial, I can’t see how such subtlety is funny.

Fast forward a few decades. I’m working on a plot. I have a new character — a secondary one, but no less important for that. He’s a middle aged lawyer with an interest in antiques. His love life is rewarding and complicated and he woos the ladies with more than just a handsome bearing and a healthy bank balance. He wins them with his dry wit.

And here’s the problem. In my head he’s witty. The most cynical woman can’t resist him and the most envious rival can’t suppress a smile at his sharp and observant comments. Yet when it comes to setting him on the page the wit somehow disappears. His remarks are dry. They’re clever. But they aren’t in any way funny.

How often have you heard someone repeat an anecdote, fail to raise a laugh, shrug and then sign off with that admission of defeat: you had to be there? I do it often. It’s because I have no sense of timing; it’s a rare occasion when I think of the right thing to say at the right time, rather than two days (or, worse, two minutes) later. 

Millions of people are essentially funny. Some of them are even funny when they write. Many of those write newspaper columns. Some of them write books. But they are everywhere in life and they are some of the most successfully people in terms of romance. (He makes me laugh — surely the cry of every honest heroine everywhere.)


As someone who is funny neither in the flesh nor on the page I find it impossible to imbue my characters with the wit I know they have. Am I doomed to be for ever humourless? Oh, how I hope not.

11 comments:

  1. Well I was smiling as I read your amusing post, Jennifer. Lots of comics, both male and female, some boosting enormous followings and the ability to fill arenas with fans, are still tortured by the belief that their work isn't up to snuff. Perhaps write your character and let others be the judge of whether or not he is witty - I think you might be pleasantly surprised. :-)

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    1. Thanks Rae. I'll see how it turns out. It would be dreadful to have a character who's supposed to be witty and turns out a bore...

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  2. Like Rae, I smiled as I read this. But maybe it was the wry smile of someone who could completely identify with your problem? I too would love to be funny. My sister is funny - effortlessly, sometimes cruelly, but always funny. I can see how she does it, but somehow can't do the same. I'm thinking of sub-contracting some of my character-writing to her. I let you know how I get on!

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    1. If you find someone who's prepared to be funny for money, send them over to me!

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  3. Yes I smiled too as I read this, and nodded my head in agreement. Comedy/Humour is so difficult to do - on paper, in life, on the stage. Not least because of the fact that what makes one person laugh leaves another poe-faced.

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    1. Yes. And it's particularly hard if you end up failing to convince the reader of a character's attractiveness.

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  4. Humour is so subjective, Jennifer, comedians usually leave me cold. I could identify with your post but you're probably being too hard on yourself!

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    1. Well, I hope so. But I shudder at the idea of my witticisms falling flat, in real life or in fiction!

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  5. Oh how I wish I had that witty comeback on the tip of my tongue but no. Your handsome man maybe more witty than you think. Great blog.

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  6. Writing comedy is the hardest thing. I once went on a writing course run by Angela Arney, June Tate, and (the now,sadly, late) Kathryn Haig and they all agreed that comedy writing can't be forced. Only one person in our group, a young man, was able to do it with any skill. But some people are good at retelling a story - my son is one and we are in stitches at his retelling of an incident long before he gets to the punchline. Now if only he would write .....come on, James!

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  7. Rosemary is right. Humour is subjective. My husband and I laugh at different things. Things he finds funny, just don't even fizzle with me. And vice versa. Sometimes people are funny unintentionally - just through facial expressions or posture or accents. It doesn't always have to be words. Just the other day, I was working on English pronounciation with one of my German students. All of a sudden the thickest Brummie accent popped out of my mouth (oops!) He mimicked me and that was that...laughter all round.
    Great post!! Thanks for sharing.

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