Internationally acclaimed comedian Tim Ferguson is running a workshop on comedy writing at the Gold Coast on 10 August. There’s obviously a lot of interest in this art as his workshops are always very popular. I’ve often wondered how you go about teaching people to write comedy, given that humour is such a subjective thing. What makes one person roll around on the floor laughing will make another person yawn. One man’s Monty Python is another man’s Seinfeld.
Everyone has a sense of humour, even if it’s not readily apparent in some, and every writer has a distinct ‘voice’ when it comes to humour – some have a well-developed sense of the ridiculous or the absurdities of everyday life, others favour the ‘pie in the face’ approach and others are more subtle, leaning more towards satire than laughs.
I’m always gratified when people tell me they found my book How Not To Commit Murder witty or funny, especially if they laughed out loud. It’s reassuring to know that others share my sense of humour and that I’m not completely crazy when I find myself chuckling at something I wrote. (I know it’s bad form to laugh at your own jokes, but it doesn’t count if you’re by yourself).
I’ve categorised humour into three types:
Situational humour: in which the situation itself is funny. Comedy crime author Colin Bateman puts his characters in some bizarrely funny situations, often verging on slapstick. Novels that come to mind are The Day of the Jack Russell (a hypochondriac, multi-phobic bookshop owner gets involved in a murder investigation, which includes looking for a missing Jack Russell terrier) and Nine Inches (ex-journalist turned private eye finds himself in the middle of a feud between rival drug gangs). Here’s my review of Nine Inches on Goodreads.
Donald Westlake was a genius at creating plots in which comical scenes were almost inevitable – for example, the Dortmunder novels, in which John Dortmunder, a career crook, comes up with an endless variety of creative burglary schemes and just manages to avoid being caught by the cops. In the novel Good Behaviour he hides from the police in a nunnery, after falling through the roof. But there’s a price to pay – he must rescue one of their members who’s been taken away by her fiercely anti-Sisterhood father. Even the plot synopsis makes you smile.
Expressional humour: in which the situation itself is not inherently funny but the writer is able to describe it in such a way that it is. Nick Earls is a master of this art. His plots are simple, but the way he expresses the thoughts of the characters – often angst-ridden, insecure young males trying to make sense of relationships and the world – and his quirky take on everyday situations, makes for laugh out loud humour. Zig Zag Street and World of Chickens, two of his earlier novels, are good examples.
David Sedaris is another expert, as he shines his self-deprecating spotlight on himself and his family. His family memoir Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim had me in stitches. (Pun intended).
Aussie comedian Carl Barron has built a whole career on his observations of everyday life. Check him out here.
Absurd humour: where you take incongruous or bizarre subjects or ideas and put them together in such a way that the absurdity of it makes you laugh. Monty Python instantly springs to mind (think of the iconic dead parrot and cheese shop sketches). Novels in this category are often fantasy – for example, books by Terry Pratchett, especially the Discworld series, and Douglas Adams (The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Trilogy of Four).
As in all comedy, the skill is in the delivery. You could probably come up with many more categories and blends of humour, so by all means chime in below and give me your two cents worth.
And to end on a comic note, here’s a link to one of my all time favourite Monty Python sketches, that never fails to incite an asthma attack (from laughing).
Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.