Nottingham Writers’ Studio offers fantastic courses, Saturday’s was no exception: Writing Comedy, with Kate, Alfie and a lick from their dog, Norbert (who nearly overdosed on paracetamol having pinched a strip of them from someone’s handbag).
Most participants, including me, said we didn’t write comedy, let alone think of ourselves as comedy writers. Some of us wanted to pick up ideas for using humour when writing about serious or painful subjects. We were game though, with pencils sharpened and minds inspired by Charlie Hebdo and the horrors of last week in Paris.
Here are some of Kate and Alfie’s top tips:
- The only way to know which lines (of humour) work, is to try them out on people.
- People have differing senses of humour; no-one will find everything funny. Learn to accept that asap.
- There is comedy in truth and truth in comedy.
- Comedy can point to truths otherwise hard to express.
- Set-up matters just as much as punch line.
Writing jokes is like writing poetry – the rhythm and sound quality of every word matters; writing jokes is like all forms of quality writing – there is exactly the right word to be found, the ideal image to be conjured; writing jokes requires detailed editing and analysis. These points don’t apply only to jokes, but to all humour in narrative or dialogue.
Look at these examples from our brainstorming:
I wouldn’t say Mary was a bad cook, but…
1. I wouldn’t say Mary was a bad cook, but her children asked to be put into care.
2. I wouldn’t say Mary was a bad cook, but her tortoise risotto ran off the plate.
There first is ok, but could be improved. How about this:
1a. I wouldn’t say Mary was a bad cook, but her kids put themselves into care.
What’s changed for the better? The pace has increased, the rhythm (by shortening children to kids) is tighter, the two clauses are more balanced, the impact is increased both by using the active ‘put’ rather than a more passive request ‘asked to’ and also the unexpectedness of the kids doing it themselves. The Rule of Three (2 serious phrases/ideas + 1 comedic) is also there. Set-up: I wouldn’t say that Mary was a bad cook; Anticipation: but her kids put; Punchline, themselves into care. Our brains like threes.
We left the second exactly as Tony had written it. The ludicrousness (which wouldn’t be deemed credible were it not in the context of humour) works because of its use of and play on tortoise, risotto and ran. The assonance in tortoise risotto and alliteration in risotto and ran give that smooth flow and rhythm we like, and tortoises are normally slow moving, so there’s impact through a play on ideas. We’re culturally (perhaps biologically) attuned to such sounds, patterns and playfulness.
As we know all too acutely, humour can be deemed offensive. Two ways to lessen that risk are to either have another character who challenges the view expressed in the humour through a reasoned argument expressing a more acceptable point of view, or to write in the first person. People will then hear it more as the view of the writer, or the personal view of an individual (character) rather than that of a group or dogma. (Last week’s events will challenge our writing, perhaps, mais…)
“The comic demands […] momentary anaesthesia of the heart.”
suggested Henri Bergson in his essay, Laughter: an Essay on the Meaning of Comic.
So much humour is about bodily functions, and involves swearing – they both touch taboos, perhaps make us laugh with embarrassment, or point to our fears so we laugh for relief. Apparently we’re also, Kate’s research has discovered, more likely to laugh at words beginning with ‘c’, including Cleckheaton. We wondered whether swearing in humour has less impact than it did given its frequent and common usage. Discuss.
Kate and Alfie gave a great performance of their poetry and fiction in the evening, during which they generously invited the workshop participants to perform a piece written during the day. Six of us did.
Fun from beginning to end and much learned and discovered.
Their principle book recommendation for writing humour was The Serious Guide to Joke Writing, by Sally Holloway (it’s about more than jokes, but hey, it’s a clever title).