Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! Don Rocko and I were at a benefit concert for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation yesterday, so we missed out on his family's typical turkey celebration. But the concert was worth it! We saw three bands in this year's Peak Performance Project: Rolla Olak, who sounds like a young Bob Dylan (complete with harmonica); Jasper Sloan Yip, whose combination of stringed instruments and guitars reminded me of the Airborne Toxic Event; and of course, the host of the afternoon: Greg Drummond. Don Rocko put it best: they're like Great Big Sea meets Mumford & Sons. They have so much energy. And while they're all multitalented, their keyboardist is a riot, because he also plays the trumpet, the accordion, and as needed, the banjo. It added a tiny note of humour to a concert I was already enjoying.
Which is a great segue into today's notes: writing humour in the SFF and speculative fiction context.
Only 11 days left until SIWC 2013 begins!
Mary Robinette Kowal, Robert J. Sawyer, Sam Sykes
Moderator: kc dyer
Note: Every writer approaches the concept of writing humour in their own way, so this is not a prescriptive class.
Who has influenced you in writing humour?
kc: Terry Pratchett
SS: Joe Abercrombie: A British writer with the basest of gallows humour, can spin a joke while stabbing someone in the face.
RJS: Douglas Adams, Spider Robinson, Robert B. Parker
- RJS doesn’t write books in terms of funny plot, but the dialogue is snappy.
- Read broadly, not just your genre.
- A deep understanding of your genre / category can really, really help.
MRK: Influences are all from theatre:
- Douglas Adams’ radio plays, learned how to translate timing onto the page.
- Puppeteer John Ludwig of Sesame Street: lots of hilarious stuff that doesn’t get in the way of the story. Things don’t have to be funny so long as someone isn’t looking at it saying, “I didn’t get that”.
It's not just about making everyone laugh.
- Even if you put a cultural reference, at least try to use the 80% rule (make sure 80% of the audience will get it).
- There's a certain thrill of an in-joke that not everyone will get, but those who do will love it. (Case in point: The Firefly reference in Castle.)
When is humour an asset to the story?
SS: To deal with stress; when something bad, a tragedy happens.
- A joke doesn’t necessarily decrease the tension; it can increase the tension.
- Often people joke when they first get nervous. Gallows humour can ratchetup the tension.
- It keeps the narrative from being relentlessly depressing, too.
- Use the best joke at the right time so long as it pertains to the situation and comes from the right character.
- All humour should derive from character and be approp to the plot. That joke at that time lets your audience breathe while keeping the tension of the plot.
MRK: Laughter is a physical reaction. It maintains tension in the diapraghm, and gives the audience a chance to catch their breath before the suckerpunch.
RJS: Scriptwriting: “On the nose” humour (what exactly is the character thinking) is not done. But you can make a joke to get at something without being on the nose, deflect it with humour while the subtext is the truth.
kc: When you know that something else is coming and this is just a chance to sustain the tension.
Do you use humour to move the plot forward?
MRK: Humour can move the plot forward, but it’s not the only thing that can do so.
SS: Anything coming out of the body when they aren’t intended to come out of the body can be funny. Bodily functions. But be careful: Jokes can sometimes do more to hold the plot back than to move it forward.
MRK: TV writer Jane Espenson (another SIWC 2012 presenter) was saying in an ep of BSG there’s a food shortage and people were starting to eat paper, “Well, the good news is people is stoped eating paper” “Oh good” “because there’s a paper shortage”. Laughter goes on so long, moves the character forward
Audience Question: Is there a difference between humour presented by characters, and humour presented by the author (dialogue vs. narration)?
RJS: Most writing is limited 1st or 3rd POV. An omniscient narrator cracking jokes is clumsy or intrusive, so it's better to have the character thinking something. You are *in* someone’s POV when you narrate.
MRK: Omniscient is out of fashion these days. But as an example, with Jane Austen: the cracking of the joke doesn’t get in the way of the story, it adds to it.
kc: the way you can work it in is the setting, have it in the scene
SS: the cardinal sin is explaining the joke. Don’t make a big deal of the joke because that will shatter everything.
MRK: The Carol Burnett Gone With The Wind sketch – new dress, wearing curtain rod – juxtaposition between her believing it and what she actually looks like, not cracking a smile – If you laugh before you tell a joke no one thinks it’s funny. This is also true with crying. Need to take character to the point where they almost cry, and the audience will do the crying for you. Catharsis. If you let your chars laugh too much the audience doesn’t need to laugh.
RJS: Don’t do things at character’s expense just to make the reader laugh. Don’t do it to make them look dumb if they’re supposed to be a smart character.
MRK: However, most humour does derive at the expense of the character, but other places where it’s the main character, it depends on the char and the situation.
SS: There's a difference between breaking character and just humour at their expense. From Pixar's 22 Rules for Storytelling: Coincidences that get characters into trouble are good; coincidences that get them out are cheating.
How do you capture visual humour?
MRK: John Scalzi does this well (Redshirts, The Android’s Dream)
SS: Humour is funniest when it’s unintentional
MRK: Slapstick that happens to other people is different from when slapstick happens to the main character.
RJS: It tells you about your character: how they deal with being the butt of the joke.
SS: It's a great way to draw subtext for other issues going on, too.
RJS: Obama joked about having lost the first presidential debate of 2012, and elevated himself by realizing he failed, and that people were making fun of him. Have slapstick happen to your characters so they can grow in your audience’s eyes: the way they respond helps to round out your character.
MRK: This American Life – the Fiasco. Having characters own humour when things are going so terribly wrong that if you don’t ackqonledge the fact that things are going terribly wrong then the audience will start to find it funny: Appropriate application of humour from the character.
SS: If things are relentlessly depressing the audience will reach a point where they HAVE to take a breath. Humour is an excellent chance for things to turn out better, a break. “For the moment we are not relentlessly depressed.”
Audience Question: How does humour in SFF differ from humour elsewhere?
SS: There's more absurdity, tropes, and idioms that can be played with. Especially because fantasy is kind of undergoing deconstruction at the moment.
MRK: The way you set up a joke is still the way you set up a joke. Your readers are in a modern context. But language-based humour doesn’t work well unless people understand it. Makes an opportunity for worldbuilding – jokes that involve ethnic slurs about the races can reveal chars, set up societal norms (eg. whether or not prostitutes are accepted), describe alien vegetables with jokes. Jokes that make sense in that world that the reader doesn’t necessarily get can help them connect with the story.
How has satire shaped your work?
RJS: Galaxy Quest is a satire, but also a comedy. Original Planet of the Apes was a satire (with moments of humour, but stil very funny). There's the satire that’s not overtly humourous (sometimes, dark), the satire that is social commentary, the digs not said in polite commentary (eg. Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal). Stephen Colbert is best when he doesn’t break character.
kc: Same thing with Borat.
RJS: The beauty of SFF is that you’ve got the most brilliant audience on the planet. Your SF audience is such that no matter how obtuse the joke, you can trust they’ll get it. The worst thing when you’re doing comedy is that it falls flat. Some of your best jokes will kill a few bright.
SS: Don’t blink. Don’t acknowledge it’s satire.
MRK: You may have 20% of the audiece that doesn’t get it, so you need other things to be happening in those same words. Galaxy Quest is still a funny story even if you don’t get the satire.
Audience Question: What about recurring jokes?
RJS: Set up your jokes in advance, so you can bring them back.
MRK: Called a “call-back” – when you refer to something and it retains a level of humour. This is especially funny in threes (in the Western tradition). The tricky thing is making sure there’s not too much separation between the call-backs so that the reader hasn't forgotten.
RJS: A call back is often the end joke of the scene.
MRK: Make sure that call back works on its own in case people forget the first joke.
Is humour dead? (e.g. hackneyed plot devices)
RJS: No. We live in a dark time – fear of terrorism, global warming, evil politicians – but even in the darkest time, the advent of sitcoms without laughtracks. Curb Your Enthuisam and Arrested Development, The Office (especially the British version). There are no laugh tracks, but we understand humour, and the writers trust us to.
kc: The laugh track dumbs down the humour – as does the overuse of the sarcastic expression “Really.”
RJS: Cultural memes become adopted by the general public, but the problem with any catch phrase is that it loses its potency with overuse. Anytime people fall back on a tired old cliché, it means "you’ve done something I think is cool so I’m going to pull the stock out of its cupboard and use it for the umpteenth time", and then it falls flat. You don’t know what will take off and become a catch phrase.
What about making cultural references?
MRK: Puts a Dr. Who cameo in each of her books. An in-joke and cultural reference. The key is that it can not break the story, pull the audience out. It has to be in a moment that even for people who don't get the joke it is an appropriate time for a laugh. It cannot break the moment. A cultural reference that calls attention to itself not good.
SS: There's a difference between referencing pop culture and having a pop culture reference be the joke. Eg. South Park. And Family Guy, which is not funny itself, but gives a pop culture reference and expects the audience to do the work (which they usually do).
MRK: Sometimes the humour is all about the cultural references, so the audience is in on the joke.
RJS: Readers can date the novel based on the scientific assumptions in the text. The cultural refs, too. But they matter for verisimilitude.
SS: There's also a difference between tipping the hat to something, and throwing the hat at the audience.
Audience Question: Is it important to make a distinction between whether characters know they’re making the reference?
MRK: Sure, people making cultural references (e.g. Ready Player One – but the humour depends on the setting, the reference, and the why.
RJS: Spock is a very funny man, way wittier than he lets onto be.
SS: You can not acknowledge the joke.
RJS: Unless it bombs, and then you acknowledge that. (e.g. a joke told that no one gets).
What about the collaborative nature of humour in writing? As a writer, how do you know what works when you use humour?
SS: Like any comedian, you have jokes you can fall back on at reliable times, jokes you know that work. You have to write for yourself. But most of all if you don’t find it funny, the audience won’t find it funny, either.
MRK: Read stuff out loud, see if people laugh. She also uses alpha readers bfore beta readers, asks if anything is boring, confusing, unbelievable, how the story plays, (no sentence-level feedback); whether the humour is tedious. Will read novels aloud and put them on her blog.
RJS: If you want to make money, make sure the joke can translate well to other languages. Spider Robinson – most of what he does is word play. Word play actually isn’t the way to go to make money because they don’t translate well. Douglas Adams and RAH and others don’t use word play. Make sure the jokes don’t depend on puns or word play so your work will be translated. (But oh, is Spider's word play ever so entertaining and that's why he's still one of my favourite authors. Just sayin'.)
MRK: Douglas Adams about is about rhythm and juxtaposition.
SS: The point: A pun makes whoever hears them just a little angry, and if you can’t go for humour go for angry, but the truest humour comes from character, plot, and especially voice. Pop culture references and puns are side jokes, the tips of the hat, the brief mentions. Pirates are funny. So is anything that goes out of or into the body. Et cetera.