How to Write Funny by Douglas Wells

douglas wells blog post pic

An immediate response to the title (admittedly grammatically incorrect) could be “first, tell a joke.” The writing is funny, but it’s odd funny, not ha ha ha funny. Ha ha ha funny is what I’m supposed to be discussing here. Let’s see some examples. Read the following jokes.

At a disco:
He: “Wow, what’s a cute girl like you doing in a corner all alone?”
She: “I had to fart.”

Girls mostly treat me like a God. They totally forget that I exist and only approach me when they need something.

Okay, I agree that the jokes are not ha ha ha funny, maybe not even ha ha funny or even ha funny, but we can tell what’s intended to make the joke funny: irony resulting in incongruity. Even though fart jokes are terribly lame and generally prized only by those who are sixteen years old and under, the depiction of a “cute girl” conjures up certain qualities we expect; admitting to farting in the corner is probably not one of them. It’s incongruous with our preconception of her.

In the second joke, it is, of course, the punch line which undercuts the opening line. Irony and incongruity again.

So now you ask, “What does this have to do with writing?” Well, I’m gonna attempt to tell ya.

It has to do with irony and incongruity (as if you didn’t know by now) applied to characters and situations in your story. I think examples illustrate much more effectively than abstract explanations, so I’ll use a couple from my novel, The Secrets of All Secrets, which has already been deemed a comic masterpiece by all of my friends, family, and a few others who I paid to say so. But never mind that.

Four characters in my novel are operatives from an unidentified, clandestine government agency. Their quirky behavior and demeanor defy the typical portrayal of “secret agents,” but the chief operative is wound pretty tight. At a crucial point in the book, the other three operatives decide to switch gears, so to speak (I don’t want give away the good stuff). The chief operative is reluctant at first, but he soon concurs with his comrades. A little later he launches into a speech about how what they are doing represents an existential crisis, claiming that their changed task invites questions about the new uncertainty of their purpose, not the sort of philosophical waxing you’d expect from a rigid government operative. The speech is pretty funny, at least that’s what the people I mentioned above have told me. Trust me. Well, maybe you had to be there. In other words, read my book!

On to my next example: the basis of the book’s plot. I’m not in danger of spoiling anything here since this is all in the blurb on the back cover. A shadowy, cloaked figure separately gives the central characters USB drives. They insert them in their computers, and a message appears on the screen inviting them to pursue The Secrets of All Secrets. The “funny” here is the crux of the book. A USB drive that actually talks to people via a laptop, promising The Secrets of All Secrets, is a bizarre premise that not only supplies a cornucopia of farcical episodes, it sets up a mystery as well, a comical mystery unlike the classic ones involving laconic detectives, femme fatales, knives, guns, garrotes, and dead bodies scattered all about.

The idea of a non-corporeal entity who communicates spontaneously with the protagonists is incongruous with what USBs typically contain (sinister Tech and Government experiments with them notwithstanding). You’d think if you found one and opened it you might see someone’s betting sheet, summer vacation pics, or the formula for an improved form of peanut butter. Irony and incongruity again, right? If you go back and read my third paragraph, the colloquial “gonna” and “ya” seems unbefitting in a blog by a writer who’s discussing writing. And of course, there’s the title of my blog, for which my ninth grade English teacher would have adorned me with a dunce cap.

In keeping with “funny” them of this discourse, allow me to conclude with two jokes about writing. The second joke is one that most of you writers out there with experience in the publishing racket will appreciate.

Did you hear about the writer who jumped out the window on the 15th floor? He could have gone to the 16th, but that’s another story.

What’s the difference between publishers and terrorists? You can negotiate with terrorists.


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