July 21, 2020
I know. There are days we want to throw our television or computer or phone out the window. Days where getting dressed up is putting on a clean pair of sweatpants. Where breakfast can just as easily be a Klondike bar as a bowl of oatmeal. Where we feel about as funny as a bowl of oatmeal. Or farina. (I never did understand farina.) We’re oversaturated. Overwhelmed. Stick a fork in us—we’re overdone.
And on top of that we’re supposed to write funny?
“The horror! The horror!” – Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
But here’s the thing—when writing on a deadline, whether it’s imposed by an editor or an assignment due date, or even a self-imposed deadline, not “feeling it” doesn’t always cut it. For nearly every working writer, there are times when they must confront the horror of the blank screen—must write down something. And that something might require that writer to actually try to be funny. So, what can be done to reenergize one’s inner “funny?” Or get unstuck? Or what can a writer do if they’re dipping their toes into the deep end of the “funny pool” for the very first time?
“Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable.” - Albert Camus
There are many forms of humor a writer can use: slapstick, irony, sarcasm—even puns if they want to stoop to that level. (And I don’t mind if I do. The past, the present, and the future walk into a bar. It was tense!) But the type of humor I want to talk about is absurdity, as in: the quality or state of being ridiculous or wildly unreasonable. Sound familiar? See paragraph one. Instead of ridiculousness and wild unreasonableness, though, we’re going to talk about how absurdity can help jumpstart your humor writing—and even bring yourself a bit of happiness along the way. Yes, I’m talking about funny animal videos.
"Everything I know I learned from my cat: When you’re hungry, eat. When you’re tired, nap in a sunbeam. When you go to the vet’s, pee on your owner." - Gary Smith
You know that feeling when you’re supposed to be doing something productive but then you see a post from a friend letting you know about a whole new compilation of funny cat videos or dog videos or the one with the cockatoo is rocking out to Elvis or the one where the horse so enjoys playing dead to freak out passersby and royally irritate its owner?
Admit it, even though those videos are making you happy, it’s a guilty kind of happy, because you’re supposed to be productive. But what if watching those funny animal videos is a way of being productive?
“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem.”
- A.A. Milne, Winne the Pooh
Okay, I’ll bite (oh yes, pun intended), you say? Great! Here’s your absurdist-animal-video-humor-loosening-up exercise.
Step 1. Choose three animals that have a healthy number of funny videos available which feature them. Cat, dog, donkeys, goats … maybe not piranhas, though I would like to watch a funny piranha video.
Step 2. Watch those videos. Just that. Watch them.
Step 3. Get some paper. When you are re-watching those videos, you’ll be taking notes: What about the visuals of the animal do you find funny? What expression are they making? What actions are they doing that makes you laugh? What funny sounds are they making? How do those sounds combine with the visuals to make the animal even more hilarious? Most of the time, these creatures aren’t trying to be funny—they just are. That unintentional humor on their part is often the key to just why they’re funny.
Step 4. Remember my little pun in the earlier paragraph? You’re going to paraphrase that pun using the three animals you picked. On your sheets of paper, you’ve already created three humorous character studies. Now you’re going to use them, together, in a setting. And you’re going to show that scene instead of tell it.
"I mean, instead of telling us a thing was 'terrible,' describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was 'delightful'; make us say 'delightful' when we've read the description." – C. S. Lewis
Show; don’t tell: a way to convey information through a character’s inner thoughts, dialogue, and actions rather than telling the reader that these things occurred. How can you use these characters’ inner thoughts in this scene? As far as dialogue—just what would they say? Would they understand each other or would the lost-in-translation element add to the absurdity of the scene? What would they do while they’re in this scene? Your clues are already there in your notes. Use them.
Watching funny animal videos can not only be good for writing exercises, they can also be good for your well-being—and your creativity. “Positive emotions have this adaptive ability to help us explore, think about the bigger picture and be creative.” That’s what Acacia Parks, chief scientist at Happify Health, a digital mental health company, has to say about watching funny animal videos. “When you experience positive emotion, it lets you do things you can’t do as well in a negative mood state.”
So, enjoy those videos—guilt free. And eat your farina.
Nancy Coffelt is an ICL instructor who began her career as a fine artist. When she found that the titles of her whimsical works were gettinglonger and longer AND longer, she dove into picture books. Her first book, Goodnight Sigmund was published by Harcourt in1992. Since then Nancy has produced a steady stream of published worksincluding the picture books Dogs in Space, Big, Bigger, Biggest, Fred Stays with Me!, Catch That Baby! and Aunt Ant Leaves through the Leaves. Awards for Nancy’s books include a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award 2008, School Library Journal’s (SLJ) Best of 2007, Kirkus Best of 2007, Miami Herald’s Best Children’s Books of 2007, ALA Notable Books, Bank Street College of Education’s Children’s Book Committee Books of Particular Distinction/Best Children’s Books list, and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s 2008 Best Books list. Her books have also earned starred reviews in Kirkus, Horn Book, and SLJ.