July 14, 2020
You’ve been on a roll with your project—the funny bits are amusing you to no end and your first reader thinks you’re hilarious. You’re a comedic genius. Nothing can go wrong now—not when things are flowing like this. Right?
You’ve been sitting at your keyboard with your project. The screen is not amusing and no matter what you attempt, nothing seems to be hilarious. What happened to comedic genius? Everything is going wrong now—just when things were flowing. It’s going to be this way forever. Right?
You probably well know that the answer to both “rights” is “wrong.” But you probably also well know that writing is hard. Writing “funny” is even harder. As writer Fran Leibowitz said: “It’s much easier to write a solemn book than a funny book. It’s harder to make people laugh than it is to make them cry. People are always on the verge of tears.” Even if that’s a bit of an overstatement, there’s still a lot of truth in it. Even a normal amount of daily stress can suppress creativity. Add some extra stress to it, then being funny might be the last thing a writer believes they’re capable of.
So, what to do when the funny well runs dry? Thankfully, there’s a wealth of inspiration out there.
Successful writers are also usually voracious readers. They love words, language, stories—whether fiction or narrative nonfiction. Reading is enjoyable. But it’s also educational. In those stories, the different authors are presenting examples of strong uses of literary elements, including mood. Not being able to set the mood we’re going for can put us in a very bad mood indeed. Here are three books that just might relight your inspiration when it comes to getting the “funny” back into your project.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Starring an eccentric slob as its main character (Ignatius J. Reilly), it’s his interactions with the other characters in the story as well as with the rich setting of New Orleans which drives the conflict and the humor.
“The only excursion of my life outside of New Orleans took me through the vortex to the whirlpool of despair: Baton Rouge … New Orleans is, on the other hand, a comfortable metropolis which has a certain apathy and stagnation which I find inoffensive.”
John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophesies of Agnes Nutter by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The more rollicking style of Terry Pratchett melds with the clever and drier wit of Neil Gaiman to explore an unlikely friendship set against a possible ending—to everything.
“And the Lord spake unto the Angel that guarded the eastern gate, saying 'Where is the flaming sword that was given unto thee?' And the Angel said, 'I had it here only a moment ago, I must have put it down somewhere, forget my own head next.' And the Lord did not ask him again.”
Terry Pratchett and/or Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh. Living with and struggling with mental illness doesn’t seem like obvious material for humor, but Brosh’s heart and honesty (and the appearances of her two neurotic dogs) make for hilarious scenes. Her illustrations fill in the gaps, portraying through physical humor and expression, a flawed character just trying to get through another day.
“And finally—FINALLY—after a lifetime of feelings and anxiety and more feelings, I didn't have any feelings left. I had spent my last feeling being disappointed that I couldn't rent Jumanji.”
Allie Brosh, Hyberbole and a Half
Films also offer excellent examples of using humor in telling a story. They also offer an excellent excuse to eat popcorn.
Some Like it Hot, 1959. Two musicians, fleeing after witnessing a mob murder, end up dressing as women to play in an all-female orchestra. When both fall for Sugar, played by Marilyn Monroe, it’s the tension of those urges constrained by the men’s adopted personas which drive the funny.
“Story of my life. I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.”
Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk
The Big Lebowski, 1998. Mistaken identity. A ransom scheme. And a main character who favors bathrobes, White Russians, bowling, and lots of weed fuels this character-driven comedy.
“I’m the Dude, so that’s what you call me. That or, uh His Dudeness, or uh Duder, or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”
Jeff Bridges as “The Dude.”
Don’t forget television shows! There are some great quotes there too.
The Good Place, 2016 to 2020. Five people find themselves in the afterlife—and then find that “the Good Place” may not be all that it’s cracked up to be.
“Whenever I would do something crappy on Earth, there would be a little tiny voice in the back of my head that would say, ‘Eleanor, don’t grab that handful of olives from the salad bar. You know, you didn’t pay for that,’ or ‘Eleanor, don’t spit those olive pits onto the floor of the grocery store. That’s not cool.’ Or ‘Eleanor, that old man just slipped on your olive pit, and he fell down. Don’t use the fact that everyone’s distracted to go back and steal more olives.'”
Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop
You can’t have a fire without fuel. Finding fresh kindling in books and movies might just be the ticket to getting your own work back on track—the laugh track.
Seven Ways to Become a Master Humor Writer
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.