July 7, 2020
Get together with family and old friends and there usually comes a time when someone will tell a tale about a shared experience. The anticipation builds until the crowd is in hysterics—often before the story is even finished. It’s only after catching your breath that you notice that some people aren’t laughing at all. They look puzzled, exchanging glances with the other non-laughers. That’s when it hits you—those puzzled people have no idea what was so funny—or why it was at all. “You had to be there, I guess,” you offer.
“You had to be there” is the death rattle of a lot of anecdotal “funny” stories. That’s because these stories are too specific—to a time, a place, and the participants/spectators. The story isn’t transcending to a larger audience into a shared experience. It’s that sharing—that understanding of the what—and the why it’s funny that’s vital to “getting” the humor.
The late Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live performed a skit called “The Chris Farley Show.” The premise was that instead of asking insightful questions to his guests, he’d bring up anecdotes. That was the crux of the humor: turning the dreaded “you had to be there” into the humor itself. Like this exchange in 1993 with Paul McCartney: "You remember when you were with the Beatles, and you were supposed to be dead, and, uh, there was all these clues, that, like, uh, you'd play some song backwards, and it'd say, like, 'Paul Is Dead,' and, uh, everyone thought that you were dead?" McCartney nodded in recognition, before Farley asked, "That was, um, a hoax, right?"
To someone who doesn’t remember or know that time and that rumor, it isn’t the story that’s humorous. It’s the puzzled and befuddled response from McCartney—an emotion a lot of people recognize and relate to. It’s that shared experience which makes it funny.
So, how does a writer move from a “remember that time” humorous true story to one that’s funny to a larger audience? It requires some work. And that work usually requires some of the “true” to be tossed out the window—or at least changed some.
“But I want the story to be authentic!” Okay. Fair enough. But that might mean it won’t be understood by readers outside your immediate circle. Writing is a conveyance of information that touches a reader in some way. That means you may have to decide whether it’s the “true” of the story that’s actually the most important part. It might not be.
True stories, anecdotes, rarely follow the classic buildup of traditional fiction. They often lack a clear beginning (the setup of character, place, and conflict), a clear middle (where conflict builds to a climactic scene) and a clear ending where the initial conflict gets resolved in a meaningful way. “Translating” that anecdote into this format, even though it requires fudging, can provide the structure needed to making the true story more understandable to a larger readership.
Another way to increase the universal humor in a story from life is to explore “the rule of three.” This writing principle proposes that things grouped in threes have more dramatic—and/or comedic effect because it builds up tension. The first two items in the series are a buildup to the actual “funny” in the story—funny because it’s an unexpected surprise to the reader. Like this example of a rule of three story from Jon Stewart: “I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
Another thing anecdotes often lack is a theme. Usually, they’re centered around an event or an occurrence. By exploring the themes included in the story, such as love, or loss, or yearning, or striving, the more universal the appeal will be.
When I was a kid, my dad had a macaw, a giant, and to my sisters and me, a malevolent force. It would chase us through the house, screeching and muttering a dry “ha, ha, ha” while menacing us with its sharp and powerful beak. My sisters and I have a trove of hilarious anecdotes about that bird. But as a successful story, the most important theme would be irony. Our father was a reluctant one to three girls. He called the macaw my “my son.” The bird died unexpectantly when my dad had it at the veterinarian’s to verify its gender so he could purchase a mate. The dead bird ended up being female.
Irony is one way to contrast the comedy with the tragedy. It’s that contrast which illuminates the actual humor in a story and why these two concepts are different sides of the same coin. Even though your “true” story doesn’t seem to have that sort of contrast, adapting your tale to include it can make all the difference as far as a “you had to be there” feeling to a piece of writing many, many more people will “get.”
“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
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.