July 2, 2020
As a left-handed person, I've been told I write funny a number of times in my life. That comment is an interesting take on the word "funny." We think of humor as funny, but we also use the word to typify anything unusual or unexpected. The way I write was not what the viewer expected. And the seed from whence humor grows is buried in the notion of unusual or unexpected. And these days, I do write funny, at least as much as I can.
I meet many writers who tell me they simply cannot write humor. That’s not impossible, but I often wonder if they simply haven’t given much thought to the possibility. Writing humor really only requires two things: imagination and the ability to see the world (and the things/events in it) in more than one way. To be good at writing humor, you must be good at seeing things from multiple perspectives. But then, to be good at any kind of writing, you need the exact same skills. The ability to write something funny is the ability to step outside the moment, analyze it, and make it a little wilder, a little more surprising, a little more chaotic. An orderly, perfect life isn't funny, humor needs a little bit of catastrophe to work best.
Let's take one of my favorite middle grade novels, Dustin Grubbs: One Man Show, by John J. Bonk. The novel is funny throughout, but my favorite scene happens during his grandmother's birthday party. The scene combines the ease with which sixth grade kids can be horrifically embarrassed by their family with an incident so unlikely and unexpected that is actually made me laugh aloud as I was reading it. I don't want to spoil it for you in case you have the chance to read this charming book, but it involves dentures, an item ripe with comic possibilities.
The scene in Dustin Grubbs offers us an important insight into great humor potential: embarrassment. Some of my funniest stories from my own life are based on horribly embarrassing moments that were so unexpected and extreme they're truly funny in retrospect. Now, because I really seem to be excellent at getting myself into ridiculous situations, the stories are pretty funny when told straight, but if I use an embarrassing tale in a kid's book, I usually take it as far as I possibly can, stretching believability until it squeaks. Let's look at how that might work:
Once I went with friends to a theme park in Florida and in the course of doing virtually nothing, I managed to get some kind of stain on the leg of my new pants. I hadn't eaten anything. I couldn't remember leaning on anything. I hadn't sat down yet. I was mystified but not altogether surprised. I was really good at getting dirty (still am, in fact). As I was there with friends, I threw my arms out dramatically (as I was rather dramatic as a younger person) and announced, "I swear I can get dirty while standing perfectly still. And at that exact moment, a very large gull flew over and pooped on my head. Large gulls make large poops. My friends laughed so hard I honestly worried they might hurt themselves. And as disgusting as it was, I laughed a bit too.
Now, that was embarrassing, but it's exactly the sort of thing that is funny in a book because it was extreme. Getting some mysterious stain on a new pair of pants is embarrassing, but not extreme enough for humor. But announcing you're a dirt magnet at the exact moment a bird poops on you is just one coincidence too far, so it's very funny. It was surprising. It was unlikely. And no one was hurt. So it was funny. So to turn embarrassment into humor, you need to stretch the chaos until it's unexpected and extreme.
For example, suppose I wanted to write a middle grade scene about a boy who had been told he absolutely, positively must not get his suit dirty before the family leaves for a wedding. And he tries. He really tries. He perches on the edge of the sofa, holding himself rigidly in place to avoid the dirt that is surely waiting to jump on him. Instead, his dog races in when his sister opens the door and it jumps right in his lap. And the dog is covered in muddy dirt. And when he disentangles from the dog and races to the kitchen to clean up before his parent see him, he trips over his baby brother and lands right in the diaper the brother just managed to squirm out of – the very dirty diaper. You get the picture, my hapless character would get his poor suit dirtier and dirtier, all through no fault of his own. This kind of extreme catastrophe is the basis of many humor scenes for that age group.
Harm isn't Humor
For the most part, the kind of humor some of us grew up with isn't really going to work for children's books. The Three Stooges (for example) punched, slapped, poked and tripped one another constantly, and my brothers thought it was hysterically funny. Moe, Larry and Curly never seemed to be truly harmed by the aggressive behavior, but when my brothers copied it, they could leave bruises. As the recipient a time or two, I was not amused. Today we're a little more careful about the law of unintended consequences. If you've written something you believe is funny, you need to ask yourself: will it be funny if a reader copies it? Can someone get hurt? Publishers think about these things and we need to think about them too.
A Word from a Psychologist
Dr. Patricia Keith-Spiegle, a professor at Ball State University, once noted that there were two reasons people laugh. They will laugh when surprised, and they will laugh when they feel superior. The second reason for laughing can often be decidedly mean spirited. Bullies are often amused when they do something to assert their own power over another child. In other words, when they feel superior. And many mean-spirited jokes are based on seeing others as stupid. Name-calling functions in a very similar way. Some readers will laugh at a clever and inventive slur, but many publishers simply aren't interested in name-calling (especially from positive characters). But it is also true that children find a book enjoyable when they can work out a puzzle or see a “truth” that the adults in the book cannot see. It’s one of the reasons why the Berenstain Bears series is so popular. The reader can often feel superior to the missteps of the hapless dad in the stories.
Most of the humor that works best for children's books will be based on surprise, specifically on surprise taken to extremes. Now what surprises children can sometimes be based on age, but one thing almost universally amuses: surprise based on the inappropriate. There's a reason kids loved Captain Underpants. Not only did the books put a "naughty" word right in the title, it put the main character's underpants on the outside of his superhero costume. For elementary school kids, that's hysterical.
When my daughter was less than a year old, she laughed hard at an episode of Blue's Clues when the dog jumped into different pails of paint and emerged transformed, coming out a different color each time. The humor originated in a number of places beginning with the surprise of the dog jumping into paint, and combined with the sound effect the cartoon made for that plopping into paint, and the naughtiness of making that kind of huge mess (since she was just barely old enough to recognize Mom wasn't thrilled if she splashed food around). So the cartoon hit exactly the right moment in her development for a perfect bit of baby slapstick.
Keep in mind though that like mean-spirited humor, so also the humor of the inappropriate can go too far. What might make a child laugh and what will make a publisher bite aren't necessarily the same thing. Captain Underpants is fine, but Captain Poopypants might not be (even though elementary kids would laugh at the words). Stretch your imagination. Mine your own memories of embarrassment. And go for the surprise. You may just find your funny bone after all.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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