They say “laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone”, but there is no greater disaster than laughing at something nobody else finds humourous. Comedy seems to be the genre of writing that requires a gift more than anything. Whereas for fantasy or science fiction, a lot of research and hard work can produce a pretty impressive piece, in comedy the more hours you devote to it, the less highly people think of you. That’s not to say you can’t manage it with hard work, though. The great comedy author P G Wodehouse used to pin up pages of his writing on his wall. The position of each page determines how amusing he thinks it is, pages that are not amusing are pinned near the bottom of the wall while pages at the top signal the presence of some good jokes. He then proceeds to work on the pages at the bottom until he is satisfied with them and every page is at the top. So those offhand jokes you read in books are really the product of countless rewriting.
But the main problem is, really, what do you spend all the hours on? Jokes tend to be better the more concise they are, so what can you do while twiddling your thumbs waiting for your funny bone to activate? I haven’t written very many humour pieces, but I have been part of the writing process for a few, so I shall share some of my experiences with you.
1. Wait for the right mood.
Many authors say that when one has writer’s block, one should strive to write even more to get out of it. I can safely say that this does not hold true for comedy. If you’re in a bad mood, or feeling just plain not-hilarious, don’t. You can plan out the gist of the storyline, insert some comedic segments you’ve seen elsewhere, but do not write the whole thing out. Phrasing is very important to bring out the mood of a story, and a bad mood makes your phrasing all completely off. You’re better off leaving the skeleton of the plot on your table and going out to play video games or something. There will be times when you feel that you’re on a roll with jokes, and that’s when you can shut yourself in your study and pour out the words.
2. Write it in your own style.
When we write humour, a lot of the time we’re pressured to write like our favourite humour authors. We’ve all seen our fair share of bad jokes and our greatest fear is being discarded into that pile. But if we love Douglas Adams, for instance, we may decide to copy his brand of humour and write in his style. I would advise against that, mainly because it is quite difficult or even impossible to know what kind of joke he would insert where. I mean, if we knew what he was going to say, we wouldn’t be taken by surprise in the first place, would we? So I recommend that you have confidence in your own capabilities and do it your way. Even if it is less impactful, and generates chuckles rather than outright LOLs, it represents you. People who like you would like your style.
Plus, imagine what happens if you become famous writing like Douglas Adams, and people ask you to come up with a joke on the spot.
The easiest way to make something funny is to parody something. It should preferably be something that all your readers get, so it should be context-sensitive. While it is safe to write general satires and capture a broad audience, people actually feel a closer affection for you if your joke is narrow enough that they and people in their in-group get it and others don’t. Simply put, if your audience is a bunch of Singaporeans, they will appreciate a Lee Kuan Yew parody more than one about global warming. Speaking of Lee Kuan Yew…
Please do not crack jokes about overdone topics. I know it is tempting to repeat jokes you thought humourous, but chances are that if you’ve heard it before, your readers have too. You can talk about a popular topic, as long as you present it in a different angle from what other people have done. In addition, I personally dislike crude toilet humour and vulgarities. That’s a personal pet peeve of mine, though, but I always think intelligent well-written prose where the punchline takes a while to sink in can often leave a favourable impression on your readers. Naturally, as mentioned previously, reader context is very vital.
I think writing comedy is much like taking part in a beauty pageant. You want to seem like the wittiest, best-liked fellow around, but what’s most important is to have faith in yourself. You’re not writing to please, but rather to share what you think about the world. If people don’t find it good, it’s their loss.