The Problem of Writing Humor

For those of you who may not know, for the past several years now I’ve been working on a novel with a working title of “Camp Ferguson”. To break it down as simply as I can, it started out of my desire to write humor. But in the end, after those years of work and endless obsessing over the story with edits and rewrites, I recently decided to put the whole thing, while it was nearly finished, to bed, at least temporarily. The reason being that writing humor isn’t nearly as easy as I thought it would be.

I’ll give you a few more details for those of you who might be interested. “Camp Ferguson” is my effort to create a satire on the popular fantasy series “Harry Potter” by J.K. Rowling. Why, you may ask? Well, quite honestly, because I’m a bit of a hipster apparently and I don’t like things that are popular. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, really. I don’t begrudge Rowling or any of her fans anything, and I think some of those books are in fact quite well written. But I do have my problems with them, a list of which would be too long to go into right now.

So, with that in mind, I decided to create a fictional world where magic did exist, but was portrayed a bit more “realistically”, and with quite a bit more humor, jokes, and satire on any number of subjects. For more, see my previous post.

The most obvious question to ask next is how I came up with my humor. What were my inspirations? Well, there’s a lot of ways to answer that. My preferred types of humor are a combination of refined and intelligent along with loud, raucous, and a bit politically incorrect. The FX show “Archer” is an absolutely perfect example of what I like in terms of humor. For more, I’d refer you to shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, “The League”, and to go really old-school, “MASH” and “Get Smart”. I also use some humor literature as my touchstones, most notably Douglas Adams, who is just absurdly hilarious, and to a lesser extent Michael Chabon, who writes fiction and fantasy but with very clever humorous touches.

All that being said, I ran into some problems. The first of these is that I realized very quickly that humor from these shows doesn’t really translate that well to the written word. Shows like “The League” and “Sunny”, where the primary source of humor comes from improvised bickering between the characters on subjects that are usually entirely irrelevant to the plot, are very funny for sure, but the problem when you try to write them down in book form, it’s far too wordy and distracting. You see, apparently there’s this thing called plot. From what I hear, it’s really important for a book to have. It’s also very important that a book not be over 500 single-spaced pages when the first draft is done (that was how “Camp Ferguson” turned out the first time, by the way). It’s easy enough to get people to watch and stay with a half-hour TV show, but it’s an altogether different matter to keep them interested for a whole 200 to 300-page novel. And if you want your plot and characters to develop and move forward in any meaningful way, you can’t spend so much time on throwaway one-liners and jokes that you only pick up the plot four pages in. Thus, much of the petty bickering between the campers of Camp Prospero in the original story had to be cut in order to make room for other development: something that no doubt made the story stronger as a whole, but left me doubting whether it would make people laugh anymore.

Another thing you have to think about is that shows like “MASH” and “Get Smart”, especially “MASH”, may have clever, witty jokes, but when you get right down to it, that’s not how people really talk in real life. In real conversations between real people, even funny ones, not every other line is going to be a snappy comeback or clever pun. Although I will say that my very favorite character in the entire story is exactly that type of person, but it’s by design and he’s not changing. You have to stick to your guns on some things. But that’s one person, when I’m responsible for designing a whole camp-full from the ground up. It raises the question of just what makes funny things funny, anyway? Is it the witty one-liner or quick verbal jab, or is it more just the situations that the characters find themselves in and the attitudes they show while they’re in it, which dictate how they’ll each respond to it in different ways?

Some people have suggested that if I want the kind of humor I’ve been chasing after (the absurd, over-the-top college kind of humor best shown in movies like “Animal House”), I should just go full-bore and embrace it, stereotypes and all. For example, if a character does something because it’s the right thing to do, but that isn’t necessarily practical, they could say something like, “Well, I have to do it because I’m the hero here, and heroes always do the right thing.” It’s a very crude example, but you get the idea. An almost self-acknowledging kind of tongue-in-cheek humor. My problem with this, though, is that not only does it serve to reinforce stereotypes (something that I both want to utilize and dismantle in this book), it comes dangerously close to breaking the fourth wall and having the characters either directly address or acknowledge their fictional nature and the existence of the reading audience. This kind of humor can be used effectively, but only in sparing amounts. Take Netflix’s “House of Cards” for example, where Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood uses this narration technique in almost every episode. It’s novel for a while and is fun and entertaining, but it got old after about five episodes. Familiarity with the characters, and this kind of humor, breeds contempt and disinterest from the audience because there’s no reason for them to even try to believe this story is really happening anymore, which for me has always been the most important part of a story.

In the end, while I did nearly complete a full rewrite of “Camp Ferguson” with a lot more satisfactory character work and development of the plot, I’ve decided not to move forward with it for now. I felt that while the story overall may have been stronger, I kind of cut the heart out of what I wanted the novel to do, and therefore it seemed pointless to continue. But maybe with time, a fresh perspective and some new ideas will come my way.

 

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