Writing Funny: Introduction to Humor Writing | Adam Wilson | Skillshare

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Writing Funny: Introduction to Humor Writing

teacher avatar Adam Wilson, Author and Educator

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      The Class Project


    • 3.

      Jokes On The Page Part 1


    • 4.

      Jokes On The Page Part 2


    • 5.

      Rule of Threes


    • 6.

      Funny Plotting


    • 7.

      Funny Dialogue Part 1


    • 8.

      Funny Dialogue Part 2


    • 9.

      Funny Description


    • 10.



    • 11.

      Always be Awkward


    • 12.

      Punching Upwards


    • 13.



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About This Class

Ever wonder how jokes actually work? Want to learn the secrets of writing effectively with humor? Join author and educator Adam Wilson to learn how.

In this fun and demystifying class, you'll learn how humor can function in different kinds of texts, including short stories, novels, personal essays, and the pieces found on sites like McSweeney’s and The Onion. Adam takes you through the different elements of story—dialogue, character, descriptive detail, voice—and discusses different strategies for incorporating humor into their execution. In doing so, you'll analyze the mechanics of how jokes actually work. You'll begin to see what humor can do beyond making readers laugh and how it can be used to increase the overall power of a piece.

There’s no experience necessary for this class. It’s for anyone interested in sharpening their joke game, or for learning more about how humor works in prose. You’ll be able to apply the skills you learn here to any kind of writing, be it fiction, essays, or even if you just want to punch up your emails to family and friends.

Meet Your Teacher

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Adam Wilson

Author and Educator


Adam Wilson is the author of three books: the forthcoming novel SENSATION MACHINES (Soho 2020), the novel FLATSCREEN (Harper Perennial 2012) and the collection of short stories WHAT'S IMPORTANT IS FEELING (Harper Perennial 2014).

His fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, VICE, The Literary Review, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, The New York Tyrant, and The Best American Short Stories, among many other publications. His essays, journalism and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Harper’s, Bookforum, The New Republic, Tin House, NPR, and at newyorker.com, among  others. 

He is a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, and has received grants and fellowships from The James Merrill Foundation, Aspen Words, and the Arte... See full profile

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1. Introduction: I've never seen my cat laugh. I think she's humorless. But people, you know, everyone laughs. My name's Adam Wilson. I'm primarily a writer of fiction, I have been writing professionally for about ten years now, the one thing that's really tied all my work together is it's all a little bit funny or I think it is. In this class we're going to look at how humor can function in different text. We're also going to take a more granular approach to see where the Joe glands. We're also going to talk about how humor and prose functions differently than in other mediums on the screen or in the theater. Humor can be used in all ways in written prose. It can be used in a very serious piece to undercut the seriousness or to undercut intentional sentimentality. It can be used in a longer work as a comic relief. There's no experience necessary for this class. All you really need is a willingness to put yourself out there to try to laugh and to get others to laugh along with you. We're going to look at different elements of a story, dialogue, voice, physical description, and think about how we can add a humorous bend to all of those things. What I hope you'll take away from this class is an arsenal of strategies that you can take to whatever it is you're writing, whether it's essays or fiction or even your Twitter account and the ability to use those strategies to infuse your work with whatever style of humor you're interested in infusing in them. You definitely don't need to be a writer to take this class. You may need to know how to spell. But if you don't, there's always auto correct. 2. The Class Project: Our class project is called embracing the awkward. Each individual lesson we'll have a few short exercises to go along with it, but at the end you'll be doing this one piece. You can think about the individual lessons as pieces that will ultimately go into this bigger piece or it can be just a separate thing altogether. Embracing the awkward is a project in which we will take a photograph chosen from a selection of websites that I've picked. You'll find that selection in the projects and resources tab. Once you've chosen your photograph, you'll choose a person who is in the photograph and you'll try to write a short piece from the perspective of that person. In doing so, you will try to incorporate all the different lessons that we're talking about from some strategies with dialogue to something called the rule of threes, to some strategies will have for writing descriptions and thinking about specificity. In the end, I think you'll have something really funny. If you're a non-fiction writer and want non-fictional spin on this project, you can take instead of one of the photographs listed on the websites, you can take, let's say one of your own photographs from your childhood and try to do the same project, but using something from your real life. One reason I chose this project is I think it can just be really generative to start with an image, one that might have some inherent humor to it. Then to try to imagine ourselves into it. It can be a good way to fight off the anxiety of the blank page and to fight through writer's block. Now that we have a sense of how the class will work and the project that we'll be doing, let's just dive right into the first lesson. 3. Jokes On The Page Part 1: This first lesson is called jokes on the page part 1 not to be confused with jokes on the page part 2. For this first lesson, we're going to take a look at an example from Jack Handey's, What I'd Say to the Martians: And Other Veiled Threats. A very funny book that came out at some point over the last 20 or a 100 years. We're just going to look at these very short pieces to try to analyze how he makes a joke work in a very short space. So I'm going to read aloud now from the beginning of a piece called Fuzzy Memories. I think the best Thanksgiving I ever had was the one where we didn't even have a turkey. Mom and Dad sat us kids down and explain that business hadn't been good at Dad's store, so we couldn't afford a turkey. We had vegetables and bread and pie, and it was just fine. Later, I went into Mom and Dad's bedroom to thank them, and I caught them eating a little turkey. I guess that wasn't really the best Thanksgiving. As you can see, this passage begins in a very familiar way. We understand from the beginning what the tone, or we think we understand what the tone is going to be. So he sets us up with that opening. Then the joke hinges on his confounding that's set up by providing something a little bit weird. So it begins, "I think the best Thanksgiving I ever had was the one where we didn't even have a turkey." It's a situation that we all fundamentally understand. We've seen it before in holiday specials of sitcoms. Then he say Mom and Dad sat down and they said they couldn't afford the turkey. So what we expect is going to happen is, I'm going to say, but we came together in spirit, and we were a family, and we were bonded, and so it was the best Thanksgiving we ever had. Then what happens is, "Later I went into Mom and Dad's bedroom," the narrator tells us, "to thank them and I caught them." We're suddenly in a different type of story and we think that now we understand that there's going to be a reversal, but we think that the reversal is going to be what happens when a child normally catches a parent in a bedroom. But then the thing that he gives us is not the thing we expect. It's, he catches the parents, the character catches the parents and they're eating "a little turkey." There are two things happening here. One is that we have the element of surprise and the thing that we're being surprised with is an image. We'll talk about specificity later in our lesson on description, but I think part of why it works is simply this word "little" before turkey. That somehow the word little provides us with a specific image that makes the whole thing funny. It makes it sillier in a way, in part because we think of a Thanksgiving turkey as being this huge thing and instead, we get this image of these parents who we thought were these nice people and now we find out they're hoarding and hiding, and they're hiding this tiny little turkey. We have this image of them maybe with small plates or something or tiny little silverware, and they're eating the turkey huddled in the corner behind the bed. I think it's doubly funny because we expect it when he says he caught them, that we're going to catch them doing something else. The setup suggests a certain tone, wistful, sentimental, and that setup is undercut by a narrative turn in which we get something else, something a little weird, a little off kilter and sideways. We started this one because I think it illustrates in a very clear way some of the mechanics that we're going to be talking about on a larger scale. Setup and reversal as a concept is something we'll be looking at a lot through the class. It speaks this larger idea again of defamiliarizing the familiar, which is that we take something that we feel we know that we feel we have a grasp on how the story goes, or how the sentence goes, or how this narrative turns out, both in terms of the narrative structure, but also in terms of the tone. So I think humor often arrives in surprising the reader by providing something other than the thing we've been set up to expect. If you want to try this at home, you could write your own fuzzy memory. Take an experience from your own life, and try to surprise the reader with an interesting narrative turn. It can be just a few short sentences or you could even expand it into a larger piece. One thing I'd suggest when you're doing this, really let yourself get weird with it. Try to improvise, don't plot it out. Maybe even let the sound of the sentences themselves dictate what's going to come next. Here you try to be specific, particularly in your imagery. You want to paint a picture. It's the details, often, that make things funny, that takes a familiar thing and makes it feel unfamiliar. Also that makes the thing familiar in the first place. In the next lesson, we're going to take what we've learned here and put it on a larger canvas. We're going to think about how this principle can work over the course of an entire novel or story. 4. Jokes On The Page Part 2: In this lesson we're going to look at this idea of taking something familiar and turning it, flipping it on its head. We're going to think about how that can work in another specific situation but also how it can work on a larger scale over the course of an entire novel. For this lesson we're going to be looking at a novel called, Home Land by Sam Lipsyte. This is a very funny novel. I'm just going to read a very short passage from it, and then we'll talk about the passage and the novel as a whole and how it works. "Some nights I said, I picture myself naked, covered in napalm, running down the street. But then it's not napalm. It's apple butter, and it's not a street. It's my mother." Before we jump into talking about the novel as a whole, we're just going to look at that passage and see if we can analyze it using some of the tools that we learned the first time. "Some nights I said, I picture myself naked, covered in napalm running down the street." This is a quite sinister image, and yet it's also familiar, right? We know this kind of dream. This is someone describing a nightmare or describing a fear or describing his life falling apart. What Lipsyte then does so masterfully is he swerves that image. He turns it into something entirely different and unexpected. "But then it's not then it's not napalm, it's apple butter." Right away we've changed the whole tone of the sentence. As soon as napalm is switched to apple butter it goes from something sinister and fire it to something sweet, and also something specifically sweet. I think that it's apple butter rather than just butter, it gives it a texture, it gives it a smell, it gives it a sound, apple butter. It's just a funny sounding phrase. We've immediately taken the reader on a journey from something serious to something totally bizarre. At the same time it's not that bizarre, it works in the logic of a dream in which both napalm and apple butter we can think of as a substance that your body could be covered with. But then in the next part he swerves it even farther. "It's not a street, it's my mother." We imagined that the second substitution is going to be similar to the first. That in the first substitution, we have one substance that could cover your body being substituted for another and they're very different but they're both substances that could cover your body. So we assume that on the second one it's going to be something like, "It's not a street, it's a beach," or "It's not a street, it's busy highway." Instead we get something so out of laugh field, "It's not a street, it's my mother." Also if we think about the whole setup of this joke being that he's telling us, he says, "I picture myself naked." We imagine that it's a dream, right? So we're doing a Freud's Dream Analysis on this character's dream. At first it seems like a very simple thing to interpret. The way it comes around, it's like the most obvious Freudian thing that could happen is the mother, but because of the way he set it up it's totally unexpected. Lipsyte is also doing a very similar thing in the book as a whole. We're going to think about how that can work, how that set up and expectation can work on a larger scale. This novel, Home Land, which I will show you again because it has a beautifully wood paneled cover that's really evocative of something. This novel, Home Land, it's what's called an epistolary novel which means written as a series of letters. In this case, the letters are being written by a character called Louis Minor to his High School's Alumni Magazine. There is something familiar in this setup, everyone receives their High School's Alumni Letter or their Colleges Alumni Magazine. We know that the tone these take which is a tone of triumph and celebration. It's about people's accomplishments, right? They're quite shallow also. They are usually short and focus on the positive. So Lipsyte as a whole premise to the novel, is able to flip this concept upside down by having this character write in his updates about how his life didn't work out, about instead of his triumphs, his failures. There's also something inherently funny in the fact that he takes this tone that we're very familiar with and he flips that on its head too by writing in a high diction and an absurdly formal prose that feels totally inappropriate for the context of this newsletter. He also isn't just talking about his failures but he's talking about his spectacular failures. He's talking about his failures that as we see as we read the novel, become more and more wildly inappropriate for the context. So when we get to this passage, we have to then remember that this is a thing that this character is sending to all the other people who went to his high school and he's sending it instead of saying something like, "I got a PhD." I'm just going to read from the beginning of this novel, Home Land, so you can get a larger sense of what it sounds like. "It's confession time, Catamounts. It's time you knew the cold soft facts of me. Ever since principal Fontana found me and commence to bless my mail slot monthly with the Eastern Valley High School Alumni Newsletter, I've been meaning to write my update. Sad to say vanity slowed my hand. Let a fever for the truth, speed it now let me stand on the rooftop of my reckoning and shout naughty but the indisputable: I did not pan out." As we can see, the tone right off the back is not what we expect the tone or voice or diction of an update to one's alumni newsletter to be. This is established so quickly, what kind of book we're reading. We're going to read something in which the absurd is taking precedent, in which something inappropriate is about to happen, and we know that right from the beginning and it makes us want to read on. The next lesson, we'll look at another example from a letter book of Sam Lipsyte as well as a couple of other writers to talk about something called, The Rule of Threes. 5. Rule of Threes: In this lesson, we'll be talking about something called the Rule of Threes, which is a very basic comedy principle, which is the joke lands on the third item on the list. Generally, the idea is that when you have a list of three things, you have two things that feel like they follow each other in sequence, then the third item on the list, which is going to be something that catches you off guard, catches you by surprise. It's another way of making the reader feel like they're in a familiar situation and then surprising them with something unexpected. For the first example, I'm just going to use a very short and simple example from Rachel B. Glaser's novel Paulina and Fran, which is a very funny novel about a frenemy friendship at a small arts college. Where the point of view of this character, "Paulina, and she's just met Fran, she wanted to be her, or be with her, or destroy her." As you can see, this isn't necessarily meant to be a joke, but it's funny, the first two things seem like they follow each other on the list. She wanted to be her or be with her. Both of those items on the list feel like positive things. Then the third item departs from that, it reverses it, which would make us rethink the whole thing. The idea is that we establish a pattern and then we break the pattern. Now, we're going to look at a slightly more complicated example. This is an example from Sam Lipsyte story, The Climber Room. "Yes, your kid might cure cancer, but probably, he'd grow up to play video games, or if the world followed its current path, huddle in a gold slurping gulch water and recalling the magnificence of video games." If we think about this list as the first item on the list is he might cure cancer, the second one is he'll probably play video games, then the third item on the list differs, first of all, in one way that you might notice, which is that it's a much longer answer. This alone is a way of disrupting the pattern and providing something unexpected simply by the length of the answer, he gets much more specific. The first two are very general ideas. Then the third thing, instead of a broad generality, we get a really specific image, with a very specific sound to it, to huddle in a gulp slurping gulch water. I think within that answer, it's almost like there's another list in which we're given a swerve. The slurping gulch water as add on, to huddle in a gulch, as if that wasn't specific enough. The funny echo of the word gulch again, which is a very funny word, I think, adds to it. Then what's so great is that he brings it back around to the previous item on the list. That he's not just totaling the slurping gulch water, but because the world has followed its current path, as he has just told us, he will be recalling the magnificence of video games. That's a ridiculous image, it's a ridiculous sentence, and it keeps catching us off guard as it goes along. We're going to look at an example now from Paul Beatty's novel, The Sellout, which won the Man Booker Prize a few years ago. This is a novel about, "Controversial sociologist, who tries to reinstate segregation in the Los Angeles school system." Too dark and hilarious effect. "I stared in awe at the Lincoln Memorial. If Honest Abe had come to life and somehow managed to lift his bony 23-foot, four-inch frame from his throne, what would he say? What would he do? Would he break dance? Would he pitch pennies against the curbside? Would he read the paper and see that the Union he saved was now a dysfunctional plutocracy? That the people he freed were now slaves to rhythm, rap, and predatory lending, and that today his skill set would be better suited to the basketball court than the White House?" We see again, we have a list in which the third item becomes a departure from the first three items. One funny thing that happens here, is that he says, "If Honest Abe had come to life and somehow managed to lift his bony 23-foot, four-inch frame from his throne, what would he say?" Is that there's a funny substitution here. Where he's imagining that the real life, Abe Lincoln is also 23-feet tall, and that if Abe Lincoln were to come back, he would come back in the form of this giant statue rather than the form of himself. This, as you'll see, is going to come back to be a part of our list. Because he gives us this list of things. Would he break dance? Which feels, again, it's a very specific and absurd image. Would he pitch pennies against the curbside? Which again, is very specific and maybe unexpected, but ultimately, these two things fill up a piece. Third item is the departure. Would he read the paper? First of all, now we're picturing the statue going and somehow getting the paper, and see that the union he saved was now a dysfunctional plutocracy. As you can see, there's also a shift in diction that happens here, that I think is part of the joke. Suddenly, we're imagining we've gone from just watching this statue perform physical acts to going into his head and hearing the language he's thinking in. It's a high diction, that the people he freed were now slaves to rhythm, rap, and predatory lending. Here's another rule of threes list within the third item on the list; rhythm, rap, and predatory lending. Again, the predatory lending is the disruption of the two items that come before it, rhythm and rap. Then today's skill set would be better suited to the basketball court than the White House, which like in the Lipsyte one, brings us back to the original image because when we're told that he's a 23-feet tall, we're thinking about that when we're picturing the giant statue on a basketball court. Again, we're left with a very specific image. I think this is a masterful one, in that we see that there is a list within the list that also follows the same rule of setting up a pattern and then breaking it. We're going to look at one more example, to show that the rule of three is just a general idea, but really, it's about this larger principle of establishing patterns and then disrupting them, or breaking them, or providing something different than what the reader expects. The final example we're going to look at is another piece by Rachel B. Glaser. This is from an earlier book, her short story collection Pee on Water, which is a really funny book. It's from a very funny story called the John Lennon Experience. The character's name is Jason, at this point in the story, he's decided to, he's in Central Park. "He spent his free time in Central Park, feeling good about trees, feeling left out by trees, watching people play Frisbee." As you can see, the joke really lands on the second item on the list, not on the third. Feeling good about trees, and then feeling left out by trees, which is a very funny departure from feeling good about trees. In part, because it tells us something about the psychology of the character that feels surprising and strange, and then the list ends with another normal item, watching people play Frisbee. The first thing and the third thing are really things we imagine or expect people to be talking about when they're in a part; feeling good about trees, watching people play Frisbee. Then the middle one has a tonal departure. The fact that it has this different tone rings absurd and rings funny when you think about it, but you almost have to read the whole list and then you realize how ridiculous the second one is after you've already been brought back to normal. The joke fall on different items, but it's a little tricky and changes the rhythm of it. Often, when you're writing a work that has a lot of these lists, you might want to change where the joke lands. Once you've established that your joke is going to land on the third item, that frees you up to play with it a little more and to change it around. There's a very easy thing to do at home. Try to make a list of three. Start with two familiar items that would make sense on a list, and then add a third item that might change the tone or the feel of the list, in a funny way. Try this on your own, if you come up with a good list, upload it to Skillshare, we'd love to take a look at your own list of three. Next, we're going to move on to funny plotting, which really shares some ideas with the list of threes in a way. It's a principle that again, we're going to extend in scale, into the larger scale of a whole story or novel. 6. Funny Plotting: In an earlier lesson, we looked at Sam Lipsyte's novel, Home Land, to think about how some of our humor principles can make for the setup of a novel. Now we're going to see how some of those principles can translate in order to keep a novel going over the course of what might be a couple of 100 pages. This is a slightly trickier thing to do because a lot of these jokes feel like they get in and out. But we have to figure out how this can work over the course of a book if the whole idea is that we're setting expectations and then confounding or disrupting those expectations. Eventually, these become patterns onto themselves and we don't want to be repeating ourselves. We have to create movement in the novel and movement in the plot and there are a lot of ways of creating that kind of movement or narrative momentum. But in terms of the principles we've talked about this far, there was a very simple way that I think can be really effective that is called escalation. The idea being that we continue to escalate the level of absurdity or the sort of deviation from reality as things go on. For an example, I'm going to talk a little bit about Julie Schumacher's novel, Dear Committee Members, which I think is one of the funniest novels that's come out in recent years, which entirely takes place in the form of letters of recommendation written by one professor. As you'll see from the two examples, one from earlier in the book and one from later, the tone of these letters changes over the course of the novel. There's an escalating mania or madness that has a really comic effect. I'm just going to read from the very first letter of the book in which the narrator is writing a recommendation for one of his students to go to a writer's residency. I'm just going to read from the middle of the letter and as you'll see, at the beginning of the novel feels like it's the type of letter that professor might write for a student," Mr.Browles is my advisee, he's taken two of my workshops and his novel in progress, a retelling of Melville's, "Bartleby", but in which the autonomous character is hired to keep the books at a brothel circa 1960, just outside Las Vegas, is both tender satire and blistering adaptation/homage. In brief, this tour de force is witty, incisive, original, brutally sophisticated, erotic. You don't need me to summarize it. You'll have received the two opening chapters". You can read here. It's still kind of funny. He's satirizing in a very light way the kind of language and maybe exaggerated or hyperbolic language a professor might use when writing a letter of recommendation. We've all written them. I've written, dozens of letters of recommendation and often times you're speaking in a kind of elevated way about a student's work that may not demand it and this is a funny example of that, but it is pretty close to reality. Now I'm going to read a second example. This is from slightly later in the book and at this point in the novel are narrator, he's losing it a little bit. I'm going to read from the middle of the letter, " Ms. Handel is neither my advisee nor my student. She pinned me down outside the men's room, conveniently adjacent to my office so that my writing and research are invariably conducted to the flushing of waste, and with the anxious desperation for which Ph.D. candidates are justifiably known, trailed behind me into my office, installed herself in the red vinyl chair that has cradled the back sides of thousands and insisted I listened to a frantic rendition of her proposal for the purposes of writing on her behalf, this exalted document. It is 2:00 PM, tomorrow's Thanksgiving, and here in my office, the snow is accretin in small picturesque clumps against the ill fitting window, which rattles in it's Dickensian casement. The other faculty, including Ms. Handel's advisors, have retreated like a whack-a-moles into obscure campus locales, are left town on vacation, divorced, somewhat recently spurned, and therefore doomed to spend the holiday with two vegetarians from the classics department, I was apparently the only living member of the faculty the unfortunate Ms. Handel was able to find". As we can see, this letter strikes us as slightly less the type of thing we hope our recommenders are writing when they write us letters of recommendation, one thing that's happened is that the narrator has started inserting aspects of his personal life into these letters in a way that feels wildly inappropriate and I think a comic way. It also moves the plot along because as the story goes on, we are able to reveal more and more information about the character. We're learning more about him. We understand that the person telling the story is a less reliable narrator, is a more manic or unhinged person and I think it creates a certain momentum in the novel that allows us to keep reading, that makes us feel like even though we thought we maybe got the joke, there's actually more to it and makes us wanna keep going to keep seeing how unhinged or manic he'll eventually get. How much further untethered from reality will go. One type of way of making something funny is to always be thinking about ways you can make characters act out or behave inappropriately, behave in ways that people might not necessarily behave in real life. One thing that's different in writing prose than say writing for the screen for TV and movies, is that we don't have to adhere as closely to to certain expectations for how a character might behave. We can have characters be a little more absurd or ridiculous in part because we don't have to have an actor performing these things or saying these lines and so it allows us to be a little more out there and to hue a little farther from a kind of baseline reality. It's always funny to see people doing inappropriate things and I think so much comedy and humor is really based on the idea of the inappropriate and watching people act out things that other people might only think in their heads, I think a lot of the humor in Dear Committee Members comes from the fact that the things that this guy is saying in these letters are things that usually a person only thinks but would never actually say aloud or put down on paper in a professional context. Whether you're plotting a novel or short story or just a humor piece, try to think about different ways you can sort of escalate the absurdity in a situation so that the humor doesn't stay stagnant so that the reader is continually surprised or that you're continually throwing swerves and turns at them both for comic and narrative dramatic effect. If you're working on a story or novel, try this exercise; take your protagonist and have them write three e-mails from different points in the novel or story. The first e-mail should be when the character should be early on when things are going okay for your character. Let's say their life is fairly put together and they're writing the email in the way that a normal person might or this particular character might write an e-mail. The second one should be from a little later on when they've hit some obstacles in their path, things have gotten a little haywire there. They're getting a little unhinged. They might be saying some things that might be a little inappropriate, that you might not put into an e-mail unless that you've been pushed to a point where you're losing it a little bit. Then the third one should be later on when this character's life is just totally off the rails when anything goes, when it's just all TMI and the character has no room for propriety and no care what people are gonna think or say and they're just letting loose with what's really in their head. Just to have fun with this exercise, don't overthink it. Try and take something you're already writing and just see if you can fit it in. It might not fit exactly, but you'll get something out of it regardless of whether it's totally applicable to whatever project you're working on. If you're not working on a project, maybe this could be a way of trying to outline one. Think about three different points in a story and think about this arc from a protagonist being, everything being okay in their life to this endpoint of everything falling apart and then plot the story or novel on those axes or on that axis. The next exercise we're going to talk a bit about Dialogue, which was one of my favorite elements of prose writing. We're going to talk about how it's different, again from writing dialogue for the screen and we're going to talk about how we can try and make it funny. 7. Funny Dialogue Part 1: This next lesson on funny dialogue is one of my favorites. Dialogue and prose is really different from dialogue written for the screen. There are things you can do in it that you can't do in those other mediums. Because you don't have to have an actor reading it aloud or speaking it, you can have it sound less like how a person would talk in real life. It can be more exaggerated, more ridiculous. Here's some general strategies for writing funny dialogue. One thing that we've talked a little bit about is having character say things that are inappropriate that a normal person might only think in a situation, we instead would have our character actually say it out loud. Another thing that's really different about writing dialogue and prose as opposed to writing for TV or film is that in those other mediums, we don't have access to a character's thoughts. Here, you can have line in dialogue, but you also have passages of exposition that show us what a character's thinking, show us what's going on in their head. Because of this, there's also less pressure on the dialogue to be informational. Some other strategies for funny dialogue is we can have a disconnect or discord between a character's internal thoughts and the things they're saying out loud. You can have a character who's having incredibly complicated thoughts in their head. Then the things they're saying to the other characters are very simple or basic or maybe even dumb sounding. You can also do it the other way round. You can play with a real juxtaposition between tone and content, between interior and exterior in a way you can't always do in other mediums. Another thing that's really worth thinking about is when we have a back and forth between two characters, our instinct is often to have the character respond directly to the things the other characters are saying. One character asks a question, the other character answers it. But I think a lot of the funniest dialogue actually avoids that. What it does is you have a character who aren't necessarily listening to each other or who are distracted and only vaguely listening and so they're answering questions that aren't quite the right question. They're almost like two people having conversations with themselves that occasionally overlap. There are many different ways to go and we'll look at some examples and talk about a few of these strategies. We're going to look at a couple of examples, few different passages from Don DeLillo's novel White Noise. A very funny book that came out in the mid 1980s and I think still stands as just one of the funniest novels that I've read. Once again, we're in an academic setting. As we've seen, that this can be a really great setting for funny work. I think often because the seriousness with which the participants take their lives doesn't really add up with how important the things they're doing are in the larger context of American life. Two characters just chatting and that one is a professor and the other one is a visiting professor. "I understand the music, I understand the movies. I even see how comic books can tell us things. But there are four professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes." "It's the only avant garde we've got." "Not that I'm complaining. I like it here. I'm totally enamored of this place. A small town setting. I want to be free of cities and sexual entanglements. Heat. This is what cities mean to me. You get off the train and walk out of the station and you're hit with the full blast. The heat of air, traffic and people. The heat of food and sex. The heat of tall buildings. The heat that floats out of the subways and the tunnels that's always 15 degrees hotter in the cities. Heat rises from the sidewalks and falls from the poison sky. The buses breathe heat. Heat emanates from crowds of shoppers and office workers. The entire infrastructure is based on heat, desperately uses up heat, breeds more heat. The eventual heat death of the universe that scientists love to talk about is already well underway and you can feel it happening all around you in any large or medium sized city. Heat and wetness". This is a great speech given by this character Murray. I think one of the reasons I at least find it so funny is just how over the top it is. Again, it's the type of thing that might not necessarily work in some other contexts. People don't really give speeches like this in life. They don't really talk in full sentences and yet here this guy is talking. He's giving almost a monologue. It works, I think on the page in a way it wouldn't necessarily work in another context. But also if we break it down, we can see what's so ridiculous that's happening here. I think there are a few of our little principles at work. First this guy is saying, basically he says, "I understand the music, understand the movies. I can see how comic books can tell us things, but there are four professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes." He's lamenting the current state of academia. He's basically saying that pop culture has taken over and that now there are people teaching classes on the texts of cereal boxes, which is an exaggeration but we take his point and then the other character who's the narrator of this novel response. It's the only avant garde we've got. Now, I think one way that we could have made this less funny, let's say, is if the author decided to explain the tone of that line, " 'It's the only avant garde we've got." If the author came in and said, "It's the only avant garde we've got,' I joked." or " 'It's the only avant garde we've got. ' I said, and I meant it." But he leaves it ambiguous. I think by leaving it ambiguous, it does a couple of things. One, it allows the rhythm of the dialogue to just take over. Two, it leaves us not really knowing how to read this. If the narrator thinks that this guy is talking out of his ass, or if the narrator is actually on board with what he's saying. I think in doing this, it makes the reader complicit in not really knowing either. It makes us engage because we're not being told how to respond to what this guy is saying. I think that's a really important thing to set up when we get to this long speech where he's essentially saying some really crazy things because we haven't been told how we're meant to read it. One thing that I really think about writing on the page, as opposed to writing in these other mediums, when you think about, let's say the sitcom and the idea of this laugh track that's always there to tell us when it's appropriate to laugh or when some tension is meant to break and we're supposed to accept that something was a joke. There's nothing doing that here. I think it allows us to wallow in a certain interesting discomfort. Which can be really useful both in terms of humor but also just in terms of creating an engaged reader. A reader who is paying attention to the text, who's trying to figure out what to take from it. Let's just break down the passage, a little bit of the speech that this guy Murray gives. He says, "Not that I'm complaining, I like it here. I'm totally enamored of this place, it's a small town setting. I want to be free of cities and sexual entanglements". I think that joke lands. There's a joke in that "I want to be free of cities and sexual entanglements." Because up until that point we followed everything he's saying. He's basically saying, "I'm a visiting lecturer at this college in a small town. I like the small town. I'm done with the city." But then the funny thing is he adds on, "I want to be free of cities on sexual entanglements." as if those two things are somehow very closely connected and as if in fact somehow escaping the city automatically means that you're also escaping this other thing. I think the connection of these two unlike things and spoken as if they're intrinsically cousins or relative makes this funny and uncomfortable. Then from there he moves on just the word heat. It's a single word with a period. "I want to be free of cities and sexual entanglements. Heat." I think the way that separated into its own sentence again, it's another way of punctuating the joke and showing this odd logic in which he's moving from one thing to another in the same way that we talked about elevation on our lists. We're moving from item to item in this long list of things he associates with cities, let's say, with almost associative or dream logic that can be really funny. He says, "Heat. This is what cities mean to me. You get off the train and you walk out of the station, you're hit with the full blast, the heat of air traffic and people." Again we're following what he's saying. Everyone's gotten off the subway and you know that feeling of the heat hitting you. Then he goes, "Heat of air, traffic and people. The heat of food and sex." Again, he's always bringing it back to sex. I think we start to understand the pathology of the character that somehow these associations are not general ideas but things specific to this character and things that are a little ridiculous when we start to think about. But then he moves right onto the heat of tall buildings as if somehow sex has weird associative dream logic gotten him from heat to height. He mentioned sex and immediately he has this image of the tall buildings. "The heat that floats out of the subway that's always 15 degrees hotter in the cities." Now he's just saying something that isn't even true. What does that mean? It's always 15 degrees hotter in the cities. Yet he's being so specific, he's being so sure of himself. Again, I think what really makes it funny is that the narrator never intrudes on the speech. The person telling the story never stops to say, "This was a ridiculous thing that he's saying." He just lets him make the speech. I love, "The entire infrastructure is based on heat." Now he's just getting even more and more ridiculous. There's more escalation rather elevation, I almost said, but escalation is what I meant. Then he jumps, "The entire infrastructure is based on heat, desperately uses up heat, breeds more heat." and then he jumps to, "The eventual heat death of the universe that scientists love to talk about is already well under way and you can feel it happening all around you in any large or medium-sized city. Heat and wetness." First he makes this big jump. He's talking about hot air coming out of tunnels and the subways and suddenly this is now speaking to the heat death of the universe. He's made the jump from, "The reason I don't like cities is because they remind me that the universe is one day going to burn up in a fiery inferno." Then I think the funniest part is that he says you can feel it happening all around you in any large or medium sized city. I think the qualifying it or medium-sized is a really funny specific add-on. It's not just the large cities, but the medium-sized cities even too seem to accomplish this. Then there's another swerve at the very end, "Heat and wetness." which just throws a whole other element in there, "Wetness. " But it brings us back in some way to the fact that this narrator is obsessed with sex and everything he's thinking about is sex and it's all connected. Of course, wetness might be in some ways the opposite of heat. But it too is the thing he's trying to escape from the city. Then there's a great response by our narrator who just says,"Where are you living, Murray?" As if the thing he's just said is something totally normal and as if in a causal chain, this speech has prompted the response where you live in to which he gives another equally speech and wild answer. There's a lot we can take from that ridiculous passage. We can think about different levels of escalation within a speech. We can think about how our characters' speech use closely or less closely to the reality of how people talk. We can think about how you can have a character in speech in a way that you can't in exposition, have moved with the associate of logic that can expose their psychology in a certain comical or ridiculous way. 8. Funny Dialogue Part 2: We're going to move on to another scene in which our narrator is now talking to another character. In this case is very precocious 14-year-old son and we can see how some of our other principles at work here. The boy is 14, often evasive and moody, at other times disturbingly compliant. I have a sense that his ready yielding to our wishes and demands is a private weapon of approach. Babette is afraid he will end up in a barricaded rooms, spraying hundreds of rounds of automatic fire across an empty mall before the SWAT teams come for him, with their heavy-barreled weapons, their bullhorns and body armor. It's going to rain tonight. "It's raining now," I said. The radio said tonight. I drove him to school on his first day back after a sore throat and fever. A woman in a yellow slicker held up traffic to let some children cross. I pictured her in a soup commercial taking off her oilskin hat as she entered the cheerful kitchen where her husbands stood over a pot of smoky lobster bisque, a smallish man with six weeks to live. "Look at the windshield," I said. "Is that rain or isn't it?" I'm only telling you what they said. Just because it's on the radio doesn't mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses. Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they're right. This has been proved in the laboratory. Don't you know about all of those theorems that say nothing is what it seems? There is no past, present or future outside our own mind. The so-called great laws of motion are a big hoax. Even sound can trick the mind. Just because you don't hear a sound doesn't mean it's not out there. Dogs can hear it, other animals. I'm sure there are sounds even dogs can hear, but they exist in the air, in waves, maybe they never stop. High, high, high-pitched, coming from somewhere. "Is it raining?" I said, "Or isn't it?" "I wouldn't want to have to say." What if someone held a gun to your head? Who, you? Someone, a man in a trench coat and smoky glasses, he holds a gun to your head and says, "Is it raining or isn't it? All you have to do is tell the truth and I'll put away the gun and take the next flight out of here. What truth does he want? Does he want the truth of someone traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy? Does he want the truth of someone in orbit around a neutron star? Maybe if these people could see us through a telescope we will look like we were two feet two inches tall and it might be raining yesterday instead of today. He's holding a gun to your head. He wants your truth. What good is my truth? My truth means nothing. What if this guy with the gun comes from a planet in a whole different solar system? If what we call rain, he calls soap. What we call apples he calls rain. What am I supposed to tell him? His name is Frank J. Smalley and he comes from St. Louis. He wants to know if it's raining now at this very minute. Here and now, that's right. Is there such a thing as now? 'Now' comes and goes as soon as you say it. How can I say it's raining now if your so-called now becomes then as soon as I say it? We'll stop there, but you get the gist. One reason why I like this passage in part because it's really funny, I think. This guy is in a conversation with his son and the son, a precocious 14-year-old named Heinrich, is in denial that it's raining because he doesn't really believe in any objectivity or experience maybe. He's arguing a ridiculous devil's advocate with his father who was observing rain hit their windshield and the son is, well, what does that mean? Just because we're observing it doesn't mean it's actually happening. One reason I really like it is because aside from it being funny, I think it's a way that the author is getting at some of the larger themes of his novel in a way that would otherwise might feel didactic or pretentious or just plain annoying. If let's say your narrator instead of in dialogue, the narrator was just making these these big observations about the nature of the universe in a very earnest way. But I think putting it into the voice of this 14-year-old boy, adds a level of absurdity to it, points to it's ridiculous and makes it funny in a way that I think saves it from being otherwise didactic or pretentious. I think another thing that's happening here that's pretty funny, is he's playing with this trope, this familiar idea of the obstinate teenager. Which is something that we all know from various other types of texts, but he takes it to an extreme measure here, like the teenager who's so obstinate that he can't acknowledge that it's raining when it is. I think the exaggeration there, the ridiculousness of the hyperboles again points to the absurdity, and it's just really funny. Maybe I'll just read the very end of that exchange, because it resolves in a nice way. The narrator says, "You said there was no past, present, or future. Only in our verbs. That's the only place we find it. Rain as a noun. Is there rain here, in this precise locality, at whatever time within the next two minutes that you choose to respond to the questions? If you want to talk about this precise locality while you're in a vehicle that's obviously moving, then I think that's the trouble with this discussion. Just give me an answer, okay Heinrich? The best I could do is make a guess. "Either it's raining or it isn't," I said. Exactly, that's my whole point. You'd be guessing six of one, half dozen of the other. But you see that it's raining. You see the sun moving across the sky. But is the sun moving across the sky or as the earth turning? I don't accept the analogy. You're so sure that's ran. How do you know it's not sulfuric acid from factories across the river. How do you know it's not fall out from a war in China? You want an answer here and now can you prove, here and now that this stuff is rain? How do I know what you call rain is really rain? What is rain anyway? It's the stuff that falls from the sky and gets you what is called wet. I'm not wet. Are you wet? All right I, said, "Very good."" One thing I did want to point out in this passage, is that it keeps moving in a similar manner as we talked about with breaking the patterns and setting up the patterns. There are two escalations happening here. There's the father's escalating frustration at his son's refusal to acknowledge that it's raining. Then there's another escalation that's running alongside that which is the escalating absurdity of the logic the sun is continuing to use to we really see frustrate his father. To recap, there's lot of different approaches to writing funny dialogue and you certainly don't need to try them all. However, I suggest just writing a page of dialogue, put two characters in a scene. Do some of the things we talked about. Have one character maybe sound much smarter than he or she should, or use a diction that would be ridiculous for that character to use. Write a scene in which two characters aren't listening to each other and they are just responding to things in their own mind almost like they're having conversations with themself. Write a scene in which the characters are in an argument, or you could try like that last scene and below, to write a scene in which a character is refusing to acknowledge some very obvious truth, like the sun is in the sky or the Earth is round. In the next lesson we'll talk about how to write funny descriptions, focusing on the importance of specificity. 9. Funny Description: So much of the humor we've looked at so far has relied on specificity to make it funny. Think about Sam [inaudible] the Gulch water, or Paul Bailey's 23-foot Abe Lincoln. The specific details are really what sell the joke a lot of the time. Or even think about our very first lesson on the little turkey that the parents are caught eating. In this lesson, we're going to talk about writing descriptions, which I think is the thing that people often get tripped up on when they start writing. Worrying over the level of detail, or the kind of detail, and I think sometimes when we're writing funny specifically, our instincts need to be a little counter-intuitive to what the obvious logic is. The first passage we're going to look at is from David Foster Wallace's very first novel, "Broom of the System". The very first description that we're going to look at, is just the opening of the novel, and I'm just going to read it aloud. "Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden. They're are long and thin and splayed-toed with buttons of yellow callus on the little toes, and a thick stair-step of it on the back of the heel, and a few long black hairs are curling out of the skin of the tops of the feet, and the red nail polish is cracking and peeling in curls and candy-striped with decay." This is a very detailed description as we'll see, and we don't always want to be writing in such great detail, but when we are writing in great detail, I think one strategy is to really overdo it almost, especially if we're trying to be funny, to provide a lot of detail that seems almost inappropriate for the subject, in this case, feet. I think here Wallace really does that. For the most part we're not focusing on people's feet, and here he gives a very visceral disgusting description maybe of this character's foot. In this opening clause, "Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet," he used the word pretty twice. But he uses it in different ways, and I think this is very similar to the things we've been talking about, setting patterns and then breaking them. First-time he uses pretty, "Most really pretty girls," he uses pretty to modify a noun, girls. The expectation is, when he says, "Most really pretty girls have pretty," we assume the pretty is going to modify another noun such as hair. Instead it modifies another adjective, "Pretty ugly," which changes the whole meaning of the word pretty. Instead of it being a positive thing, it's making a negative thing even more negative, and then it's talking about feet. But the thing I really want to point out in this passage in terms of our discussion, is later on at the very end when he describes, "The red nail polish is cracking and peeling and curls, which is a very specific image. Peeling in curls and candy striped with decay." I think the really funny and gross thing here, is that he pairs candy-striped with decay. Candy-striped gives us an image of sweetness, of bright-red, and colorful, and cheer, so when the thing that is candy-striped is decay, I think that's a really funny juxtaposition. Something to always be thinking about, is trying to find adjectives and adverbs to modify our nouns, that aren't necessarily the ones that are expected to go with them, or the ones that even seem maybe inappropriate within the context. To take words and use them in unexpected ways is again, it's part of this larger idea of defamiliarizing the familiar. I'm just going to read a very short passage now from one of my favorite novels, "My Cousin, My Gastroenterologists," which is also one of my favorite titles. "I was driving to Las Vegas to tell my sister that I'd had mothers respirator unplugged. Four bald men in the convertible in front of me were picking the scabs off their sunburned heads, and flicking them onto the road. I had to swerve to avoid riding over one of the oozy crusts of blood and going into an uncontrollable skid. I maneuvered the best I could in my boxy Korean import, but my mind was elsewhere. I hadn't eaten for days. I was famished. Suddenly as I reached the crest of a hill emerging from the fog, there was a bright neon sign flashing on and off that read, "Foie gras and haricots verts, next exit." I checked the guidebook and it said, "Excellent food, malevolent ambiance." I'd been habitually abusing an illegal growth hormone extracted from the pituitary glands of human corpses, and I felt as if I were drowning in excremental filthiness, but the prospect of having something good to eat cheered me up. I asked the waitress about the soup du jour and she said that it was primordial soup, which is ammonia and methane mixed with ocean water and the presence of lightning. "Oh, I'll take a tureen of that embryonic broth," I say, constraint giving way to exuberance. But as soon as she vanishes, my spirit immediately sags because the ambiance is so malevolent." It's quite the passage and there's a lot to unpack there. Let's just roll it back to the beginning. We have this narrator, he's driving to Las Vegas to tell my sister that I'd had mother's respirator unplugged which initially, that's gives it a tone that immediately gets upset by everything else that's about to happen to the point that we forget that this is the mission for the journey. But I want to focus on this next sentence. "Four bald men in the convertible in front of me were picking the scabs of their sunburned heads and flicking them onto the road." First of all, I'll talk about specificity. I don't know if it's just me as a bald man, but I can really picture this image and it's a pretty disgusting image. I think as we see from the walls, and from this, grossness can take you a long way. What I love about this image is a few things. First of all, just the way that four bald men in the convertible in front of me were picking the scabs off their sunburned heads and flicking them onto the road. That the cadence of this sentence is poetic. It has a lot of alliteration, scabs and sunburned bounce off each other, and it would be like a poetic and lovely image, except that the thing they're doing is so disgusting. The other thing I think that's great about it, is that if we actually try to imagine it being in a car and seeing four people in a car in front of you, there's nothing you'd even really be able to see. It's happening at micro level. There's already an exaggeration in which we have this narrator put on these like, I don't know, binocular eyesight in order to get at the specificity of this image. Right away, it's already a certain absurdity that he can see this, and the fact that it's not one guy doing it, but it's four, which clues the reader in that we're in a reality that is not exactly in line with the reality we live in. But even so we're not prepared for the next sentence, which is, "I had to swerve to avoid riding over one of the oozy crusts of blood and going into an uncontrollable skid." This is a really ridiculous thing to say too. Because a scab is not a thing we would think that a car would have trouble driving over, but for our narrator it is. We end up having to picture something. We have to re-imagine our original image, so that these scabs are now like these giant things and we picture. It's a very visceral image of picturing a car swerving to avoid a scab, which was a very absurd and ridiculous image. We think we understand the whole tone, and then this guy starts talking about how he's taking illegal growth hormone extracted from the pituitary glands of human corpses. It just keeps getting more ridiculous. But again, I think what makes it work is the specificity. That somehow this narrator, because he's being so specific, we believe him even when he's saying more and more ridiculous things. If he was just like, oh, I'm taking, I don't know, a drug made from human copses it might not be as funny, but somehow the, "An illegal growth hormone extracted," I think it's also that word extracted. He's using a medical diction, and then from the pituitary glands, which is straight out of a medical textbook. It gives him a certain authority, and I think with that authority he's able to continue saying more and more ridiculous things. As we see here, in the same way that we talked about the way dialogue doesn't have to cue so closely to what real life sounds like, in our descriptions we don't have to be so close to what real life looks like. We can exaggerate, we can be hyperbolic in a way that we can't always get away with in other mediums. I think especially in humor this can be a really useful tool, to exaggerate, to be ridiculous, to provide imagery that is almost an inflated version of what real life looks like. As an exercise, thinking about Wallace and his really gross toenail, and thinking about Leyner and his men picking the scabs off their heads, try just for fun to describe the most disgusting thing you can think of, but describe it as if it's the most beautiful thing you can think of. I think you'll find that the result will be upsetting in the best possible way. In the next video, we're going to be talking about voice. We'll be looking at some of the same principles that we used with dialogue and with description, to really get a better sense of how voice is constructed. Voice is a very elusive topic, and one that people often speak very abstractly about. But I think there are some really concrete things we can do to understand how it works, and particularly a comic voice. 10. Voice: In this lesson we'll be talking about voice. Oftentimes when people talk about voice, they talk about it in a very abstract way. It's some mystical thing that a writer either has or doesn't have that you find your voice. But I think voice can actually be talked about much more concretely too, and especially when we're thinking about comic voices and how to achieve them. I am now going to do a short and spirited reading from its decorative chord season mother fuckers. "I don't know about you, but I can't wait to get my hands on some fucking gourds and arrange them in a horn-shaped basket on my dining room table. That shit is going to look so seasonal. I'm about to head up to the attic right now to find that wicker fucker, dust it off, and jam it with an insanely ornate assortment of shellacked vegetables. When my guests come over it's going to be like, BLAMMO. Check out my shellacked vegetables, assholes. Guess what season it is - fucking fall. There's a nip in the air and my house is full of mutant fucking squash. So I think what makes the humor in this passage really work is, as you can see, there's a real incongruity between the thing being talked about and the language with which it's expressed. So here, our subject is seasonal decorations. This is the thing we typically associate with someone like Martha Stewart and with magazines like Home and Garden and yet, a narrator is not the typical person who we would expect to be so interested in his seasonal decorations. It is a guy who has being quite vulgar and passionate and speaking quite colloquially in a way that I think creates a funny disconnect between the subject and the language. One thing that's counter-intuitive, but that we often want to be doing is when we're talking about a subject that's pretty mundane or pretty day-to-day, such as say, decorative gourds, it can be really funny to talk about that in a very passionate or extreme way as if the thing we're talking about has a much more outsized importance than it actually does, is if it's like the most exciting thing in the world, the opposite of that is also true that when we're talking about really extreme things or things that another person might think would be things that would feel shocking or things we would want to exclaim about, it can be funny to talk about them as if they're just humdrum. So if we think about Sam Lipsyte's Home Land as an example in some ways, in the same way that decorative gourd season does, of using elevated diction to tell a story that doesn't seem like it would demand that kind of diction. I'm going to show you a couple of examples that do the opposite, that take things that seem extreme or things you would want to yell and scream about and they treat them as if they're just like normal day-to-day occurrences. So the first example is going to be from a Donald Barthelme's story called Me and Miss Mandible. The story is about, as you will see, an adult man who has been mistakenly thought to be a child and so has been sent back to grade, school. 13 September. Miss mandible wants to make love to me, but she hesitates because I am officially a child, I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal's office, 11 years old. There's a misconception here, one that I haven't quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact 35. I've been in the Army. I'm six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places. My voice as a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind. Again, there's a kind of disparity between the diction and the tone of this and the content, the subject. If something like this really happened. If you are a 35 year old adult who has been in the military and is six foot one and were mistaken for a child and sent back to grade school. You would be livid and you would be freaking out and you would be panicking and you'd be yelling and screaming. But the fact that this guy is just accepting his fate in a very calm and rational manner as if the thing that's happening to him is not so insanely absurd, is what makes it really funny. If we look at the specifics, even words like there is a misconception here. It's like, yeah, it's like the understatement of the year. I think that kind of understatement is what can be really funny. This is from a more contemporary example from a short story collection called Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino. This is from a short story called North Of. I'll just read the very beginning and you will immediately get the sense. There are American flags on school windows, on cars, on porch swings. It is the year I bring Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving. We park in front of my mom's house my mom, who has been waiting for us at the door, probably since dawn. Her Hello carries over the lawn. Bob Dylan opens the car door, stretches one leg and then the other. He wears a black leather coat and has spent the entire ride from New York trying to remember the name of a guitarist he played with in Memphis. I pull our bags from the trunk. "You always pack too much," I say. He shrugs. His arms are small in his coat. His legs are small in his jeans. "Hello, hello," my mother says as we amble toward her, "This is Bob," I say. Again, we have a very absurd situation. This woman is bringing Bob Dylan home as her date for Thanksgiving and yet everyone's treating it as if it's like the most normal thing in the world as if it's just, he's just another guy she's bringing home. The humor almost comes from the fact that it's not being treated as a comic thing, that it's being told with a straight face just totally seriously, as if this was the most normal thing in the world. So what I want you guys to do is try this at home. Try both ways. First, take something really extreme and ridiculous and try and narrate it in the most mundane way possible. Then take something very day to day, something simple and familiar that happens all the time in your everyday life and write it as if it's like a once in a lifetime occurrence that you can't believe, you're so thrilled and passionate about. You can't believe this has happened. In the next lesson we're going to talk about one of my favorite principles which I call ABA, or Always Be Awkward. 11. Always be Awkward: This lesson we'll focus on a principle that I like to call ABA or always be awkward. This is really a principle the idea being that it's generative for storytelling, which means that if you're stuck in a scene or if you're stuck in a passage, there's the thing you can think of as a way to get yourself out or to move along. One of our most natural instincts, I think as storytellers, is to rush past or skip over the really uncomfortable moments. If your character is in a bind or in an uncomfortable situation, our instinct as humans is to get out of that awkward situation as quickly as possible, possibly even skipping over it entirely. I think as writers, we really want to fight against this instinct. What we want to do instead is linger for as long as we can bear in the really awkward or uncomfortable moments. The thing I always want to be thinking about as a writer who is trying to put my characters on funny situations is like what is the worst thing that could happen to my character right now? What does my character, my protagonist, least want to happen? What would be the most uncomfortable for this character to happen? Then to make that thing happen, and then to really stay in that discomfort for as long as you can bear to look. This can be a great source of humor. It can also just be a great source of conflict. There's an inherent drama to the scene. There's an inherent conflict whenever we're putting our characters in uncomfortable situations. There's immediately an automatic narrative tension that can be funny or it can have other dramatic purposes too. As we've talked about in some of the other lessons, this is the thing that can happen on the micro level of the scene itself or it can be a guiding principle for an entire novel. In terms of the macro, one example I always like to give is a very short novel by the writers Stanley Elkin called The Living End. Elkin asked this question which was, "what if a law abiding very good Jewish man dies and it turns out that everything in the New Testament was true and he ends up in Christian hell?" It's an absurd premise, but it really follows our idea almost to its most extreme point of what's the worst thing that could happen to this guy after he's died can also work just on the level of the scene? For an example of that, I wanted to use an excerpt from Geoff Dyer Yoga for People Who Can't be Bothered to Do it. I'm going to read from an essay called Hotel Oblivion, in which our narrator, Geoff Dyer is in Amsterdam and he has taken psychedelic mushrooms with his friends and he is in a cafe and he's very wet. But he realizes he is soaking wet. It's been pouring with rain. They're taking refuge in a cafe and the mushrooms have just began to heat. He realizes that he earlier in the day bought another pair of pants which are now dry. In the wake of our giggling spasm, I recalled that in the morning I had made an impulse purchase of a pair of trousers. He's British, so he calls them trousers. But you could call them pants if you were writing it and you weren't British. Remembering this, I assumed that I lost them in the course of our journey through the storm ravaged streets of Amsterdam, but miraculously they were here beside me in a bag. I decided there and then to change out of my wet trousers which were soaking cold and wet, and into my new ones which were dry and lovely and warm. In the cramp confines of the toilet, I had trouble getting out of my wet trousers which clung to my legs like a drowning man. The new ones were quite complicated to and that they had more legs than a spider, either that or they didn't have enough legs to get mine into. The numbers failed to add up. Always there was one trouser leg too many or one of my legs was leftover. From the outside it may have looked like a simple toilet, but once you are locked in here, the most basic rules of arithmetic no longer held true. Two into two simply would not go. It was insane. It took a terrible toll on my head. I concentrated hard, applied myself with a vengeance to the task in hand. I got one leg in, I got the other in. Hooray, a man who has finally put behind him the specter of 30 years of unwanted celibacy I'm in cannot have felt a greater surge of triumph and self indication than I did at that point. Such excitation was short-lived however, for these trousers were wet to somehow I'd put back on the wet pair that I had just taken off. If we're writing this story and we're thinking about it, we have this guy, we have this great situation where we have this guy and he's soaking wet and he's tripping. We think, great, he has this pair of pants, he can put them on and then he'll be dry. But we don't want to just let him succeed at that because it's much funnier if he fails. First, we put him in a exaggeratedly tiny bathroom in which will have a lot of difficulty getting the wet pants off and the dry pants on. Then finally, we'll allow him to succeed, but it's false. The reason that it's false is because we've decided as storytellers, that what would be the worst possible thing that could happen to this guy in this moment. Here it would be that he's just put back on after this immense struggle, he's just put back on the same soaking wet pants that he had such difficulty taking off. That's just a very simple and clear example of the thing we want to always be doing, which is thinking one step ahead to what would our character hate the most? What's the next thing I can do to throw this character into a state of frustration and disarray. Try to remember as you're composing your stories, whether you're in the early stages of just coming up with a narrative, or whether you're in the later stages of revision. That you can always sort of push the awkwardness of a situation and always trying to be thinking of ways to make your characters less comfortable. I think you'll find that it'll have a great comic effect. In our last lesson, which will be called punching upwards, we're just going to talk about some general tips for finding the subjects of our humor. We've talked a lot about the specifics of constructing jokes, of constructing narratives that are funny. Now, we're just going to think a little bit about something even more general or basic maybe which is just figuring out what subjects are the best subjects for humor. 12. Punching Upwards: For this final lesson, I want to talk a little bit about something called punching upwards, which is a term that comes from stand-up comedy that essentially suggests that when we find subjects to be poking fun at or making fun of, we want to find subjects that can take those punches. Part of the reason for this, is that when we make fun of subjects that are too easy to poke fun at, I think it can encourage lazy humor. We want to try and be pushing ourselves past that. One of the best subjects to punch at when you are punching with their comedy, is often can be yourself. No one is going to get their feelings hurt too much when you are making fun of yourself. But a lot of what we're writing and what we're talking about writing here as fiction, so our selves don't really factor into it. We have to find subjects of our comedy or humor that can take that ribbing and that can push us toward a more creative style of humor. I think one thing that's really worth making fun of, and if we look at the subjects of a lot of what we've talked about so far. The joke is really not necessarily on individuals lot of the time, but on institutions. Particularly, or if it is on individuals, it's on individuals in positions of power. If we think about like [inaudible] and the character who's been sent back to school, even though he's an adult. The thing that's really being made fun of is bureaucracy itself. That is certainly something that can very easily take a punch. In Murray Helen [inaudible] short story. Bob Dylan is a celebrity who certainly seems like he can handle being made fun of a little bit. Tone can be very important to this too. Oftentimes, the difference between something that might feel gentle and appropriate joking versus mean and inappropriate. We don't want to come across as mean. We want to be funny, but we don't want to be mean. I think that can be a fine line. Oftentimes, tone is the ultimate indicator of how this will read on the page. Sometimes a subject can feel appropriate depending on the way in which we're poking fun at it or the teasing with which we are giving it. I think in some ways, the harsher or tougher the joke, the more pressure it puts on the subject to be someone who can take that joke. Let's say you're writing about college students. If you are making a joke about college students wearing pajamas to class, that's a pretty commentary. But if you're making jokes about college students being in debt and how that is funny, that gives the whole joke a different tone, if you're joking. But on the other hand, if you're talking about how expensive college is, that's not really the students that are being made fun of, but the institution. Again, I think that makes it a useful commentary in a way that, if you're just making fun of a college student for not being able to afford classes or something might feel a little bit mean. This is just way of a thing to think about when you're writing a joke or even after in revision. What's the tone of my joke? Does it feel it's a gentle joke or does it feel like something a little harsher than that? If it's harsher than that, really try and think about, why I'm making this joke. If the thing being made fun of or joke that is an appropriate target for your humor. When in doubt, you can always make fun of yourself. I tend to rely on a lot of self-deprecation in my own work. But if that's not your thing, then I'd suggest aiming your cannon at celebrities or politicians. They can take it. 13. Conclusion: Well, I hope you guys have had as much fun taking this class as I've had teaching it, and that you've learned a few things too. We've looked at some jokes on the page and how they work. We've thought about dialogue and plotting, we've thought about description, we've thought about what subjects might be appropriate or inappropriate for our humor. Now, you can go back to the class project that we talked a bit about it at the beginning. Choose your photograph if you haven't already done so and really take these principles that we've talked about and try to incorporate them into this piece of writing. I think you'll find that it's easier than it might seem. My hope is that you now feel like you have a really strong handle on some of these principles and that you'll be able to just dive right into the writing. I recommend writing something about 5-800 words in length, not too long, but not too short either. When you're done, you can upload it onto the site, I'd love to take a look. The main thing to remember is that writing funny should also be fun to write. If you're laughing, then there's a much higher chance that your reader will be laughing too. As you can see, I tend to crack myself up and I hope you will too. You don't have to be a spontaneously funny person to write funny, there's some real concrete ways of achieving humor in a piece of writing. Hopefully this class has demystified humor a little bit in a way that can be useful to you moving forward no matter what type of writing you're trying to do. If you're not sick of me yet, you can find me online at various places. I have a website, adamwilsonwriter.com, I'm on Instagram where I mostly post pictures of food and babies, and I'm on Twitter as well at bubblesdepot. As I said, I've written two books which I think or at least a little bit funny: one is a novel called Flatscreen and the other is a collection of short stories called What's Important Is Feeling. I also have a new book coming out in July, a novel called Sensation Machines that I'm pretty sure is at least a little bit funny. I hope you'll check it out. Thank you again for taking this class. I'm so excited to see what you've all written.