This year the State Library of NSW ran a series of evenings on “Writing for Laughs” which I was fortunate to be involved in. As a children’s author I have written a comedy series for reluctant readers called the ‘So’ series with titles such as So Gross!, So Feral!, So Sick!, So Festy!, So Grotty! and So Stinky! (HarperCollins Publishers). Writing this genre is unusual for a female author. So unusual , the publisher recommended that I did not put the name ‘Jeni’ on the cover. Thus, J.A. Mawter was born. Unfortunately, I didn’t remain genderless for long and the repercussions of this surprised me. For any female intending to write ‘out of gender’ when writing for laughs I can recommend these two steps. One: elongate neck. Two: place neck on chopping block.
Faced with buyer and seller censorship, school bans, vitriolic reviews and shunned by the literary fraternity I decided it was time to reply. But not as a woman. As an academic writer, I went on to publish three books on Critical Thinking, Humour and Text for Ages 5 – 8 years; 8 – 10 years; and 10+ years (Macmillan Education). These books were designed to explain the complexities of a humorous text and to pave the way for critical thought. The tragedy is universal, it is often predictable and thus clichéd. Humour is not predictable and herein lays its value. Funny texts require complex thought processes using imagination, creativity, flexibility to deal with paradox, the ability to compare, make inferences, speculate or suspend disbelief. Writing and reading for laughs is not a passive process. Unlike tragedy which is enduring, the comedy relies on surprise. Whilst the tragic crosses cultures, ages, gender or social group, the funny text does not. It is culture specific and social grouping specific.
So how does one write for laughs? If you write for adults the process is straightforward. You are an adult writer, published by an adult, then read by an adult. If you write for children, you are an adult writer, published by an adult, bought by adults, but read by a child. This notion of ‘child’ needs to be broken down further. There are distinctive groupings in children’s writing. What makes a 3 – 5 year old laugh, is different to an 8 year old. A 12 year old differs again to a 16+ year old. It is imperative that the writer has knowledge of these differences and targets their language, situation or character accordingly. Slapstick and scatological humour are appreciated by younger audiences, whilst self-deprecatory humour appeals to teenagers.
It has been said that where we find vulnerability, we find humour. Characters are vulnerable when they have fears or flaws; a policeman scared of loud noises or an absent-minded professor. Characters in conflict are funny, as are those who are unusual or extreme. Often, a character is funny without trying to be funny. A character’s dialogue is an invaluable tool for those who write for laughs. Young readers love puns, taboo language, knock-knock jokes or inversions (naughty daddy). As children get older they appreciate ambiguities, exaggeration and word plays. Older still, and readers will laugh at understatement, sarcasm or plain talk (Mum, I believe you need a divorce).
Situations can also be funny – when something doesn’t go the way we expect, or there is a twist in the ending. When the impossible becomes possible, when we switch roles, or oppose authority figures we find humour. Topical humour can be funny, as can absurd situations or parodies. Saying and doing the opposite, taboos, and human predicaments are funny – it is always funnier when the other person has the pimple on the end of their nose. Timing is of the essence. Each funny moment requires a set-up. Which brings us to the ‘rule of three’. It goes something like this: set-up, set-up, punch-line. We see this mainly in joke telling, but we can also see this in the pacing of a funny story: conflict, conflict, resolution.
One final point to consider. For those interested in writing for laughs, the area you gravitate to depends on your need for gratification. Stand-ups need instant gratification. Television writers can cope with a delay. And for writers of books? Gratification can be a long time coming, possibly not experienced in your lifetime.