Monday, June 8, 2009

Neurotica-The Art & Science of Funny

I'm preparing to give my humor workshop for RWA Nationals in DC this July. To do that, I have to study with deadly seriousness just what makes something funny. It's harder than it seems.

There is a whole science to laughter. Researchers have discovered that laughter is not a learned behavior. It's innate. Laughter is universal. It's the first tenuous social glue that binds us to others.

We all do it. But we don't all laugh at the same things. So what makes something funny? And how can a writer incorporate that into her story?

There are tons of different types of humor--from sight gags and slapstick to puns and malapropisms. But at the heart of every joke, there's a reversal. You're set up to get X and you unexpectedly get Y. Here's an example from the opening of my DISTRACTING THE DUCHESS:

“I’m going to have to shorten his willie.”

The artist stepped back from her easel and regarded the offending member with a critical eye.

I've set the reader up to think, "OMGosh! A Victorian Elaina Bobbitt!" Then I deliver the switch. She's a painter concerned only with symmetry and perspective.

I use a different sort of "bait and switch" in my upcoming MY LADY BELOW STAIRS novella in A CHRISTMAS BALL. Lady Darvish, a notorious "black widow," is calling on Viscount Eddleton, who's about to be betrothed to Lady Sybil Sommerville.

“Oh, that will never do! ‘Madam’ sounds so old.” Lady Darvish laughed gaily as she removed her hat, signaling that the visit would be an extended one. “You must call me Leticia for I predict we will be great friends. May I call you Bertram?”

Eddleton’s mouth opened and closed wordlessly several times before he managed to sputter, “But my name is George.”

We go on to learn that Leticia has had 4 husbands, all of whom she called Bert because it kept things "uncomplicated."

One of the things I abhor in workshops is when the speaker uses only their own work as examples. So, I need your help. Please send me some short examples of something funny you've read in a romance novel that requires miminal set up. And bear in mind, there are differing degrees of humor. Sometimes, writing that gives you merely a knowing smile performs its function better than the writing that causes soda to spew out your nose.

A soda spew will yank a reader out of the story every time!


Anonymous said...

Hi Emily, I think the element of confusion can be funny too. I remember a scene in a Julie Garwood (can't remember which because I've read them all a gillion times) where the heroine is in a rushed marriage and when the scene is over, she's not even sure who she married because all the hero's men were answering during the ceremony too. It was the first scene I'd ever read where I laughed out loud!

Genella deGrey said...

Your workshop sounds like something I need and would really enjoy! There are so many different "funnies" - snappy rapid-fire dialog, saying the very opposite of the action taking place, keeping a straight face in front of everyone even though someone has uttered something utterly naughty in your ear . . . You are the queen of funny in romance, Em!

Hugs -

Genella deGrey said...

Oh, yes. And I have this for you:

A laugh is the shortest distance between two people.


EmilyBryan said...

Lisa, yes, situational comedy works almost every time it's tried. The only type of humor I can't make work on the page is slapstick. Maybe someone else has and I just haven't seen it yet.

Thanks, Genella. Queen of funny? I think I'm more like the Stand-up Princess's Apprentice!

Rowena Cherry said...


I saw your call for examples you may use. Here's a passage from Knight's Fork by Rowena Cherry which contains some irreverent and anarchic humor.

"How very King Henry the Eighth of you, Sir!" the eternally impertinent Grievous opined upon receiving his secret orders in the Imperial Suite's conversation pit.

Tarrant-Arragon was accustomed to Grievous's chauvinistic assumptions that everyone knew the finer points and personalities of English history. However, he was interested. He had been likened to Henry the Eighth before, on account of his own exaggerated reputation for disposing of unfaithful companions.

"Really, Grievous?" Tarrant-Arragon draped his arms over the curved back support of the pit seating, in an exaggeratedly relaxed pose. "Did your Henry the Eighth of Englishmen maroon his sisters on alien worlds with unsuitable suitors?"

"Not exactly, Sir, but he did invade Scotland to make sure that the infant Mary Queen of Scots married his young son Edward."

"He succeeded, I infer?"

"Nah, Sir. King Henry's sister's daughter-in-law objected to his tactics and married off the little girl to a Frog prince instead."

"A frog prince?" Tarrant-Arragon arched an eyebrow at his man. An amphibian shapeshifter? That would make oral sex interesting!

"Yup. A frog. That's what we call the Frenchies, Sir. I dare say you'd call it a racial slur."

"I dare say I would." Tarrant-Arragon lost interest. "Ahhh, if this Henry the Eighth's tactics did not work, why do you make the comparison, Grievous? It's hardly flattering to have my methods likened to the behavior of an ineffective tyrant." He put the stress on "ineffective."

"You shouldn't be flattered, Sir."

"Quite so," Tarrant-Arragon murmured, thoroughly enjoying what might be his last unintended insult from his human side-kick. "Do go on."

"Here's the scheme as I grasp it, Sir." Grievous said. "Oh, my Lord! What the…?"

The man's posture stiffened. Fear leaked from his pores. "You've got a tiger loose in here, Sir," he said in a strangled whisper.

"I've two."

The human squeezed his ankles and knees together. He interlaced his fingers, and pressed his balled, linked hands into his lap. He swallowed hard, and the lump humans have in their scrawny throats jerked.

"They're my sister's. I could hardly smuggle two tigers aboard The Trajant. They'd eat the crew while she sleeps, and give the game away." In some amusement, he watched Grievous's light blue gaze zigzag, as the Englishman tried to locate the second tiger.

Alph was "couchant" under the dining table, quietly amusing himself with an unopened container of wine, which he'd hooked from the table onto the carpeted floor. Tarrant-Arragon had last seen Bey-ta investigating the suite's guest restroom where it sounded –faintly, to Djinn ears—as if he had found something less sophisticated to drink.

Tarrant-Arragon stroked his upper lip, and decided to take pity on his man. "You're quite safe, Grievous. Relax and you won't smell so much like prey. I need you on The Trajant. Do continue to give me your understanding of my 'scheme'."

Rowena Cherry said...

Here is another excerpt from Knight's Fork, this time with the maligned hero explaining his own mission to Grievous, the human sidekick.

This humor has been described as Monty Pythonesque.

"Mine is like my namesake Perseus's quest, Grievous. Speaking metaphorically, I'm looking for Gorgons."

"Ah, right. Perseus! He was the one who went after the Medusa's head, and showed it to his dad. Or was it his wicked step-dad? It was some bad-arse king, anyway. You're never going to dig up Gorgons in England, are you, Sir?"

Grievous sounded intrigued, which was the point.

"I see no alternative." 'Rhett kept to the basic plan, which was to reduce a very complicated quest to its simplest issues, and to those most likely to appeal to Grievous. "As a human and an Englishman, Grievous, how would you feel if there was a Gorgon living among you?"

"It's not very likely, is it, Sir?"

"Not at all likely."

"I mean to say, Sir, if we had a Gorgon running about the English countryside, able to turn a man to stone with the roll of an eyeball, she'd have been found out by now, wouldn't she?"

"Moreover, England would have a lot of very realistic statues in surprising places!" 'Rhett laughed at an incongruous vision.

"Are we worried, Sir, about what the Gorgon would do to my lot, or what humans would do to her? I'd say it'd be bad news all round if my lot somehow found out, but especially for her." Grievous spread his hands on his upper thighs, and rocked.

"I think you're right," 'Rhett agreed. "The idea of an unaccounted-for Gorgon on the loose in England is extremely far fetched and fanciful, but I'd we're not really talking about ladies with snake locks and the power to petrify at a glance. My 'Gorgons' are dead and buried space aliens. Not as overtly deadly at close range, but possibly more worrying to the establishment. They are my father's late wives."

Rowena Cherry said...

Potty humor. The human, Grievous, comes upon Rhett doing a sperm count. 50 to 60 million sperm per ml is considered normal for humans.

"I had no idea this sort of equipment was available," 'Rhett swiveled on his stool. "It's leveling off at around one hundred and three million spermatozoa per milliliter. Do you want to have a go?"

Grievous shook his head. "I don't think so, Sir. I just had a cup of what passes for coffee in these parts. I daresay it would wreck my results. Er, any reason for your concern, Sir?"

'Rhett took a cloth and began to wipe clean surfaces. Not that it was an issue, but Electra's "…I suppose you can…?" query had niggled away at him ever since their foolish duel almost a cycle ago, until he had to know the truth. The truth was good to know, even if it was a moot point.

"Thor-quentin happened to mention Nano-gladiator to me in the showers the other day. Apparently, it's the tiniest combat sport known to malekind, and thanks to the marvels of space technology it can be staged anywhere there is a glass surface, a magnification unit and a viewing screen. And two competitive, off-duty males with nothing better to do with their ejaculate."

"Good grief!" Grievous said. "You are pulling my leg!"

Privately, 'Rhett wondered if Thor-quentin had been pulling his leg.

From Knight's Fork by Rowena Cherry

Rowena Cherry said...

FROM Insufficient Mating Material by Rowena Cherry, demonstrating the use of understatement, sarcasm, irony

Surgery was over. The patient had survived. As for the rivalry between Prince Tarrant-Arragon and Prince Djetthro-Jason, that might be far from over.

"He won't thank you." Grievous glanced again at the unconscious Djetth.

"No," 'Rhett agreed wryly. "He's not one for gracious speeches, even if he could speak. Did you have any specific reason in mind?"

"Castration for a kick-off. Poor bastard."

Grievous had not been in the Operating Theater. Being human, he apparently didn't understand the difference between the sensory neutering of a Great Djinn and the crude removal of bollocks.

'Rhett rested his elbows on his knees and steepled his fingers.

"You didn't think Tarrant-Arragon means to Mate his lonely younger sister to a physical eunuch, did you, Grievous? That would be a dirty trick."

"Then, what the dickens…?"

"Let me explain about the rut-rage, and Djinn male anatomy. The truly dangerous organ is not the penis or the testicles. It is a little moth-shaped gland in the sinus area."

Maureen said...

Well, Christie Craig is guesting on the Romance Writers Revenge might check it out for some humor examples.

Hey, see that I won the lottery for a year's mentorship from Jenna Petersen?

Hee, hee! Maureen

EmilyBryan said...

Rowena--Thanks for dropping by with your futuristics. Irreverent humor, indeed! ;)

Maureen--How lovely for you! I'm sure you'll learn tons from the lovely and talented Ms. Petersen.