Pickle Jackpot: Write Better with Comedy
October 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
Before I was a writer, I was a street performer. Not the dude-on-the-corner-with-a-guitar kind (though that’s street performance, too), the perform-at-festivals-for-huge-audiences kind. And when I worked in English, I had to be funny. The scripted lines had to be funny. The improvised lines had to be funny. And when an improvised line got a good laugh, we revised it, polished it, and put it in the show in a way that still sounds spontaneous after a thousand shows.
When I lived on tips, I had to be funny or I didn’t eat. Dinner’s a great motivation to get better at one’s art. I’m a verbal comedian more than a physical comedian, so I spent a long time working on words. We often did four shows a day, 15-20 shows a week, which is a lot of chances to try a different word order or phrasing. A punchline is funnier if the dialogue tag comes first (“And then he said, bada-boom!”). Individual words are funnier if they end in hard sounds (splat, smack) than soft ones (orange, cushion). Anything with a k in it is funnier (pickle, jackpot). And the best part is getting the audience to put the words together and write their own mental joke for an apparently innocent line (“Don’t worry! I’m a professional!”).
Now that I write the words down, now that I have to trust the reader’s brain for the delivery, comedy serves me well. Even when the essay isn’t funny, the right word order sells a punch or a sob the same way it sells a laugh. Humor helps the reader hope for the storyteller, even when the situation’s dire, and sadness phrased well becomes a kick in the teeth.
As George Saunders said, “Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.” With memoir and nonfiction, we get to slow it down a little and meander. Writing comedy helps us learn to tighten up, so that meandering is a choice.
At The Huffington Post, Siobhan Adcock writes in Why Every Writer Should Take a Humor Class:
Because structure. You’re making a meticulously crafted monkey suit — you gotta remember to put a tail-hole in the pants. Humor writing is about technique and precision, but it’s also about becoming an expert in story and sentence structure. Again, there are technical writerly concepts that come into play here: Snowballing, conflict, reversal, and the good old rule of three writ large (“Get your hero up in a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down” — see how that rule of three works on the plot level as well as the punchline level?) are just a few of them. A humor writing class will force you to learn how to put together a really sharp-looking monkey suit.
Ms. Adcock’s got a terrific list of things writers learn in a comedy-writing class, and if you’ve ever thought gosh, I wish my wordcraft was better on a technical level, comedy is for you. Check out the whole article.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.