Friday, April 8, 2011

Adding Humor To Your Writing

This is the first in a weekly series of posts on adding humor to your writing.

Humor Me

When I was a boy growing up in the Bronx I loved making my older brother laugh. I’d do anything: tell bad jokes, drizzle milk out of my nose, armpit farts, butt farts. I was a real laugh riot. However, as I got older I grew more serious… and at some point in time the farting stopped being funny.

I’d never thought of myself as a funny person. My early writing was dramatic, almost melodramatic. As an undergrad I’d read Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit To Brooklyn, an epithet-filled tale of the horrors of living in 1950s Brooklyn. I decided these were the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. The difference is, I wanted to tell my stories about growing up in the hard-scrabble streets of the South Bronx.

I set out writing humorless tales about the underbelly of society. I gave one of my gut-wrenching tales to my brother, and as he read it he started to laugh. ”Hey, what’s so funny?” I demanded. “This,” he said pointing to the pages in his hand. I loved making my brother laugh. However, I did not like making him laugh when I wasn’t trying. I was insulted.

Fortunately for me, later in life I would learn why my story was so funny to him. It happened at a production of The Great White Hope. I had just moved to Los Angeles to attend graduate school. The Great White Hope is a play written by Howard Sackler about the life of Jack Johnson.

The night I attended the play, the actor playing Jack Johnson was in the midst of performing a gut-wrenching soliloquy, when the audience started to laugh. I was surprised. I didn’t hear anything funny, yet the laughter continued. In fact, it grew. Embarrassing. There was a famous director seated a few seats away from me. I heard him say “The audience needs a release.” I realized instantly what he was talking about. The audience was being bludgeoned by the weight of the material, and the actor’s melodramatic performance. They needed some relief from the drama. When relief wasn’t provided for them, they created their own.

It was in that moment in a darkened theater in the early 1980s I recognized the power of humor. I became a student of it. Since then I have gone on to work for one of America’s greatest living humorists, Bill Cosby. I wrote and produced The Cosby Show. I learned a lot from Mr. Cosby. I will share some of my lessons with you here. In the early 90s I had the pleasure of originating the humor course at USC’s graduate school of professional writing, also known as the prestigious MPW program.

Humor has served me well. My first YA novel, Never Slow Dance With A Zombie, was a laugh-out-loud satire about high school life. In that first novel I wanted to prove to myself that I could be funny in prose as well as in a script. In my new novel, Boyfriend From Hell, there’s a good dose of humor, but it’s blended much better with action and drama. This time I am not trying to prove anything to myself. I am just trying to tell a good story.

Over the next few weeks I will share some of my lessons with you on how and when to add humor to your writing. If you think you are not funny, I will show how to find your funny bone. If you’re interested in learning more about adding humor to your writing, check back. Peace.

Next week: Dare to Be Funny

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