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Writing Humor and Comedy in SFF

Cath Schaff-Stump (author), Elektra Hammond (editor/author), Jim C. Hines (author), Oscar "Oz" Wilson (author), Sam Morgan (agent)

This panel was one of the ones I wanted to hit. My Bard & Sigurd stories aren't Science Fiction in any sense of the word and aren't really Fantasy (no magic, elves or dwarves, but plenty of Vikings and the occasional snowstorm.)

The first few passes of comments were the obvious observations:

  • Humor is Hard. What's funny to an Oxford Don is not necessarily funny to a midwest farmboy. Knowing your target is important if you want to write a comedy. Fart jokes featured strongly in this part of the discussion. I won't point any fingers, but the guys thought they were being hilarious while the women on the panel patiently waited for them to get this out of their system.

  • A funny story must be a story first and funny second. Feghoots and shaggy dog stories are funny, but not really stories. This is not a new observation. Mark Twain mentioned it in the intro to his Library of Humor and Alexander Jessup said the same thing in his intro to The Best American Humorous Short Stories in early 1900s.

  • Wordplay for the sake of wordplay is not funny. A book where all the names are puns isn't funny unless the funny names add to the story rather than distracting from it.

  • Oz noted that reality is totally absurd, and these things are all fodder for a story.

  • Shoot low. More people will laugh at a guy tripping over a banana peel than will laugh at a clever mis-interpretation of Schroedinger's Equations.

  • Some jokes don't scale. It can be funny once in a short story or a shaggy dog, but at the novel scale, it doesn't fly.

  • Shock Humor doesn't cut it. This sort of thing seems to play well in comedy clubs, but it depends on delivery, and you don't have that with the written word.

  • If the story is truly funny, every line needs to work. It either needs to be setup or punch line.

There was a lot of discussion about who the butt of the joke is. Having a random character trip over a banana peel isn't funny. If it happens to a character who needs come-uppance, that's better. I personally like the kind of humor that gently invites me to laugh at myself; the kind that recognizes the humor in everyday life that seems so hard. Oz agreed, pointing out that humor occurs every day. Oz also gave me the big take-away from this session - You can use humor to establish your characters and "elevate" them. If they use humor or are humorous it makes them more likeable and more real.

This reminded me of the time we went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Richard III. This play is about as funny as murder, rape and infanticide ever get, but they introduced Richard III as a humorous character. The various lines in which he admits his villainy were delivered as if he were joking about himself.

It made the character likeable. When he finally kills the two princes and steals the throne, you hate him for real. The lousy SOB fooled you! He made himself a nice guy when he wasn't!

It was a very effective interpretation of the play. Much better than any time I've seen Richard III be a villain from the get-go.

The panel was fun, the panelists were funny and seemed to have a good time and I got a couple insights. Oz's comment about using humor to elevate your character was one of those "D'Oh, it's so obvious I should have realized this ages ago" lines that really made the session for me.