Wednesday, November 10, 2010

DiSilverio on Being Funny:)

ROBERTA: The first book in Laura DiSilverio’s humorous PI series, Swift Justice, debuted from St. Martin’s Minotaur on 12 Oct. The starred Booklist review said: “DiSilverio deftly mixes light, zany humor with the darkness of the crimes.” Romantic Times added: “Swift Justice manages to be serious and funny at the same time.” Today Laura's here to talk about being funny! Hooray for the new book, Laura, and take it away...

LAURA: When Roberta invited me to JRW to talk about humor because my books are funny, my first thought was: Nothing makes things unfunnier faster than trying to explain how to make them funny. However, I’m going to give it a shot by sharing four of Laura’s Twenty-eight Rules of Humor. If you don’t chuckle, or smile, or at least think about smiling as you peruse this, don’t read my books. They will not amuse you. (Notice I didn’t say “Don’t buy my books.” Just don’t read them.)
(Serious paragraph—skip ahead if you want to.) In an attempt to keep this post on the brief side, I won’t say too much about the challenges of writing humor except to point out that humor is tricky because people laugh at different things (unlike with drama where almost everyone can agree that a pedophile is horrible or a car crash that kills a family is tragic). You’ve got satire, dry wit (think British), slapstick, word play/puns, parody, irony, etc. People who like the Three Stooges (think husbands) don’t crack a smile during an Oscar Wilde play, and vice versa. So, if you embark on a humorous novel, be prepared for mixed reactions from your readers. Both of them.

1. Conflict is funny. An always agreeable character is boring, unless it’s a character who is only agreeable in order to irritate everyone else. Think about sitcoms: in general, the characters who generate the most conflict are the funniest. Archie Bunker and Lucy Ricardo (for the mature JRW readers), Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men, the grown-up Doogie Howser in How I Met Your Mother. So, in Swift Justice, I paired my 37-year-old loner PI, Charlie Swift, with her opposite, a bubbly, barely competent, fashion-obsessed socialite in her fifties. Lots of room for conflict and humor, from arguments about office décor to Gigi’s inability to lie, an essential PI skill, in Charlie’s opinion. (Her philosophy: Always tell the truth, unless a lie will work better.).

2. The unexpected is funny. A sweet young woman as a kindergarten teacher is not funny. Arnold Schwarzenegger is. A vampy sexpot in leather corsets and six-inch heels as the owner of an “adult toys” store doesn’t make us laugh. A fluffy-haired granny in twinset, pearls and support hose does, especially if we can listen in as she debates the merits of various . . . um, products with her customers. You’ll notice I didn’t name any “products”; that’s because you’ve got to be careful of the “ick factor” in humor (see #3).

3. Beware the ick factor. Dildos and ball gags are amusing to a certain portion of the reading public, but they’re icky to an equally large number of readers. Ditto for farts and boogers. If you’re writing middle grade fiction for boys, you can’t have too many rude body sounds or excrescences. If your audience is over fifteen and/or female, err on the side of deleting references to icky things. Or, in other words, be cautious when inserting dildos. In your writing, or course.

4. Beware the mean factor. Humor all too often turns on insulting a certain group of people: blondes, ethnic groups, lawyers. All I can say here is: Know your audience (or just don’t give a damn if you annoy as many people as you amuse). If you’re writing for a bar association publication, they’re probably not going to like the one about ten thousand lawyers at the bottom of the sea being a start. People don’t laugh too hard when they’re genuinely offended. (The exception that immediately pops to mind is the movie Pulp Fiction which was simultaneously offensive in almost every respect and hysterically funny.)

Addendum: Don’t expect to win prestigious literary awards if you write humor. Or if you make funny movies. When’s the last time a comedy won the Best Picture Oscar? By my reckoning, it was The Sting in 1973 or maybe Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. As for the Pulitzer, I went back to 1948 and didn’t come across a novel I’d consider primarily humorous; let’s face it, The Road and American Pastoral and Beloved are not laugh-a-page kinds of books. (Confession: I haven’t read all the Pulitzer-winning novels, so if I overlooked a funny one, let me know!) If you want awards for your humor writing, become an essayist a la Barry or Erma Bombeck or David Sedaris.

Thanks to Roberta and Jungle Red for hosting me today. Let me end with an abbreviated list of some of my favorite funny novelists, in no particular order: Dave Barry, Carl Hiassen, early Janet Evanovich, Joan Hess, P.G. Wodehouse, and Robert Flynn (religious satire: his Growing up a Sullen Baptist is hurt-your-tummy-laughing funny).

What “rules” am I leaving out? What funny novelists and/or novels? Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of my newest, VERY FUNNY book, Swift Justice.


  1. Thanks ladies for introducing a new writer to me. I love books with humor..even if most of the book is dark.
    word verification : bustfu too funny!

  2. We want the rest of the TWENTY-EIGHT!!!

    (Or is long not funny?) (Or does it depend on what's long?)(Oh, never mind. A potential rule 3 violation.)


  3. Gram--Thanks for checking in today. I wonder if someone could write a Jabberwocky sort of poem using just word verification words?

    Hank--You're right that long tends to be bad for humor. Readers/listeners want short and punchy.

  4. There are a lot of people who just don't get sarcasm and therefore don't find it funny. I think there's a gene for it. But to be fair, it's different when it's written on a page, because you don't have the inflection, the arched eyebrow, etc.

  5. I think being able to write humor is a special gift and bless you for sharing it with us! Who couldn't use a good laugh?

  6. I love comic books and try to write humor. Don't know if I'm successful, but my humor is more "tongue in cheek." Laura's list of humorous authors are also mine, but may I add romance author Mary Janice Davidson and whacky writer Christopher Moore? Oh well, I already have. I will definitely check out Laura's book.

  7. Hi Sheila--Sarcasm was coin of the realm at my family dinner table growing up. I had to learn to temper it when I got into the AF. A sarcastic second lieutenant doesn't go over well with the seniors!

    Peg--Thanks for your kind comment. I know it's a lot more fun to write humorous mysteries than spend my day thinking about serial killers and gruesome crimes.

  8. Hi E.B.--I iwll definitely check Davidson and Moore. I'm always looking for authors who make me laugh.

  9. Thanks Laura. I look forward to reading Swift Justice.

    When speaking of women who have a great comic voice we cannot forget Fannie Flagg, who's adept at both laugh-out-loud and subtle humor.

    Speaking of which, my verification word is AZILDO.

    Close, but no cigar.

    Brenda B. in Maine

  10. Laura: Great post. I agree with Hank- I want to read the rest of the list!

    Being funny is so hard. We had guests this weekend who told stories of family members who loved to tell a joke or literally performed slap-stick antics in public- just to confuse people. I would be horrified if my father pretended to trip over a chair in a restaurant- the stories went on and on.

    Having said that, I love a good laugh. Don't we all? You said it well that what appeals to one might definitely not to another. I'm not sure I'm adept enough to pull it off in my writing, but sure love it when I find it.

    Thanks again!

  11. When it comes to writing humor that is short and punchy, I'd have better luck if it could be short and paunchy. Oh, well!

    I've had the good fortune to have already read Swift Justice and therefor have to add Laura DiSilverio to one of my favorite humorous writers. Also Lila Dare!

  12. Brenda B--You're absolutely right about Fanny Flagg! And I love "azildo." 'Twas bustfu and the slithy azildo . . ." Hmm. Maybe not.

    Cassy--Don't you have to wonder what kind of personality wants attention so badly they pretend to trip over chairs in restaurants? I think there might be a fine line between wanting to make people laugh and wanting to make people think you're funny. If that makes sense.

  13. Thanks, Kari!

  14. Brenda..cigar! Azildo! Another potential rule 3 violation! Love it!! xoxo

    (Mine is gemins, but I'm a libra.)

  15. Hi Laura,
    GREAT POST. Love your rules. I'm critiquing a manuscript right now that has humor, and I was wondering if you'd go along with the rule.

    Stay away from humor in a scene that is supposed to increase tension for fear....

    Or if you've found a way to make that work.

  16. Hi Jan--Excellent question. That's one of my biggest challenges. In general, I think you're right. However, the occasional very short humorous thought or aside can keep the tone from being totally out of sync with the rest of the book. Or, you can ratchet up the tension, toss in a humorous moment that makes it look like maybe the tension's subsiding, and then catch the reader by surprise with the scariest moment or shock. It's a tricky balance and I play with that a lot in my manuscripts.

  17. Love humor, and truly appreciate those who can accomplish it...Harley Jane Kozak and Sarah Strohmeyer come to mind quickly.


  18. Oh, somebody who has heard of P.G. Wodehouse. I ran across those books a 100 years or so ago in my very small country school library (complete in a China closet-type piece of furniture). I may have been the only one in all eight grades to read one of them!

  19. Norma--I discovered Wodehouse decades ago, too, and still re-read some of his books when I need an "up."

    Anonymous Carla--Harley Jane Kozak is just as funny in person and I love her and Sarah Strohmeyer's posts at The Lipstick Chronicles. (I'm not in trouble for mentioning another blog, am I?)

  20. oh heck no Laura, we love the Lipstick Chronicles! And yes Harley and Sarah are very funny writers. And I love Wodehouse's stories about golf, of course...

  21. Roberta--Golf lends itself well to humor. :-)

  22. Brenda B's name has been drawn as the winner of Swift Justice. thanks to every one of you for visiting and commenting and especially thanks to Laura for a terrific blog post!