Humor and Critique: Don’t Go Bonkers Writing Funny Stuff

Funny = Unexpected.
Funny = Unexpected.

Most writers are familiar with the joys and perils of critique. It can be hard to know what to think, and reactions from critique partners and beta readers can be even more confusing when you write humor. Even if the piece itself wouldn’t fit in the humor genre, a jocular-toned nonfiction or a few funny scenes in a novel run into critique problems. Below are some warnings to help keep you from going whacko and/or feeling like a talentless hack when you inject a little funny in your writing.

Choose Your Critique Partners/Beta Readers Well.

Your humor will not work for everyone. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, you should be writing to an audience, a readership, and that audience is finite. If you can, make sure the people who critique your work are members of your audience. They should have all the necessary background knowledge to get the jokes and laugh at the same things you do. This last is often overlooked, but forget it at your peril. Let me give you an example.

There’s a style of comedy that relies on embarrassment humor. The piece starts with a stodgy but likable straight man protagonist, and the story consists of all the whacky supporting characters doing whacky things to make the straight man embarrassed and uncomfortable until finally they loosen up. I can’t stand those stories.

I’ll watch a T.V. show or movie built around that premise and the rest of the room will be laughing their heads off, but I’ll be squirming in my seat. It’s not that the style is bad—it gets big laughs from a lot of people—it’s just that I’m not the audience for it. I identify too much with the protagonist. The more he/she is humiliated the more I feel humiliated too.

Yet, it’s even more complicated. There will be people who won’t want any humor in whatever situation it is you’ve got. I’m not just talking about trying not to push people’s buttons with subjects that are sensitive to them. You really will encounter folks who don’t want funny in a certain type of writing. Say you write for children. There will be people who feel kids won’t get jokes. Say you write a humorous poem. People will say poetry isn’t the place for that. It doesn’t matter what you write; there will be someone who feels humor is inappropriate. They’ll say things like “It just wasn’t what I was expecting” (despite the fact that it shouldn’t be what they were expecting or it wouldn’t be funny) or “I just wanted something serious.” That’s what’s at the heart of it, the misconception that funny and serious can’t exist in the same piece, that laughter is childish and should be shirked by intelligent grown-up people. If you write even a little humor, you will run into these folks at some point. Forget about them. They aren’t your audience. And they’re probably no fun at parties either.

You Will Have Flop Moments.

It’s going to happen. Even with the audience you wrote for, the audience you feel you know almost telepathically, there will be things you thought were fall-out-of-your-chair amusing that simply fall flat. Take note. Sleep on it. Revise. Try again. Revise. You may be able to fix it, but you may have to accept that it won’t work.

One of the biggest misconceptions about “funny people” is that they never flop, they throw out zingers all the time. But how did these people get to be funny? In fact, it is because they weren’t afraid to flop. To learn what works, you have to learn what doesn’t too, and trial and error is still the best way to do it. In humor and in all writing, you’ll write quite a lot of terrible stuff before you write anything remotely good. If you hold back for fear of flopping, you’ll never learn write well.

You Will Come to Have a Love-Hate Relationship with the Word cute, Especially if You Are a Woman.

It’s gotten to the point I don’t know what to think when someone describes my work as cute. Most of the time, I think it is meant as a compliment, so that’s how I try to take it, though cute as a word does often have a sarcastic component. Cute makes sense when I’m writing for very young children, but less so when I write for teens or adults. I wonder if people say that just because I’m a chick and they don’t know what to say to a woman who writes humor. Probably they haven’t thought it through much, and they feel subconsciously that cute is appropriate here. I’m not going to ramble on here, because I could fill a whole other post about gender expectations and comedy, but know cute is going to play some head games with you.

And the Last Thing

Some moment when you aren’t expecting it, someone will read/hear a piece you thought might be okay, might get a chuckle if you’re lucky, and that person will laugh until they cry and/or fart, and you will remember why you do this. Ultimately, you weather all the dismissive, unhelpful, and downright confusing critiques because sometimes you get the critique that does work, the right advice to help you make more people fart/cry/laugh. And isn’t that what life is about?

What’s your favorite funny book? Favorite comedian/humor writer? Have you had a weird experience getting critique on a humorous piece? Let’s chat in the comments.

Photo Credit: Lynn Kelley, WANA Commons, Creative Commons

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