Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How Do You Put The Fun In Funny?

Have you ever told a joke and no one laughed? Or have you ever laughed uproariously at something, and everyone else was sitting about in stony silence? Yup, humor's tricky. One man's yee-haw is another man's yawner.

Which makes "writing funny" really hard. However, for our middle grade audience, it's imperative. Kids love to laugh--and they do so far more than most grown-ups. So bring on what my friend Barbara Watson calls "the goof."

Barbara is doing this cool Middle Grade from A-Z on her blog, and last week she reached "G is for Goofy." She wrote, "middle grade magic happens when writers weave humor and silliness with very serious issues." That rang a huge bell for me. Incidentally, at the same time, I was also reading Funny Business, Conversations with Writers of Comedy compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. In his introduction, Marcus writes "humor can also be a way of talking about things too hard to talk about any other way."

I have to admit that, although I loved this book as an insight into the childhoods and work habits of some of my favorite children's writers and humorists, (Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka, Carl Hiaasen), I have to agree with Harold Underdown's comment on his review of Funny Business.

Harold Underdown:

In all of this, I didn't find the answer to the rhetorical question asked by Marcus in a brief introduction: "What makes funny funny?" And perhaps that's the point; writing humor doesn't follow a certain formula or set number of steps. As we learn in the interviews, writing humor springs from who we are and from our own experiences.

So, the mystery of how to put the fun in funny continues. We know it's important, and we know what we like--but how to get there? Early middle graders love potty humor (Captain Underpants, anyone?). I have a penchant for grandiosity and skulduggery (Josh Lieb's I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President nearly caused me to blow my chocolate milk through my ears, which would have been a funny sight in its own right.)

The cause of the chocolate milk near-disaster

 Help me, Mayhemmers! Tell me what makes you laugh, or leave a list of your favorite funnies. We all could use a good laugh!


  1. As a very cerebral person, I tend to love dry-wit, and sarcasm when it comes to humor. One of the funniest books I've ever read is The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud (first of the Bartimaeus Trilogy), especially the footnotes.

    However, the thing is, what I find funny isn't necessarily what kids, or even other adults, are going to find funny. It's kind of one of those things like "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." Writing funny is hard, but when it works, it works SO well.

    Great post, great questions, Mike!

  2. "writing humor doesn't follow a certain formula or set number of steps....writing humor springs from who we are and from our own experiences."

    The above quote of yours really rings true for me. I also think humor in writing fiction is tied to character development and voice. If you can create a character with an accessible sense of humor, then the humor is authentic. It doesn't take you out of the story but rather draws you in.

    For YA humor I think of Ned Vizzini (Be More Chill). I have a huge list of recent MG novels to read but looking backwards, Gordon Korman's No More Dead Dogs comes to mind as possessing some authentic humor.

    And, like Matt said, funny is subjective.
    Great post, Mike!! :-)

  3. Two things to begin: how was it I did not follow this blog (I've been linking to it for months off mine)? And secondly, a HUGE thank you, Michael, for the quote and link!

    Alright, down to "bidness" as the Don likes to say. What makes me laugh? Dry humor and sarcasm are what I love, so when an author mixes those into the voice of the characters and the voice of the entire story, I'm rolling. But my husband and kids adore slapstick and over-the-top stuff. So, like food tastes, it's an individual thing (as you mentioned), with no set formula and it's difficult to attain. When I write, I write in my own sense of humor because it's all I can do and do well.

  4. Humor is tricky. My daughter and I both liked THE QUEST OF THE WARRIOR SHEEP by Christopher Russell. Even the title tells you it's going to be crazy and it is. Part of what makes it funny, is that the characters are seriously misunderstanding the circumstances while the reader is in on the reality.

    Unrelated to books, but timely for this discussion, I laughed until my sides hurt at this blog post complete with cartoons about moving across several states with two dogs. I don't know exactly what makes it hilarious, but it it:

  5. Hyperbole and a Half is the best! Have you all seen the ALOT post?

  6. Yes! to Hyperbole and a Half. Whenever I'm in go mode I think of the ALL THE THINGS post. haha!

    I tend to agree with Barbara. You have to write what you think is funny. Sometimes I'll chuckle at a witty comeback or something my characters have said. Not all readers will find it funny, but there isn't a formula, and I think planning for funny can come off as stilted and forced.

    Besides, I have three boys, and I'm always amused by what will send them into giggles. Usually, it's something I could have never predicted.

  7. I think I need to get that last book for my 9 year old! She's so irreverant it would probably really appeal!

  8. This is a great post. I've heard VERY recently there needs to be more middle-grade books specifically in the humor genre, so this is timely! Funny people, get writing! ;)

  9. So many things make me laugh, I wouldn't know where to start to enumerate them all. Verbal humor is my favorite type. Here are a few examples that come to mind: a list of items with the last item being totally random; a misheard comment that leads to a whole chain of events; witty replies; ... Bathroom humor? Not so much.

  10. Great post. One of my all time favorite MG writers is Barbara Park....Don't Make Me Smile, Mick Harte Was Here, Maxie Rosie and Earl Partners in Crime. She is, imo, an absolute master of combing humour with serious issues that kids sometimes have to deal with.

    Thanks for the article!

  11. I really liked the How To Tame Your Dragon Series. I thought that was really cute and funny!

  12. Oh, I mean How To Train! Been a long day!

  13. Yes, the funny is tricky because it's all...wait for it...that dreaded word all writers hate...keep waiting...SUBJECTIVE! Man, that word still sends me tingling. But it is true. One thing I've noticed (and something I try to remember while I write MG) is that the humor should be effortless, not forced. MG readers pick up on contrived humor. They've got radar or something. Good post, Michael.

  14. Thanks for commenting on my query over at Matt's blog! Nice to meet you :)

    And I think the name Captain Underpants is incredibly amusing in and of itself...


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!