You deliver the punch line of your best joke ever. Someone in your circle of friends says, “I don’t get it.”
And thus is the tragedy of comedy. It doesn’t always work. Because the joke was poorly delivered? Not necessarily. It’s because comedy is hard. Comedy is no fun, pun intended, if it doesn’t register with the audience or the reader.
As any professional comedian will tell you, effortless comedy is brutally difficult to pull off. It’s not unusual for a professional comedian to practice, tweak, and refine a ten-minute routine for months before bringing it to the stage.
Author and professional comedienne Kerri Pomarolli notes, “They say you need to get on stage 100 times before you even begin to feel comfortable about your material. Stand up comedy writing is a science because you need a laugh every 10 seconds. We want to be funny but not offensive. The number 1 rule is you can only make fun of yourself or your views on the world. I run my jokes through a lot of trusted channels before they ever hit the stage. My friends are probably sick of the phone calls that start with ‘Is this funny?'”
What makes comedy difficult to deliver well, and even more so on the printed page?
The author isn’t looking over the reader’s shoulder, volunteering to explain what they might not have gotten or why the line or story was laugh-worthy to you. There’s no chance to clear up a misconception or restate the comedic line a different way. No opportunity to gauge the reader’s mood like a standup comedian would take a live audience’s “temperature” to know when to venture further and when to back off.
Many editors will tell you that it’s a tragedy of comedy (especially sarcasm) if it doesn’t translate well, and it won’t for all readers. If you’re tempted to insert humor into your nonfiction or write a romantic comedy, which by nature dictates both romance and comedy in fairly equal measures, what steps can you take to make sure it lands well? Keeping in mind that the majority of people who pick up your book won’t personally know you–so they won’t know your attitude, your sense of humor, or your intentions–what else needs consideration to keep the tragedy out of comedy?
Your book’s target audience
Who are they? Do they even appreciate humor? What’s your target audience’s age range? Will they understand the humorous references to old movies, vintage TV shows, Level 21 of a specific video game? Will the actor’s name resonate with them or will they recognize the character but not the actor, or vice versa, unlike a true movie buff that grooves on trivia?
Comedy is no fun, pun intended, if it doesn’t register with the audience or the reader.
What’s the cultural climate like? Is a line you might think funny or endearing actually offensive because of current events? (FYI: Keep your COVID jokes to arenas in which no one has lost a loved one, been physically affected, been financially devastated, lost their job, been separated from someone they care about, or still hasn’t regained their sense of smell or taste–not that I’m bitter.)
It’s also important to recognize that your reading audience represents a broad range of comedic tastes. Dark humor might be fine for some but cause others to walk away from the book and advise others to do so too. Mother-in-law humor isn’t universally accepted (my mother-in-law concurs). Some authors, like Anthony Russo (author of the upcoming release Curiosities and (Un)Common Sense from the Bible: 60 Devotions), and Kerri Pomarolli (author of the Proverbs 32 Woman books) are skilled at finding the funny in sacred text. We’re not all gifted that way. Ours might come across as mocking or disrespectful. Theirs are enlightening, inspiring, and hysterical.
What else needs consideration when embarking on a journey of injecting humor into (or even just waving a spritz of humor over) our books? What do we need to be aware of so we don’t fall into a trap of a tragedy of comedy?
Your book’s overarching tone
Once in a while, I’ll open a book proposal from a prospective client and get partway through the chapter summaries to find a random, unnecessary, bordering-on-inappropriate humor insertion. It doesn’t just give me pause. I come to a full stop. It’s not an automatic no, but I stop long enough to consider why the random humor is there. Personal style? Author working too hard to be funny? Cat took over the keyboard for that sentence?
Humor, as refreshing as it can sometimes be, isn’t a good fit for every topic or every book. If it looks like you tried too hard, you probably did.
What your book needs
Does your book need humor? A serious topic might need a moment of comic relief. But if it doesn’t come naturally, it runs the risk of a tragic derailment rather than a rest stop.
When writing, remember that the reader can’t see the smile on your face.