On Trying to Write 'Funny'

Iain Bain
Category: Writing

Trying to write is hard. Trying to write ‘funny’ may actually hurt your head. When I first began the attempt I had the idea that I would learn the methods and techniques, as a bricklayer might learn his trade (only with fewer bricks… well maybe a few to repair the wall I had been banging my head against). My approach in attempting any new task is, of course, to read up on it, but the instruction manual must be out of print… or something. So, here are a few hints, two small rules and as much ill-informed speculation as my word count will allow.

Humour has much to do with the unexpected. This is why the rule of three works. (A rule! Quick, hold it down before it squirms away.) The first item leads you down one road; the second confirms that, yes, that’s definitely the direction; the third steals your sandwiches.

In preparation for writing you should accumulate a stack of notebooks, a supply of pencils and a pitiful need to rectify on paper your failures in life.

Details, details
Details are our friends. Details tell you about people and their foibles.

Deirdre thought about Lance as she ate her breakfast.

Some words are just plain funnier than others

Hmn, not quite as interesting as, say:

Deirdre thought about the hang of Lance’s poly-cotton flares as she nibbled her roll and Spaceraiders.

The riches of English
According to a crew of Silicon Valley algorithm wranglers, at 10.22 on 10 June 2009, the English language got its millionth word. Whereas the French try to protect their language from foreign interlopers, we are lucky in the playground we have to romp around in, stuffed as it is with friendly immigrants, homonyms, homophones, homographs, gramophones, mp3s and…where was I?  In the double entendre department, ironically, the French will be less well endowed. If they want to have our prodigious comic possibilities then perhaps they too should, ahem, get stuffed. Word similarities, chief, can be the poles in your tepee.

A sunny day in Govan saw Tam hiding in the library from the big, scary yellow light, surprised to find he was well red.

In other words
You want more rules, don’t you? Try this: some words are just plain funnier than others. Take food. (If you don’t, you will die.) I have always found stovies inexplicably comical but that’s just me. Parsnips are funny; carrots are not. Discuss.

A BBC producer told me about a serious debate with top London comedy people on which numbers were funny and which weren’t. Excluding numbers which have connotations, 69, 42 and so on, odd numbers are funnier than even numbers and prime numbers better still. Euclid was probably a real hoot. The point is, choose your words carefully. Look again at what you have written and think about how word choice can enhance the comic potential.

Comparisons, insults and extremes
When you want to really make an impression, pale, anaemic prose just does not cut the mustard. If you want your mustard cut, and I have no idea why anyone would, there are tops to go over.

Happy? He looked like he had been boiled in a vat of his own tears.

This article is about as clear and useful as a spoonful of mud dropped into the sewers under Wetherspoon’s on Curry Club Thursday. 

Steady now
Sadly, I must remind you that here we are building not the horse but the cart. (Building horses is actually a messy business and best left to the professionals.) There is a bigger picture for you, dear writer, and you must resist the temptation to try to amuse just for its own sake. (Lesson for life, Iain: remember Auntie Barbara’s funeral and the chipolata incident? Delete this before submission.)

However, assuming you are creating compelling characters with fascinating and narratively useful flaws, there will be scope in how these manifest themselves in action, reaction and dialogue, especially when under pressure, to explore the unexpected, the comical and the just plain daft, as they emerge seamlessly from your creations. Have fun and mind your head.  


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Iain Bain

Iain is a 2016 New Writer Awardee. His writing has been published, performed and broadcast. One of his short stories appeared in the Scottish Arts Council/HarperCollins collection Looking for the Spark. His articles, reviews and interviews have appeared in print, and some of his drama work has been staged in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Turning to comedy, he was one of the lead writers on a BBC Radio Scotland sketch show called The Why Front, which ran for four series. He wrote all the comedy songs for the series Ellis Island and The Ellis and Clarke Show and his comedy-drama series Close was also broadcast.