Dying's Easy, Comedy's Hard

The above quote is credited as having been said by either the celebrated British Shakespearean actor of the early 19th century Edmund Kean, or the English actor Edmund Gwenn, known for his portrayal of Kris Kringle in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. And though it’s not exactly clear who said this or when, I of late have found the second half of this statement to be quite true—especially while writing my latest series of romantic comedies, the Millicent Winthrop Novels.

One of my other careers is that of a theatre professional. I am a card carrying union actress, and have directed dozens of stage performances ranging from musicals to tragedies, and from comedies to operas. I have been taught by the best that comedy is nothing more than making light of the dark. But, what exactly does that mean? So much of prime time TV sitcom fare is made up of one like zingers accompanied by canned laughing audience. And comedy is indeed the witty line or the snappy dialogue. Yet it is so much more.

First of all, it’s a kind of music. Timing in comedy actually is everything. A great comic can make us laugh just by his or her delivery. Unfortunately, timing is the one element in writing that sometimes gets lost. Here’s an example from Just My Luck, the introductory novella of my Millicent Winthrop series.

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Kate then put on her best fake smile as she pointed at her reflection. “It’s show time!” she pronounced to no one other than herself. She then shoved her things back into her oversized the Jimmy Choo knock off tote she’d bought at Wal-Mart for one sixteenth of the going price. And made a bee-line for the cashier, where she not only paid for her gas, but a few necessary snacks to tide her over, including a box of Junior Mints, a can of Diet Coke, and a two-pill packet of Aleve.

Now, to build the comic timing into this selection I needed to structure my writing and punctuate my sentences in such a way so that the reader would musically hear what I heard as delivery in my mind.

 

Kate then put on her best fake smile as she pointed at her reflection.

“It’s show time!” she pronounced to no one other than herself.

She then shoved her things back into her oversized tote—the Jimmy Choo knock off she bought at Wal-Mart for one sixteenth of the going price. And made a bee-line for the cashier, where she not only paid for her gas, but a few necessary snacks to tide her over.

A box of Junior Mints.

A can of Diet Coke.

And a two-pill packet of Aleve.

Another way to add comedy to writing is to choose situations that seemed all too familiar to us, even though we would never admit it. This form of transparent vulnerability made public is what makes the character human and our own foibles funny rather than tragic. For example, my mother was an extremely self-conscious woman, especially if she thought others were judging her by her behavior. I remember once she pulled into the local station to fill the family car up with gas. Just before she sidled up to the pump, she noticed a woman from our church getting gas at the same place. Instead of pulling up to her usual pump-your-own pump, my mother swung the car instead next to the full service unit. A smile crossed her face as the church lady spotted her and waved. My mother waved in return, paid the attendant, and before he could return the nozzle and hose back to its pump, my mother took off, allowing it to bounce several times on the ground, spraying gasoline every-which-way—including on the beautiful new car owned by the woman from church. The look on my mother’s face was priceless. I’d never seen her more embarrassed or miffed at herself for being so vain. And at church that following Sunday, I nearly wet my pants watching as my mother avoided making eye contact with the woman in question so as not to feel doubly embarrassed once again.

Finally, I think comedy of character is one of the most delightful ways of bringing humor to one’s writing. Let’s admit it—some people by virtue of who they are, are just plain funny. And when we can find those kinds of characters for our storytelling, then cleverness, wit, and humor often win the day. My Millicent Winthrop is that kind of gal—psychologically fractured, yet sweet and charming in her own way. And for some reason unbeknownst to her and nearly everyone around her, her naiveté and simplistic way of looking at life lead her into some fun and silly adventures, retorts, and mannerisms.

I think the best advice I can give is to write what you, the writer, think is funny, then speak it out loud to make sure the timing is exactly how you hear it, and then amplify the craziness of the situation and the oddness of your character’s behavior. These tips may not work for everyone, but at least you’ll have a few laughs trying.


Gwen Overland