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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Humor

   
Author Topic: Humor
MattLeo
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I can't imagine writing anything that didn't have a strong humorous element to it. I can write something with or without action; romance and pathos are optional; but if an idea doesn't at least make me smile, I have no interest in writing about it.

So I thought I'd canvas people here about humor and their approach to it. I'd like to pose a few questions, which I'll answer for myself. Feel free to ignore any questions you don't want to answer. Also feel free to pose your own questions and I'll try to respond to them.

1) Do you use humor in your writing? Why or why not?

As I said above I can't write about something that doesn't strike me as funny. I think it's because I think I have a tendency towards arrogance. I want to write about serious issues, but I don't want to let my sense of self-importance out of it's cage without giving it a good deflating.

2) What kinds of things do you find funny?

I like stories about characters whose view of themselves or their actions are wildly at odds to how they really are, or how others see them. I especially like the situation where somebody thinks he's making progress but he's digging himself in deeper.

I had a boss once who we sent to a meeting with the head of another company who we wanted to partner with. When he was on his way back we got a call from the other guy's lieutenant saying his boss couldn't stand our boss and telling us never to have our boss talk to him again. When our boss walked in he was pumped; he was sure he'd scored a big hit. Now this wasn't particularly funny, because my boss was just trying to make a living (albeit clumsily). But if he'd had unusually evil motives or unusually good ones it *would* have been funny.

3) What kinds of humor do you find NOT funny?

Humor where there's nobody in the situation I'm supposed feel sympathy for. A lot of ethnic humor falls into this category. Most humor plays to our insecurities, but mean-spirited humor gives us a kind of reassurance that I simply find not credible: that people who make us feel uncomfortable are stupid, weak, and foolish.

4) What authors do you find funny? Does your own humor resemble them?

My top three would be Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Elizabeth Peters. When I started out I thought I'd sound like Terry Pratchett, but I find that I don't have any of his tendency toward parody or elaborate world-building. In early drafts I tend to come of as a somewhat less clever Douglas Adams; I share his sensibilities which combine absurdity with social criticism. But my narrative voice doesn't really fit with that kind of story. I'd say that I probably resemble Peters more than the other two. I like to make fun of how ridiculous my characters are while at the same time feeling great fondness for them.

5) What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you?

Lots of funny things happen to me, but the one that would be most likely to make it in to something I wrote would be the time I asked my wife whether she thought there was anything in the universe that showed God has a sense of humor. She looked off to one side for a couple of seconds, and confidently answered, "Sex."

That incident showed how critical timing is to humor. She didn't just zing me with a snappy comeback, she actually took a few seconds to think about the question -- not that she needed more than one or two seconds to come up with an obvious and irrefutable answer.

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Brendan
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1) Do you use humor in your writing? Why or why not?

Sometimes - depending on the story and my mood. It doesn't always work, so I sometimes hide it within the work so that those that enjoy it can, and those that don't get it can still read the story seriously.

2) What kinds of things do you find funny?

A range of types, I suppose, from parody to absurd to word plays to satire to situational. Not that I can write all of those.

3) What kinds of humor do you find NOT funny?

Cringe-worthy humour, where a person is the target and is really unconfortable with the fact but doesn't know how to extract themselves (even if fictional). That is too close to real experiences.

4) What authors do you find funny? Does your own humor resemble them?

Robert Sheckley is the one that I think I can occasionally emulate. Mostly I can't compete in humor, so I don't try to be funny unless I really enjoy the concepts and let them be funny.

5) What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you?

Not funny, just bizarre - I patted an escaped african lion.

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hoptoad
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1: Do I write humor?
Only if it serves a purpose in the story.

2: What is funny?
Almost anything that takes me by surprise.

3: What is not funny?
The obvious, mean-spirited, contrived and/or superficial.

4: Funny authors -- emulate?
Terry Pratchett, Spike Milligan, Neil Gaiman -- no.

5: Funny story?
I'm sorry, I don't write humorous stories. [Wink]

[ June 04, 2012, 01:48 AM: Message edited by: hoptoad ]

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KayTi
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1. Yes, I definitely use humor in my writing. I write for YA/MG audiences. To me, you can't write for kids without trying to relate to them along joke lines. I was working with a few 4 year olds just the other day and the way I finally broke the ice (they were shy) was by insisting that the lion on one boy's t-shirt was actually a giraffe. Or a wombat. Or a porcupine. When you get them giggling, you've got their attention. It's a masterfully useful strategy w/kids.

2. What kinds of things do I find funny? Plays on words are good, though I'm very poor at generating them myself. I find Lewis Black hilarious, as well as Jim Gaffigan. (american comedians.) Tina Fey's stuff is universally great, too. I like clever humor. And humor that stems from observations we've all had, but maybe haven't felt comfortable making aloud.

Tina Fey has this hilarious bit she does in her book Miss Bossypants about an ode to her daughter. There are parts where she wants her daughter to learn to drum, so she need not lie with drummers, and where when she calls me <the b word> outside of Hollister I will hustle her into a cab in front of all of her friends and take her home because I will not have that <s word>, I will not have it. Just makes me laugh thinking about it.

3. You know, I've always had a hard time finding Seinfeld tv shows funny because it seems like the outsider, whomever that was for that particular episode, was always the butt of the joke for everyone else. I could laugh about bits and pieces, but on the whole the show has always made me uncomfortable. Humor at someone else's expense doesn't feel right to me. Humor that intentionally demeans or lowers someone else is also equally unappealing.

4. I've always loved Douglas Adams. His turns of phrases and absurdist points of view are just so funny. And the infinite number of monkeys who are knocking on the door wanting to show us the script for Hamlet they've worked up? I die every time.
I haven't read any of his books recently but Spider Robinson also always struck me as rather funny.
I've tried but failed to read Terry Pratchett. I think I need to give him another try.

I don't think I resemble those authors, my writing is aimed to a completely different audience. I write snarky self-observational bits, very tight 3rd or 1st person young protagonists. Most of their humor is expressed through standard "my mom is embarrassing me" kinds of ways or other equally relatable situations. I don't think of what I write as humor, though. But I maintain that you can't write for kids w/out writing humorously at times.

5. So these two strings walk into a bar...
No, not that one. So we're at a friend's house laughing over cards when someone went to pour another glass of wine and found the bottle empty. My darling husband piped up with, "My wife drank all the wine." I looked at him, mock-shock on my face and said, "That wasn't nice! Apologize!"

So with a completely straight face he said, "I'm sorry my wife drank all the wine."

Perhaps it's because we really had all drunk all the wine, but it was the single funniest thing any of us had ever heard and we weren't able to speak for a long while after, laughing so hard.

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Crystal Stevens
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1) Do you use humor in your writing? Why or why not?

By all means, yes!

Humor adds spark to any writing. I've read some books completely devoid of humor with just one castastrophy after another happening to the MC. I have enough of that in everyday life without reading about it and making me feel worse than I already am. I read to get away from the everyday and finding something better. I like being amused and having something to smile about after a hard or humdrum day.

2) What kinds of things do you find funny?

Witty remarks and dry humor. I feel these elements can be inserted to a huge advantage in a story if done right. It gives the reader hope and lifts the spirit even in the darkest part of the story that everything just might turn out fine.

3) What kinds of humor do you find NOT funny?

Any kind that's mean spirited and puts somebody down... unless they truly deserve it. And then that type of humor turns out spiteful instead of funny. At least to me. This would be like the villian trying to say something humorous in a nasty way about the MC. The villian might even think his joke unroariously funny when it's not. It just depends on who's on the receiving end and who's telling the joke.

4) What authors do you find funny? Does your own humor resemble them?

I love Jim Butcher's wit and cleverness in the Dresden Files books. Though I'm thinking of movies instead of books; the original Star Wars trilogy starting with "A New Hope" comes quickly to mind. I also liked the early "Myth" books by Robert Asprin. I lost count of how many times I had to put "Another Fine Myth" down because I was laughing so hard. Gordon R. Dickson's "Dragon Knight" books were like that too, along with Terry Brook's Landover books.

As for my own humor; I sincerely hope I don't resemble anyone but myself. I like thinking I'm my own person in this respect and have been told my humor is on the dry side.

[ June 04, 2012, 10:59 AM: Message edited by: Crystal Stevens ]

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Corky
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I have written both humorous and serious, depending on the story needs. I read both humorous and serious, but probably more serious than humorous, because for me humor is extremely subjective.

I like puns a lot and other such wordplay (but Piers Anthony's XANTH books took that way too far).

I also like "laugh in the face of death" kinds of humor. So I love what Joss Whedon did with BUFFY and ANGEL and FIREFLY and AVENGERS. I guess I really like strong action that includes can't-bring-me-down humor, come to think of it.

I don't like slapstick, especially if it wouldn't be funny (as in someone gets seriously injured) if it were real.

Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody drives me crazy--I know she's an unreliable narrator, but I feel that the author is mocking her, and I don't enjoy the books (other Elizabeth Peters' characters I do enjoy, though <shrug>).

I tried Terry Pratchett, and found myself saying, as I went along, "this is supposed to be funny," and "that is supposed to be funny," and not laughing at all. Quit before I finished the book.

I guess I don't read "humorous" books, but I do enjoy coming across something in a book that makes me laugh out loud because of the cleverness of it. Can't think of the last time that happened.

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extrinsic
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I'm fond of irony humor: verbal, situational, dramatic, comic, Socratic. However, I have no patience for glorified schadenfreude, thinly disguised mean-spirited practical jokes, nor any mischief causing misfortune or at the expense of others' feelings. I do like to use those latter parameters--self-absorbed, self-serving selfishness really--for developing villain and nemesis characters.
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shimiqua
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1) Do you use humor in your writing? Why or why not?

Absofreakinlutly. A story needs to have balance. Too much dark, and there's no hope, too much light, and there are no stakes. Humor is shorthand for likability, and readability. Love it.

2) What kinds of things do you find funny?

I love when a character doesn't take themselves too seriously. In fact I love it when a BOOK doesn't take itself too seriously. Writing, (and reading incidentally,) is supposed to be fun. It's not supposed to be torture.

3) What kinds of humor do you find NOT funny?

Humor that's trying too hard. Humor has to happen naturally. I don't much care for humor at the expense of another character, unless the character deserves it.

4) What authors do you find funny? Does your own humor resemble them?

Pratchett is brilliant, if you don't think so, you're reading the wrong book. (Not every Pratchett is created equal, try the Bromeliad Trilogy, and if that doesn't work, we can't be friends). Neil Gaiman. Roald Dahl. Brandon Sanderson. Brandon Sanderson is the one I try to emulate. I love how he balances dark with humor. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

5) What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you?

Every day of my life is an opportunity for the funniest thing in my life to happen. I just keep my eyes open to humor, and laugh at my own jokes.

Even when they're not funny.

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MAP
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1) Do you use humor in your writing? Why or why not?

I don't try to be funny. I find that the surest way for me to not be funny is for me to try to be funny. I do have light moments in my novels that some might find humorous, but really I'm just letting the characters behave naturally.

I do agree that humor in stories is a good thing. Every story needs a litle comic relief.

2) What kinds of things do you find funny?

I love witty dialogue and dry humor.

3) What kinds of humor do you find NOT funny?

I really don't like slapstick too much, a little is okay. I'm not a three stooges fan at all. I also don't like humor that is too gross or tries too hard.

I don't mind mean-spirited humor as long as it is witty (not cheap shots) and comes from a deliciously evil character who I'm not really suposed to like.

4) What authors do you find funny? Does your own humor resemble them?

I don't resemble any authors. I wish I could. I love Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice and Emma), David Eddings (Mostly Silk in the Belgariad series), and William Shakespeare (Twelth Night, Midsummer's Night Dream, and Much Ado about Nothing). All of them have really clever dialogue, IMO.

5) What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you?

I think my kids are really funny. The cute things they say when they are trying to figure out the world. I could go on and on about it, but I won't. [Wink]

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hoptoad
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agree with the Jane Austen mention above...esp Northanger Abbey... thanks for bringing it up MAP

Thackeray is another, I found a little second-hand "Book of Snobs" basically a field guide to snobs and snobbery. Excruciating, but funny.

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MattLeo
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Well, as for "trying too hard", that's the rub, isn't it? We never say anything that makes us laugh "tries too hard", no matter how hard it is in fact trying. A professional joke writer tries very hard indeed, but if he's good at it that doesn't show.

*Structure* is what transforms an amusing conceit into something humorous. A typical stand-up joke is structured this way: introduction, set-up, punchline, as illustrated by this classic Henny Youngman gag:

quote:
Introduction: Two guys are in a gym, and one is putting on a girdle.

Set-up: "Since when have you been wearing a girdle?" asks his friend.

Punch-line: "Since my wife found it in the glove compartment of our car."

You could simply say, "A man's wife finds another woman's girdle in his car so he tells her it belongs to him and ends up having to wear it." That's the conceit, and stripped of structure it's not only un-funny, it's not even amusing.

Just about the only valid generalization you can make about humor is that it releases tension. What structure does is build tension, then release it. In fact many stand-up jokes have an additional two parts: a pause and then a kicker. The pause is important because it rebuilds tension. If you watch the old Burns and Allen routines, Gracie would say something funny, George would pause, look at the audience, and then when the audience was starting to laugh on its own he'd deliver the kicker.

The Burns and Allen routines are a model for how to build a funny scene. You have two important roles, the funny man and the straight man (there may be additional bit players who augment the straight man). The straight man's job is to build tension, the funny man to puncture it:

quote:
George: Gracie, what day is it today?

Gracie: Well, I don't know.

George: You can find out if you look at that paper on your desk.

Gracie: Oh, George, that doesn't help. It's yesterday's paper.

The joke can either be at the expense of the funny man (as it is here) or it can be the straight man who gets the pie in the face:

quote:
Gracie: George, don't get upset. Keith is just a boy I went to school and high school with. I did have a crush on him, but so many things started to happen that I lost track of him.

George: Well, what kind of things?

Gracie: Oh, just awful, terrible things! My father went bankrupt, we lost our home and we had to move to another city, then we were dispossessed --

George: Just one calamity after another.

Gracie: Yeah, then I married you --

The straight man is allowed to be funny sometimes (e.g. delivering the kicker) and the roles can even reverse briefly, but in any scene the roles are mostly fixed. You can *try* having two people being equally funny, but it usually doesn't work. It comes across as forced.

If you keep building and puncturing tension through the scene but each repetition leaves the audience a little more primed for the next joke, you end up with farce (like Burns and Allen, or Douglas Adams). Eventually the energy levels are so high audiences will laugh at anything. If you look at Burns and Allen scripts, many of the jokes in the last half of the routine aren't all that funny in isolation, but they're hilarious in the performance because they've got you wound up.

Farce isn't the only way to use humor. Often you can use a touch of humor to lighten what would be a melodramatic situation; in fact those are often the best places try humor, because one of the characters needs a little deflating. Here's a gag I used in my current WIP. The set-up is that Kate (the straight man) has discovered that her ex-husband has a new fiancee, Diana. Julie hates Diana and wants Kate to do something about it:

quote:
Julie:I wish you'd kick her out, Kate. You know you could do it.

Kate: Julie, Diana can give him things I never could.

Julie: Sure, but they've got medicine now that'll clear those right up.

Another way to structure humor is the humorous situation, which is very similar to a farcical situation. The difference is that in a farcical scene you build tension to get laughs; in a humorous scene it is the tension itself that's the goal, and any laughs are there to make it bearable. You can use a humorous situation in place of a dramatic one or to heighten a dramatic situation, because you don't have to spend all the tension you build to get a laugh. Romantic conflict is an obvious place to do this, but you can also do this kind of scene between friends, rivals or enemies.

Here's an example between enemies from a scene I wrote. It's set in the 1930s; Nellie, a teenage inventor/tomboy is on a date with Lucau. When talk turns to Nellie's Jewish best friend, Nellie discovers that Lucau is a Nazi:

quote:
Lucau: Of course I am no bigot! Jews have many admirable qualities. And no doubt Miss Day has considerable White blood.

Nellie: Oh how wonderful for her, Mr. Lucau!

Lucau: I am impressed! Most girls have no head for science.

Nellie is the straight man in this scene. No matter how scathingly sarcastic she gets, Lucau's view of the world is so warped he thinks she is praising his ideas. The scene is humorous, but I'm not going for laughs. There maybe a few laughs, but this is supposed to work like a dramatic scene, raising the level of tension in the story by showing how monstrously evil Lucau is.

[ June 05, 2012, 10:11 AM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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Crystal Stevens
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*****************************************************************
Nellie is the straight man in this scene. No matter how scathingly sarcastic she gets, Lucau's view of the world is so warped he thinks she is praising his ideas. The scene is humorous, but I'm not going for laughs. There maybe a few laughs, but this is supposed to work like a dramatic scene, raising the level of tension in the story by showing how monstrously evil Lucau is.
*****************************************************************

This reminds me of a similar situation in the beginning of the Disney movie "Beauty & the Beast". This is when Belle highly insults Gaston, and he takes it as a compliment... mainly because he doesn't understand what "primeval" means.

Some humor, though, isn't for laughs at all but for a more suptle reaction. I use this type of humor in all my stories to one degree or another. It probably won't make the reader laugh but will make them smile. I think this type of humor is almost vital to make a story more interesting and brings out the personality of the characters.

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Robert Nowall
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I suppose I have my characters "talk funny"---talking as if what they're saying might put a smile on somebody's face---but I generally have this humor in the context of a serious story. I've written a few straight tries at humor, mostly in my Internet Fan Fiction period, but mostly I don't write funny stories.

As for what I like...well, I like Wodehouse, Sheckley, and I'm a big fan of all sorts of newspaper comics, I've collected some old radio programs, and most of what I watch on TV or video are old sitcoms, and a lot of politics puts a smile on my face, and there are probably tons of things I haven't thought of.

For dislike...I'm not crazy about puns and find them alienating in humorous stories---somewhere above, someone mentioned both Spider Robinson and Piers Anthony, who suffer from this in a number of stories. Puns have their place, though.

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Robert Nowall
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Rereading this morning reminded me of another form of humor I heartily dislike---what they sometimes call "shaggy dog stories," or sometimes "Feghoots" (for a once well-known SF series of them), where the end is determined by a punning phrase or some such. Asimov in his later years was awful fond of doing them. It just negates all the buildup for me to find the story ends in a bad joke...
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Natej11
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Humor's one of those interesting things. I used to not use it at all unless the story was specifically meant to be a comedy. It's strange because I enjoy humor, and I can get people laughing if I put some effort into it. Maybe it's just that I took my writing and stories so seriously that I subconsciously found it offensive to sully them with jokes.

Now I use humor when the opportunity presents itself, even in serious stories, and usually have a character(s) who doesn't take things seriously who says all the good line.

Try too hard to steer clear of humor and you may make your story depressing. There's no reason any story shouldn't take the opportunity for humor wherever it's found.

Except maybe horror.

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Robert Nowall
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Come to think of it, one of my Internet Fan Fiction things was a humorous horror story...

*****

Forgot to mention that I've very fond of parody, and not just its written form---my iPod is just loaded with parodies of this or that...

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MattLeo
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Well, horror and humor have both points in common and points of difference. Both horror and humor trade in discomfort -- in fact I find humor more often elicits unbearable discomfort than horror.

Since humor feeds on discomfort, it's relatively straightforward to transform a horror response into a humorous one, but genuinely blending the two responses is tricky. Humor makes uncomfortable things feel safe. If you don't balance the two factors carefully you end up with a travesty that has no real horror in it -- a pure comedy with horror trappings.

Two 1980s movies illustrate this. 1979's *Love at First Bite* is a horror travesty. There is nothing at all disturbing about George Hamilton's Dracula, he's just a big joke. In fact he's even something of a shlimazel who's evicted from his castle by the communist Romanian government intent on turning it into a training facility for gymnasts.

1981's *An American Werewolf in London* is a true horror-comedy hybrid. The protagonist is visited by his dead best friend, and at first these visits are disturbing because each time his friend looks a bit more rotted. But as the horror of his predicament overtakes the protagonist, these ghoulish visits become oddly reassuring -- we have a comic response to them.

That's a really skillful bit of writing. The screenwriter subverts *part* of the horror scenario, while intensifying the horror of another. He achieves both horror and humor in the story.

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axeminister
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I am not funny.
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MattLeo
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Axeminster writes:
quote:
I am not funny.
But you could learn to be. Of course there's such a thing as talent, but you don't know how much talent you have until you've mastered some technique.
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axeminister
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quote:
But you could learn to be.
Case in point - I was trying to be funny. [Smile]
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by axeminister:
quote:
But you could learn to be.
Case in point - I was trying to be funny. [Smile]
I got it, the dry humor of a verbal irony signified by the litotes: an understated negation statement that affirms the opposite. Another litotes, for example, used often in everyday conversation: Oh no you didn't go there.
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MattLeo
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"Litotes" -- that's a word you don't hear every day.
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axeminister
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Extrinsic is totally The Architect.
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snapper
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I read this entire thread and I am disappointed not one of you picked me an author you find humorous. Sure maybe not the top of your list, but I would think I had the 4th or 5th spot, at the very least.

As an accomplished humorous author, I have the pleasure of being a judge for a recent humor contest and a current slushreader for an upcoming speculative fiction humor anthology. I have learned from these two experiences that humor is more subjective than you believe. Often, different people won't get the same joke. As an example, for those who don't know that first paragraph was a joke.

I can say, as an experienced and accomplished author of published humorous literature, all jokes can be defined in two catagories. All jokes that go to great lengths so they offend no one are called lame jokes. While jokes that are destined to offend someone are called funny jokes. Sometimes you can make a joke so funny, you'll be the only one laughing - learning the line that makes a joke too funny (or distasteful, as some prefer) for the average reader can be very difficult to do. Some subject matter is just too offensive, no matter how you dress it up, for publication. I just learned that necrophilia is never funny, but cannibalism can be. I have no idea why that is. Go figure.

I invite you all to show me your funny stuff. UFO will be accepting general submissions very soon. We are on duotrope and ralan.

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babooher
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snapper, is it funny that the first paragraph was not funny but the second sentence of the third paragraph made me laugh?
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