Brand building through storytelling

The not-so-funny business of making people laugh

Back when lunching with writers was part of my job as editor-in -chief of Chatelaine, I booked a date with a humorist beloved across the land for her ability to crack people up. One reader confessed to guffawing so loudly over our contributor’s latest, she feared disturbing the neighbours. So of course I was expecting to feast on wit. As it turned out, the prankster of the page was in person a contemplative sort—a chastened survivor of familial battles, a bemused but dogged seeker of spiritual wholeness, a writer of serious fiction as well as comic deviltry. I’ve met cabbies with more one-liners andHerekicker with less gravitas.

The wonder is that this actually surprised me. Comics are a famously tortured bunch. Think Lucille Ball (enabling wife), Steve Martin (rejected son), Sarah Silverman (teenage bedwetter). Groucho Marx, a world-class curmudgeon, was not about to join any club that would have him as a member; Woody Allen thinks God is “basically an underachiever.” Every humorist must earn a certificate in anguish and self-doubt. Then the hard creative slogging starts. Because no matter how original or trenchant you are, no matter how ingenious your word craft, you fail unless you make people laugh. In the circus of writing, humour is the flying trapeze. You know those gags Groucho Marx tossed off as if he’d dreamed them up on the spot? Every one was meticulously shaped.

I’m smart enough to know I’d never cut it in comedy. Even so, I had to read And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Humor Writers on Their Craft, by Vanity Fair‘s Mike Sacks. I didn’t recognize half the big names on the cover (chalk it up to 40 years of shunning network TV), but I know a useful insight when I see one. And on that score the book “killed,” as comics say when they reduce their audience to helpless fits of mirth. A few of my favourite gleanings:

“I think all writers should have a voyeur nature. You have to look and listen. That’s why some writers might run out of material; they’re not looking, they’re not listening.”—Buck Henry, screenwriter, The Graduate

“If you want to do something creative, you should have a better reason for wanting to do it than to make money. If you want to make money, my advice is to sell shoes or go into banking.”—Todd Hanson, founding head writer of The Onion

“I think humour is a way of getting to an essential truth. If you can get an audience to laugh together, it does a whole lot of great things. It solidifies them; it gives them a mystical experience of being in a crowd. It socializes people.”—Marshall Brickman, Woody Allen’s co-writer on Annie Hall

“The Jews have always had something amusing to say while they’re getting the shit kicked out of them.”—Marshall Brickman

“You need basic writing skills, of course, but you also want to have lots of raw ingredients rattling around in your skull: vivid words, strange song lyrics, irritating euphemisms, disastrous experiences that have been bothering you for years. To feed this stockpile, you need to expose yourself to the real world and all its hailstorms.

“The other essential is humility. You have to be willing to look stupid, to stumble down unproductive paths, and to endure bad afternoons when all your ideas are flat and sterile and derivative. If you don’t take yourself too seriously, you’ll bounce back from these lulls and be ready for the muse’s next visit.”—George Meyer, The Simpsons

“You can’t keep bitch-slapping your creativity, or it’ll run away and find a new pimp.”—George Meyer

“A sense of humour is a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge.”—Dave Barry

It’s the darkness in the soul of humour that makes it such a friend to the strung-out and sorrowful. I’m reminded of a young woman who once worked for me and suddenly excused herself one weekday afternoon on account of some ailment she didn’t name. Knowing she faced a long wait in emerg, I handed her my copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, the book that made me a vocal fan of confessional humorist David Sedaris (who’s not at all amusing in his Kicker interview with Sacks).  My staffer’s medical drama was over when she finally told me the cause: a miscarriage—not her first—after a long struggle to conceive. “I loved your book,” she said. “I laughed till I cried.”

I’m a fan of Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up. Click here to read “Forgiving your parents: Real-life wisdom from Steve Martin.”

Posted by Rona

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