Here’s the thing about humor. Everyone thinks they are funny. It’s one of the oldest truths in comedy. Some people even are. A few can be funny reliably, but even then, there’s a big jump between that and writing humor.
Some of it comes with experience and some can be trained. I posted on joke forms a few weeks back, after LTUE. I stole that from Howard Tayler.
The problem with critiques, in general, is to know what to take from them. Most good critiquers know not to be prescriptive when critiquing. They explain their problems as best they can and allow you to fix them. All of that goes out the window with humor. Even the most careful critiquer can’t help but try to get a joke into a manuscript. I know. I’ve done it. It’s one of the oldest traditions in humor, older than writers rooms, probably older than vaudeville.
The problem is that most people are really, really bad at it. I receive many joke suggestions in my critiqued manuscripts and its amazing just how few I can actually use. I suspect most of them aren’t serious suggestions, they are just the critiquer feeling the need to interact with the text in a humorous way, and I take that as a compliment. But sometimes they get quite prescriptive. “You need to put X joke here.” “Make a joke about Y.” “How did you not make a joke about Z?”
You need to be aware of this if you try to write humor because it’s the biggest pitfall before you. Almost every one of these jokes will be terrible, and by the time you get them, you might have lost all perspective on your own jokes. But trust me. They will be the most obvious joke possible, and the obvious joke, by definition, is almost never funny. The heart of humor is the unexpected. The very fact that the critiquer expected the joke is your biggest warning that you can’t make that joke. So take careful note of these suggestions, and then do the opposite.
There is another thing you need to know about critiques and humor, and that’s the fact that your own humor will seem stale to as you revise. The most important critiques you can get, early on, are which joke are actually funny. I don’t know how many times my editor or copyeditor hasn’t gotten a joke in the 6th or 7th draft that killed with everyone else. If I hadn’t known those jokes killed, I would have cut them. Jokes are subjective, and you need to know if a joke is popular, because by that 7th draft, when they tell you it isn’t funny you will believe them. It will have stopped being funny to you about three months prior. You won’t even be able to remember when it was funny. Whenever that happens, I just put a comment to the effect of “That joke is a crowd favorite” and my editing people, who are smart enough to know that humor is subjective, just shrug and say, “OK” and move on.
Of course all of this goes out the door if you have a really funny person critiquing your manuscript, or, like I do, a professional humorist. In that case I recommend stealing their jokes, making them your own, and never looking back.
Because that’s actually the oldest tradition in comedy.
The next installment awaits...Slouching Towards Amazon: Two (Or One and a Half) Out of Three