Years ago, when I first tried to pitch Diva at a writers’ conference, I attended an agents and editors’ panel. Thinking that my book’s major selling point was its humor, I was pleased to see that one of the agents was especially interested in what he called, “the funny.”
“Everyone loves ‘the funny,’ ” his bio quoted him as saying.
Naively believing that anyone interested in “the funny” would love my book, I of course queried him. No response, but we all know that doesn’t mean much, because whether or not an agent or editor gives your manuscript any serious consideration depends on many, many factors beyond the worth of your project. However, what I have since come to realize is that humor in print is one of the trickiest things to carry off, mostly because so few people agree as to what constitutes “the funny.” There simply is no one definition, as this guy seemed to imply. One perfectly innocent joke can completely backfire, offending readers and turning them against you forever. Most people agree to the elements that constitute a successful romance—attractive hero and heroine, convincing and interesting obstacles in their path, a little romantic competition, a happy ending. Each of the so-called genres has their rules; the trick is deviating from them enough to surprise readers without disappointing their expectations.
I’ve always enjoyed the columns of Dave Barry, who is fond of telling us all the times readers have taken his blatantly absurd premises seriously. His supposedly over-the-top names for rock bands are mostly plausible in today’s world. There is always the risk that what you consider over-the-top will be taken seriously by the humor-deprived.
I’ve thought a lot about “the funny” lately, because I’ve felt the need to cheer myself up. Christmas wasn’t quite the joy-fest I hoped it would be. And then there’s January, the longest, darkest and grayest month of the year. Summer is soooo far off. If summer in Seattle is anything like last year, we’ll get about one month—a few weeks in August and a few in September.
Back to the holidays …. Seeing movies from all eras is one of my passions, so I decided to buy a bunch of funny DVDs to give to my sister and brother-in-law, who lives in a ski resort area with no access to a good video store. My lack of success in finding anything that everyone could agree was funny got me started on my current train of thought.
How do I define “the funny”?
Except for my fourteen years on the East Coast, I’ve been a faithful reader of newspaper comics (mostly in the Seattle Times). Recently I’ve also become a big fan of Funny Times. If you’ve read Diva, you already know that my humor is politically liberal, focused on the absurdity of life, occasionally raunchy. And I’d venture to say that it was largely formed by reading the comics. The raunchy part probably came from being around too many theater people.
Here is a list of the videos I brought to my sister’s place:
- Team America (the R-rated puppet movie)
- Stiff Upper Lips (parody of Merchant Ivory)
- Noises Off (I loved the Broadway show and had never seen the movie)
- Midnight in Paris (which I’d already seen and thought was a safe bet for both my brother-in-law and my sister, who abhors anything with violence or less than ideal endings)
After Jeff and I got home, we rented the Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Leatherheads.
I just reminded Jeff about Leatherheads, and he dubbed it Leather Hit-You-Over-the-Head with Humor. One of the reasons Jeff and I get along so well is that we more or less agree about what is funny and what misses the mark. I had particularly high expectations for that one, in that I would watch George Clooney in almost anything, even a remake of Noises Off—well, maybe.
Next time I’ll discuss the various reactions to these films, which in some cases was funnier than the movies themselves.
As to “Say WA”? in the title of this post, that was Washington’s ill-advised tourism slogan for a time. Talk about your humor that doesn’t translate ….