If there’s one thing most writers agree on, it’s that comedy is hard. As I enjoy being contrary, I disagree. I think comedy is easy, if only you look to the greats and map out their devices. You’ll find most great comic writers use similar tools. I took recent cues from David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day) and Jenny Lawson (Let’s Pretend This Never Happened). In order to extrapolate what makes each of them “funny,” let’s take a look at the repeated techniques recognized in the works of each.
1. There’s a fine line between two much and just enough, but if you can walk that line, you’ve struck comic gold. Sedaris is a perfect example of this as he goes from totally over the top disgusting to (as Goldilocks would say) just right. For example, when describing his childhood language coach, he claims in her free time she “… devoted herself to yanking healthy molars or performing unwanted clitoridectomies on the schoolgirls of Africa.” Out in space? Most certainly. Then, he brings us back to Earth: “When asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, we hid the truth and listed who we wanted to sleep with when we grew up” and goes on to list manly men like policemen and firemen. This balances too much with something utterly relatable, which keeps his comedy from being grotesque parody and instead makes the shocking lines all the more funny because they stick out. It’s sort of like me saying “sad as a quadriplegic looking at monkey bars” and then pulling back to reiterate “or like an ex-smoker walking into Rick’s Café Americain and taking a seat next to Humphrey Bogart.”
2. Personal embarrassment is an immediate way to connect with the reader. Sedaris, of course, is the king of poking fun at himself. Despite his sometimes-derogatory study of others, he is cruelest to himself: “The only crimp in my plan was that I seemed to have no talent whatsoever.” This works, because if all Sedaris did was make fun of other people, the reader would tire of his judgments and Sedaris would lose his credibility. Jenny Lawson is the queen of self-degradation. Between segments of endless fun poked at her taxidermist father, she makes her own psychological illnesses into jokes. First, we are introduced to her hypochondria: “Sometime during the night I had been struck down with a case of lethal finger cancer.” Later, she dedicates an entire chapter to her anxiety disorder. She’s not afraid to embarrass herself, and again, this makes her laughable because she is not afraid to laugh at herself, just like the time I was really nervous at an art showing and told a group of men I barely knew I looked tired because “my husband and I just had sex in our kitchen, but don’t worry: I showered after.”
3. Perhaps my favorite tool is the art of exaggeration. This is a sneaky technique, one that creeps up on you. You’re reading along, enjoying the realistic ride of non-fiction essay, when all of a sudden, boom, Sedaris: “My fingernails had grown a good three inches by the time he struck his final note.” Lawson uses the tool on several different occasions. First, she writes her book might be too much for some readers, so she suggests, calmly, “getting another book that’s less disturbing than this one. Like one about kittens. Or genocide.” Exaggeration takes comedy and then takes it a step further … and further. It’s sort of like if I was to tell you I never open mysterious boxes delivered to my front door until I first check for any sign of Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, and/or Gwenyth Paltrow in my backyard without a head. Dead giveaway. I also pause March of the Penguins, which I listen to on repeat just so I can pretend Morgan Freeman is narrating my life.
4. Strong openings: they catch the reader off guard, set up the rest of the story, and often get a good chortle because who knew comedy could just jump on you like that? Having a strong comedic opening is like slapping your reader in the face with a funny club. Sedaris starts his essay “Big Boy” with a cheerful description of an Easter Sunday until he heads to the bathroom where he discovers “the absolute biggest turd I have ever seen in my life—no toilet paper or anything, just this long and coiled specimen, as thick as a burrito.” Lawson uses a similar technique with “I always assumed that the day I got engaged I’d be naked, covered in rose petals, and sleeping with the brother of the man who’d kidnapped me. And also he’d be a duke. And possibly my stepbrother.” Again, she uses a number of comic devices: strong opening and exaggeration (maybe; you never know if Lawson is actually exaggerating). Strong openings are crucial in all writing, but with comedy, getting a reader to laugh at line one is priceless. In fact, I probably should have opened this paragraph with “Holy shit, I just tripped over a three-legged dog.”
Okay, so maybe comedy isn’t that easy, but upon close study, it’s easy to identify techniques used by comic masters. When striving to amuse your reader, it’s important to walk the line between appropriate and could-land-you-in-prison. An author must learn to laugh at him or herself in order to be given full allowance to laugh at others. Exaggeration is your friend. Finally, open strong and stay strong. Now that the techniques have been recognized, the hard part will be adding such jewels into my own work. In this world filled with people who take themselves too seriously, being a comic is just as important as being a garbage man, doctor, or swanky salesman at a marijuana dispensary. Now, if I could only figure out where this three-legged dog in my living room came from.
(And hey, if you want some of my fictional comedy, read the first two chapters of Bite Somebody on Wattpad. Cheers.)