Friday, February 23, 2007

Learning To Be Funny

I will never forget when the editor of Cat’s Magazine called me a few weeks after I’d submitted my first, unsolicited essay to their magazine. The first comment out of her mouth was.... “I’m NOT calling to buy your essay.”

I replied, “Too bad, because I don’t take rejection very well over the phone.”

She laughed, then said, “What I mean is...we’re looking for someone to write a humor column about cats. I was wondering if you can do this once a month?”

Now, you have to understand the position I was in. And I’m not talking about the fact that I’d stepped out of the shower to grab the phone and was butt-naked and trying to sound professional. I’m talking about being a true, one-hundred-percent dog person. That said, I knew more about cats than I knew about writing comedy. Honestly, that essay was my first attempt at writing humor. So, I did what any upstanding church-going girl would do. I lied. “Oh, sure, I can do that once a mouth.”

After I dressed and asked for forgiveness, I ran out and bought every book I could find on writing humor. And while I was out, I picked up two cats. One of them, I had to return – my neighbor had spotted me snatching their family pet.

My point in telling you this, besides it being funny, is that some people think you can’t teach yourself to write humor. I ended up writing that column for two years and collecting four felines, and while I might have gotten lucky with that first essay, I seriously didn’t know how I’d done it. I know, I probably inherited my zany way of looking at life from my family, but the actual techniques of writing humor can be learned. Two of my favorite how-to books are: HOW TO WRITE FUNNY, which has a chapter by my one of my favorite writers, Jennifer Cruise, and THE COMIC TOOLBOX: HOW TO BE FUNNY EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT.

And because Faye and I have asked you about what funny books you have read lately, I’ll tell you about a scene that made me laugh out loud. EXTREME BACHELOR by Julia London. The hero sees his ex girlfriend, an upcoming actress, for the first time in five years. He sees her on the TV – staring in a commercial – a commercial about constipation. (See Faye, I’m not the only one who writes over the top.)

So do tell. What books have you read that have made you laugh out loud? Remember, there’s a gift certificate up for grabs.


JoAnn Ross said...

Dodging the question here, I just wanted to say that it's a good thing someone didn't ask you to write a humor column about kids. The idea of you picking up some tots for research is a little unnerving. LOL

Though I can't do it in books, I wrote weekly humor for both the AZ Republic (which was AZ's largest daily paper), and a bunch of suburban papers for several years. I was just beginning to look into syndication when Dave Barry came along, and since he and I were writing pretty much the same thing, but he was ever so much better, I decided I'd better find a new gig. Fast. Which is how I stumbled into romance writing.

One of my favorite quotes about writing humor is from Barry, who once said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that he tried to write each column to sound as if he'd been drunk while writing it. Which was a lot harder than it sounded.

Cathy said...

I love to find laughter in a romance story. Some of my favorites are: Janet Evanovich's Eve Plum series, Susan Elizabeth Phillip's, Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series, Jill Shalvis always cracks me up, and so does Shelly Laurenston's shifter stories.

Christie Craig said...


I'm glad it was a cat magazine, too. I can't imagine having four kids the way I now have four cats.

And Cathy, Susan Elizabeth Phillip's stories always make me laugh, too. And Evanovich's voice is so wonderfully laugh-out-loud.


Sierra said...

Christie, I love your story -- and I've got to get my hands on that book. The Jennifer Crusie chapter alone has got to be worth the price of admission.

Favorite funny books? BET ME by the aforementioned Ms. Crusie; WHAT A GIRL WANTS by Kristin Billerbeck; STUCK IN SHANGRI-LA by Kasey Michaels; and MY SO-CALLED LOVE LIFE by Allie Pleiter.

When I was a teenager I wanted to be the next Erma Bombeck. You and JoAnn have brought back memories!

JoAnn Ross said...

As we've discussed before, humor is so subjective. I just can't get into physical humor (my kid and sweetie always used to wait until I was out of town to watch Pink Panther movies), and while I love 1930s comedies, for some reason that snappy, ping pong dialogue doesn't translate for me in a book.

Yet, I too, throughly enjoyed Bet Me, because I thought, of all Jenny's books, it had the most heart. Which is always what I look for, whatever the type of story.

Sierra -- I met Erma Bombeck once when I lived in Arizona. Lovely woman. I, too, wanted to be like her, but since I figured the world didn't need another Erma Bombeck, I put more of what turned out to be a Dave Berry spin on my stories about family life.

Those were fun years; my husband and son got used to having all their private moments -- my sweetie's cold, the hunt for my kid's 8th grade graduation suit -- show up in the Sunday magazine.

At the time the paper had a circulation of 450,000, so there were very few Mondays they didn't face comments from people. I think they were both probably hugely relieved when I moved on to writing romance. Where if they did show up in a book, at least they were disguised by fiction. LOL

Allison Brennan said...

The last time I laughed out loud repeatedly was when reading an ARC for BOBBIE FAYE'S VERY (very very very) BAD DAY by Toni McGee Causey. My cheeks hurt so much from laughing and I couldn't put the book down.

Humor is SO subjective. I love Jennifer Crusie, but unlike JoAnn I couldn't get into BET ME. I still love to this day WELCOME TO TEMPTATION and one of her older books, STRANGE BEDFELLOWS. Janet Evanovich usually can make me laugh. Julie Kenner can make me laugh. Susan Elizabeth Phillips, especially in some of her older books. There's probably a few others . . .

JoAnn Ross said...

This subjective thing (Peter Sellers Vs Woody Allen, for instance) is another reason I really admire people who can make a career writing humor. Because the potential pool of buyers is so much smaller, it takes a lot of talent -- and craftmanship -- to build an audience.

We're all pretty much scared by the same things (which is why Indiana Jones' fear of snakes resonated with nearly everyone, except, perhaps, that small group of people who think a python is a nice substitute for a kitty), cry at pretty much the same things (just about any Hallmark movie or Grays Anatomy episode), and get all happy/gooey feeling at the same things (which is why people cry at weddings and why movies about them invariably draw huge audiences, imo. )

But laughter. . .wow, that's a crapshoot.

This has been a fun discussion. Thanks Faye and Christie!