by Leigh Perry / Toni L.P. Kelner
In 2010, I gave a master class about using humor in mysteries at the New England Crime Bake and recently came across my notes for that class. Even though these days I write about the dark and gritty life of an ambulatory skeleton, I thought these notes might still be worthwhile. If they were worthwhile in the first place. And the best part of posting them is that there's no length requirement. I seem to remember coming up twenty minutes short when I actually ran the class.
I think the Crime Bake committee asked me to teach this class because pretty much everything I do includes humor. Even when I’ve dipped my pen into the darkest of noir, one or two smart ass comments sneak in.
People may think murder isn’t funny, and I can't argue with that. But the best fiction—not just mysteries—mix humor. Look at Shakespeare, for instance. His tragedies and histories have comic subplots, and his comedies all have dire consequences. The comedy of Mercutio and the Nurse makes the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet hit harder, the danger of what might happen to Antonio in The Merchant of Venice makes the comedy funnier.
So I hope that after this class, you'll have and idea of why and when to use humor, and when NOT to use humor.
There are three basic ways of using humor in mysteries:
- Funny mystery stories
Slapstick like much of Femme Donna's series and Janet Evanovich
Wit like The Thin Man
Crazy capers, as in the Dortmunder books by Donald Westlake
Farce like Carkeet’s From Away
Whimsical mysteries like Jasper Fforde’s
- Smart alec characters, masters of the wisecrack
Elvis Cole in Robert Crais or Myron Bolitar in Harlan Coben’s series or Archie Goodwin in Nero Wolfe
Wit like The Thin Man
Black humor like in Joseph Wambaugh’s
These kinds of characters show characterization—bravery in the face of danger—a classic trope. They also provide exposition in an entertaining way. Archie Goodwin, for instance, sees scenes like nobody else.
- Comic relief
Bubba in Femme Charlaine's Sookie books
Comic relief can actually be good for pacing—it gives the reader a chance to catch his or her breath before ratcheting up suspense.
Now a writer mixes and matches these three aspects, and they're not mutually exclusive. Mix and match. Archie Goodwin is always a wise-acre, but sometimes it’s in a funny situation and sometimes in a tense situation and sometimes just showing how the characters work together.
There's a clue there, appropriately enough for a mystery. The three aspects correspond to three pieces of a mystery, or any kind of fiction.
- Funny mysteries = Setting
- Smart alecs = Characterization
- Comic relief = Plot/pacing
So when you use humor, you want to know what it is you’re doing with it. Not just for its own sake.
Think as humor as another tool in your toolbox. To be used for specific purposes as an author. Just because you’ve got a nice hammer you got for Christmas, you don’t pull it out when you need a pair of pliers.
Donald Westlake did pretty darned well with his Parker novels, but one day he got an idea that just wouldn’t work for Parker. It was kind of silly. So he created Dortmunder, a sad sack kind of guy. The story would not have worked with Parker. (Though interestingly, you can tell similar stories with different characters. Westlake did two re-tellings of the O Henry story “The Ransom of Red Chief,” one with Dortmunder and one with Stark. And they are very different stories.)
So that's why you SHOULD use humor. Now we can talk about the pitfalls of humor. (Not the pratfalls--that would be a different topic.) So Readers, who thinks the Three Stooges are funny? Monty Python? I Love Lucy? Seinfeld? Cheers? 30 Rock? George Carlin? Milton Berle? Will Ferrell? Seth Rogen?
I bet each one of these has fans, and other people who just made faces. Not everbody loves everything—not even Everybody Loves Raymond.
That means that every time you use humor, you run the risk of losing a reader. Isaac Asimov said, "I have frequently (rather to my own uneasy surprise) been accused of writing humorously. Oh, I try, I try, but only very cautiously, and for a long time I thought nobody noticed."
You see, there is no margin for error in humor. You can try to write suspense and not quite hit the mark, and have a story that is only moderately suspenseful. You can have a story be only moderately romantic, moderately exciting, moderately eerie, even moderately science-fictiony. But what happens when you miss the mark in humor? Is the result moderately humorous? Of course not! The not-quite-humorous remark, the not-quite-witty rejoinder, the not-quite-farcical episode are, respectively, dreary, stupid, and ridiculous.
Well, with a target that is all bull's-eye and no larger than a bull's-eye at that, am I going to blaze away carelessly? Certainly not! I'm fantastically courageous, but I'm not stupid. You’re dealing with age differences, background, culture. Even Thurber got lost in translation to the UK, theoretically the same language.
The solution is to make sure every bit of humor is doing something else. If you want wit, make it witting exposition. If you want slapstick, make it during a bank robbery. You can't afford to just stop the story to make a cheap joke. Besides, if it’s integral to the story, it's more likely to be funny.
Of course, there is a time and a place for jokes. Humor can slow down your pacing if you aren’t careful. One book I read recently had a character who was German, and messed up idioms. The protagonist had to interpret and correct him. During most of the book, this was okay. But in the middle of a chase scene or reveal, she was still doing it! It took from the impact of those moments.
Another issue is that some humor is visual. I could write about hitting somebody with a pie in the face, but it’s really hard to get the impact without seeing the meringue falling off. Think about trying to describe a Three Stooges routine or a comic strip in prose. Or a comic strip. Along the same lines, sometimes humor relies on facial expression and tone of voice. Think about how many times you’ve written something as a joke or sarcastically in an e-mail, only to give the wrong impression.
Some tricks that work to overcome that are:
- Keep humorous action simple, and easily visualized. use sort sentences, short paragraphs.
- This is a time for showing, not telling. Use action verbs!
- Dialog can do the trick, too. One of the funniest sequences I ever saw on TV showed almost nothing—on WKRP in Cincinnati, they were doing a Thanksgiving promotion, throwing live turkeys from a helicopter. A newsman is watching, and starts describing it to the radio audience. For the rest of the scene, you just have his descriptions, no special effects of the falling birds. It was hilarious.
So far I've been focusing on the writing challenges with humor. There are marketing issues, too. Humor can limit the audience, as we discussed. That means you’ve also limited the editors who are amused. Even if you get the audience, you don’t get the respect. Rodney Dangerfield was kidding, but… When was the last time a funny mystery won the Edgar? The Agatha is considerably kinder to humor and the Lefty given out at Left Coast Crime, is specifically for funny mysteries. Still, if you're aiming for awards, writing funny is not your best bet. (You may be getting from this that writing humor is hard work. Yeah, it can be.
But think of it this way. As a mystery writer, you already use a lot of the techniques for writing humor:
- The secret to humor is...and this is really funny in person if I pause a long time and suddenly shout...TIMING! Ditto mysteries.
- Structure is very important to a mystery—you’re managing the flow, and managing the release of information.
- The unexpected is just as important to humor as to mystery.
On the subject of "humorous" mysteries (I hate the word "humorous," the comedy equivalent of "pleasant"):
Humor is the most subjective of all art forms. What will reduce me to a quivering mass of laughter might strike you as sophomoric, idiotic, crude, bland, or even sad. Some people think the TV show MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE is a hoot; I find it the most depressing thing on the airwaves, constantly driving home the helplessness and frustration of its characters.
In mysteries, it's important to have, you know, a mystery. So the plot is there and should be treated with respect. Making up a "funny" plot is a recipe for disaster, because you're already treating your characters as pawns and will sacrifice anything for the sake of a laugh. If they're not real people, it's not going to be real funny.
But then, in a murder mystery, somebody has to, you know, die. This is, generally speaking, not a springboard for hilarity. And I have personally never tried to write a "funny" murder, although I think it can be done. I just don't have any interest in doing it. I think it's the REACTION of the characters to the situation that can be funny.
Wisecracks? In my view, essential. I talk like that in real life, so for me, it's just dialogue. And if we haven't met, no, I'm not that obnoxious, but as my wife often points out to me, "You're incapable of not going for the joke." I like banter. I think it establishes rapport between certain characters and not others. I think people who just say what they mean in the most straightforward terms possible all the time can't be trusted.
To sum up, class, I love humor in mysteries. I love humor in non-mysteries. I think anything that doesn't have a sense of humor isn't worth my extremely limited time on this earth. I can get depressed all on my own; I don't need help. So if you've read something of mine and laughed, I have done my job right. If you're read something of mine and thought, "Wow, he's really odd," you're not far off, but perhaps we're not destined to be best friends. If you've read something of mine and said, "This guy can't write," I urge you strongly to keep your opinion to yourself. I have college tuition (two tuitions!) to pay.