Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Laughter Most British

Last Sunday I was the guest reader at the monthly meeting of Sisters in Crime Los Angeles. 

I always hate reading aloud so it was particularly gratifying to have an audience (and an American one at that) who actually laughed in the parts they were supposed to. Humor is subjective, after all—and finding the funny in a subject as serious as death is always a little tricky. 

Fortunately, humor permeates every aspect of English life and culture. In other cultures, there is a time and place for humor. In English conversation, there is always an undercurrent of humor. We can barely manage to say “hello” or talk about the weather without somehow making a joke out of it. 

Most English conversations will involve at least some degree of banter, teasing, irony, understatement, humorous self-deprecation, mockery or just plain silliness. And of course we excel at gallows humor. 

One American friend said, “The problem with the English is that you never know if they are joking or whether they are really being serious.” Aha! And that’s our cunning plan. 

So how do we tackle a sensitive subject like death and make if funny? Serious matters must be taken seriously – but one must never take oneself seriously. Incorporating humor is a way to deflect extreme emotion away from pain and make it more bearable. It can be a protective device to take away the horror. It should lighten the moment but never degrade the crime. Humor is in the story well after it happens as in “we’ll laugh about this in 20 years.” 

It’s not murder itself that is funny (obviously). It’s the human foibles that abound in the attempts to solve the murder and the floundering people surrounding the deed that can be funny. The more stressful an event, the more it brings out the extremes of human nature and the more it places people in impossible situations. 

Give your characters idiosyncrasies, weird habits and unusual afflictions. Maybe introduce a deaf cat. Be authentic. Remember that your own true sense of humor is unique and will always be your single greatest asset. Real people and the absurdities of life are rich sources of comedy. Write with honesty. Write from your heart. Comedy writing at its best exposes our common vulnerabilities that others can relate to. 

Sol Saks, the legendary creator of Bewitched says, “Humor comes from conflict or misfortune.” Add reader-identification, throw in Murphy’s Law and you’ll hopefully get a laugh. 

It’s not bad to laugh in the presence of death. It’s probably healthy. After all we’re all going to be there some day. Take this short trailer from Death at a Funeral. A typically British take on finding the funny ... at a funeral.

And a final comment—

Joseph Campbell says, “Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachments to the forms: comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible.”


Susan Russo Anderson said...

Hannah, thanks so much for this post. I especially enjoyed the quote from Joseph Campbell because I've never thought of the comic in quite such a serious way.

Hannah Dennison said...

Thanks for stopping by Susan. Glad you enjoyed it. Yes - Joseph Campbell is amazing isn't he!