The struggle to make humour more universal
When you’re writing screenplays, you get a lot of tough feedback, like “Can you make it funnier?” or “I need a laugh a page!” Mostly when you’re writing comedy of course, but I like my dramas and horrors to rock the funny at least a little for tonal variation.
Those comments are often pretty hard to parse, because there’s not just one kind of humour. Different people find different things funny. Me, I strive for what I’d call inclusive humour. It’s not always universal, and it’s not always successful, but I think it’s a worthwhile thing to strive for.
Inclusive humour is the opposite of mocking humour, where you deliberately make fun of differences in a judgemental way that assumes your audience shares your prejudices and experience. Inclusive humour at its most basic is about finding something universal that is dark or absurd or even affirming. It appeals more, I think, to people who prefer to be interpretive rather than observational, and often comes out of organic relationships between people or people and the world.
For the title of this piece, I co-opted a quote from Harry Bosch put in his mouth by Michael Connolly, “Either everybody counts or nobody does.” It’s Bosch’s response to a question about his philosophy of life, and one I strive to live by as well. Why shouldn’t it apply to my humour as well? I think the best jokes are the ones that show us the absurdity of life, or the shortcomings between our hopes and our realities, that inject a little humility when it’s needed most, and which never, ever are used to “punch down,” in other words as a weapon against someone weaker than you. I don’t like using comedy as a way to belittle or bully, or reading it. Or, you know, being on the receiving end of it. I will dismantle my own confidence without external help, thank you very much!
It’s a challenge to create humour if you’ve also limited yourself to the kind of comedy that doesn’t put anyone down or mock their personal attributes/background/etc. I’m often most successful with humour shared by my characters, especially when they are feeling disenfranchised and turn to humour to comfort themselves and each other. I think I also excel at a kind of combination dark/self-deprecating humour like that practiced by my Blood & Magic protagonist Maggie Stuart. She could really be an unlikeable or even pitiable person sometimes, but I make her inner voice as ironic and funny as possible to mitigate that impression and bond the reader to her.
Inclusive humour avoids buying into tropes and stereotypes. I’m least impressed by comedians who assume that everyone shares the same prejudices and despises the same things. I can’t even enjoy, for example, male comedians who assume that everyone in their audiences are male: it really rubs me the wrong way when someone says (for example) “And of course, that leaves you with your dick in your hand.” Yup, just demonstrated you aren’t talking to me at all. Were you not including me all along? Perversely of course, I enjoy Samantha Bee (and my more recent discovery “Margo the Destroyer” from The Magicians) for flipping gendered jokes on their heads and excluding the men in the room. It isn’t exactly inclusive, but it puts the spotlight on jokes that divide the audience into sexes, genders, races, and creeds.
The bottom line? I want as many people as possible to enjoy my funnier work. I want to be able to slip effective humour into the darkest of my tales to give you a breather, and to heighten the impact of the bad stuff. I can’t always make everyone laugh, but I’ll keep trying.
Here's a little bonus extension of my regular post for you!
When it comes to assessing kinds of humour, the most common way is to look at the construction of the joke or the technique used to get laughs. I’ve found this list floating around a few places of nine basic types of humour. I expect you’ll be familiar with all of them, some more than others:
Physical or Slapstick: I admit I enjoy throwing in a certain amount of slapstick in my stories. There’s something satisfying about giving your protagonist a lamppost to run into just when they’re at their most self-important.
Self-deprecating Humour: This is used extensively by certain brands of stand-up comic. It falls the flattest for me when women use it to double down on ugly stereotypes, like “Oh my god, everyone hates me because I’m such a slut.”
Absurdist Humour: Monty Python! Kids in the Hall! More historically The Goon Show! More recently Baroness Von Sketch! Whether it’s “Find the Fish” or the Chicken Lady, I have a real love of surreal humour. Sadly, I’m not suited to writing it, which might make it even more enjoyable for me, concrete thinker that I am. I recently got to perform in a surreal comedy where at one point I got to dance around wearing a bizarre bunny mask, totally invisible to the other character (thank you, Jade Walker!!) but I don’t think I could have written anything like it.
Improv humour: Yeah, I fantasize about being a panellist on Mock the Week or Have I Got News For You (shows in the UK in case you’re not familiar, which have comedians spontaneously respond humorously to current events) but the truth is, the folks who are good at it are a seriously special breed. The best combine the ability to collaborate with the drive to create stand-out characters on the spot.
Witty, Dry, Deadpan: One of my favourites. I make a lot of hay out of some sarcastic alfalfa, which of course is different from the sarcastic Alfalfa from Our Gang… I love intelligent humour, especially when it surprises me with an idea or perspective I’d never thought of.
Puns (Dad Jokes): Hate them? Love them? Dad jokes definitely have their place. In a way they’re the most universal form of humour, but that also means they are also often the most vanilla. In a bad way.
Observational Humour: Seinfeld cornered the popular concept of observational humour so much that “What’s the deal with…” has almost become its international signal. For my taste, comedy that relies on observation better give me something unexpected, or it’s going to fall flat with me. Again, this kind of comedy has the potential to satisfy a large portion of an audience while making a smaller segment (often including me) feel left out because they DON’T see things the way “everyone” does.
Potty Humour: Gotta admit it — I don’t like it, I don’t laugh at it, and I find it vaguely offensive in a way that makes me critical of myself. Because it’s too easy, and it usually relies on the underlying belief that bodies are icky. I grew out of that a loooooonnnnnngggg time ago. I get it, but I don’t appreciate it.
and finally, Dark Humour: Oh yes. Bring on the night, baby. It can be divisive and it can fall on the wrong ears and make you look like an entirely heinous and inexplicable barely human being, or it can be scrumptiously, dangerously delicious. Since I am NOT someone who sees the world in the same way as “everyone” and takes different things seriously than many others, I appreciate and love writing dark humour. The combination of the unexpected, the sharply observed, and the sense of naughtiness is for me what potty humour is to others, I think.
If you want to look at humour in a more granular and interior way, I recommend reading this article about the psychological structure of humour from a more clinical (and I think deeper) perspective then take Dr. Rod A. Martin’s quiz to find out where you land in the comedy landscape.