Make ‘Em Laugh

This Week’s Bit of String: Personification of ants

Our neediest Year 9s have been treated to a poet-in-residence course. The poet wears bright-patterned shirts and hipster glasses and leads the troop outside to find objects for personification practice. My dynamic duo choose an ant, and assign it a “he” pronoun. 

“A male ant,” I say. “That would be an uncle!”

It’s the last lesson of the day, and very hot. We are all tired. I start to chuckle at my own joke.

My student, who takes stairs three at a time and is so bouncy you could easily interchange him with Tigger (although the constant involuntary shouts and bird chirps might give him away), stills suddenly and gives me a stern look. “No.”

I’m not generally sadistic, but the poor reception of my pun makes me laugh even more. The kids are disgruntled, and that’s hilarious. I try to apologise, but I’m not very sorry.

In search of comedy crumbs…

A couple weeks ago I attended my first in-person workshop or course since before covid. It was about writing with humour, hosted for Evesham’s Festival of Words by Fran Hill, whose memoirs including Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? are brilliant examples of warm humour and efficient prose. We went over different kinds of funny scenarios and set-ups, including wordplay like my awful hot-afternoon pun, and read and created lots of fun examples.

Because we don’t do this often enough, I thought I’d dedicate this post to comedy. So, in case you’re a bit tired and world-weary, here’s a little compendium of things I find really funny. Don’t worry, they’re higher quality than my ant joke.

Early Years

In my family we watched a lot of vintage comedy. My father passed his own father’s love of the Marx Brothers and Spike Jones down to us. The humour that often stays in my memory is musical. Here’s Chico Marx’s piano routine in Animal Crackers–and Groucho’s annoyance with it. “I can’t thinka the finish!” – “That’s strange, and I can’t think of anything else.”

Often what makes us laugh is an element of surprise. It’s characters who we expect to be straight-laced suddenly subverting stereotypes and doing something outrageous. Growing up (and this is still true for me), my siblings and I loved musicals and Disney animated films. I’ve got examples from both showing characters doing something hilariously unexpected: Fagin’s entrance in “I’d Do Anything for You” from Oliver!, and Kronk, the beefcake boytoy, creating his own theme music in The Emperor’s New Groove.

As we got older, we became fans of irony and understatement. We loved the Anguished English books, collecting the most egregious and uproarious written mistakes often from professional settings. We liked the absurd. Here’s a scene from the Beatles’ film Help, because Ringo’s flat-toned reaction to nearly having his finger bitten off in a vending machine tickled us: “I thought… y’know, I thought she was a sandwich.”

The Music Plays On

Given that the family I’ve raised is also quite musically inclined, I continue to enjoy that type of humour. Comedy increases its impact when it uses cultural references that people can further relate to. Bill Bailey is great at this. My husband and son and I love his Belgian jazz version of the Doctor Who (Docteur… Qui) theme song. Or, if you prefer, he also does a terrific reggae rendition of Downton Abbey.

Bath Carnival last weekend… get happy!

Talking of unlikely combinations, here’s a fabulous mashup my son created, of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, and the Tetris theme. How awesome is it when your own kids make you laugh?

I also love an ensemble piece. For me, that’s what makes shows from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Office to Stranger Things to The Good Place so fantastic. You adore and rely on every cast member. Here are prime examples of ensemble comedy from each side of the pond, that have me laughing more with each character adding to the piece: The Muppets covering “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and several incredible British actors and actresses attempting Hamlet’s soliloquy together. You’ll love both of these from the beginning… but the endings blow them out of the water.

In literature, Dickens’s descriptions of people make me laugh, and Louisa May Alcott’s quick action tags like saying a boy exited “with the graceful gait of a young giraffe.” An especially memorable (partly because I was on a bus full of dour commuters at the time) laugh-out-loud passage is from Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union:

“Reunited in their parents’ bed, the Shemets boys set up a whistling and rumbling and a blatting of inner valves that would shame the grand pipe organ of Temple Emanu-El. The boys execute a series of maneuvers, a kung fu of slumber, that drives Landsman to the very limits of the bed…”

Most of all in my reading and writing, I like to celebrate surprising alliances, to build little bands of misfits, so maybe that’s why I enjoy odd pairings in comedy too. My humorous short story “From Newcastle, With Love” appears in the Stroud Short Stories anthology, and you can hear me read it (and hear the audience laughing at just the right places, too).

What are some of your favourite funnies?

Let’s Write About Sex, Baby

This Week’s Bit of String: What circumference and cucumbers have in common

The first literacy group I led consisted of four fairly proficient Year Seven readers. In one task, they had to construct vocabulary words out of individual sound chunks. ‘Circumference’ was one of those words.

The second syllable drew giggles from the boy with the most tumultuous home life. I informed him, ‘That’s a very important sound chunk. Just think, without “cum” in our cucumbers, we’d only have cubers!’

He literally fell off his chair laughing.

Hopefully with that one remark I communicated four things: It’s okay to acknowledge sex, it’s okay to laugh about sex, we can even be fairly clever with it, but we don’t have to go on about it forever.

Perhaps sex scenes in literature should follow similar guidelines. We all know that sex scenes are notoriously easy to do badly. But it’s such an important part of life, it figures in almost every story, whether in the background or upfront. How much should it be detailed? Do graphic scenes enhance or detract from literature?

Sex as a Genre

Reading in Stokes Croft
Reading in Stokes Croft

This past weekend I had a terrific time reading at a Stokes Croft Writers event in Bristol, built around the theme of ‘bad erotica.’

Now, I don’t actually read erotica, much less write it. But I’d written a piece called ‘The Hornet,’ which dripped with innuendo. So, that worked. A few of the others were more explicit, and they were all engaging and often quite funny, clearly written by talented humorists and wordsmiths.

It’s a privilege to laugh about sex, and to laugh about it together in a room full of people. To me, it felt like an intellectual release, if not a physical one.

Some of the descriptions were a bit cheesy, or a bit gross. But let’s face it, sex can be too. Right? I admire people, in any genre, who take on this, erm, sticky subject.

Sex in the Classics

Going back a century or two, you don’t find many explicit sexual scenes in literature, for obvious societal reasons. But where would many of those classic stories be without such escapades going on in the background? Bleak House, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Anna Karenina, even Pride and Prejudice.

It makes sense that as twentieth century literature pushed towards greater honesty with the reader, sex became featured more bluntly.

However, there’s also an emphasis in contemporary literature on showing rather than telling; on pared descriptions and enhanced subtlety. In a way, that might serve to cloak lengthy, open sexual scenes.

I’m okay with that personally, since my aims in reading are much broader than satisfying any physical desire. But it interests me how the dichotomy between honesty (including a wilfulness to shock) and sparsity affect our ability to write about sex.

Crafting Sex Scenes

Writing about sex needs to be approached like any other aspect of a story: fearlessly but thoughtfully.

Books on shelves
‘Of course I shouldn’t tell you this, but…She advocates dirty books!’

Surely the key to creating sex scenes that aren’t hopelessly daft is to stay in character. Continue using language the character would use. Include only details that further the plot and the message the character wants to convey.

An article in Lit Hub provides an interesting survey of writers who pen effective sex scenes. ‘Many great novels portray sexual encounters as an inseparable part of the extraordinary ordinariness of daily life….as bodily, emotional experiences that inform each character’s unique sense of what it means to be alive.’

Contrasting scenes in Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits, Andrea Levy’s Small Island, or Louis de Bernieres’ The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (that mango scene!), each give sexual encounters from different points of view and/ or at different stages in a character’s timeline. Those differences are marked in the tone and the coverage of the encounter.

One somewhat explicit scene I’ve written is told by an adolescent boy annoyed with his older stepbrother’s noisy nighttime antics on the sofa and determined to stop it. He encounters the scene:

There had to be more to sex than this. Piggy grunts. Flab dangling, limbs twitching, glowing orangey-pink in the light of the last lamp standing. Weren’t they getting sliced by old potato chip pieces? No, those chips must be soggy now.’

With that point of view, I’m freed from having to dwell long on the subject, but at the same time, I get to tell it like it is. Hopefully I’ve managed to strike that balance between leaving some to the imagination, and realistically, fully portraying my character.

How have you addressed writing about sex? Are there any writers you feel are particularly good at it?