Can a Writer Learn to be Funny?
#14, October 22, 2014
This is an interesting question.
Off the bat, I'd say no. If you're not a funny person, you can't learn to be funny. I think it's a trait that a person either has or doesn't have. On the other hand, there are a lot of writers out there who may think they aren't funny because they've never successfully tapped their Inner Comedian. I was this kind of writer.
Until I was about 24 years old or so, I thought I didn't have a funny bone in my body. I knew I could fake being funny — I'd done a lot of community theatre and such, and I'd gotten laughs when I'd meant to get laughs — but that was acting, speaking funny words written by someone else and doing funny things suggested by an already-existing scene. I never felt funny. I wanted to be funny but was, for some unknown reason, convinced that I was not.
Then I met my husband, David Cody Weiss. At that time, David could hardly speak without saying something funny. I think he was just trying to impress me (wifely squee!), but whatever the reason, he had me laughing all the time. I slowly learned how his humor worked, and I slowly began to understand it. But I couldn't duplicate it. One person's humorous style is rarely transferable. So when we first began to write comic books together, I managed to write with a tone that was light and fluffy and occasionally witty, but David handled the actual jokes.
Years went by, and David and I got an offer to write several monthly Warner Bros. comics — Looney Tunes, Tiny Toons, Pinky and the Brain, and Animaniacs. I remember wigging out. Me?! Write the immortal funny guy Bugs Bunny?! David was sure I could do it, but I was not. And then David said something that saved the day: he said that the core humor of the Warner Bros. characters was actually from the masters of the old black-and-white comedies, stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and the like.
I knew nothing about those guys. I never much liked old movies. But I thought, "It's for a job," so I started to research. It didn't take long before I became a hopeless Charlie Chaplin fan. I still am. I also like Keaton, but not as much, and though Lloyd's physical comedy is amazing, it doesn't get to me like Chaplin. Regardless, I got to know the old slapstick style of humor. I began to understand that David was right. In fact, I agree with something he told me later on — that the old Hollywood comedy actors didn't just form the core of the Warner Bros. classic toons, but they created much of modern humor in general.
Chaplin, Keaton, and a host of other early actors and actresses were the people who invented modern comedy. If there’s a joke structure to be learned, it’s in one of their movies. So that is what I would suggest to all of you out there who don't think you're funny. GO TO THE SOURCE. It worked for me. It very well may work for you.
Here is a list of actors to look for: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Mabel Norman, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Ben Turpin. There are so many others, but this list gives you a starting place.
Don't think of it as just watching old movies. It's research, a formal part of your writing education. Study the films. Watch the pacing, the timing, the expressions, the words (even though you'll have to read them!). Even if you might not like these films, recognize their importance in the development of modern comedy and let the old masters teach you.
Oh, one quick caution: there is no such thing as PC language or concepts in these old films. You'll have to readjust your cultural viewpoint. There will be rude name-calling, childish racial slurs, stupid physical pranks, etc. But respect the fact that the world has never been perfect and probably never will be, and that's just the way it was in those days. Put aside "now" and delve into "then." Focus on how the comedy operates in the storylines and what the characters do.
May your Inner Comedian emerge!