Writing Funny

by JT Ellison


It’s been a serious week. For me, at least. I’ve been fretting, something I’m not prone to do. My new book is kicking my butt. I realized that I have no outside life — that writing and reading have become my end all, be all. Not that this is such a bad thing, but exclusivity in any endeavor can sometimes lead to ruts. Ruts don’t equal fresh, exciting writing. Sometimes it hits me that I don’t have the life experience of so many other writers I admire, and I wonder if it reflects in my work. (Yes, I’m reading John Connolly. I always dive into massive introspection when I surrender to his art.)

And then, a beautiful thing happened. Thank the good Lord above, LAST COMIC STANDING showed up in my Tivo list. Hubby and I have been watching the preliminary rounds, the auditions from across the country. My goodness, there are some seriously funny people out there. And some who have absolutely no business trying. Watching this combination of entertainment and train wreck has drastically improved my mood, and led me to this post.

Open call to all you funny writers out there — how do you do it?

I read blog entries, stories and books that are wicked funny, have me bowling over laughing. Obviously, comedians write their material and the talented ones can turn it into true comic nirvana. But I can’t, for the life of me, write funny.

It’s more than just not being able to translate my sense of humor to the page. I’m certainly not a comedienne, but I’ve got a pretty good sense of humor. I do voices, can cut up with the best of them. I don’t get offended at dirty jokes. I love to laugh. It’s an RX that I prescribe for any happy relationship, actually. People ask how our marriage works so well, and I tell them we have at least one huge belly laugh together a day. Laughter really is the best medicine. (Oh no, I used the word "really." Ever since Eisler joined the crusades against "like" and "really" I assiduously avoid using the word in print, but it fits here. Sorry, Barry!)

See what I mean? That makes me laugh, but it doesn’t translate. I’m just not funny on paper.

I used to be good at telling long intricate jokes. Now, not so much. I only know one really good joke and it’s absolutely filthy, plus, to make it work well, you have to act it out. If I ever tell it in public, I warn you in advance I have been completely over-served and you should haul me off to bed (mine, not yours.) It’s THAT filthy.

So what’s a girl to do? I want to be suave and amusing in print. I want to make people grasp their sides and have tears roll down their faces. In person, I can be dry, and droll, and bitingly sarcastic, and do it in Donald Duck’s point of view. But the second my fingers touch a keyboard, the loquaciousness is gone. I want to be like my good friend Kristy Kiernan. That girl puts words to the page and I start rolling in the aisles. Jeff Cohen always makes me laugh. Randall Hicks slays DorothyL with good humor. Bill Cameron has the most brilliant way of using irony to self-deprecate and make me laugh. Toni Causey and our own Pari can make me giggle with their eyes closed and one hand tied behind their backs.

So I beseech you, funny writers. Share your wealth with a poor, misguided girl.

HOW DO YOU DO IT?????????

And for our readers, who makes you laugh, every time??????

I need amusement today, folks. Double, triple extra special bonus points for anyone who writes a short short about this poor cat.

Wine of the Week: Morellino di Scansano


PS — I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to host debut author Michelle Gagnon here next Friday. Stop by and get to know this dynamic new talent.


20 thoughts on “Writing Funny

  1. Alex Sokoloff

    My comedy writer friends insist that you’re born funny or you’re not. I think that’s pretty true. You have your own major talents, Miss, and the comedians couldn’t write what you write, either.

    I don’t read much in the way of comedy writers, but Harley Jane Kozak (DATING IS MURDER) is sidesplittingly funny.

    On the non-mystery front, I’ll always pick up Nick Hornby and Barry Yourgrau for a good laugh. And John Cleese is hands down the god: FAWLTY TOWERS, either watching the show or reading the scripts of it – will dissolve me every time.

    Lee Child has made me laugh harder than anyone in recent memory (in PERSUADER) and I’d love to see him write something that uses that talent more.

    And I’d just like to point out that Barry Eisler’s crusade against “like” and “really” is blatant discrimination against Californians.

  2. Graham

    I know that anything that I’ve written that was even remotely funny, it was because I didn’t care who else got the joke as long as I did. If I worried, and tried to make sure that everyone would get it, it would fall flat.

    Jokes are about the limit of my humor – my “funny” stories are really ordinary stories with a little added humor. Now take John Rickards, for example. His humor usually starts with a premise so absurd it’s funny just to think about.

    As for JT’s joke, apparently the title of her next book is THE ARISTOCRATS!

  3. pari

    Hey, J.T.,Thanks for the funny vote here. I once had an agent say, “You’re witty, not funny.”

    I’m still trying to figure that one out.

    Born funny? I’m not sure about that. I was a pretty miserable kid and didn’t realize I had a sense of humor until my 20s, so maybe I’m making up for lost time by writing Sasha.

    But, in nonfiction, I’m decidedly earnest — NOT funny. My posts here on Murderati, for example, are fairly ponderous.

    It’s anybody’s guess why.

    Sasha was born with an askew view of the world; it’s easy to write her funny or “witty” because that’s who she is. My new protag, Darnda, is also this way, though I’m still searching for her real voice.

    What I find amusing, J.T., is that you’re worried about this. Many of the funniest writers I know worry about being considered fluff or not valid somehow.

  4. Bryon Quertermous

    I LOVE Last Comic Standing. Josh Blue last year was amazing. Aren’t you shocked though at some of the people who get through and some of those who get let go??

    I’ve been told I’m a funny writer but have absolutely no idea how I do it. Most of it is having a really twisted sense of humor and being able to put my entire self onto the page. But, like Pari said, I actually find myself trying to be less funny when I write so it’s more serious.

  5. pari

    Bryon,This has come up with my new book (pub. date Jan. ’08). I’ve been thinking about the marketing and have been so tempted to emphasize every serious issue in it — and there are many of them — with this weird hope that people would view me as a “real writer.”

    But the people who love my books, love Sasha’s humor — and SOCORRO has it.

    I’ve been talking to a book promotion expert who keeps telling me that I need to make sure potential buyers know this book is “fun,” “witty” etc.

    Yet, I want to present it as if I’m a professor. Argh.

  6. David Terrenoire

    I’ve been told my work is funny.

    As I explained to one editor, it’s not that I intentionally write funny, it’s just that the voices in my head say funny things.

    I can’t help it.

    (Damn, I wish this comment had been funnier.)

  7. louise ure

    I can’t answer your question, JT. I can’t write funny. Hell, I hardly ever read funny. Maybe a little wry or sad/comedic, but nothing beyond that.

    As for the joke telling, I’ve picked up my mother’s nasty habit of only remembering the punch lines. She’ll say, “Tear across dotted line!” and burst out in giggles. I hope the rest of the joke was as funny. I’ll never know.

  8. Jason Summers

    I didn’t realize I was writing funny until I did a reading at a critique group, and there were guffaws around the table. I’d been trying to do very serious and dark, and what I got was a voice that was so overladen with darkness it sank down into satire/snark.

    Once I realized that my version of darkness is laughable to most people, I just wrote that.

  9. Gar Haywood

    “Ernest Hemingway and Mickey Spillane enter a bar.”

    That’s it. What, you were expecting them to come out?

    See, I just made that up, and I think it’s pretty funny. But who knows? “Funny” is hit or miss, and all you can do is write to tickle yourself and hope others will be amused.

  10. JT Ellison

    Hey, good to see everyone out and about this morning. Great input, guys, thanks!

    I think Graham and Gar have the right idea, amuse thyself, and others will follow.

    What Pari said strikes an interesting note — funny writers worried they aren’t taken seriously enough. I never thought about that, I just have a huge and healthy respect for them for doing something I can’t. Guess it’s all in the perception, huh?

    And I should have had Harley on that first list — DATING DEAD MEN was a hoot!

    There’s a bigger underlying discussion here if anyone wants to pick at this — should the funny be mixed with the dark?

  11. Lorraine.

    I’ve been reading these comments and trying to remember if I’ve ever laughed while reading a mystery. I can’t recall a one, and am not disappointed. Murder is seldom a laughing matter, wouldn’t you say?I like accidentally witty characters whose exchanges make me smile, but if I want to laugh out loud I read Bill Bryson.

  12. Graham Powell

    Bryon’s comment made me realize another key to writing funny – you must have no shame. If you turn away from mocking some subject or other out of fear of embarrasment, you are not funny. You gotta go for it.

  13. Mike MacLean


    I’m in the same boat. I feel I can be damn amusing at times. But other than a couple of shorts, my work is pretty serious. Like David alluded to, the inner voice leads you. And your writer voice just isn’t going for laughs.

    Can you ignore the voice and TRY to write something that’s funny? I think it’s possible. But any awkwardness you feel at the keyboard will probably show up on the page.

    If we put ourselves in the mindset of a comic, try to view the world with a comic’s eye, maybe the voices will change. Then again, maybe we won’t be successful writing the dark stuff.

  14. Fran

    For funny, I read Jeff Lindsey’s “Dexter” novels. They make me wonder what’s wrong with me, that I’m laughing at things so sick, but I laugh anyway.

    I also laugh at Joshilyn Jackson’s blog, “Faster Than Kudzu.” It’s humor that won’t appeal to everyone, but then, what does?

    Even John Connolly has his moments of catch-you-off-guard humor. I found myself snorting out loud at points during “The Unquiet”, and that’s not a cheerful little tome by anyone’s stretch of the imagination. Comic relief can be a saving grace in a dark book, in my opinion.

    I have no idea how to write it, though. I seem to be missing the comic gene, somehow.

  15. Kristy

    Well, I feel so much pressure now. Thanks for thinking I’m funny, JT! It’s a trait that was highly prized in my family growing up, but then the ability to break into locked houses was right up there, too, so…

    I never think I’m funny. I just think “spider monkey” and something happens to me. If something I write winds up funny, it’s usually because I’m “In A Mood.” And it’s not usually a good mood, mind you. It’s usually a fairly dark, pissed off mood in which I would like to hurt someone, but funny is the best I can do.

    And I HAVE hurt people by being funny. There’s a line, and I tried hard to learn how to not cross it. I think a LOT of funny things I don’t say or write, and will occasionally laugh or snort in the middle of a dinner, and you can bet I just thought something funny, and horribly mean. The most common apology in my family was “I was just joking!” Didn’t matter how awful the thing was, if it was funny, well, by God you laughed along with everyone else.

    So maybe you should be glad you’re not funny. It’s the first blush of psychosis, and probably means you’re an awful person inside.

  16. JT Ellison

    Good to know I’m not borderline psychotic, at least. Thanks Kristy!

    BG — Excellent short!

    Fran — Yes, Dexter, absolutely! Can’t believe I missed that one. I think that’s also why the show works so well, the humor translates to the screen.

    Mike, you’re right, of course. Voice sometimes needs to be what it is unfettered by the writer’s desires to make it what it’s not.

  17. Robert Gregory Browne

    I found it interesting when one critic mentioned the comedy relief in Kiss Her Goodbye. I suppose I was trying to be funny with one character in particular, but I had never consciously thought of him as comedy relief…

    It’s pretty much impossible for me to be intentionally funny. I just write what I write and hope it plays.

  18. Jeff Cohen

    Thanks for the mention, JT.

    I think writing funny IS something you’re either born with, or not. You can learn to *refine* it, but coming up with it from scratch? I’m skeptical.

    On the other hand, I couldn’t write serious if my life depended on it. I wrote a blog over on DEAD GUY that I never posted, because the subject matter made me so angry I could spit, but I couldn’t express that in a serious enough manner to suit me. It’s a gift, and a curse. They say.

    I’m glad you think my stuff is funny, JT. That’s what I was shooting for.


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