Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Using Humor as a Tool

By Martha Reed

I’ve been grappling with a chapter in my new novel and it’s been rough going. I know the reason why: one of the characters has to deal with an emotional issue and that’s not my favorite arena. I prefer light-hearted action but this story really required that I dig in and dig deep, so I did. As I worked through the transition, I was focused on the reactions of the other characters when building my outline and then I discovered that when I went back to my protagonist something had happened: she was funny.

It wasn’t pleasant humor. It certainly wasn't light-hearted but it was funny. At first glance I wondered if funny was appropriate, given the situation but the more I thought about it the more I realized how often writers use dark humor to diffuse tough emotional situations. Mel Brooks is a past master of this type of thing: the perfect example is the musical number Springtime for Hitler from his classic 1968 movie The Producers:



Now tell me there is any way you can watch this and not cringe even while admitting the man is barking mad. It’s still happening out there, too: I cringed throughout the entirety of SlumDog Millionaire – exhausted when it was over and feeling uplifted but when I looked back on the whole gruesome storyline I wondered: ‘How did they do that’?

There’s another example of dark viral humor running around the Internet that I wanted to share. Canadian musician Dave Carroll says United Airlines broke his Taylor guitar and since they wouldn’t listen to him he wrote a song about it. I think his approach is hilarious – his music video has over four million (4M!) YouTube hits and United felt enough pressure from it to go public with an apology and make an offer of restitution.



This reminds me of some of the good old Saturday Night Live skits. What do you think?

15 comments:

Joyce Tremel said...

Great video about the broken guitars!

It sounds to me like humor works in the situation in your book. Otherwise, your character wouldn't allow it, right?

Humor helps people get through tough situations. Look at how cops and medical personnel cope. And if anyone has been to a funeral in my family, they'd think we were all nuts. We laugh ourselves silly.

Martha Reed said...

Joyce, you're right. Now that you mention it my favorite Mary Tyler Moore skit was Mr. Peanut's funeral. Thanks for the memory - I'd forgotten about that one.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

If you think about M.A.S.H., the entire series was a comedy about a very emotional subject.

In a Thriller or suspense, you have periods of fast pace action or periods of tension, but they need to be broken up to let the reader catch his/her breath. In many instances I use humor to slow the pace.

PatR said...

YouTube revenge. I love it... surely someone can weave that into a plot....

marthar reed said...

Pat, hadn't thought of that. What are the consequences of a misleading viral attack? Humm...

Jennie Bentley said...

LOVE 'Springtime with Hitler.' LOVE 'The Producers,' for that matter. And great job on the music video; especially forcing the apology. There's definitely a book there.

One of my favorite writers ever is Terry Pratchett. He writes humor, of course, but there are some universal truths and deep issues being tackled there at the same time. I agree with Will, that humor is a great way to diffuse tension, but it can also be a way in and of itself of getting heavy subjects across.

Martha Reed said...

Goes to show you can learn something new every day. I never expected to use humor this way, but it works. I'm grateful for any tool that helps the story move forward!

Annette said...

There are so many times in life where you have to choose to either laugh about it or cry about it. Laughter seems more productive somehow.

Martha Reed said...

And bittersweet is my favorite flavor...

Dana King said...

It's rare for me to like a novel or movie without at east some humor in it. Life has humor, even in the worst of situations. It may be cynical, sarcastic, inappropriate, offensive, but people are saying and doing funny things all the time. To ignore it takes away from the verisimilitude of any story.

Patg said...

There has to be some humor in any kind of novel, otherwise I'd just prefer it to be non-fiction and be sure to get all the fact right.
I haven't seen that video about United, but having worked for a few airlines and with all of them over the years, I take a rather jaded view. The only thing I want to know is if that guy or anyone else can possitively prove the guitar wasn't broken before he got on the plane.
Having watch airlines buckle to all sorts of complaints, and oh yes, Whines over the years, my comment is:
Next time you see an airfare that makes you want to scream, remember that video.
Patg

Jennie Bentley said...

I did a panel on Humor in Mysteries at Killer Nashville last year, and one of the things we all agreed on, is that humor - making someone laugh - makes them a whole lot more likely to accept a tough truth.

Speaking of humor, my word verification is pretty darned funny, I think. 'supearb' - as in, I guess, dogs have supearb hearing.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

The whole story of Dave Carroll, from what I recall, is that he boarded the airpolane and a person seated close to him said, "Damn, the airline is throwing guitars on the runway." He had eyewitnesses that saw the airline handler throw the guitar.

He was in the middle of a tour and had to cancel a date because of the incident. He apparently had a legitimate complaint.

Martha Reed said...

And I feel for him about the guitar. I have a guitarist friend and I can't imagine what would happen if Tripp lost his. It would be like losing a friend (or mate?), he's with it all the time.

Annette said...

And from what I recall, the airline sucked it up and responded with a bit self-depreciating humor of their own. I think they turned a negative publicity situation into a positive by accepting responsibility and making it right...eventually.

And, Jennie, I love the supearb hearing thing!