Monday, March 23, 2015


Writing humor requires a special understanding of your audience as well as your own sense of what’s funny. If you aren’t laughing when you write it, chances are no one will give a good guffaw when they read it.

I was raised by parents with a silly side. Very likely it saved their marriage during the Depression and the Second World War. Their example helped me find the humorous side, be it ironies or gallows humor, in serious situations.

One night, my father was surprised to see personal friends leaving an AA meeting. Back in the house, he announced he was glad he didn’t need to join AA because: “I’m already a member of A.U., Alcoholics Unanimous.”

On the distaff side, my mother advised, “Don’t complain about your health. Your friends don’t care, and your enemies are glad of it.”

That’s a little on the gallows side, as is the hospice humor at a medical convention in my sequel to Kill Fee, Medium Rare, featuring Penny Olsen Martin. This kind of humor is best appreciated when read between crises.

Excerpt from Medium Rare:

Penny’s favorite (joke) was about the two little old hospice volunteers who were discussing their experiences:

“Well, Millie, we’ve each had our patients for a year. That’s two years between us.”

“But Sarah, they are only supposed to live six months. We must be doing something wrong.”

Or upon leaving the symposium:

The crowning touch was when the plenary speaker looked around the final assembly of hospice volunteers and health workers, observing, “My, my, what a large crowd. We’ve grown. You might even say we’ve metastasized.”

Whether it’s satire, irony, physical humor or slapstick, there is plenty of “funny stuff” to choose from. To qualify as funny, humor should be encapsulated within a story that makes the audience part of the fun and places readers at the scene anticipating the action.

Alliteration drives humor and action in my 2011 award-winning mystery novel, Kill Fee. Once introduced, who can forget Penny’s talking Indian Hill Mynah bird, Bilgewater, the bad-beaked bird, or her beach house, the moldy mausoleum.

In the movies, I’m reminded of this scene from When Harry Met Sally, with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. An older woman at the next table in Katz Delicatessen sees Sally acting out an orgasm to prove girls can fake it. When the waiter asks the older woman for her order, she points toward Sally and says, “I’ll have what she’s having.” (The fact that she is Billy’s mother in real life makes it ironic, too.)

With laugh-out-loud humor, two classically southern storytellers come to mind. The late Lewis Grizzard, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, also wrote books and performed as a stand-up comedian. His humor centered on life in the South. He welcomed the Yankees to his neck of the woods and defined them the ones who “didn’t cook their green beans.”

I call southerners the ones who overcook everything, including what they call Chicken-fried Steak. Take a perfectly good piece of beefsteak and lay it in flour; using a wooden mallet pound the living life out of it, then fry it in lard. Gradually add milk and simmer three hours in the milk gravy. If you refuse to eat it, you’re chicken. (Sorry, I made that part up.)

Driving up and down Atlanta’s hills while listening to one of Grizzard’s audio tapes almost got me killed. He was describing a carpet installer stuck in a funeral home trying to complete his work before a storm erupted (“It was comin’ up a cloud.”): It got dark; the electricity went out; the walls closed in; and lightning zapped. Pow! A body sat straight up. The carpet guy didn’t have to be told twice; he sprinted through the open window and wasn’t seen for days. (Note story, exaggeration and picture of a guy hurling through space to anonymous safety.)

More recently another funny guy, Jeff Foxworthy, following in Grizzard’s footsteps, went after Rednecks: “You know you’re a Redneck when…?” He used his self-discovery and self-deprecating sense of humor as a device.

Jokes are funny when the listener or reader is familiar with the background. Here in Florida, we have a plethora of armadillos splatted on our roads. Our chicken joke is: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Answer: “To prove to the armadillo it could be done.”

Having lived in Daytona Beach for 27 years now, I appreciate a well-used reference in our “World’s Most Famous Beach” town. Daytona is the destination of many spring breakers. So: “What do you call a spring breaker swimming in our 60 degree ocean?” Answer: “A Canadian.”

The truer to type the joke, the funnier it is. But sometimes you simply have to be there.

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