Humor in written fiction

by look i have opinions

Woody Allen once said that if it doesn’t get a laugh, it’s not funny. Evidently he wasn’t interested in less visceral forms of humor—inward smiles of appreciation, snide “ha!”s, quiet “heh”s, reviews quoting the cleverest lines. It’s hard to blame him, because really, everything except laughter can be faked. (Laughter can be faked too, just not easily and not for long.)

When we say a piece of written fiction is funny, we usually mean it in a less visceral way. People don’t laugh much while reading alone. Spontaneous laughter seems like more of a social thing, something you only do when you’re in the company of other people, or when a screen and sound system make you feel as though you are. Not when it’s just your eyeballs and the page. (Or even your ears and a pair of headphones.)

So humor in fiction is a weird thing, subtle, easily faked. It’s not difficult to trick me, as a reader, into thinking something is funny. Just make it drily clever. Or outlandish. Or incongruous. As long as it’s written fairly well, I will accept it. I will sense that humor is intended, and being a cooperative reader, I will think, This is funny. If I’m feeling self-conscious, I might even crack a smile.

I know of just two ways I can come to realize that what I’m reading is not actually funny. One is to read it aloud, especially to a friend. The other is to pay attention to the tiny hum of boredom in the back of my mind—or maybe it’s actually anxiety, the anxiety of pretending to enjoy something I don’t like, the empathetic anxiety I feel over the writer’s failure.

There is such a thing as humor that never really gets a laugh, but also never produces that boredom/anxiety/repulsion. Literary humor, I guess. It can make you feel excited about a surprising yet inevitable discovery, like the baby carriage line in “The Laughing Man,” or any good twist ending. Or it can make you feel smugly satisfied, like a Schadenfreude story. Or it can sting like a good epigram.

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