This was delivered as a Summer Lecture to students on the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA and MFA on Tuesday 27 April 2021.
On Theories of Comedy
Years ago, I went along to a graduate research seminar – not at Birkbeck, I should mention; at another UK University. As you may know, a gradute research seminar is a semi-formal gathering, in which a PhD student presents their work-in-progress. The Creative Writing PhD student speaking the afternoon I’m talking about, in the pleasantly sunny classroom, gave us, that is about fifteen academics and trainee academics, a half-hour run-through of theories of comedy, beginning with Plato and Aristotle and coming up through Freud (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious) and Henri Bergson (Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic). As a presentation, it was wide-ranging and insightful, confident and convincing. It wasn’t funny, nor was it expected to be. I learned a lot, and forgot it almost immediately.
The Creative Writing PhD student then turned to a section from his creative work-in-progress – a comic novel. He told us that it was a comic novel, and that he had been working on it for a couple of years – alongside his in-depth research into theories of comedy. Then he began to read an excerpt.
And no-one in the room laughed. Because it was not funny. In fact, it was that other thing, that worst of all things – it was unfunny. Pained as we all were, to watch him dying as he was, we smiled supportively, as if amused, but no-one guffawed or chuckled or tittered. No-one’s breathing changed. The writing was humorous – it was undeniably and blatantly humorous. Lots of funny bones were being hit, but none of them went zing. There were no laughs.
As the room stayed quiet, and kept on staying quiet, I felt very sorry for the novelist. Everyone felt sorry for him.
Afterwards, people told him they enjoyed his presentation, and that they looked forward to reading his novel. No-one mentioned the total absence of laughs. They felt too awkward about it.
I don’t want you to feel awkward, or sorry for me. In talking about being funny, I am not going to try to be funny.
And I’m also not, you’ll probably be glad to hear, going to take you through a history of theories of comedy. As soon as I can, I’m going to focus on what’s sayable and what’s useful.
Why Am I Even Talking About This?
Partly I’m talking about this because I think being funny is something we just don’t teach on the MA and the MFA, and that perhaps we should. Having judged short story competitions, and looked at many many writing samples in applications, I know that – apart from graphic sex scenes – nothing makes your work stand out more than making the reader laugh.
More importantly, and more urgently, I’m talking about this – funny writing – because I’ve been writing or trying to write a funny novel. Not a comic novel, a funny novel. Perhaps even a satire.
My Existing Knowledge
So, what did I find immediately useful, in writing the first draft of my hopefully funny novel?
Very little. Enough to fill a postcard.
I dredged my memory for anything concrete about being funny.
From a friend who did stand-up, I had years ago picked up a couple of bits of folk wisdom. He said that including the sound ‘k’ in a punchline makes it funnier.
There was also something he mentioned called the Rule of Three – two normal things followed by an absurd one.
For example, the translation of ‘Wine, Women and Song’ into the old Royal Navy version, which is ‘Rum, Bum and Tiddly-um-pum-pum’.
A list of four things is less likely to work comically, unless the last one is deliberately bathetic – flagrantly lame.
That was about my existing knowledge. That’s the postcard. Of course, there was also –
Obviously, funny sentences tend to stop after their funniest point. The punchline – if there is one – is followed by a full-stop. You most likely don’t want diminuendo of any sort. But there are other kinds of laugh than the bang-on. There’s what I’d call the hovering laugh, where the reader continues making gentle whiffling sounds, balanced on the tipping point of hysteria. They have, if hovering is the case, become involved in a concept so ludicrous that every new detail, however banal, adds to it. Very occasionally, you used to see someone on the tube reading in this state. If they’d been part of an audience, in a comedy club, these would’ve been belly laughs – but on public transport, they were kept at a level where the only thing that comes through as sound is what can’t be suppressed. Whiffles.
(Quite a few of these common sense points, I was glad to find, are there, backed up, in Scott Dikkers’ How to Write Funny – your set reading for this lecture.)
Whilst drafting my novel, I did do a bit of research, fairly lazy, looking for what I could find –
There was a roundtable discussion that came up. Organised by Gulf Coast Journal in 2011, it featured writers I admire, like Sam Lipsyte – author of The Ask and Hark. The title was: ‘I start from a place of outrage and sadness’. And it contained some useful observations.
Brock Clarke: When talking to students, I always wheel out a line from Donald Barthelme. I ask them, “What must wacky modes do?” The answer: “Break our hearts.”
But, I’d say, the most useful thing about that whole discussion was the title itself. ‘I start from a place of outrage and sadness.’
In my experience, the more outrageously sad the thing you’re writing about, the funnier it can be.
Most useful, and arriving just in time, as he tends to do, was Stewart Lee. I’d already, when they originally came out, read and loved his books How I Escaped My Certain Fate and If You Prefer a Milder Comedian… But I went back to them whilst writing Quiche – did I say the novel I’m writing is called Quiche? probably not. I try to avoid saying the title, in case people don’t laugh. I tried to steal everything from Stewart Lee that I possibly could.
(A few years earlier, I’d persuaded Stewart Lee along to do one of these Summer Lectures, and had interviewed him about writing the Guardian and Observer columns that went into his book Content Provider. That was my first attempt to include something useful, at this time of the year, on being funny. Stewart Lee in person was less useful than his books – which is I’m sure the way he’d want it.)
Stewart Lee doesn’t write about being funny in writing, but about being funny on stage. However, he was very direct about the quest for laughs. I found one paragraph revelatory:
The comedian is a desperate figure, perpetually on the back foot, all but broken and pleading with a crowd he assumes cannot understand him. In this sense, it’s closer, in essence, to the definition of clowning as a comic look at the ongoing struggle of mankind to retain its dignity. If You Prefer a Milder Comedian… appears, with hindsight, to depict a man trying to stay upright, in both sense of the word.Stewart Lee! The ‘If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One’ EP (2012)
We’ll come back to this – comedy as ‘the ongoing struggle of mankind to retain its dignity’.
Stewart Lee was about it, for reading – about it for my useful research into writing funny.
I went out and asked on social media which book people found funniest, I got several people saying Catch-22. Among all others, this is the novel I have tried and failed to read the greatest number of times. Because I can’t find the funny in it. Perhaps it’s on page 300 rather than page 3. P.G. Wodehouse was also suggested. And while I admire the sinuosity of his sentences, and the soufflé-lightness and cheesiness of his wit, he rarely makes me laugh.
I did a first draft of my novel with these pitiful scraps, and then I decided I needed to get serious about being funny. I needed to start looking more consciously for things to help me make the novel better and make it funnier. Okay, I give in – I needed to go on a quest for the holy grail of satiric wisdom.
A slightly lazy, half-arsed quest, admittedly, but, yes, a quest.
For quite a while, I didn’t find very much. I certainly couldn’t remember landmarks of the writing funny genre.
The Slightly Lazy, Half-Arsed Quest
for Useful Writing about Being Funny
in Words on a Page for Good Reason
Since that day at UEA, at the graduate seminar, I have read lots of useful books, interviews and quotes about writing – about how to write – about virtuous and productive attitudes towards writing: writing in general, writing fiction and non-fiction. But I have read almost nothing useful about writing comedy – about being funny in words on a page, and even less about being funny for good reason (which is my admittedly sketchy definition of satire).
Satire is Being funny for good reason rather than being funny for the sake of being funny.
To save me always having to qualify the phrase being funny with ‘in words on a page’ or ‘for good reason’ I’m going to ask that, from this point on, whenever I say ‘being funny’ that you will understand it as ‘being funny in words on a page for good reason’. That is, being a writer who is a satirist – a literary satirist. Unless I say otherwise, which I won’t, that is what I mean by being funny.
About the most common use of the word ‘satire’ these days is in conjunction with the word ‘beyond’. The world of politics is often described as ‘beyond satire’. The tweets of Donald Trump, and just think for a moment about the sound and sense of that word ‘tweets’ – the tweets of the 45th President of the United States of America were often hard to tell apart from the most savage UPPERCASE satirical parodies of or even sometimes the lamest satirical parodies of the tweets of Donald Trump.
One of the theories accounting for Boris Johnson’s election as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is that he is a self-satirizing politician – gaining in popularity, for example, by making appearances on Have I Got News for You.
But let’s admit that satire still exists, politicians are not beyond it, and that writers want to learn something about how to do it. Where do we go? Do we have a wide range of options facing us?
There are books on how to be funny, but – I would say – they are not particularly common. There are more books, for example, on how to cook Thai food or even how to tie knots.
Among the books I’ve found on my slightly lazy, half-assed quest are Scott Dikkers’ How to Write Funny: Your Serious, Step-by-Step Blueprint for Creating Incredibly, Irresistibly Successfully Hilarious Writing (2014). And also Scott Dikkers’ follow-up books How to Write Funnier (2019) and How to Write Funniest (2020). There’s also Mark Shatz and Mel Helitzer’s Comedy Writing Secrets, 3rd Edition: The Best-Selling Guide to Writing Funny and Getting Paid for It (2016), and Lesley Brown’s The Secrets to Writing Great Comedy (Teach Yourself) (2011).
But where, I ended up asking – where are the books by top level practitioners? Where are the books on satire by satirists?
Even including Scott Dikkers (founding editor of American satirical magazine The Onion), there are no books on satire equivalent to Stephen King’s On Writing (2000) or Samuel R, Delany’s About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews (2013) or bell hooks’ Remembered Rapture (1999) or Henry James’s introductions to the New York Edition of his works (collected in 1934 as The Art of the Novel).
P.G.Wodehouse left his art unanalyzed – would have pooh-poohed taking it apart. The same is true of Woody Allen, Victoria Wood, Chris Morris, and David Sedaris.
Could this be something to do with denial?
Here’s Paul Beatty, author of Slumberland and Booker-prize winning The Sellout, in a 2015 interview with Chris Jackson that appeared in The Paris Review.
I suspect the other satirists might say something very like what he said –
Do you think of yourself as a writer of satire?
No, not at all. In my head it would limit what I could do, how I could write about something. I’m just writing. Some of it’s funny. I’m surprised that everybody keeps calling this a comic novel. I mean, I get it. But it’s an easy way not to talk about anything else. I would better understand it if they talked about it in a hyphenated way, to talk about it as a tragicomic novel, even. There’s comedy in the book, but there’s a bunch of other stuff in there, too. It’s easy just to hide behind the humor, and then you don’t have to talk about anything else. But I definitely don’t think of myself as a satirist. I mean, what is satire? Do you remember that New Yorker cover that everyone was saying was satire? Barack and Michelle fist-bumping? That’s not satire to me. It was just a commentary. Just poking fun at somebody doesn’t make something satire. It’s a word everyone throws around a lot. I’m not sure how I define it.
As a rule, funny writers are desperate to be taken seriously. They know how hard it is, to do what they do – and to make it look easy (which is one of the gnarliest struggles). If Paul Beatty says, ‘Yes, that’s what I am – a satirist,’ it means all the other things he is will be ignored.
Why so few books on writing satire?
Perhaps it’s because the kind of people satire is written by are idiosyncratic, ornery, go-it-alone types. And that they know that, and they believe there’s no use advising wannabe satirists to become idiosyncratic etcetera, because they either are or aren’t already.
Funny writers may not want to share their discoveries and secrets, because they’re paranoid, angry and motivated by a basic megalomania that makes them wish to crush all possible competitors.
Perhaps that’s true.
I suspect the truth is that a lot of funny writers don’t want to analyse how they do the funny in case doing the analysis stops them doing the funny.
The funny is always more important than the analysis.
But if you watch the 2002 documentary about Jerry Seinfeld, Comedian, or his more recent series,Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, you’ll see that many stand-ups are happy to be dissect their craft. They care insanely about the placement of a consonant, the length of a vowel. That nuance of sound may be the difference between a laugh and no laugh, or – in Seinfeld’s case – between a laugh and a big laugh.
If that’s the case, then why aren’t funny writers as prepared to share?
Perhaps it’s that writing funny is a tribal practice – like goalkeeping or playing jazz – and that the kind of knowledge produced about it is folk knowledge, best passed on informally, in person, when the student has done something (meaning has suffered enough) to prove themselves worthy of gaining the secret knowledge.
‘You see, my dear, what you did wrong is this…’
Perhaps the written form doesn’t work for the lessons about timing and decision-making that need to be learned. Has anything in written form been a formative influence on goalkeepers? I don’t think so.
Goalkeepers learning from watching other goalkeepers, and from coaches, and from the searing soul-pain of being nutmegged at 3-3 in extra time.
But perhaps – in truth – little has been written about being funny because it is very hard, if not impossible, to say anything useful.
Say Something Useful About Satire, Go On, Stew
The English language tells us satire is belly force, a creature from the deep, a below-thing. Satire comes up, up from the dirty earth and from the underworld beneath it. Satire is intimately related to shit, to what we dump and try to get away from and forget. There is a logic of verticality to the similes behind the verbs used around satiric activity. Satiric comedy is an attack from underground, from something too base even to be base – when gentle, satire subverts or undermines; when violent, it erupts or even explodes. In this case, it is volcanic – like ‘liquid hot magma’: fluid, sulphorous. The high are brought down, their fundamental support is burned away, they are reduced to smoke or shit.
My Desperate Quest for the Holy Grail
A Sightly Lazy, Half-Arsed Quest for the Holy Grail
Let’s catch up to where we were.
As I said, once I realised – about two years ago – that what I was writing was, or hoped to be, a funny novel, I set off on a desperate quest for the answer, for the grail.
I read the things I’ve mentioned.
It was all very unconnected, one book to the next, until –
I Accidentally Happened Upon Ken
One weekend in March 2019, I was listening to Radio 6 Music in the kitchen. What I was hearing was bizarre. I’d switched on expecting good music and decent DJs, but this whatever-it-was sounded like an insane radio play. I found out at the end that it was called How to Burn a Million Quid, and was a dramatization of the 1980s megaband KLF (Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty) working out how to do just that. Burn a million quid. What really delighted me was the nasal, existentially cheerleading presence in the story of Ken Campbell – much of the rest of this lecture’s going to be devoted to Ken.
Why? Because Ken Campbell is the most useful, truthful theorist of comedy that I have found. A magpie genius.
After my 6Music discovery, I went and listened with delight to the rest of How to Burn a Million Quid – which I recommend you check out on BBC Sounds (the link will be up on Moodle after I finish). I also watched a few KLF videos – including their appearance at the Brit Awards 1992 with Extreme Noise Terror. Then I began to google Ken Campbell (1941-2008).
Ken Campbell, born in Ilford, Essex. Trained at Rada. He helped bring into absurdly unlikely existence the 8-hour play Illuminatus!, and the 24-hour epic, The Warp. Later, he performed his own monologues – Recollections of a Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt and Jamais Vu. He did several thousand other things, as well, and changed dozens of people’s lives for the better – using delight, using laughter, using satire.
Ken was a delightful genius – I suppose that’s the best way of putting it. There’s a brilliant documentary about The Ken Campbell Roadshow, which you can see performing a hybid circus-wrestling act outside a grey towerblock, surrounded by amused children, grannies, workers. This was 1971. The Roadshow could also cut through the smoke and chat in pubs and working men’s clubs. Ken was about getting and holding people’s attention, where they were – going to them, using dramatic forms that worked whatever the circumstances.
If you see a man stuffing a ferret down his trousers, in the attempt to set a new world record, you’re going to stay and watch.
Ken Campbell was not just a funny human being, he was a gateway into an infinity of parallel universes – almost all of them just as delightful and amusing than this one.
I met Ken once – recording a radio show called The Verb – on 11th October 2007. We seemed to get on, and had a chat as we walked away from Broadcasting House, but I never followed up, and Ken died within a year – 31st August 2008.
Towards the end of his life, Ken Campbell was in a relationship with Nina Conti – who was to become a great ventriloquist, alongside Monkey. Ken was her mentor.
This little snippet from an interview with Nina Conti, published in the Independent, is the best way in to Ken’s philosophy – and also a glimpse of his modus operandi.
My late, eccentric, genius mentor Ken Campbell came to my flat once with a special and urgent message for Monkey, which I’ve tried to live by. I started my sound recorder and Ken spoke directly to Monkey, ignoring me. I transcribe:
“Let me tell you about human beings. Human beings are in fact far crazier than they would let it be known – and creativity and insanity are almost the same thing. Now through their education and whatnot they’ve learnt to armour and guard against their own insanity. Once your insanity starts to leak, that’s when you’re put away.
“However, the ventriloquated doll gives us access to the insanity of the ventriloquist. Schiller said ‘there is a gatekeeper in the mind and it’s the gatekeeper that stops you being creative’. It’s your job, Monkey, to kill off the gatekeeper. She can’t do it – you can! Kill off the gatekeeper so that we can go raw into spontaneous imagination and creation.”
This is probably the best advice that could be given to anyone hoping to write funny:
Laughter is the music of trespass.
Comedy doesn’t happen when people or things should be where they are, or are where they should be.
Putting your shoe on your head will make a two year-old laugh and pretending you don’t know it’s there – that will make a two year-old laugh even more. But putting your hat on your head will not make a two year-old laugh, even if it’s a funny-looking hat – even if you’re dressed as a non-scary clown. The two year-old knows that it’s a hat and the place it should be is on a head. We do not live in a world where people wear shoes on their head.
After How to Burn a Million Quid, I moved eagerly on to Seeker! Ken Campbell Podcast, presented by Ken’s daughter Daisy and his biographer, David Bramwell. This collects a number of his shows, interviews and private recordings.
Of course, I went straight for his show History of Comedy Part One: Ventriloquism.
And, lo, there it blummin’ well was.
Finally, I had made it. After pursuing my desperate quest disguised as a slightly half-arsed quest for years, I was there, in its radiant presence – I had found the Holy Grail of satiric wisdom.
And I’m going to save you the trouble of going in quest of it – though that means you’ll probably have to make up another quest of your own, because you’re going to need a quest, if you haven’t already got one.
You’ll also need to get into the flow of Ken, to get what he’s saying, so here is a large chunk. What it leads up to is such a brilliant summation of comedy, so succinct and insightful. Don’t worry if you don’t get it all first time. I’ll go back to it. (And the whole text of this lecture will be posted on Moodle, as soon as I’m finished.) When we join him, Ken has been describing an episode in his youth when he started experimenting with speaking in tongues, uttering so-called nonsense syllables. With a large group of others, he did this for hours and hours, and after a while everyone started to understand exactly what everyone else was saying. They began to have passionate arguments:
It seems to me that all we were debating; you know, in the whole universe there are – given the whole universe – there are still more things which don’t exist than which do exist – twas of them, I think, we spoke. And maybe there was the possibility, with this practice that we’d wandered into, that there was some likelihood we might invoke some of these – one or two of these absent-so-far things. And it’s gonna be shortly, if you follow my instruction, that people will start going through The Wall – or through their Walls, if you see what I mean. And you can tell – you can tell when you’ve gone through The Wall, you can tell when you’ve gone through The Wall, because when you’ve gone through The Wall everything is funny. And I don’t mean just a few things, I mean everything – everything is funny. (When you’ve gone through the wall.) And I don’t mean passably amusing, I mean, like, so funny it might kill you. And you’re aware how, how utterly arbitrary everything is – Everything, it is Arbitary –nothing has to be like this. Of course not, you can see that nothing at all would be likelier… absolutely nothing would be kind of likelier – but, that this should be this. I mean, this!… is a very weird kind of this, isn’t it? That there’s this. That there’s this. When I got through The Wall – I mean, everyone had their story about how they got through The Wall, and they all seem to be logical in a kind of way. And what happened to me, was I saw that Nina Plashwitz – the little kid, you know – she’d been left with us by her Dad, well, Ralph Plashwitz, little Nina, she’d be aged about four-and-three-quarters – and I saw that she was laughing dangerously – and, you know, the awful thought that Ralph Plashwitz found his daughter died of laughing. I thought I had better go and do something – and when I got over to help her, Ralph Plashwitz finding his daughter dead of laughter – I thought it was so funny that I was laughing. And I went through The Wall in an awful painful way. And things become incredibly clear that weren’t before. You know? It was clear to me that we are not – we are not descended from apes, we’re descended from a bald-headed rat. This is real long ago, time of the dinosaurs, Pleistocine Period – the bald-headed rat. And a bald-headed rat is conscious, that rat, and it knows, and it knows that it knows – and it’s going to evolve several ways. It’s going to evolve into the bear, the wolf, the pig, the lemur, the monkey-ape and us. And as bald-headed rats, we wiped out the dinosaurs by scuppering up them and pooing in their ears. And that what – And that what consciousness is, is a degree of complexity and complication sufficient to make the possessor aware that it has importance, purpose and meaning – but insufficiently complex for it to be able to work out what this purpose and meaning is. Which, if you’re through The Wall, is perfectly clear.
We are here for the entertainment of depraved gods! But importance prevents us from seeing that. Importance is the spine and the structure of the human comedy. Importance.History of Comedy Part One: Ventriloquism (Seeker! The Ken Campbell Podcast)
What do we take from this? It’s so rich, the grail of satiric wisdom. There’s so much in it.
All comedy, I think, is glimpses through The Wall.
And through The Wall Everything is Abitrary.
Comedy finds something funny because it is the start of finding everything funny.
So funny it could kill you.
Finding everything funny is being hysterical. I’ve been hysterical maybe three or four times in my life – when something was so funny I thought I might die. This has usually happened after a period of suppression, when there’s been a shared experience that had to be endured silently. This is the kind of humour friends will share, after a rainy funeral. ‘Did you see her uncle’s wig?’
A good stand-up offers well-timed glimpses through the Wall; a genius stand-up may, for five minutes, have her audience sitting looking at a clear panorama of the other side.
(It’s worth questioning what this means. What does it mean to show people another universe, briefly, then take it away from them? But I haven’t time to go into that now.)
I said I was going to go back to Ken’s culminating statement. The line where he gets philosophical is this:
And… what consciousness is, is a degree of complexity and complication sufficient to make the possessor aware that it has importance, purpose and meaning – but insufficiently complex for it to be able to work out what this purpose and meaning is. Which, if you’re through The Wall, is perfectly clear.
Ken was not uninformed on consciousness. In 1996, he presented Brainspotting a Channel 4 documentary on the subject. History of Comedy was produced and performed four years later, in 2000 – I’d guess several hundred hours of research went into the formulation of that one sentence.
And it’s a very funny idea – surely the source of a huge amount of comedy: that we humans are superequipped, but not equipped quite enough to understand our equipment.
Consciousness is the hardest problem – an embarassment to biology and physics. That embarrassment is the source of a lot of laughs.
Ken’s next line became one of the three epigraphs spread throughout Quiche:
We are here for the entertainment of depraved gods!
This is an attitude that takes me back to school, and to Andrew Wilson, my Classical Civilisation teacher. He was insistent that monotheism in no way explained the world. It was only constant warring among multiple gods that could account for the clusterfuck of humanity. (He did not use the world clusterfuck.) (As an aside, Andrew Wilson later gained some fame translating the first Harry Potter book into Ancient Greek.)
In answer to the question, ‘What did people do before TV?’ – they watched other people. Because they were funny. What did Gods do before TV? – they watched Ulysses, Oedipus and Antigone, and laughed. Because they, the Gods, were depraved.
I agree with Ken:
We are here for the entertainment of depraved gods! But importance prevents us from seeing that. Importance is the spine and the structure of the human comedy. Importance.
This is it. This is what I found, at the end of my quest.
This is where I’ve been wanting to get us.
It’s the same thing as Stewart Lee said about clowning, and that I said we’d come back to – Lee said that clowning is:
..the ongoing struggle of mankind to retain its dignity.
Dignity is of vital importance to us, and in this life there is no such thing as dignity.
Satire is an attack on importance and dignity – false, unmerited dignity; and all dignity (according to satire) is false and unmerited.
I disagree with Steve Almond, from the discussion ‘I start from a place of outrage and sadness’:
The basic misunderstanding Brock mentions begins way back with Aristotle, the idea that the comic and tragic modes are somehow separate and opposed.
I think there is separation between tragedy and comedy, and it is a difference in how they address dignity – dignity being the ability to escape whatever happens to one with a sense of one’s continuing importance. Even if that escape is into death.
I’ll attempt a few definitions:
Comedy is tragedy minus dignity.
Comedy is the tragedy of the trivial.
Comedy is tragedy with the police occuping every cell in the nearest jail.
And, to reverse them:
Tragedy is comedy plus dignity.
Tragedy is comedy kissing arse.
Tragedy is comedy with the police occupying the auditorium.
I chose Scott Dikkers’ book because it’s the most useful one I’ve found on writing funny. We should be very thankful for it. It takes us through different, more and more layered forms of comic writing – with satire as the summit of the cake. If you want to write funny, I think it’s worth following Dikkers’ exercises and obeying Dikkers’ diktats. You’ll learn a lot.
However, for me the most useful, or thought-provoking sentence, in How to Write Funny is quite inconspicuous:
The best jokes have an even temper that sounds natural, without too much emphasis on any one part. If you over play the part you think is funniest, you risk over-emphasizing it and coming off as desperate or old-fashioned (or Borscht belt).(Dikkers, p. 131)
Comic writing is not comedic writing. It may be that the reader misses some of the jokes – or only laughs at them a page later. I think the funniest writing is conceptually, philosophically, and existentially, funny as well as observationally funny.
Pay attention to everything Ken Campbell said, on any subject whatsoever, but especially comedy.
My advice then is this: