Being funny is hard

I spoke at a Teen Writer’s Conference in Ogden on Saturday, and it was awesome; it was the standard Story Structure presentation I’ve been doing everywhere this year, and once gain it served me well. I think I should just put together one really good presentation per year, and then reuse it at all the various cons I go to. Anyway, it’s a pretty funny presentation (if I do say so myself), and the kids loved it, and I think they learned a lot. And then I opened it up for questions at the end, and one of the very first was: “Are you just naturally this funny, or do you have to try really hard?”

Kudos for the most intriguing question that presentation has ever produced.

The best answer, of course, is: “Nothing I’ve said has been intentionally funny, and it hurts my feelings when you laugh at me.” What I actually said was “Being funny is really hard,” which is not a very fun prospect, but it’s arguably the truest thing I told them all day. I consider myself a pretty funny guy on the fly, able to make silly comments that make people laugh, but books and tweets and blog posts and powerpoint presentations are a lot harder. I don’t consider myself a very funny tweeter, for example, though I try. Conveying humor through writing is easier in some ways because you can control your own set-up, but it’s a lot harder in other ways because a controlled set-up can easily feel false, and (an even bigger issue) writing does not easily replicate the tone of voice and posture and all of the other things that make live humor so effective.

Obviously voice and posture aren’t an issue for a powerpoint presentation, because it’s the combination of writing and stand-up; you get the best of both worlds, essentially, plus you get to throw in images as well for a nice visual aid. At one point in my presentation, talking about Try/Fail cycles, I show a picture of the kidnappers from The Princess Bride–Vizzini, Inigo, and Fezzik, all in a row–and that picture gets more laughs all by itself than anything I do or say anywhere else in the presentation.

But the point I’m very poorly making here is that being funny takes a lot of work. If you’ve seen my presentation more than once (poor soul) you know that not only do I make the same jokes every time, I make them in the same way every time–that’s not because I’m unimaginative, it’s because I spent hours preparing that thing and practicing it and getting the words and the timing just right for maximum effect. My books are the same way: they’re not pure humor, by any means, but they have a lot of humor in them, and I spend more time honing the funny stuff than I do the scary stuff.

Jokes and scares are actually kind of similar in some ways: you have to create a certain tone and atmosphere to get the audience ready; you have to create a “standard,” so to speak, to establish a baseline of normality, and then you have to break that standard in a way that produces a specific reaction: a laugh or a fright. And to make it effective, you have to do it in a way where the audience can’t see what you’re doing, and it all flows naturally, and they’re not sure if you’re just naturally funny or you have to try really hard.

10 Responses to “Being funny is hard”

  1. Nancy Allen says:

    Dan, I loved the presentation and that question was by far my favorite of the whole conference.

    Love your blog!

  2. I recall the try/fail portion of your panel at Life, the Universe, and Everything. Lots of fun, but also informative.
    Humor is definitely a tricky thing in writing, though. The problem I’ve had is that I always find my own jokes rather funny most the time, but everyone has a different view of what is amusing and what isn’t. Would you say it’d be a good idea in a comedy novel to try a variety of different jokes to appeal to a wide spectrum of readers?

  3. what old comedian said ‘funny is easy..dying is hard.’…
    or was it the other way around..i come from a family of out of work 3 kids are some of the funniest people I stretches to the granddaughters too..My mom and dad were hysterical..I am a comedienne at heart..I wake up funny and go to bed funny…I see funny in everything from religion to politics to death. My husband tried to kill me in 1974…I shot him..I tell everyone he died of lead poison.

  4. Josi says:

    You should teach a class on how to present to kids. I’m hesitating to send the feedback because I worry about your pride issues and hate to be a contributing factor.

    Thanks again for coming on Saturday, it was a great presentation. I spent my writing time this morning doing 7 points on 4 threads of my story–got some desperately needed ideas lined up in the process.

  5. Scott M says:

    I’d love to hear (well, read) more of your thoughts on humor, particularly in writing. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about lately. There are lots of writers that are good at writing funny stuff, but I’ve never found anyone who actually broke it down to the nuts and bolts of producing it. I suspect for a lot of people it just comes naturally and they wouldn’t be able to codify the process of it if they tried. But your mindset sounds more like my own: that, like anything else in writing, you can break it down, understand how it works, and then use that understanding to do it better.

  6. PJ says:

    I have no idea what your presentations are like, but your off-the-cuff humor is awesome. I’ve been listening to WE since the beginning and you three are a riot!

  7. Patrick Sullivan says:

    Anyone who hasn’t seen Dan’s presentation, it’s up on Youtube (in 5 parts). Here’s part 1, well worth a watch, especially if you aren’t really familiar with story structure

  8. Hannah says:

    The problem with being funny is that not everybody thinks it’s funny. Which is then just awkward.
    Some of the most enjoyable things to write aren’t necessarily the funniest – especially if it’s a play or production.

  9. Julie B. says:


    Sorry,let me calm down for a moment…

    I had a post about how I was your fangirl, and I was the one that made the comment that inspired you for this blog entry, but I didn’t fill out the stuff for the replies, and then IT GOT DELETED!! *destroys computer in fiery flames*

    Ahem… now, I’m just going to summarize, because I can’t type that epic awesomeness again. I was just going to write that you are awesome, I am now your fangirl, and I was the one that asked that smart-alek Question.

  10. Darin Calhoun says:

    Your presentation was one of my high point from LUTE! It is a toss up between you and John Brown…I’ll let you two fight over who had the best presentation…no wait Larry Correria was with him and I wouldn’t want you to fight a 6’7″ 300 lb. self-proclaimed death dealer and an undoubted gun nut. We’ll just say it was a tie.

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