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.