Okay, with that out of the way:
Funny Business Panel
Moderator: Eileen Cook
Terry Fallis, Jasper Fforde, Sam Sykes, Liza Palmer
EC: Do you think people the humourless writing more seriously.
LP: Absolutely, I think people think humour is pedestrian. Humour can cut through usual walls and get people to listen to something they might not.
SS: Unsung talent, the people who think they’re funny are often the least funny. think it’s largely unconscious, we defuse horrible situations by making a joke about it, defusing it, but it’s how we get most of our information.
JF: Comedy has vital importance, but underplayed.Novels about the human ondition/etc are so dry, but humans are innately funny. Humour lets us be part of the group, what’s fundamental for humans. Comedy is very hard to make work. Like dissecting a frog to figure out how it works, the frog doesn’t survive.
TF:Comedy is certainly under appreciated. Can be a very powerful tool when handled well. It gives us a new way in to discuss issues we’re tired of talking about, tired of taking seriously, but it can do more.
EC: Do you set out to write a book and touch on a specific point?
TF: Certainly, my first few books I wanted to make a point about democracy, and my latest is about gender equality and feminism. Sure, you can enjoy it as a funny story, but I’md feel more fulfilled if you thought about the issues I wanted to touch on.
EC: Do you ever worry about being offensive, taking something too far? Is there something you won’t go to?
SS: A ratio. If it’s more funny than offensive, I’ll go with it. A lot of offensive jokes are extremely lazy, the don’t really add anything or rely on stereotypes. Like, calling someone gay and laughing about it. I don’t worry about it too much because if you stretch, you can find anything offensive. But I’d by lying if I said I wasn’t worried about reaction. Often tweet something, and then delete it when I realize it isn’t as funny as I originally thought it was.
JF: I don’t see a point in it, my books are meant to be light, so I try to stick to things everyone finds funny like making fun of government, etc.
EC: Liza, do you think it’s more difficult for a woman to be funny, or are there different things that is or is not funny because you’re female. Is woman’s humour viewed differently?
LP: First of all, everyone knows women aren’t funny. Often I’ll say something funny, a man repeats it, and suddenly everyone laughs. If a man does exactly the same thing, he gets in the New Yorker, them women doesn’t (ex. the Taylor Swift album/cover album thing).
TF: I thought Liza made a very good point, I was nodding in agreement through her response. The most important point she made is that women in any field suffer the same barriers in terms of success/acceptance/etc.
EC: If someone doesn’t feel they are funny, what advice you would give them if they wanted to add more humour in their writing?
JF: how can you make yourself more funny? I don’t know, it’s impossible to quantify, but to make those connections, how you take different connections and make a new one out of it, like with other aspects of writing, it’s playing with those connections until it works.
LP: I guess, don’t make the mistake of thinking, if one line is funny, 5 lines will be 5x as funny… no. You have to learn how to thread the humour through the story is taking out what you think is funny ad letting the humour seep through the words themselves. When I’m trying to be the most funny, I tend to be the least funny.
EC: Had the experience at a reading, was reading a funny section, and no one laughed, then a line I didn’t think was funny, everyone laughed.
TF: With different audiences, had laughs in all different places in the same section of writing.
SS: The people who call themselves funny, are generally the ones who aren’t funny. If you tell a joke and have to explain why it’s funny, you’ve failed, not the listeners.
EC: I’d like you to explain a bit about what you write, so the audience can have a little bit of context.
LP: I love dysfunctional families, so contemporary.
SS: Fantasy about working stiffs who are adventurers.
JF: The sort of comedy I do is, I take reality and I move it 5 degrees. So, like I wrote a police report about Goldilocks & the 3 Bears. For example, first of all, why were momma and poppa bear sleeping in different beds? Marital disfunction? That’s what I like, when you take something rigid and you shake it, move it, and ask those questions…
TF: I write fish out of water stories, the character least likely to arrive in a situation and let it play out. For example, a 60-something Scot mechanical engineer who is elected into the House of Commons.
Audience question: trend these days that self-deprecating humour is always funny. Have you had the experience of trying to use it and humiliated yourself instead?
LP: I think people like, ‘its so me’, or ‘I’m like that’ relatable humour, so making yourself look more human/vulnerable is a way to connect. Especially a moment where someone thought they were alone in something, it helps bond and erases shame when you can laugh about it.
EC: Sometimes self-deprecating humour isn’t funny if you’re too hard on yourself. If you’re hating on yourself, that’s not funny - you’re making others uncomfortable. Or fishing for compliments.
SS: Especially on social media it’s hard to balance that because if you make a joke, there’s a ton of people out there who are ready and happy to humiliate you.
JF: But on the other end of things, if you aren’t risking anything you’re never going to get to the place where you get something really funny. You have to push the barriers.
TF: Particularly with humour since our senses of humour are so variable/diverse as compared to suspense, horror, etc. Maybe only 1/3 are going to get the humour in something.
SS: That’s right, and you need to write to target for that 1/3. I heard somewhere f you’re writing for everyone, you’re writing for no one. Like, some of the huge best sellers are nowhere now, but the small print cult books are being reprinted over and over again.
Audience question: Do you start off with a funny premise and write into that, or take a serious thing and look for a twist?
TF: There are the throw away funny lines that pop up, and there are the slow-burn funny that take a while to deliver but last so much longer. Like, in a book I’m writing, the character is terrified of dogs, and he’s in Spain for the running of the bulls and everyone is running from that, while in another alley, he’s running from there chihuahuas.
JF: I think I start out serious and look for the humorous angle. Going back to the 1/3, when they get it, they really get it. That’s who you’re wiring for, those who get it the whole way.
SS: Like the in-jokes between friends, you can bust one out years later and everyone still kills themselves laughing.
LP: I come up with a premise and tend to think people are funny inside of it. Those are the points where I think humour is the most help, when you’re in the hospital waiting for someone to die. It’s a way to process things like death/etc, it’s a way of acknowledging your humanity and weather the grief.
EC: I don’t set out to write a funny book, but characters can be amusing within the story.
Audience question: Is there a best POV for writing humour?
JP: I don’t think it matters. If it’s funny, it’s funny. Like, the one joke in the movie ‘Blood Diamond’ where there’s this old guy in this mass dark/destroyed village and Leo DEcaprio show sup and the old guy says, “Good job, but we didn’t have any oil.” It’s laugh-out-loud since it’s such a dark movie.
EC: I think, as a writing, there’s a POV that’s easier for you to write from, so it’s easier to be funny.
LP: And there are places where I read my own work and find the places where I can tell I was trying to be funny rather than let the characters be funny. It’s the author’s tone infringing in the story. Whenever we try to write TO something everything feels clunky ‘cause we’re trying too hard.
Audience question: Have heard comedians/writers who say they had dark childhoods that drove them to become funny.
JF: I think it’s more that they want the applause, they want the approval, not necessarily that a dark background makes you funny. Which may be why some of them come to terrible ends, because the applause isn’t enough for them anymore, but I’m not a psychologist.
EC: If we did a show of hands, we wouldn’t find anyone in this room who didn’t have a dark history, parents died, divorced, etc. I don’t think we’re any more messed up, it’s just how we chose to deal with our disfunction is by laughing. One way to survive is to be funny and to seek out other people or media, books, etc that is funny. Which is why Jon Stewart is so funny because he gives a way to look at the dark, scary world and laugh.
Audience question: I absolutely love Seinfeld, and generation-wise, I’m wondering if this influences you and you find it funny.
SS: We have that for our generation: “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”.
EC: has there been any humorous writer/comedian/etc that has inspired you?
TF: I’m a huge John Irving fan. I particularly like how he juxtaposes humour and pathos and dumb them up next to each other to give the reader a broader emotional bandwidth.
EC: What advice would you give someone to wants to write novels similar to how you write.
TF: Less is more is good advice, like Liza said. Cut it back.
JF: Look for the absurd. Humans had many bizarre habits that we don’t know why we do things. When you come across something you find funny, stop and think about it. You might get some good insights.
SS: Trust your instincts. If you believe it’s funny, your audience will also think it’s funny if you deliver it in the same form that you would find it funny.
LP: For me it’s about authentic specificity. If you can pinpoint what’s specifically funny about something without relying on generic/etc