For writers and readers who have peeked at my memoir ghostwriting page, you know that I make the bold claim that I can write “funny.” So, I guess it’s time I talk about how humor works in writing, specifically dry humor.
Humor is, of course, different in the minds of different people. Some folks love Monty Python, others love today’s romantic comedies. Then again, I also know people who can’t stop laughing when they see people get their heads smushed in horror films. There are a lot of different types of humor out there. Today, let’s talk about dry humor and how it works in memoir.
Dry humor: what it is and what it isn’t.
When I have clients who want to write funny memoirs, we often have to negotiate what “funny” will mean in their book. As for me, give me humor at its driest. I want to read a story about something funny that happened without any laugh lines or gags or “I couldn’t believe my eyes!” type exclamations. Add those exclamations and your humor becomes, for lack of a better term, “wet.”
You know how they say, “If you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny anymore?” That’s true in oral joke-telling, and it translates to written humor, too. The more words used to tell something funny, the less funny the story will seem. Dry humor requires that you keep the story to the point.
To be “dry,” humor should be utterly deadpan. This is especially true when telling stories of childhood, because children don’t think like adults and often live in a cloud of misinformation anyway. Even without any embellishing, remembering our childhood thoughts is funny to us, as adult readers.
Childhood is intrinsically funny
Remember what you used to think happened behind the scenes of the adult world, when you were really little? Yeah, it’s pretty funny. For instance: I thought sex had to be done while sleepwalking and imagined that when two people decided to become boyfriend and girlfriend, they sealed the deal by taking off all their clothes and parading around in front of each other, like a fashion show. Also, penises were detachable.
I could write stories about any of the above memories and how those beliefs came about, but I guarantee they wouldn’t be made funnier with a lot of exclamations like, “Can you believe it?” and “Oh my god, I was out of control!” To be nerdy for a minute: those exclamations are interpretive. They subtly tell the reader, “This is funny, now, so laugh, God damn it.” But readers are smart. They don’t need to be told when to laugh.
Regarding the examples from my life above, just the fact that a kid believed such things is funny, so the story should consist of how I, as a child, collected the background information that led me to draw those strange conclusions. The same goes for my ghostwriting clients. I tell them that if the story is funny, we should just tell it. There’s no point in dressing it up. Don’t try to be poetic or cute or dramatic. This is how to write dry humor.
Great humorists keep it simple
Here’s an example from some of comic memoirist David Sedaris’ early work. In this story, young David learns that in his neighborhood, there is a man who “doesn’t believe in television.” His child mind then makes certain assumptions about this new concept:
The only place that seemed truly different was owned by a man named Mr. Tomkey, who did not believe in television …To say that you did not believe in television was different from saying that you did not care for it. Belief implied that television had a master plan and that you were against it. It also suggested that you thought too much. When my mother reported that Mr. Tomkey did not believe in television, my father said, “Well, good for him. I don’t know that I believe in it, either.”
“That’s exactly how I feel,” my mother said, and then my parents watched the news, and whatever came on after the news.
As you can see, Sedaris references what he thought as a child: “television had a master plan and you were against it,” but also adds his recollection, from an adult perspective, that his parents watched television deep into the night while claiming not to believe in it.
The bit is funny, but not in a slapstick way. It’s funny because it just states the deep-down truth. That’s dry humor.
Dry humor can be the key to a great coming-of-age memoir
The humor of childhood stories is often best brought out in this way: a combination of childish misperceptions contrasted with an adult-level understanding of the situation. So, to keep humor dry, like this, writers keep it simple, telling the core of the story and understanding that the reader will “get it” without being instructed where to laugh.
Here’s a blog about another great humorist, Caitlin Moran, who, as a girl, learned how menstruation works from a leaflet she found in a bush. That’s the good stuff, right there!