I’m sure Google or a know-it-all friend can tell you within three seconds who said the phrase “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” But I don’t need Google, because no matter who said it first, the person who said it first to me was my Grandpa Ed (Fast Eddie).
On my early adolescent visit to Florida, he spoke those words to me. He had just read a short story I wrote, pretty typical of the work I produced in high school (you know the time, when first embarking on poetry and writing, and all the darkness, emotion, love, and fear roils to the surface in the form of poorly-rhymed sonnets and angsty free verse).
When we get older, we realize that writing is much more subtle. We set aside abstractions and melodrama in favor of concrete sensory details and character conflicts. We stem our inherent predilection for antiquated diction with the fear of being pretentious at our heels. We realize at some point that Comedic Relief is vital. As much as we’d like, we can’t keep killing characters, raging war, running at full speed, putting characters through trauma after trauma. We need variance. We need an up and down that keeps the ride interesting.
In short, we need comedy.
We need the banter between friends, the dopey character futzing about, the awkward moment just before the villain confrontation, and the geeky joke thrown in.
Writing a death scene might be easy, but getting your readers to laugh and not sigh awkwardly at a joke you thought (hoped) was funny? Very difficult.
As an example, which is easier? Getting everyone’s attention with the sound of a gunshot, or keeping their attention with humor? Anyone can clap their hands in a silent room and get some head-turns, but not everyone can keep attention once they’ve gotten it.
The trick of comedic relief is that it needs to fit properly. All hail the Almighty Bard, Shakespeare, but when the clowns walk on stage to begin an act, my first reaction isn’t to laugh, it’s to say, “Who are these jokers? What are they doing here?”
If done properly, comedy allows a story to ebb and flow.
I know what you’re thinking: “What about a comedy TV show? Do those need comedic relief?”
It’s the opposite, actually. A show focused on comedy needs those gut-wrenching moments or those down-to-heart heartfelt moments, or the slices of serious honesty. A comedy show that’s all comedy all the time doesn’t last. Just look at Friends (if you were born before the millennium): it’s goofy and almost always hilarious, but that moment when Ross and Rachel finally kiss (take your pick of which time)? Those are the moments that make a show powerful.
Comedy, in its right, is powerful too. Used in the proper dose, at the right time, to the right audience, can elevate the emotional commitment we feel toward stories.
Just remember the age-old advice for comedians: Know your audience.
- Kids, your friends might think it’s hilarious when you sing songs with mild curse words in it, but I bet your parents won’t be amused.
- Parents, I’m sure that you yearn for the moment when your kids are at school/at Grandma’s house so you can watch the latest comedy blockbuster without the fear that they will walk in the room.
- Other human beings, I’m sure you’ve heard or told a joke that offended, upset, or otherwise made-awkward a moment.
But you know what else? Comedy is fun. As much as a good death scene can make you type as fast as The Flash, and as much as the climax is filled with drama and twists… there’s nothing that makes writing a book more fun that adding in a few smiles.
If it can lessen the high-line tension for your characters, it can do the same for you and your readers.
Just take some time while you’re writing, and make sure that something you’ve written can make you smile. Because if it can make you smile, it might just make your reader smile.