Funny Isn’t Easy

Humor is the flavor of all writing, and there’s a lot of great comedy out there. Collectively, there are enough funny movies, television programs, books, and live performances in which to engage for a year straight and still have plenty more to enjoy. What dumbfounds me is the talent it takes to write quality comedy; this is an elite group we’re talking about.

I had the pleasure of working with Norman Lear, the genius behind All in the Family, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, and other television hits. He had a writing team that could write “funny” in their sleep. I was fascinated and awestruck by them. Now, for the sake of fairness, I could write some funny stuff from time-to-time, but nothing touched what they could do.

Lear’s teams had been writing together for decades. They wrote for Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball…everybody who was anybody in comedy. You’d be hard pressed to sit in a room with these guys and not cry from laughter.

One time in particular, they pulled a fast one on a producer who was working for Gleason. After putting in a full day, the guy wanted to see the writers’ pages for their next piece within a couple of hours. The team needed more time and – being the innovators they were – found it by pulling a prank. With the added element of this guy being a jerk, they had no qualms about concocting a brilliant solution to getting him off their backs and buying more writing time.

The team set-up a recording of a typewriter inside their office closet to make it seem like they’d already written material. When the producer would go to their office the writers pointed to the door and said, “The secretary’s got the first ten pages.” The sound of the typewriter tip tapping away pacified him. “When she’s finished, we’ll get it to you,” they’d say, and off he’d go.

They thought of doing the same thing to me when I was struggling to keep-up with them and they knew I was scared out of my mind. I was supposed to write the first part of a script and they were to write the second part. They were in the next office over. I could hear them laughing and carrying on.

I was sitting in my office, slightly tortured by their talent and insecure about my own. I timidly went in to show them my work, and I’ll be damned, they found that I had a funny line.

They said, “Hey, Gy. This is funny. A classy joke. We love classy jokes.” The problem was, I had one ‘classy joke’ in 15 pages; the rest were just funny. Big difference.

It’s the same pressure as saying to someone, “Say something funny. Make me laugh…now!” This is no easy feat, being put on the spot to be funny.

Comedy changes everything. It doesn’t matter what you write, whether it’s a thriller, drama, or horror film, the writer can always add humor to get their audience going. As I wrote my first two novels, I realized that while there is no such thing as a funny crime scene, something can happen in the crime scene that is funny.

When George Seaton visited the great actor Edmund Gwenn who lay dying, he sympathetically said, “This must be terribly difficult for you.” Gwenn is reputed to have said, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”

Tell me, what makes you laugh?