Writing Erotic Humor
By T. Myer
So what does it take to be a successful writer of erotic humor? The same kind of stuff that makes for a successful erotica writer, even the same stuff that makes for a successful writer, period:
Complete and total mastery of the English language.
Humor writing is very difficult. It’s much harder than non-humor (a catch-all category that covers everything from the quotidian to the tragic). Anyone out there can make someone cry at the tale of star-crossed lovers from different sides of a family feud. Anyone can make someone cringe at the brutality of war on the front lines.
But can you take those same subjects and make people laugh? Can you take the drudgery of everyday life and make it funny? Can you make sex funny? If you can, then you have a gift, one that should be cherished. At all times, but especially bad times, we want to laugh. Laughter cleanses and heals, makes us forget.
Let’s circle back around to the mastery of language bit. Without total mastery of the language, then you won’t be funny in print. Why? Well, you don’t have voice inflections to help you (think George Carlin and W.C. Fields). You won’t have facial expressions (Jim Carrey) or pratfalls (Chevy Chase) to bring off the effect. Just your words, sitting there on the page.
So what makes for funny stuff? Let me count the ways:
Unexpected turns. Dorothy Parker was queen of misdirection. Her aphorisms and sentences start off in one direction, and before you know it, she’s faked you out and gone in another. Psycholinguists call this trick “surprising Broca” because that’s what you’re doing: fooling that part of the brain (Broca’s area) that analyzes language. Here’s an example:
It’s a small apartment, I’ve barely enough room to lay my hat and a few friends.
Brevity is the soul of lingerie.
Rich details. The more details, the funnier it gets. Here I’ll turn to Joseph Heller, whose Catch-22 is a masterpiece of comedic action:
The day before Yossarian met the chaplain, a stove exploded in the mess hall and set fire to one side of the kitchen. An intense heat flashed through the area. Even in Yossarian’s ward, almost three hundred feet away, they could hear the roar of the blaze and the sharp cracks of flaming timber. Smoke sped past the orange-tinted windows. In about fifteen minutes the crash trucks from the airfield arrived to fight the fire. For a frantic half hour it was touch and go. Then the firemen began to get the upper hand. Suddenly there was the monotonous old drone of bombers returning from a mission, and the firemen had to roll up their hoses and speed back to the field in case one of the planes crashed and caught fire. The planes landed safely. As soon as the last one was down, the firemen wheeled their trucks around and raced back up the hill to resume their fight with the fire at the hospital. When they got there, the blaze was out. It had died of its own accord, expired completely without even an ember to be watered down, and there was nothing for the disappointed firemen to do but drink tepid coffee and hang around trying to screw the nurses.
So what’s the difference between the fine detail in this account (“orange-tinted windows”, “tepid coffee”, “three hundred feet away”, “sharp cracks of falling timber”) and the detail in the miserably failed attempt at a joke by Uncle Miltie at the Labor Day family barbecue?
Because Heller’s technique is solid. Notice how the long passage is actually a series of comedic sketches, each with a beginning, middle, and end. Each sketch rolls into the next: First we hear of the fire, and then along come the firemen, excited to have some action. They struggle with the fire, and just as they are about to win, the bombers return from their mission. Heller’s use of the word “monotonous” to describe the drone underpins the monotony of the firemen’s lives on the island of Pianosa–they must adhere to their routine of escorting bombers down the runway. As soon as that last bomber lands, though, they are racing back up the hill, all excited to fight a fire. By this time (and here’s the punchline) however, the fire has died of its own accord, seemingly of boredom. So the firemen go back to their boring lives of drinking tepid coffee and trying to score on the nurses.
Okay, what else besides structure makes something funny? The twin tools of comedy writing are exaggeration and understatement. Mark Twain is the master of exaggeration, and Life on the Mississippi is full of it:
In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the old Colitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing rod.
At the other extreme is understatement (and its cousin, omission), and you can’t beat the British at this game. Particularly, P. G. Wodehouse hardly ever raises his voice no matter how crazy Bertie Wooster’s misadventures get:
I sat up in bed with that rather unpleasant feeling you get sometimes that you’re going to die in about five minutes.
You live and die by punchlines. Notice how in that passage by Heller there’s not only a general punchline (the fire dies of its own accord) but a punchline within the punchline, which contrasts the excitement of firefighting with the humdrum nature of their off-duty time.
There are a couple of effective ways to execute on punchlines. One is to offer up a capstone or summary to what has come before. Jerome K. Jerome is a master at this sort of effect. In his Three Men in a Boat, the characters manage to get themselves hopelessly lost in a maze. At the end of the episode, they do get out, and the narrator remarks:
Harris said he thought it was a very fine maze, so far as he was a judge, and we agreed that we would try to get George to go into it, on our way back.
Another great way to deliver a punchline is via the old trick of misdirection. Again, here’s Joseph Heller:
The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.
And of course, there’s the Bard (here from Much Ado About Nothing):
BENEDICK: I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes, and moreover, I will go with thee to thy uncle’s.
Once you deliver the coup-de-grace, get out! Have enough sense to go out on top.
Okay, so now you’ve got some idea of what it takes to bring the funny when you sit down and write. Now you have to ask yourself this question:
Why do I want to be funny?
How far will I push it?
The first questions is fairly complex, but it needs an answer. Are you being funny just to entertain, in a harmless Neil-Simon-script-starring-Jack-Lemmon way? Are you making a statement about society, a la Joseph Heller or Jonathan Swift? Are you making fun of an existing work or genre (think National Lampoon)? Or do you just want to be zany and unpredictable (Weird Al Yankovic, Jim Carrey)?
How far to push your humor is up to you and up to the editors (and readers!) of the places where you want to sell. Some publications are more conservative, some more subversive. There’s no sense in sending light humor full of literary puns to a magazine that wants raunchy, over-the-top slapstick.
Now then, comes the final question: can you be funny and erotic at the same time? Quite frankly, I don’t think there’s anything funnier than a naked adult. Even the well-built members of the species are funny–stretch marks, tattoos, interesting birthmarks, pimples on butts, inappropriate flatulance. Even more so, people’s behavior is very funny. Particularly, the things they think or say when overcome with lust–I’ve always thought that they’d be more effective if they weren’t played straight.
Erotica is too serious, in my opinion. It could use a good dose of humor (whether sprinkled with it or served up plain old funny), in my opinion. Nothing like laughter to put all of this complex sexuality stuff into proper perspective.