Opinion: Being Funny Takes A Serious Effort
Famous novelists are asked all the time where they get their ideas. We know this because they complain endlessly about having to answer this question while they are being interviewed by Oprah, or some other luminary about, say, having won the Man-Booker Prize for the ninth time.
No one ever asks me this question, but then I am not a famous novelist, notwithstanding my diligent, yet failed, efforts to break into a world where I get a dust jacket photograph, an advance, and an opportunity to see my work reviewed twice on Amazon by the same reader, a disgruntled shoe salesperson from Alabama. I feel, as some deponents do, like answering that question anyway.
My ideas come from real life. In the killingly serious world of law, there is a wealth of material, laughing gas, waiting to be fracked from below the crust of egomania and contention. There are wonderful examples and terrible lessons roaming the courtrooms and the file rooms, most of whom contribute unwittingly to this natural resource. All I have to do is show up, and voila! There you have it.
What is sometimes asked of me is how to be funny. "How do you do that?" they ask. "Isn't it difficult?"
Well, yes. And no. I have to credit heredity and environment. Both my parents had excellent senses of humor, despite being serious people. I discovered early on that a splendid way to defuse tension was to try to make one or both of them laugh. I did not acquire a sense of humor that permitted me to laugh at myself until much later, around age 10. If you can take stock of your own defects in better form than your detractors, it is a fabulous boon on the playground.
The cases and claims which come to me in the field of practice I chose—medical malpractice defense—are nearly uniformly tragic. If no levity were applied, we would all go home and eat ourselves to death, or employ more traditional means of self-destruction. When I was first working as a legal assistant, after leaving the music business with the idea that I might become respectable by acquiring a real job, I worked at a tense, high-pressure firm where the employees were called Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. and hardly anyone smiled.
Periodically, while hunkered down in my carrel, close to a window which was not sufficiently far off the ground to entertain thoughts of jumping, I had laughing fits. Things would strike me as humorous, and before long I would be heaving and snorting, throwing off the heartache. At this job, laughter was accidental.
I still recall one incident which occurred there that can reliably make me guffaw. This was long ago, back when people smoked cigarettes in the workplace with impunity, and no one had ever been sued for a cancer allegedly caused by passive inhalation of nicotine byproducts. One attorney smoked. She had the end office in the hall. One afternoon, as we hammered away at our keyboards, there was a yelp of distress, closely followed by the attorney in question running down the corridor bearing her flaming wastebasket and shouting "Fire!" as she descended the stairs. Funny things just happen.
There are several necessary ingredients for manufacturing humor. Coffee is the first imperative. As you will have guessed, chocolate is in the mix, too. Some columns have been facilitated by a sublime combination of these ingredients. Others have been created under the influence of just chocolate, or caffeine alone. Without either, my columns would have a funereal twist.
The true test of whether something is funny is whether it makes me laugh. If I can't muster a giggle, then it is unlikely that others will, either. Usually I know when I have hit the mark. The most profound praise I receive is that my editor, Paul, produces Coca-Cola from his nasal passages. This pleases me no end, and it is the goal for which I strive. If I manage to evoke the same reaction from you … just send the dry-cleaning bill. Happy New Year.