from Writer's Markets and Methods
Humor in Writing
by Ellis Parker Butler
The Youth's Companion for Feb. 1, 1926, heads the "Fact and Comment" column with this aphorism: "There is one attempt in which failure is unforgivable -- the attempt to be funny."
It is now several years since I read that aphorism and I am not yet sure what it means; but I hope -- in time -- to get at the heart of it and understand what its writer had in mind and what bitter experience induced him to write it.
When one considers that there are several million things a man can attempt in this world, it is a terrible thought that there is but one of them in which failure is unforgivable. It is a terrible thought that if a man tries to make someone smile, and does not quite do it, the billions of inhabitants of this earth will turn with one accord and point their fingers and say: "Vile miscreant, you have tried to be funny and you have failed. Trillions of ages from now the earth and the stars above and the planets and the universe itself will pass away; murderers and liars and thieves will be forgotten and forgiven. But you will not be forgiven. Eternity will follow eternity but you will remain and be unforgiven."
I should say that if any man, woman or child wants to be as unforgiven as all that it might be advisable for him or her to try to be funny. For it is quite certain that anyone who tries to write humor will fail in being funny at times. Certainly he will fail to seem funny to all readers.
The disastrous thing about humor is that it is never funny to all the people all the time. It is never funny to all the people at any one time. It may be funny to you today and to me tomorrow; or to me today and to you week after next; or to all of us today and to none of us the third Sunday after Easter. To some people what you and I write will never seem funny. If those people happen to be editors that is rather bad.
The fact is, that whoever wrote that Youth's Companion aphorism knew what he was talking about. It sounds so true that I would bet a dollar he had tried to be funny and failed. Maybe he pulled his father's chair out from under him just as his father was going to sit down. My own father says that the family one day had roast pork for dinner. His father said, "Audley, will you have some pork?" My father said, "No." "No what? No, sir, or No, hog?" demanded my grandfather. My grandfather was sarcastic at times. And there was the pork on the table. "No hog," said my father. And grandfather did not see the joke. He was in the pork-packing business, too, but he did not see the joke. Not, I gather from what my father says, in the least.
The writer of humor, with the most joyous intention in the world, is always saying blithely, "No hog!" and being serious-mindedly unforgiven in the woodshed with a shingle. From this he learned that there are some things it is never wise to be funny about. Religion is the first of these and, in my opinion, rightly so. The first rule of the humorist should be "Never try to be funny at the expense of any man's religion, no matter what it is." I need not go into a long explanation of why this prohibition is reasonable. It is not because a humorist should fear the disapprobation of any religion he may chance to make fun of. A humorist should fear nothing; he should be so joyful that fear should not be in him. The fact is that to vast numbers of kind and lovable persons the religion they hold is the dearest thing in life, and the man who makes fun of it is not a gentleman and he is a cad.
Religion does not mean the very earthly and human attaches of religions, however. Good-natured fun may be made of curates and of bishops and so on, and you'll find priests and ministers telling very funny stories of priests and ministers. A curate is a meek type, and a bishop is a pompous type, but these are human qualities. Religion itself is something else again.
It is my opinion that humor should be kind. Let wit take care of stinging and satire of cutting and let humor's business be to bring a smile or force a chortle. That is a man's size job.
There are other lesser prohibitions. It is not kind to make sport of death and the dead. Certainly, it is not decent to make sport of them to one whose mother or son is at the moment lying dead in the next room. Even a fool would know that. And any magazine or book of large circulation must necessarily reach many homes where death is present or has been present lately. As one of the provinces of humor is to lighten the gloom of those who are unhappy it should be evident that it cuts its own throat when it makes use of a topic that is an unavoidable cause of just such distress.
To make use of such gruesome subjects as death and decay is a temptation, because one of the bases of humor is incongruity. It is a cheap trick, however, and a good workman should avoid it. It may be legitimate enough for a preacher to drag in "those who have recently died in this congregation" in order to get cheap pathos into his sermon, but it is one thing to use cheap tricks to induce folks to lead better lives and quite another to use them to get a passing laugh.
I do not base my approval of the legitimate prohibitions on the theory that the use of certain subjects is in bad taste. Taste, as I see the matter, is quite another thing. Whether a man jests about roses or limburger cheese is to be decided by the man who is jesting and, after eliminating certain topics that many feel are sacred, it is for the humorist to decide whether he will be a gentle humorist like Oliver Wendell Holmes, one a little less gentle, or one who rough-houses the world for fun. Coarse topics often yield the most laughs, and it is surprising to observe how greatly many of the ultra-refined comedies are based on the grossest themes. But there must be a certain keeping-in-character on the part of those who venture into coarse humor. A writer whose general humor product has been delicate and refined should not plunge into a tale of a fat man laid out on a kitchen table to have his appendix carved out. Those who expect the delicate and refined from him are apt to be shocked out of all ability to see fun in the tale. On the other hand, a writer whose work has always shown a jovial whole-souled freedom from restraint can write such a story and it is welcomed with loud laughs.
There are, I cheerfully admit, certain "tricks of the trade" in writing humor. There is the "whip" at the end. "What," says Mike Flannery in "Pigs is Pigs" after all his troubles with guinea-pigs, "if they had been elephants!" There is the repetition and increasing exaggeration of a phrase or situation until a laugh becomes hysterical. There is the sudden anticlimax, as when Eugene Field leads us to the verge of tears and then by a quick turn makes us laugh. In reading any humorist I can see these "tricks," see how they are led up to and exploded. I use them myself. They are as "sure fire" as poking a finger in a baby's ribs. They inevitably get the laugh from those who are in the mood for laughter. Anyone can learn these tricks.
But knowing these "tricks of the trade" does not make a man a humorist. I do not believe that "humorists are born," but I am inclined to believe at this moment that our real humorists are those who are born with a desire to be humorists -- to "act funny," in other words. Or, if that is too sweeping, those who, soon after they are born, acquire a desire to be admired for acting funny. For practical working purposes it is enough to say that "real humorists are born and not made." This, however, is true of "real" anythings, from street-sweepers to emperors.
The life of your true humorist, then, becomes the most interesting of any life. He is born with an inescapable desire to be funny, he has to be rather thin-skinned in order to react to situations that do not seem funny to others, he often fails when trying to be funny, and if he fails he is unforgivable and is told so. His life resembles that of an angleworm in a pan of damp salt. The more it hurts the more he squirms, and the more he squirms the funnier he is.
And this brings me to the meat of the matter. Your true humorist gives the most pleasure by telling of his own squirmings under the illogic of Fate. Your circus clown falls over his own feet and hurts his nose and the audience laughs; your humorous cuss writes of how his left foot edged around in front of his right foot and tripped him up while the floor rose up and whacked him on the nose, and his reader laughs. In Penrod you see Booth Tarkington when he was a boy, or what Tarkington would have been when he was a boy if he had been Penrod. Cobb tells about his own operation. Mark Twain was Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and the Yankee at the court of King Arthur. In writing character humor the author must put himself in the skin and creep into the brain of the character delineated and then tell how foolish he is. Oliver Wendell Holmes was always making gentle fun of himself and of his very genuine wisdom. Humor, in other words, must begin by being self-personal. It must have no false dignity. It must sit down on its own stovepipe hat. Your true humorist begins by being the butt of his own jokes before he looks around for others to make fun of. He is always ready to say, with absolute honesty, "You have no kick coming, I've treated myself ten times worse than I've treated you," and then he says: "But if you want to kick me, do it; maybe we can get another laugh out of it."
When an editor spoke to me once of a series of pieces, he said, "Will you write them in the first person, or will you write them as Mike Flannery?" Not much difference -- I'm myself and I'm also Mike Flannery. It is the same whether I make myself laughably ridiculous or create a Mike Flannery and make him laughably ridiculous. But suppose I am to write a humorous story, with a plot and everything. Let us say it is "Pigs is Pigs." It is immaterial whether I write it in the first person as myself -- "One day I went to the Westcote Express Office to get a box of guinea-pigs" -- or whether I write it in the first person as Mike Flannery -- "Wan day Misther Morehouse was afther coming' to th' --" -- or whether I write it in another person -- "Mike Flannery, the Westcote agent of the --" To get real humor into the story I have to put myself into the skins or the characters and then tell how foolish I am.
In conclusion I say these things: (1) Nothing is more hopeless than for the writer who has no natural inclination for humor to try to write humor. (2) It is useless to try to find an audience for humor that fractures the prohibitions I have mentioned. (3) Unless a man is willing to make fun of himself as of others, he lacks the prime requisite of the real humorist. (4) Nothing is ever in greater demand than humor that can bring a smile or a laugh. (5) Humor is such a personal faculty that no two editors ever entirely agree on the humorousness of any given writing. (6) A new and great humorist would be worth more to America than a League of Nations, $5000 a year bonus to every man, woman and child and universal peace. (7) I hope he is on the way.