Levin on Literary Laughs

Gerald Levin’s understated, gentle delivery of Imagehumor might bring to mind comedian Ray Romano, sans the self-pity.

But, Levin is a composed, confident writer. On Aug. 27, he delivered an hour-long seminar at the MWA Baltimore ChapterAug. 27 on how to put humor into your writing.

“There is power in taking an ordinary topic anotherway,” said Levin, who likes to inject humor intohis short stories. He has an MFA in creative writingfrom the University of Baltimore and is a writer/editor at the Maryland Office of Tourism.

Levin said that many writers think good literary humor comes down to—what else?—developing characters. For example, old Willie in Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys. Willie tells his nephew that after 57 years in the business he knows what’s funny, like words with the letter ‘k’ are naturally funny, he says, like pickle, chicken, cupcake, and car keys, but not tomato. That’s not funny, according to Willie.

Humor is developed, Levin said, in juxtaposing things that don’t go together normally, he said. Absurdity works when a writer takes the normal to extremes. But exaggeration should be tempered—look to Mark Twain, he said, or Steve Martin’s “just take two pills routine.” (Google it.) Going the other way, understated humor was epitomized by Monty Python, said Levin.

Levin said satire has a moral point of view and opens doors in humor that may not be opened with other forms. “Many people say humor can be tragedy plus time. The further you get away, it is accepted, e.g. jokes about the events around the Lincoln assassination.”

Then there is mundane humor, e.g. Seinfeld. Levin cited Calvin Trillin and his novel Tepper Isn’t Going Out. Trillin expands small, mundane things such as his hero Tepper taking absurd delight in occupying NYC parking spaces for no purpose. However, Levin said never write about real life humor. It invariably becomes a “you-had-to-be-there story” not funny to others. To get a laugh, write about bad experiences not good ones, he advised.

Levin shared his favorites: Garrison Keillor says use your own voice (easy for him to say); don’t be giddy or whooping. Woody Allen likes “unsolvable problems” and the difficulty in falling in love and maintaining it. “But don’t date your daughter,” someone shouted. Thurber said with humor you have to look out for traps, so go over it to make sure it is really funny to others. E.B.White likes “the sly and almost imperceptible ingredient (of humor),” e.g. Austen or Thoreau, Levin said. He also recommended reading Melissa Bank, Aimee Bender, Dave Barry, Robert Benchley, Roy Blount Jr., Billy Collins, Noel Coward, Nora Ephron, Ben Franklin, Ian Frazier, Veronica Geng, Fran Lebowits, Patrick McManus, Moliere, P.J. O’Rourke, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Damon Runyon, and P.G. Woodhouse.

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