The word, the ordeal, the cause of death–it is not a thing to inspire a smile. My husband Bo knows this all too well, for during his college years his mother fought against breast cancer only to be overtaken by the ovarian cancer the doctors missed. She was scheduled for cremation before her funeral at their local church in accordance with her wishes.
Bo, his father, and his brother all arrived at the church early to help prepare for the visitation. Bo’s mother had already planned the service during her final weeks in hospice, so all the hymns and Scripture passages had been chosen. They just had to help with whatever final arrangements needed to be done with flowers and lunch and such. Bo’s grandparents were present as well, but their grief had swallowed them both body and soul.
Now we come to the point of this.
After speaking briefly with the funeral home director, Bo’s father yanked his sons into the pastor’s office out of sight.
“The director just talked to me. They weren’t done with creating your mother yet, so they just brought the urn for the service.”
“So…the urn is totally empty?” Bo’s brother said, a smirk slowly creeping onto his face. “It’s not, like, just the ashes of Mom’s leg or…”
“No, it’s totally empty.”
“Wait. Wait wait wait,” Bo said with hands up. “Are you saying Mom is actually late for her own funeral?”
“Yes.” Bo’s father peered out the door and made a thumb towards the grandparents, their faces covered with tears and rage. Don’t you DARE tell your grandmother or she will KILL the funeral director!”
We all have experienced grief for a loved one in our lives, so we can understand that some cope with it in different ways. Some will encase themselves with it. Some will reason their way through it. And I’m sure many in that visitation line thought Bo and his brother had gone hysterical with grief. Anytime someone would say the typical Christian variant of, “Your mother isn’t here” (aka, your mom’s in Heaven now), Bo and his brother would respond with, “We know!” and just start laughing.
For Bo, this moment still makes him laugh because such a turn of phrase actually became true for his mom.
(No, Bo’s grandmother still doesn’t know this happened. Yes, Bo’s mother was on time for her own burial, so there’s that.)
Maybe it’s because some people view the human condition as tragic and others see it as comic…Maybe it’s that absurdity is the deeper reality of human life…Patrick mcmanus
The Relatable Experience
We all wind up in uncomfortable experiences at some point. How we respond/act in that experience depends on who we are and that is the promise of a humorous story we can all appreciate. For Bo and his family, the choice to laugh in spite of grief gave them a cathartic release after months of watching their mother be eaten up by cancer. We all, in those dark moments of grief, yearn for that release, so we as readers can relate to Bo’s experience.
Humor is not a trick. Humor is a presence in the world—like grace—and shines on everybody.–garrison keillor
Of course, those relatable experiences need not be so extreme. Even the most mundane of relatable experiences has the potential of inspiring laughter from our audience. Take the 90s hit sitcom Seinfeld. No matter how you feel about the actor or the show, the fact is the show really was “about nothing,” as comedian Jerry Seinfeld always said. Because every episode highlighted a flustering relatable experience many of us have dealt with in our own ways, we see the humor of that experience and can laugh at the characters–and ourselves in turn. The episodes “The Chinese Restaurant” from Season 2 and “The Stall” from Season 5 are marvelous examples of this.
Now chances are, none of us have run from a public bathroom with all the toilet paper in petty revenge against the person who would “spare a square” with us before. But we have been in that situation where the public stall had no toilet paper. We recall the embarrassment and frustration and the wish to DO something about it. Now we see a fictional character follow through on those wishes, and we can laugh not only at the plight we had found ourselves in, but the “justice served” upon one who perpetuated that embarrassing situation. The difference between Elaine’s choices and our choices often boil down to building a little creative absurdity into the situation–not right away, but down the line towards the climax.
And such is a strategy that I think many of us writers wouldn’t mind trying. Whether we write fiction based on experience or get a little extra “creative” with our creative nonfiction, we can all see the storytelling potential of nurturing that seed of relatable experience into uniquely hilarious outcomes. Take Caryl Rivers’ “Dragging the Family to the Magic Kingdom,” a fun little addition in 1998’s There’s No Toilet Paper…on the Road Less Traveled: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure. (Clearly I’m stuck in the 90s with this post.)
Caryl starts with the relatable experience of traveling to Disney with her family, which of course will include various jokes about the heat and humidity. This compounds with children whining for food and various rides. This compounds when they are stuck in a very dark space in the crowded line for Pirates of the Carribean and the husband starts making mock headlines like “A thirty-nine-year-old father of two suffered a coronary today in Pirates of the Caribbean…when he fell, he tumbled into the underground stream and his bloated body floating through the pirate displays immediately became one of the most popular tourist attractions.” This compounds with others in line voicing their impatience and the husband saying the skeletons chained to the wall were just folks still waiting in line from the 1960s. This compounds when the mother/narrator starts whining with the kids for food. This ends with the children sick of the whole Disney journey, said they only wanted to throw up.
We’ve all been stuck in hot weather. We’ve all been stuck in lines. We’ve all been stuck with and/or around kids. We can relate to aaall the things Caryl Rivers is bringing up here. Even a story that is nearly thirty years old still holds wait because many of these relatable experiences are timeless, and that timelessness is crucial in writing strong humor writing that lasts.
The Timelessness of the Relatable Experience
And you know what? We can even go farther back. Consider the humor writer Robert Benchley. His humorous essays in Pluck and Luck published in 1925 STILL hold up. “The Church Supper” reminded me of every single potluck I have attended over the past few decades, from the awkward young servers habitually spilling on everyone to the lone male helper in the kitchen being teased by all the ladies for his excellence in “women’s work.” From the bizarre array of supplied foods and beverages to the onslaught of bratty children wreaking havoc on the older lady servers, Benchley captured an event of his time that has yet to really change.
The kiddies, who have been brought in to gorge themselves on indigestible strawberry concoctions, are having a gay time tearing up and down the vestry for the purpose of tagging each other. They manage to reach the door just as Mrs. Camack is entering with a platter full of cabbage salad, and later she explains to Mrs. Reddy while the latter is sponging off her dress that this is the last time she is going to have anything to do with a church supper at which those Basnett children are allowed. The Basnett children, in the meantime, oblivious of this threat, are giving all their attention to slipping pieces of colored chalk from the blackboard into the hot rolls which have just been placed on the tables. And, considering what small children they are, they are doing remarkably well at it.
(Thankfully, while Biff and Bash have not done this prank with chalk (yet), they used to have a rather nasty habit of stealing older women’s canes during church events. It wasn’t so much the fact that they stole the canes as that they were stealing the canes still being used by their proper owners.)
“Kiddie-Kar Travel” is another one that goes to show many of life’s markers, no matter where we are or when we are, simply haven’t changed. I mean, just take this opener:
In America there are two classes of travel–first class, and with children…The actual physical discomfort of traveling with the Kiddies is not so great, although you do emerge from it looking as if you had just moved the piano upstairs single-handed…There are several branches of the ordeal of Going on Choo-Choo, and it is difficult to tell which is the roughest. Those who have taken a very small baby on a train maintain that this ranks as pleasure along with having a nerve killed. On the other hand, those whose wee companions are in the romping stage, simply laugh at the claims of the first group. Sometimes you will find a man who has both an infant and a romper with him. Such a citizen should receive a salute of twenty-one guns every time he enters a city…
Sure, folks aren’t traveling by train as much, but if you replace the setting of a train with the airplane, it all holds up: from the ordeals of using the bathroom to blocking the aisles to the refusal eat/sleep/be quiet and to the inner debate if anyone would really notice and/or care if the child were to be dropped overboard. Of course Benchley has a little fun with this, ending with an escalation into absurdity with a tale about a cousin.
In fact, I had a cousin once who had to take three of his little ones on an all-day trip from Philadelphia to Boston. It was the hottest day of the year and my cousin had on a woolen suit. By the time he reached Hartford, people in the car noticed that he had only two children with him. At Worcester he had only one. No one knew what had become of the others and no one asked. It seemed better not to ask. He reached Boston alone and never explained what had become of the tiny tots. Anyone who has traveled with tiny tots of his own, however, can guess.
Of course Benchley doesn’t have a cousin who did this, but after commiserating with him about the struggles of traveling with children, we readers are just nodding our heads, knowing our frustrations are both seen and understood by the writer and any other reader out there.
The Workings of the Timelessness of the Relatable Experience
Another humor writer, Patrick McManus, has a marvelous example of this building on a timeless experience with a touch of absurdity in his story “The Deer on a Bicycle” published nearly fifty years ago. When Patrick begins the tale, he begins with a juxtaposition that establishes both empathy and tone:
When I was fourteen, I loved deer hunting more than anything I could think of. I had only two problems: I had never been and I didn’t have anyone to take me. Remember, my dad had died when I was very young, and none of the neighbors, not even Rancid Crabtree, wanted to be around me when I was armed. There were no deer near where I lived, so I decided the only thing to do was to ride my bicycle up into the mountains and go hunting by myself.
Many readers can relate to loss of a parent or an absent parent, so right there Patrick builds a connection with readers. But we are not to dwell on any negative feeling for long, because the rest of the paragraph has us picturing a teenager determined to go hunting for a huge, massive, hundreds-of-pounds deer with his…bicycle.
We adult readers can laugh, but we can also experience some self-deprecation. Who of us hasn’t used Kid Logic to explain an idiotic decision? Because when we’re kids, we just don’t think through All The Things like Patrick clearly hasn’t. So we as readers anticipate something is bound to go horribly awry.
Surprise and anticipation are basic to comedy.Patrick mcmanus
And because Patrick’s delightfully concise, we don’t have to wait long. We get one paragraph of the teen Patrick pedaling past ridiculing hunters into the woods, and lo and behold–a deer!
So all at once I just snap off a quick shot at the deer. It drops like a rock! I’m amazed! It was such a difficult shot too, because I was so startled and all shaky and everything–and the rifle was still tied to the handlebars!
Now would this be even physically possible? I’ve never hunted, so I don’t know. But again, an adult who did dumb things in the past, I can imagine a kid trying to pull off this very thing. The paragraph dedicated to describing how Patrick finagles putting the deer into a sitting position on the front bike is precisely, so just go hunt down (ha ha) The Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor by Patrick McManus for some excellent writing tips as well as his other forays into storytelling.
Anyway. Young Patrick is pedaling with the deer, and it wakes up.
The deer is blinking its eyes! It panics. First time on a bicycle, I guess.
We have this lovely juxtaposition of something quite likely to happen and something quite unlikely to think: the animal was stunned…because it’s on a bicycle. Well…maybe that is more likely to happen. Suppose if I were a deer I’d be quite shocked to wake up on a bicycle, too.
Patrick and the deer pass the hunters, whom “[Patrick] can tell they’re real surprised to see I got a deer before they did,” and then Patrick realizes the deer is pushing Patrick’s feet off the pedals and is taking over the bike. So, Patrick throws himself off and the deer takes off with both bike and rifle.
Later I heard he was in a shootout–with the police–while holding up a liquor store–in Tacoma, Washington–with my rifle!
Yeah, obviously this is absurd. But that’s the joy of humor writing: you can take these absurd routes so long as you build up to them. Take that toilet paper episode of Seinfeld. It wouldn’t have been as funny if Elaine immediately busted the door down to yank all the toilet paper away; rather, we get that revenge in the end of the third act. Caryl doesn’t begin her essay with made-up headlines of families not surviving Disney because they needed to spend time their first. Robert Benchley didn’t begin his travel essay with a man “losing” his children at the beginning of the journey, but at the end when the escalated behavior is raised. When the stakes have been raised.
Just as any story needs time for the stakes to rise, so does a good humor story. Stuff’s gotta build with realistic escalations so that the absurdity, for all its lack of reality, is still completely welcome to the readers. “The Parking Space” episode from Seinfeld‘s Season 3 is a great example of this. A debate on who gets a parking space begins with just the two male drivers. In the next scene, some friends are involved. In the next scene, passers-by are giving their input. In the closing scene, it is clear that hours have passed and even the police are debating about who gets the space. The credit sequence shows these two guys STILL arguing in the dark.
In reality, no one has time for that kind of argument, but as readers we LOVE to witness a character taking on this relatable experience and seeing how they deal with it. We can celebrate with them if they win, and we can empathize with them if they fail. Either result still leads to a satisfying close to the story.
When I write about my mistakes and stupidities, my readers recognize them as authentic, because they have done the same dumb stuff.patrick mcmanus
Building with The Workings of the Timelessness of the Relatable Experience
So, would you like to have a hand at writing a bit of humor through your Relatable Experience? Come on, you know you’ve got a tale or twenty to share. I bet at least a few would fit into these categories:
- Kid Crises
- Academic Anarchy
- Parenting Problems
- Workplace Woes
- Travel Trials
- Rivalry Ruckuses. Rucki? Ruckeese!
- Family Fails
- Social Slips
Sure, your experience may look like a Story About Nothing at first, but if you take the realistic escalations that occurred and add your own little slow builds into Absurdity, you may find that a little creative flair can turn any nonfiction experience–or fictional tale–into a story we can relate to time and time and time again.
Confusion is the natural environment of a humor writer, and it is best to get introduced to it as early as possible.Patrick McManus
I’m going to do a wee bit of revamping to my podcast’s title, so watch out for something new there! Also, I’m warily intrigued by the new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Watching this trailer as well as the other adaptations AND reading the book got me thinking about a common writer’s problem we all face. Be sure to stop by and found out what that problem is!
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!