“Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke.” Steve Martin
The award for the worst piece of advice on writing goes to Ernest Hemingway. He once said “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” I’m not saying it isn’t a good quote. I just wish writers spent less time bleeding and more time understanding why they write in the first place.
Too many people think writing is expression. That puts us in the ballpark of a few billion people. We all express. What separates writers from everyone else is words. I don’t mean big words. I mean words that convince people we’re not babblers and scribblers. That’s the hardest part of any writing. We think emotion makes us insightful, so we write emotionally, we bleed and end up being babblers and scribblers with Kleenexes.
“Nice girl, but bonkers,” Grant said. “Her emails are forty pages long.” And here’s poor Renée just trying to be, well, herself.
So how does “bleeding” interfere with good writing? Usually, it’s because we get caught up in our own expression, forgetting that most people don’t really care how messed up we are. Like Renée Zellweger sending Hugh Grant emails. “Nice girl, but bonkers,” Grant said. “Her emails are forty pages long.” And here’s poor Renée just trying to be, well, herself.
Ever since someone coined the phrase “finding your voice,” authors have been thinking it means injecting their own personality into their writing. Certainly, it distinguishes us from other writers, but it doesn’t necessarily make us better.
Think of comedians and what makes them funny. Is it really them being them, or is it them understanding their audience? George Carlin, for instance, gave the impression he thought like us. We could relate to him. Yet Carlin started out as a rather mediocre comedian. It wasn’t until he was hospitalized that he had an epiphany of sorts. As he said, “I was just doing routines. I wasn’t actually making people think.”
From that day forward, he changed his appearance and his approach. He became anti-establishment, something he never was before — and it worked.
It took time, though. Carlin realized he had to express his comedy in a way audiences would find funny — but ultimately true. This took him back to smaller venues. Same with Robin Williams. They had to feel the audience’s response to know if they’d struck a chord or not.
Most of the time we’re stuck relying on claps and fans, never sure if it’s our work or an algorithm picking us like someone from “The Price Is Right.”
Writers don’t always have that luxury. Unlike the stage, which Robin Williams called “the pure idea,” our work goes out in a written form. It’s not like a comedian seeing the audience’s faces. We can’t watch and see whether we’re holding our readers’ interest or not. We can’t see their eyes.
Most of the time we’re stuck relying on claps and fans, never sure if it’s our work or an algorithm picking us like someone from The Price Is Right.
Depending on our views, that’s pretty much all we have. We’re governed by bounce rates and the occasional comment. We gain enemies through disagreement, or friends by being funny or slightly outrageous. If we bleed, we hope we find other bleeders ready to say, “Thank you for being so honest, for having the guts to open your heart and your soul.”
Well, yikes and then double yikes. As Carlin knew, there’s a difference between “thinking” and “bleeding.” Steve Martin summarized it this way: “Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke.”
In other words, we can’t bleed all the time or we will make people puke. It’s inevitable. We have to find that fine line between being totally honest and totally bonkers.
So what’s the answer? One secret to good writing was expressed by Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss). He said that writing should sound like “you knocked it off on a rainy Friday afternoon. It has to sound easy.”
Genius it may be, but Joyce did a better job with a short story he wrote about a man who drinks his pay and goes home and beats his son.
Some people reject that, figuring “easy” can be interpreted as unschooled, or, frankly, dumb. Nobody wants to sound dumb, especially writers. Nor do we want to sound easy. I had a person say they didn’t like my first novel because they read 300 pages in two days. I told them that’s because I spent two years rewriting it.
I’m also someone who’s actually read James Joyce’s Ulysses and hated it. Genius it may be, but Joyce did a better job with a short story he wrote about a man who drinks his pay and goes home and beats his son.
There are no allegories, no deep inner meanings. It’s simply a story that hits home, much the way Shel Silverstein did with a short poem called “Early Bird.” In it, he says, “Oh, if you’re a bird be an early bird and catch the worm for your breakfast plate. If you’re a bird, be an early bird — but if you’re a worm, sleep late.”
Why am I struck by such simplicity? Because — like any comedian, including Charlie Chaplin — I realize honesty isn’t the product of open wounds. Chaplin, for instance, had a longstanding fear of bullying waiters. They kept reemerging in his films, like he was exorcising them. Those scenes are some of Chaplin’s funniest, and also some of his most brilliant.
To find humour in tragedy is the ultimate art.
We know Chaplin bled off-screen. He was a tragic figure, but he knew audiences needed to laugh. We as writers have to believe this as well. It’s one thing to open our hearts, it’s another to sound bonkers like Renée Zellweger with her 40-page emails.
If we don’t make people laugh, someone else will.
Here’s the best way to look at writing. Everything we write is like a stand-up routine. We have a limited amount of time. We have an audience that’s willing to listen — but there are others coming on after us. If we don’t make people laugh, someone else will.
Robin Williams once said that comedy has to be “deeply honest.” He also said, “We have to look under rocks sometimes to find laughter.” Honesty can be found in many places, but we won’t find it being blabbers or scribblers, writing ourselves out like some therapy.
Writing has to be a routine, something that sounds easy because, in the end, as Chaplin showed, life is easy if it’s kept simple. It’s a pie fight, it’s a waiter tripping over his shoelace, it’s a little girl holding a flower.
We complicate the message by thinking we have to bleed instead of exploring what makes us bleed. It isn’t a voice. It’s the confusion and hypocrisy surrounding us every day. And if we believe it happens with an entrance and an exit (as Shakespeare described it) then what’s interesting or funny or poignant is exactly what life is about.
“I’m a modern man, a man for the millennium. Digital and smoke-free. A diversified multi-cultural, post-modern deconstruction that is anatomically and ecologically incorrect.”
Perhaps that’s why I’ve mentioned George Carlin so much. When I want to write honestly and simply, I go to his monologues. I think of his pacing and his words and his knowledge of comedic timing. Like this one where he says, “I’m a modern man, a man for the millennium. Digital and smoke-free. A diversified multi-cultural, post-modern deconstruction that is anatomically and ecologically incorrect.”
Sure, it’s funny. At the same time, it’s real. Is he bleeding? Maybe, maybe not. The point is, it’s deeply honest, yet entirely catchy and fresh.
So forget Hemingway, forget bleeding. Get your routine down, be honest, be catchy, and for God’s sake, don’t make us puke.