Make ‘Em Laugh

Of course you’ll know the song Make ‘Em Laugh. You know, from “Singin’ In The Rain”? You’re all looking at me blankly. I’m seriously concerned. Go forth and educate thyself on musical theatre and then read the rest of this post.

Or you could just watch the song right here on YouTube in wonderful high definition, which might be quicker.

I’m talking about books where bad things happen. I mean, most books have some bad things, but these are books where maybe there’s no happy ending, or there is but most of the characters are too dead to enjoy it. Tragedies. All that stuff.

They come in two varieties: sad, and depressing. Sad ones are great, because you can cry your eyes out, write about it in caps lock on the internet, and find friends to emote with. Depressing ones are not. You sit there wondering where hope went and why the universe is so awful and sometimes you begin to wonder what the point is.

The key ingredient to making a tragedy less depressing is to throw in some humour.

You can have a mass-murdering terrorist who has lost his entire family and also happens to be immortal, so he’s got a lonely, miserable eternity stretching out in front of him, but if you make him sarcastic enough, your beta readers will still like him. Honestly, I speak from experience.

Humour in tragedy is something you’ll find as far back as stuff by Shakespeare. I’m partial to Hamlet, myself. (I feel like I know this guy from somewhere.) You only have to look at the banter between Hamlet and Horatio to get some light relief.

For thou dost know, O Damon dear
This realm dismantled was
Of Jove himself; and now reigns here
A very, very – peacock.

You might have rhymed.

Shakespeare’s always going off with scenes that provide comic relief from the doom and gloom of the tragedies themselves, leaving you with a play that’s sad, even miserable, but doesn’t depress you so much that you want to shred it and grind it into the mud so that you never have to read it again. Not that I’ve ever felt that way about a book. *cough*Catcher in the Rye.*cough*

I like to think I’m a funny guy. I try my best. You get a bunch of superheroes in a room, you need some of them not to take themselves too seriously.

You know that Peter Parker kid? Man, it’s a shame we can’t get him on here so you could see for yourself. He’s got the sarcasm absolutely nailed. But don’t tell him I said that, because I’ll probably never live it down. Even Thor’s been known to crack a joke occasionally, and Natasha’s got a supply of vicious jokes about Capsicle’s age.

To use some examples from YA fiction, since that’s what most of you guys are interested in, I’m going to look at a couple of bestsellers. First up is The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, and before you start judging my reading taste, Pepper has the whole series. That’s my excuse.

And those books are hilarious. Admittedly, I’d say they’re not particularly tragic, since not nearly enough people die, but they could easily become melodramatic and overblown if the characters actually bothered to take themselves seriously. Instead they’re constantly making wisecracks, even when things are going completely awry.

“Jace perched on the windowsill and looked down at him. "You really don't get this bodyguard thing, do you?"
"I didn't even think you liked me all that much," said Simon. "Is this one of those keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer things?"
"I thought it was keep your friends close so you have someone to drive the car when you sneak over to your enemy's house a night and throw up in his mailbox."
"I'm pretty sure that's not it.”

Including humour in a novel makes it instantly more appealing to most readers. I’m far more likely to turn the page if I’m expecting more jokes.

I can’t explain how to be funny. (I’m terribly sorry if it doesn’t come naturally to you the way it does to me. You’re unfortunate.) But I can give you a list of some authors who write funny books, so that you can investigate them. This list was compiled with some help from my alter-ego, who is procrastinating on revising for an exam this Thursday. Some of these writers write books that are funny. Others include funny parts in books that are otherwise not funny.

In no particular order, I recommend:

  1. Terry Pratchett for those who like fantasy and satire. As a bonus, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman (“Good Omens”) is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.
  2. Maggie Stiefvater for those who are into YA fic with sarky protagonists.
  3. Tom Holt for all your fantasy and science-fiction needs.
  4. On that note, Douglas Adams for some slightly more traditional sci-fi, best known for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”.
  5. Jasper Fforde is a great one, especially for writers and bookworms, since his Thursday Next series literally involves a BookWorld. Also, book four has Hamlet in it.
  6. Ben Aaronovitch is again a fantasy writer. I think a lot of SFF writers have learned not to take themselves too seriously – especially when they delve into comics, TV shows, and superheroes. His Peter Grant series is about a policeman who becomes a wizard and it is hysterical. Pepper thought my arc-reactor had malfunctioned.
  7. I hesitate to include Laini Taylor on this list because on the one hand: hilarious one-liners, mischievous secondary characters, etc etc. On the other hand: pain. All of the emotional destruction.

The best way to learn to write is to read, but I genuinely do believe that the best way to understand humour is to look at those who do it best. What makes you laugh? Is it sarcasm? Or maybe you favour puns and wordplay. What about slapstick? No need to be the one to slip on the banana peel when you can give that moment of humiliation to your main antagonist…

Be a writer, my friends, but be a comical one. Make ‘em laugh.


-- Iron Man


  1. I love that song! One of the best musicals. :)

    This is so good information. I really don't mind depressing books as long as they have some laughs to keep from keeping a bleak mood all day long. I'll have to add some other those reading suggestion to my TBR list. Great post!

  2. Great job! I love all these tips, they're sure to come in handy for my next novel :D Thanks!

    Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams are some of my favorite characters, I'll have to look into the others. They all sound great! Oh, and seeing Peter Parker around would be pretty great too. *wink wink*

    Just out of curiosity, did you base the post off of that Joss Whedon quote? "Make it dark, make it grim, but for the love of God, tell a joke." It's one of my favorites.

    1. Actually, it was primarily inspired by (a) having "Make 'Em Laugh" stuck in my head and (b) going to see "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" and commenting on how much sassier Peter is than the enemies he faces, who tend to be overly melodramatic. Add to that the primary reason I prefer Marvel to DC (humour) and it seemed like a logical thing to write about. :)