I now write three columns and am working on getting a fourth. The three that I have are explicitly humour columns; one is book-related, one about life in the pet trade and one about rural life.
What I keep hearing is that humour is hard to write, and I’ve been thinking increasingly about how I write it, and what it takes to write humour. The line that keeps coming back to me is Lorne Elliott’s remark “You should see it on the inside.” He has an exuberant hairstyle, to say the least, and what he was saying was that the inside of his head was wilder than the outside.
“What makes an ‘inside’ that writes humour?” I wondered.
The longer I thought about it, the longer I was convinced that an essential to writing humour is a generalist outlook on life. Humour is the mind’s way of dealing with an oxymoronic world. Most humour arises from the conflict between what we rationally expect to see or hear, and what we actually get. For example – just off the top of my head – what if some Japanese tourists went camping in the Northern Ontario woods, caught some trout and planned to make sushi out of it, only to return to their camp to find a bear toasting the trout on a stick over the fire?
The humour comes from several places. First, people routinely bring home with them wherever they travel, so there’s humour in the idea of making sushi in the bush. Second, the people want to eat the fish raw, which is normally what bears do. Third, the bear has stolen the fish and is cooking it, something that humans normally do. Fourth, the bear gets caught in this anomalous behaviour and everybody is surprised and taken aback.
Okay, deconstructed like this, it isn’t very funny at all. But if I’d drawn a little cartoon – if I could draw cartoons – of a bear seated at a campfire with a trout on a stick, and a group of people standing at the edge of the clearing, and all parties staring with that “oops! what?” look, I bet you’d chuckle.
But you can’t think about these things if you don’t know something about cuisine, bears, camping, stereotypes of tourists, how to toast a marshmallow on a stick, conditions in the woods and so on. In other words, a generalist’s view of the world allows you to bring disparate elements into contact and see what happens. The mental packrat, the compost-heap mind, is a great asset in writing humour.
We place a lot of value on specialists in this world, but I think it serves us better to be generalists. For one thing, we probably get more laughs.