By Michael Reilly
Humor is always dangerous. Whether you are attempting it in a social setting or through writing, or acting, or whatever, it has a high risk of failure. Like the health care plan: a high risk of failure (that’s not supposed to be funny).
I’ve never really considered myself a funny person. I was definitely not a class clown. In fact, I think most of my feeble attempts to be a class clown when I was little, wound up with no laughs and long visits to the principal’s office (real class clowns never get caught, by the way). As I grew up, I realized it was always best to leave the joke telling to those raging extroverts who seemed to be able to make people howl just by stepping into the room. I became used to hanging in the back, quietly.
But my mind has never been quiet. I’ve always enjoyed finding the irony or humor in things, even if it meant keeping the laughs to myself. I was hesitant to ever convey my observations through my writing, for the same fear that I’ve always hesitated to entertain a crowd of people. High risk of failure. At least in a crowd of people, your efforts can be quickly dismissed and forgotten about, particularly if half the group is smashed. Heck, they might even laugh if they’re smashed. But in writing, those attempts don’t die away quickly. They’re right there on a page for posterity, long after you die away. Which has led me to remember that we are all mortal, no one’s perfect, and only the fearless get to live life now instead of waiting for it to happen some other day. To paraphrase Goethe: “Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
So when I decided to write a novel about obsessive parents, I decided to be bold and find the humor in it. I realized my chance for success might have been higher if I wrote a macabre tale, full of vampires and wizards, and stuff like that, and perhaps if I threw in as many ghastly scenes as I could. How about one where a despondent teenager stabs his obsessive father 117 times on the way to a golf course where the kid’s supposed to hit practice shots for five hours straight for the eighty-second day in a row, while the fat old man sits drunk in a folding chair and screams opprobrium over the kid’s weak follow-through? Nah, not for me.
I’d go with the higher risk of failure and hope that it would more aptly convey my message. Ultimately in poking fun at helicopter parents, or just plain over-eagerness, which we all fall victim to, I hoped to provoke the readers to realize that our kids often have as much to teach us as we have to teach them. We are so inclined to give, give, give, for fear that our kids will not measure up in such a competitive world, that we wind up disillusioned and feeling unappreciated. And then no one’s happy.
In my recently released novel, Fresh Heir, the main character, Doug Shoop falls into this trap as he attempts to catapult his genius son, Jamie, to stardom. As I wrote the novel, and attempted to keep it humorous and satirical, I tried to stick to three rules:
- Look for things people can relate to: When it comes to parenting, there’s a bevy of material we can all relate to. Sometimes it feels like we are so alone in our struggles, it’s such a relief when we realize we are not alone. One common parenting theme I try to play up quite a bit is the struggle to communicate, particularly with teenagers. The father, Doug, is constantly seeking verbal affirmation from his son, and usually only gets a grunt or shrug of the shoulders in response. Sound familiar? With that said, there were definitely some more arcane jokes in my story, but with Google always just a click away, it’s safe to assume people can look things up. Just don’t make them Google stuff on every page of your book.
- Play off of extreme contrasts: All parents know that life through their eyes is quite a contrast to those adults without kids. One of my favorite scenes in Fresh Heir is when Doug and his family are visiting his ex-wife and her new husband. The new husband does not have children, he is very wealthy and quite anal. The funny scene takes place during dinner, a time at which most parents have resigned themselves to the fact that enough food will likely fall on the floor to fill up even the most ravenous dog. But this rich guy doesn’t have a dog. He does, however, have a contraption that is intended for kids to wear under their chin, to catch all the food that fails to make it where it’s supposed to go. I have never actually seen one of these things in real life, but I do think a pretty good living could be made selling them on the Internet.
- Scale it back: When you are writing satire, or just trying to set a light and humorous tone, I believe there is a tendency to go overboard. You get on a roll, maybe even laughing out loud at your spectacular efforts. Well, that’s when it’s time to let it simmer and then re-write. Let’s face it, editing your own work is a crucial task for any author. But this is particularly true for writing humor. I tossed quite a bit of material into the proverbial scrap bin when I realized it was just plain stupid. After all, my boldness has limits…and I’m not ready to die yet.
I would be interested to know people’s thoughts about reading and/or writing satire and humor. Do you like it? Who are your favorite “funny” authors? Oh, and more importantly, what about being a parent drives you nuts? Come on…let’s see who can be funniest.
Michael Reilly is a writer and entrepreneur. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. His first published novel, Fresh Heir, was released in May 2011. He is also founder and chief executive officer of FitDivs Inc, a company that promotes and rewards healthy living. Michael resides with his wife and four children in Charlottesville, VA.