Making Light of Serious Stuff
Donna Del Oro
As a former high school literature teacher, I am so tempted to write this blog as a lecture, analyzing the components of humor in fiction and non-fiction writing. But what’s the fun in that?
However, habits are hard to break, so here goes. Beyond hyperbole, or exaggeration, we all use humor to express ourselves, manipulate people or get our point across. When my husband asks me, “Where’s the ketchup?”, I always sigh and tell him, “In the file cabinet, under ‘K’”. That he sometimes takes me seriously is testimony to my deadpan expression.
We are all exposed to, in our daily lives, at least one of the three types of irony, a device of humorous writing. My favorite, verbal irony, is also the lowest level, the most moronic—but sometimes the most fun! Verbal irony, or sarcasm, is the type of humor the Brits are famous for, although in its British form, it passes for “dry wit.” We Americans sometimes call it “down and dirty bull-shit” but it’s basically the same thing. I confess to using this device gleefully and often. Ever since high school, I have used and abused the low wit of sarcasm, proving to the world that you can take a girl out of the working class but you can’t take the working class out of the girl.
My heroines in my two romantic comedies, OPERATION FAMILIA and HASTA LA VISTA, BABY, toss their sarcasm around with abandon. It’s their confetti to celebrate the vagaries of life and their offbeat family members. When Dina in OF talks about her grandmother warning her to beware of “the one-eyed snake”, it’s with verbal irony that she discusses the exciting and illicit attributes of the one-eyed snake. As a young, Catholic schoolgirl, she couldn’t wait to come across her first one; as a sassy woman, she wonders how she should “kill” it and join the nunnery. Her older sisters fall prey to the one-eyed snake’s charms but Dina doesn’t; she’s too smart and skeptical about the sexual powers of men. No snake charmer’s going to sweet-talk her into dropping her drawers, yet we find she’s just as susceptible as the rest of us. Especially when the Hated One comes around.
Finding or injecting humor into situations where there is none is a challenge. It often takes more than the simplest and most obvious forms of irony. Sarcasm is so common, after all; the entire planet uses it. Even four year-olds are adept at it. My grandson has told me more than once that old people don’t have to put on makeup because it takes too long to look young. How’s that for unintentional sarcasm (or maybe not), and from a four year-old?
So we turn to situational irony. To refresh your minds, class, that’s when an outcome in a story is the opposite of what one expects. Comedic stories are replete with this kind of irony. For example, the most recent romantic comedy, “The Ugly Truth”. We don’t expect the lovely, capable but anal-retentive control freak, Abby, to fall in love with the rough, uncouth, free-wheeling womanizer, Chad. Of course, most of the fun in that genre of movie comes from watching (or reading) how these polar opposites attract, repel, and finally end up together.
Just as in OPERATION FAMILIA, my heroine Dina calls her ex-fiance “the Hated One”, avoids him like the Black Death, and is suspicious of his attempts to work his way back into her life. That he has a small daughter, who is learning disabled and irresistibly cute, tugs at her heartstrings. Later, however, the little girl’s jealous, possessive tantrums nearly scare Dina off. Teaching her that men with baggage should be weighed very carefully.
What an opportunity to show that Dina’s just as stubborn and willful as the pampered little Daddy’s girl. Another scene on the golf course—a sport Dina takes up because she thinks it’s going to propel her into the middle class—has Dina breaking off with her old boyfriend (a self-absorbed assistant D.A.). How she accomplishes this is by demonstrating to her latest in a series of bad-choices that golf has many unusual purposes. One of these includes displaying one’s scary, obsessive side by taking twenty mulligans to drive a ball over a pond. She proves to herself that mind over matter is stronger, and her unwanted boyfriend decides Dina is certifiable. Thereby, showing Dina that she indeed can kill two birds with …uh, one golfball.
When Sonya, my artist-heroine in HLV,B, feels distraught after her handsome, narcissistic husband, Earl, dumps her for his pregnant girlfriend, she naturally turns to her best friend for solace. Scott, her husband’s youngest brother and her best friend, helps Sonya make sense of the mess she finds herself in. For most of her life, Sonya has been blind to everything but beauty—including the duplicity of men. In time, and with compassion and true friendship, Scott teaches her that there’s more to a man than his dimples or biceps. To survive in a cruel, male-dominated world, Scott shows Sonya how to assess a man’s character. That character in people takes precedence over their beauty.
Most writers are connoisseurs of human folly. Everywhere we look, examples abound—from our state’s legislature (California—need I say more?) to the way we justify a two-thousand-calorie meal by accompanying it with a Diet Coke.
When Dina discovers her Mexican-born grandmother’s secrets—a baby son abandoned in Mexico sixty years before—at first she doesn’t want to get involved. But her grandmother insists that only Dina, who’s educated but knows nothing about Mexico, can save her longlost cousins from a vicious, Juarez drug cartel. We don’t expect Dina to rescue anyone, most of all herself, but indeed she does. Who aids her in this rescue is the family’s screw-up, Jesus, whose only redeeming trait up to that point has been his viable sperm. His ability to play the family fool, however, actually saves the would-be savior, Dina, from a fate worse than—well, you get the picture.
Dramatic irony—when the reader or viewer knows something important that the characters in the story or film do not know—is another literary device we authors of comedy love to employ. In a bag of comedic tricks, it’s the biggest crowd pleaser. Look at the musical comedy, THE PRODUCERS. The audience loves the fact that they know the two conniving producers’ real intention is to have a show that opens and closes in one night, so that they can keep all the money they’ve raised. That the show becomes a Broadway hit horrifies the two con men—and delights everyone else.
In HLV,B, the reader knows how worthless Sonya’s husband truly is. She doesn’t see him as we do because a childhood trauma (a father who abandoned her) has effectively crippled her ability to see men as they are. She is a classic enabler and she suffers greatly for it. She’ll tolerate lying, womanizing Earl for he, at least, sticks around. For the seventeen years of her miserable marriage, Sonya sublimates her anger and lack of self-esteem by throwing herself into her work as an art teacher and muralist.
The extent to which she denies reality is laughable, but we also have the urge to shake her shoulders and force her to wake up and wise up. It takes a younger man, strangely enough, to make Sonya grow up. Reality is tough but living in denial of it is even harder, as she ultimately realizes. The truth finally strengthens her and her artistic skills make her proud and self-confident. But it’s love that makes her feel life, even with all its ugliness, is worthwhile.
With the serious issues that confront my characters, I can either make the reader laugh or cry at their predicaments. I prefer to make my readers laugh for, in the final analysis, what’s more fun to do?
Who was it who said, “Life’s a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel”? Oh yes, the old bard, of course!
Well, in my humble opinion, life’s too tragic and scary to take seriously! With humor, we show how resilient we really are!