“Kurt Vonnegut said there are only two possible reactions to life: you can laugh, or you can cry. Laughing is more fun. And probably better for you.”
Greg Garrett is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, memoir, and nonfiction, including the acclaimed novels Free Bird, Cycling, Shame, and The Prodigal. Greg had taught creative writing, literature, and film for over a quarter-century at Baylor University, and has also read, spoken, taught, and led workshops across the U.S. and Europe. A member of the Texas Institute of Letters, Greg has taught highly-rated courses for the Writers’ League of Texas on novel writing, point of view, dialogue, and many other topics, and enjoys the chance to meet and work with writers at all stages of their careers. He lives with his wife Jeanie and their family in Austin.
Garrett is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Writing Funny: A Short Course on Humor” on Saturday, May 28, 2016 at St. Edward’s University. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Scribe: Who are some humor writers who inspire you?
GG: Aaron Sorkin is a favorite, and we’ll talk some about The West Wing in class. I admire his facility with dialogue and his comic timing. I also love Tina Fey’s ability to find the funny in almost any situation and Oscar Wilde’s wit and wordplay. He must have thought five times as fast as a normal human being. I’m also really fond of the TV series Community, which strikes me as a supremely well-written show using character as the linchpin for comedy. Like Friends and other great situation comedies, we get to know characters well, and we anticipate the disasters that are coming—and we also get surprised by little character movements. A big part of humor is anticipation, but another working component is surprise.
Scribe: In addition to humor writing, you have also written books that deal with heavier topics such as life’s biggest spiritual questions. Does comedy have its place in these books as well?
GG: In the nonfiction I write, I distinguish between things that are critical or theological and things that are narrative. In the critical books, I often consider things that are funny, but since you’re not telling a story and building up a powerful emotion that needs to be relieved, the use of humor in those books might be wit or point of view. I’ve written a couple of books of memoir, both on big topics, and four novels, and in all of those, comedy has been essential. Like Anne Lamott, I believe you need to tell big stories, and you can’t swing for the fences with serious emotions without having funny in your back pocket. Most of my main characters—and I count myself as one of those in the memoirs—have some self-awareness and a sense of life’s absurdities that is essential to the comic effects of the books. In the most recent novel I’ve finished, I actually play with the structure of comedy, since my main character/narrator is a screenwriter who is writing a romantic comedy based on his own whacked-out life. That was super fun, and I may read some of that in class.
Scribe: How would you describe your own humor?
GG: I think I’m funny in a couple of ways: observational humor, wit and wordplay, and understanding of comic structures. Knowing that repetition leads to laughs is a useful thing. Also, having lived life from two distinct viewpoints where humor is essential (sardonic/sarcastic and joyful), I have a couple of different approaches to humor, and both are valuable. One pokes fun at things that, I hope, need to be deflated a little. And one takes pleasure in the sheer weirdness of being human.
Scribe: How does humor change across different mediums—for example, books versus film?
GG: There are things that are funny in both, but a lot in film or dramatic writing depends on timing and acting. In writing prose, you’re building humor and playing with language. In a novel or a nonfiction narrative, people are living in your words and in your narrative voice. In dramatic writing, whether plays, movies, or TV, language still matters, but how something gets delivered matters a lot too. An example: I saw the great British actor David Suchet in drag last summer in London playing Lady Bracknell in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Lots of great actresses have played that role—Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Edith Evans. But the audience’s awareness that it’s a male delivering these lines offers some new opportunities for humor, maybe actions or pauses that weren’t funny when others offered the same words.
Scribe: How has learning to write comedy influenced your worldview?
GG: Humor is about paying attention to words and paying attention to life. It’s also about recognizing that much of what happens on this planet is hard to account for or doesn’t make any sense. Kurt Vonnegut said there are only two possible reactions to life: you can laugh, or you can cry. Laughing is more fun. And probably better for you.
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