Photo courtesy of Antonio Martínez
A guest post from Ian Coburn of
The other night I went to see Gran Torino with a couple friends. To call Clint Eastwood’s character a hardcore racist is an understatement; yet, despite his constant spewing of cliché racist rhetoric, the crowd spent the majority of the flick laughing at his comments. How is that possible? Did the staff hand us all white hoodies as we entered the theater?
We laughed because the comments were way over the top and continual, being uttered by guy who was unbelievably clueless. And the writers knew that was the only way they could breach the subject, effectively. They had to make us laugh. If they held the reins back it would have been too uncomfortable for the audience to deal with the subject matter. If Clint’s character-I know him well enough to call him Clint, don’t you know-only made a few racist statements it would have been comfortable for the audience but he wouldn’t have come off as enough of a racist to sell his motivation for the film. The writers knew the only solution was to make it funny by making Clint’s racist attitude over the top. It worked wonderfully-the audience was never uncomfortable, we bought his character’s motivation, and we bought the plot to the movie. Mission accomplished.
The writers of Gran Torino made use of one of the seven reasons to use humor in a work that is not a comedy. No matter what your work, there should be elements of humor, typically for one of seven reasons:
1) To address uncomfortable or confrontational subjects. Humor is often the only vehicle to address such topics. Think about how many sit-coms breach difficult subject matters before anyone else-Roseanne (a woman kissing another woman), Ellen (being a lesbian), Seinfeld (masturbation and being gay). Humor does that outside comedies, such as in Gran Torino.
2) Releases tension for characters and the audience or reader. When things start to get too heavy or overwhelming, throw in a little humor to release the tension; a lot of the classics do this. Lots of films make great use of this, too, ranging from Casablanca to Die Hard.
3) Keeps the reader or audience engaged. Take a moment and think about how bored you’d get if everything in a long book or film was always serious. The project would lose you. Humor keeps you engaged. In I Am Legend, there are spatters of humorous moments (both in the book and film versions-it was adapted into a film three times).
4) Makes the characters real and multi-dimensional. People joke all the time, even in the most serious situations. When my father died, my younger sister and I found some alone time with each other unbearable. I broke the tension by reminding her of something funny our dad used to do; she countered with another thing. Soon we were reminiscing and laughing about his quirks and funny incidents involving him. If you want your characters to ring true-to-life, you need to splash some humor on them. (You don’t need to do it for each character but you do need to do it for at least one; several is better.) Most people are not cardboard cutouts; they are multi-dimensional. Humor is a quick, effective way to illustrate such.
5) Provides punctuation and flow. Humorous remarks or incidents tend to happen near the end of a chapter or long scene. They provide a rhythm and let the reader/viewer know it’s time for the next scene, section, and a new set of concepts.
6) Makes your work memorable. What lines do you remember from books, stories, and movies? What lines do people quote over and over? Is it the long, drawn out serious ones or the short, funny, witty quips? Do these lines sound familiar? “Hit me, I’m giving out wings;” “Didn’t I ever tell you about bumbles? Bumbles bounce;” “Life is like a bunch of chocolates;” “How you doing?” “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” “It’s not a tumor!” “I’ll be back.” “Here’s looking at you, kid;” “You talking to me?” Each of these lines is either intended to be humorous or contains an element of humor. When quoted by people, they are referenced in a humorous manner. In comparison, what’s the most common phrase used in film? Do you know? It’s “Let’s get out of here.” Sounds reasonable and I know I’ve heard it many times in films; yet, I can’t think of one specific incident where I’ve heard or read that line. It’s not memorable. Humor goes a long way to making a short phrase memorable… and you want your stuff to be memorable.
7) Provides cohesiveness. The humor element known as “the tag” ties separate parts of a book, story, or film together, making it cohesive. Even when the element tagged isn’t funny, the concept of tagging itself typically receives a chuckle. We all laugh a little when Arnold says, “I’ll be back” in films that have nothing to do with Terminator.
One last thing to keep in mind: humor doesn’t have to be spoken; it can be physical or implied. Perhaps a very serious character steps into a puddle while chastising someone and so forth. Make your writing real and captivating by incorporating humor, no matter what the subject matter.
Ian Coburn is the author of the bestseller God is a Woman: Dating Disasters, which re-lives his dating and sexual misadventures as a ten-year touring comedian. Visit for his columns, book, and other works.