September 25 – October 1: “Is it difficult to write comedy into thrillers?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re discussing comedy and humor in the thriller genre: Is it difficult to write comedy or humor into thrillers? Is it necessary, desired, or just a tool to release the tension in some needed spots? Tune in as ITW Members Lisa Towles, Susan Santangelo, D. J. Adamson, Charlie Cochrane and Alex Lettau weigh in on the funny. Scroll down to the “comments” to follow what is sure to be a thrilling discussion!

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D. J. Adamson is the author of the Lillian Dove Mystery series and the Deviation science fiction-suspense trilogy. Suppose, the second in the Lillian series has just been released. She also teaches writing and literature at Los Angeles colleges. And to keep busy when she is not writing or teaching, she is the Membership Director of the Los Angeles Sisters in Crime, Vice President of Central Coast Sisters in Crime and an active member of the Southern California Mystery Writers. Her books can be found and purchased in bookstores and on Amazon. Make friends with her on Facebook or Goodreads and LinkedIn.

 

Lisa Towles is a lifelong writer and musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Born and raised in New England, she has lived in Connecticut, New Mexico, and southwest England. Lisa’s four previous fiction publications were written under her previous name of Lisa Polisar. She got married in 2009 and changed her name to Towles. She is an award-winning journalist, where she wrote for numerous commercial magazines and literary journals, writing features and covering the Santa Fe art scene in New Mexico. Her previous books include Knee Deep, Blackwater Tango, The Ghost of Mary Prairie, Escape: Dark Mystery Tales, as well as a non-fiction book on jazz improvisation called Straight Ahead. Lisa’s newest release, Choke, will release on June 22, 2017 in trade paperback, Kindle, and numerous other digital formats.

 

Susan Santangelo is the author of the best-selling Baby Boomer mystery series, which follows a typical boomer couple, Carol and Jim Andrews, as they navigate their way along life’s bumpy road into their twilight years. Susan is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and the Cape Cod Writers Center. She divides her time between Cape Cod, MA and the Gulf Coast of Florida, and shares her life with her husband, Joe, and two spoiled English Cocker Spaniels, Boomer and Lilly. Boomer also serves as the model for the books’ front covers, and Lilly is pictured on the back cover of DIETING CAN BE MURDER, the seventh title in the series.

 

Because Charlie Cochrane couldn’t be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice—like managing a rugby team—she writes. Her mystery novels include the Edwardian era Cambridge Fellows series, series, and the contemporary Best Corpse for the Job. Multi-published, she has titles with Carina, Samhain, Riptide and Bold Strokes, among others. A member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, Mystery People and International Thriller Writers Inc, Charlie regularly appears at literary festivals and at reader and author conferences with The Deadly Dames.

 

Alex Lettau is the pen name of Ludwig Alexander Lettau MD, an infectious disease specialist in practice for over 30 years currently living in Charleston SC. He is also a former medical epidemiologist with the CDC’s Division of Viral Diseases. In addition to scientific articles, he has had 15 short medical humor pieces published in medical journals. In his Indie award-winning medical thriller Yellow Death, the protagonist Kris Jensen becomes accidentally infected with an unknown lethal hepatitis virus and has only five days left to find answers to its origin.

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32 Comments
  1. My first thought when I saw this subject was that humour is both a serious and a dangerous business. What leaves one reader weeping with laughter is likely to leave another cold and wondering, “Is this supposed to be funny?” So any author who employs humour in a thriller runs the risk of alienating fans who don’t share their sense of humour or who like their crime books “straight”, although there are plenty of examples – Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May books spring to mind – where authors manage to combine the comic and the suspenseful.

    What thriller books make you laugh?

  2. It’s a good idea to sprinkle the right kind of humor throughout your thrillers. Who was it, Aristotle, who wrote doses of “comic relief” were necessary in tragedies? The writer has to be careful not to confuse the reader when you have them gripped in a high-tension scene. Wrong placement of humor in serious narrative can ruin the suspense and have the reader scratching their head.

  3. Michael Robotham uses comedy by surprise. In Bombproof the whole situation the protagonist is in is realistically absurd. He also uses witty language at times for descriptions that made me smile even though the characters and situations were dangerous and violent. The safe cracking scene is pretty funny–similar to the humour in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Inept crooks who take themselves very seriously but are on the borderline of insanity. Love that.

    1. “Inept crooks who take themselves very seriously but are on the borderline of insanity” reminds me of one of my favourite films, “The Ladykillers” (the original one of course). It combines what could have been a great straight thriller with wonderful dark comedy.

      1. Yes and the crucial thing is that they don’t think they’re funny. It’s the situation and the characters–they don’t need to crack jokes or do one liners to hammer it home. The English do that sort of humour brilliantly–or maybe it’s because being an Australian I grew up with that type of humour on TV and movies.

  4. Thanks to ITW for the opportunity to weigh in on one my favorite subjects. To begin, I would favor humor as the focus of discussion rather than comedy which to me conjures up slapsticky antics and telling of jokes to evoke a laugh. Humor is much broader and can be subtle and only intended to elicit a smile.

    In my view, humor in thrillers is not necessary, but is desirable. After all, we are writing not only to thrill the readership but also to entertain, and humor, if done well, adds to the entertainment value – potentially in many more ways than to just defuse stress. Milton Berle once said, “Laughter is an instant vacation.” And he was right.

    Is it difficult? It can be for several reasons. It is easier if authors have a good personal sense of humor and are able to recognize and utilize opportunities for humor that arise out of the conflict and stress common in any good thriller. I was blessed with my German father’s sense of humor (my German mother was more the no-nonsense stereotype). My interest in humor eventually meshed with my medical career leading to a number of successful medical humor presentations and publication of short medical humor writings. In the process, I developed a much better understanding of what is funny and what is appropriate. My brain has also stockpiled a wealth of funny material that is potentially usable in my thriller novels.

    The main difficulty with humor in thrillers is to get it right. I try to adhere to the following set of guidelines:

    1. Humor should seamlessly evolve out of the situation and be appropriate to it. Flow naturally and not be contrived. Some humor can be inserted if preceded by a proper set-up.
    2. Always best if the humor is clever and original – especially wordplay. Bad puns are worse than clichés.
    3. No humor allowed in the midst of a high-stress truly life-threatening situation (a firefight, chased by a T-Rex, etc.). There are always exceptions but in general it’s unrealistic and jarring.
    4. Sensitivity to any target of the humor. I will say more about safe subjects in a later post. The humor should match the personality and character of the person who verbalizes it. But even if a minor character is a racist who tells racist jokes, including such humor in the novel is unnecessary and even offensive in my view. I agree with Goethe, the German philosopher, who once said, “Nothing displays character more than what people laugh at.” So we do need to be careful with our protagonists and what they think is funny.

    Humor is useful as a general tool to release tension for both the characters and the readership, but in my medical thriller novel Yellow Death it serves a larger function as a means for the protagonist Kris Jensen to cope with her impending death. The premise of the novel is that the war on drugs is not going well, so DEA conspirators initiate a secret project mixing a lethal Venezuelan hepatitis virus into heroin, rationalizing that a few deaths from a new type of hepatitis will deter drug abuse in many. When Dr. Jensen, a medical detective with the CDC’s Hepatitis Division, arrives in Mississippi to investigate the death of two drug abusers, she doesn’t expect to become a victim. Two days after an accidental needlestick, she realizes that she is now infected with an unknown, highly lethal hepatitis virus and has only 5 days left to find answers. Jensen’s investigation takes her into the depths of a web of drug use and revenge murders, tracked by assassins who are determined to keep from finding the truth. Dr. Jensen has a keen sense of humor and calls upon it often as her health deteriorates and her circumstances go from bad to worse as per the thriller construct. I will share two examples:

    Kris and the hospital epidemiologist George Schmidt had just left a highly emotional, intense session with a nurse (also infected) and her parents, and are gowning up to view the autopsy of a drug user who has died from the hepatitis. Rock music is playing and Schmidt jokes that the music is by a band named ‘Autopsy’. Kris replies, “Oh I get it. The pathologists listen to ‘Autopsy’ when they do a post-mortem and to ‘Grateful Dead’ when they don’t.” Schmidt laughs long and hard over the trumping of his joke.

    In a later chapter, as Kris’ body starts to swell due to her deteriorating liver, her friend Ed comments that her face looks puffy. She replies, “Talk about puffy, look at these legs.” She raises her skirt to show him her swollen legs. “Mine are gone, replaced by somebody else’s!” as she throws her arms up in mock amazement.

    In the first example, the humor is not necessary to the plot but served to defuse the stress of the very tense meeting they had just finished. In the second, exaggeration regarding her leg swelling helps Kris deal with it.

    Humor allows someone in a desperate circumstance such as a terminal illness to feel better and to take some control over their situation. The Jewish people have long suffered persecution not to mention the the Holocaust – while chicken soup has been called Jewish penicillin, humor has been called Jewish novocaine.

    Looking forward to a stimulating and fun discussion this week.

    1. Picking up on point 3 in particular, I read a lot about the Great War and what always amazes me is the humour that happened in the most dire of circumstances, and the subjects of that wit. The Wipers Times publication would be a case in point, making jokes about poison gas and shell bombardments.

      1. Regarding your comments on battlefield humor, it is common for people in high stress occupations such as soldiers in wartime, police on patrol, doctors and nurses in an emergency room, etc to share in-joke type humor as a way of coping and maintaining sanity. It’s understandable but often very cynical and disrespectful, probably even shocking to a general audience if they heard it and knew what the slang and acronyms meant. The House of God by Samuel Shem is a good example of the medical “humor”.

        1. Alex, your comment made me think of the acronyms that used to get used among medics in the hospitals in the UK. GLYM on the notes meant “Good looking young mum”. Although it took me ages to twig that DNA didn’t mean genetic test required but simply “Did not attend”.

  5. I’m honored to be part of what promises to be an interesting discussion about the use/necessity of humor in thrillers. First of all, I agree that what may seem humorous to the author may not necessarily be humorous to some readers. And, in fact, may be downright offensive if not carefully crafted. Whether I’m reading a mystery for pleasure, or reviewing one, I confess that I enjoy it more if I’m able to identify in some way with the chief protagonist. Like many other people, I also cope with stressful situations in my own life with humor. As Chuckles the Clown famously said, “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants.”

      1. It’s from an episode of the old Mary Tyler Moore show, Charlie. Chuckles the Clown has met an untimely end, and the gang is at his memorial service. Mary is trying hard not to laugh as several people laud Chuckles and his “many virtues.” But when someone uses that quote in the eulogy, Mary can’t control herself any longer and bursts out laughing. Of course, the other mourners think she’s crying. It’s a brilliant scene. I think humor should be used to advance a plot and develop a character. This scene does both. My two cents.

        1. A very worthwhile two cents. Incidentally, I have told my family that I want no mawkishness at my funeral and no eulogies. They are only allowed to share all the stories about the times I did daft things…

  6. Hi everyone and glad to be here again this week,

    I agree with Charlie that placement of humor in thrillers is terribly important, where the wrong placement can kill the intent, disrupt your pace, and weaken your story. And Alex’s comment that humor diffuses the tension in our books is spot on. Thrillers, compared with other genres, are pretty dark after all. Our stories are about death (often violent death), loss, secrets, and people hiding from the truths they don’t want to face. So if you can use humor to break up the doom and gloom yet still push your story along and keep the reader turning pages, all the better. As you guys have already said, the where and the how are the tricky parts.

    A few authors have done this really well: Gregory McDonald, who wrote the “Fletch” series (portrayed by Chevy Chase in the related films), takes humor to the next level, where almost every scene has a quip or a snappy one-liner. The humor was center stage in those films and you almost forgot about the plot at times…but it worked!

    Janet Evanovich does a great job with Stephanie Plum, her hapless bounty hunter and the hilarious treatment of her unsuccessful relationships and self-effacing monologues. Humor is about people, our flawed relationships, our fragile emotions, and the tensions that erupt as a result. Harlen Coben does a great job of mastering tense relationship banter in his Myron Bolitar series, especially Drop Shot. And quirks are always great fodder for comedy. Take Hercule Poirot, a compulsive clean-freak, and Hastings, who drives at excessive speeds with the wind in his hair. The two of them together are utterly entertaining and I can’t live without them! 🙂

    1. Quirks are great for breaking the tension. eg a ruthless hitman who wears designer clothes and gets pissed off when he gets a stain on his pants… more concerned about that than the hit. That sort of thing makes ruthless characters more interesting and gives depth to a character who may otherwise be a bit two dimensional.

      1. A hitman in stained pants, hilarious! I love seeing obsessive traits like that especially in villains. They’re always a sort of bridge to their human side, to counteract homicidal tendencies (or actions). And I think that’s something humor gives us in general – a way to show other sides of our characters beyond their primary action in our story.

    2. Hi Lisa! Good to talk to you once more.

      Your comment made me think of Macbeth, which is as grisly a thriller as you can get, but has the wonderful porter scene. Did he invent the ‘knock knock’ joke, I wonder?

  7. A topic I feel I can chime in on! I wrote a comedic thriller that parodied the “maverickness” of heroes such as Jack Reacher and Alex Cross. It was difficult to keep the suspense going and the action sequences thrilling in the traditional sense in order to help the humor hit at its finest. Still, humor I think is necessary to take a break from the tension and give building momentum a foundation to start from. Also there’s plenty of gallows humor inherent in the thriller genre in terms of the violence and how most heroes deal with stacking 100s of bodies without gaining psychological problems. Humor is the a sort of relief, and because of this it’s the other side of the suspense coin. One helps the other stand out, but balance is helpful.

    1. Your comment is very topical for me as I’ve just started reading Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr Ripley” which has been on my TBR for a long time. It’s got just that balance of comedy and thrills.

  8. Seems like the consensus so far is that humor of a variety of types is desirable in thrillers but is not easy to do well. One of the risks is offending and alienating readers. But it’s tough to always please everyone. The same bit of humor might be thought of as hilarious to one person and vulgar to another.

    Some objects of humor are less risky. The safest subject is always yourself and if a person is honest, there’s usually a deep well from which to draw fun material. You can even tell a fat joke if the target is yourself: “I was fat once. I had to go on a diet – actually two diets – because one wasn’t giving me enough food!”

    Also pretty safe is humor directed at “Big Powers”: Big oil, Big tobacco, Big Pharma, Big government, the insurance industry, Wall Street, as well as certain professions as a group including doctors, lawyers and politicians. Humor that touches on race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, sexual preference, and certain health conditions such as disabilities, AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease always needs special handling. But if the humor is gentle and from the heart, even AIDS and Alzheimer’s can be the subject. Garry Trudeau is excellent at this as evidenced by his Doonesbury segments on those very subjects.

    This reminds me of one of my favorite anecdotes on Alzheimer’s that I believe is a true story. In England two elderly men each with Alzheimer’s were brought before a magistrate for fighting. But neither man remembered the fight. The magistrate looked at one man, then the other, then shrugged his shoulders and asked, “What fight?” He then banged his gavel and said, “Case dismissed!”

  9. I think the advantage we have with incorporating comedy into a thriller is that readers don’t show up to our genre expecting to laugh. We write about death and crimes and the suspense that comes from hiding and revealing them. So that gives us the element of surprise. I have a sort of wry sense of humor (Death at a Funeral, etc), so I don’t really think I’m funny enough to purposely use humor as an element in my books. But my readers have told me that it does sometimes reveal itself in the banter between characters. Kerry Stine’s banter with Detective Pete Stanton, in my new book, was apparently entertaining because she just wasn’t buying it, whatever “it” was. And the banter, in that case, sort of helped identify and build the energy between them.

    So my question to you guys is: How do you use humor yourself, in the context of your relationships? Do you try to be funny, do you care about being funny? I think we inevitably draw on this in our treatment of our stories and characters.

    1. Interesting question. My books definitely have a humorous streak running through them, but it’s low level and reflects that everyday sort of banter and humour that’s often part of British life. And yes, humour features heavily in my life and relationships. I’ve found a light touch and a bit of wit can be a very strong tool in defusing/dealing with difficult situations.

    2. I’ll have some more comments later today but your reference to a funeral reminded me of a funny medical-related bit. As you can guess, even chronic hypochondriacs eventually die of something. More than one has pre-ordered their tombstone which states, ” I told you I was sick!” To see what I mean and laugh at some other funny ones such as the atheist, search Google (images): tombstone I told you I was sick.

  10. Another thought I had was that laughter and fear are strangely alike – many of us have found ourselves laughing (perhaps absolutely the wrong time) when we’re nervous – and you might say that a joke and a whodunit/thriller rely on the same process of surprising the listener/reader.

  11. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to Lisa’s question, of how we use humor in our relationships. When I was younger, I had a really sarcastic sense of humor — true confessions time! But as I’ve “aged” in years — not necessarily in maturity — I’ve tried to temper my remarks. I was a drama critic about thirty years ago and covered a lot of opening nights. When I found some of my old clips and re-read them, I was appalled at how over-the-top some of them were. My chief protagonist, Carol Andrews, frequently uses zingers and humor to comment on situations or people that are annoying her. But in my books, the comments are written as asides to the reader, not lines that Carol actually voices. Perhaps it’s my way of channeling “the old me” in a more acceptable way.

  12. I agree with Lisa that humor encompasses much more than jokes and one liners. Wonderful humor can be found in witty observations and descriptions of the human experience – our quirks, foibles, follies, misadventures, misunderstandings etc. And the reader’s smile in response to a funny truism regarding human nature, is just as worthy as elicitation of a hearty laugh.

    Personally, I think that a sense of humor is a survival trait in this crazy world. A person without one is “like a wagon without springs, jolted by every pebble on the road” ( Henry Ward Beecher). Both real people and book characters with a sense of humor, are also more human and more attractive. It’s hard not to like someone who makes you laugh.

    I do try to use humor in my personal life, particularly with patients when I think they are receptive and appear to be in need of a good laugh – and I have some appropriate humor bit to share with them. For example, to someone who is upset over the amputation of their lower leg to gangrene, I might say : “well, now you can tell people you know what it’s like to have one foot in the grave.”

    I think my sense of humor is also reflected in my series protagonist, Kris Jensen – okay I gave it away – she does survive the “Yellow Death” – and her sense of humor is alive and well in my next thriller “Night Plague” hopefully out in 3-4 months.

    Finally, my wife (also named Lisa) who has a wonderful sense of humor, put up a decorative plaque on the wall of our living room that reads: Live Well – Love Much – Laugh Often! Not always easily doable but certainly worthwhile goals to help us live a happier life.

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